Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Letter from China - introduction: the past and the present

The title is a bit of a cheat really - I'm back at Mundi Mansions, happy watching the moon rise through the trees, 

but I want to jot down a few thoughts arising from three weeks in Beijing. I'll get to matters of meditation and enlightenment in future instalments, but this one is about the past and the present. I didn't already know this stuff; you may do, in which case, catch you later.

I found China: a history by Robert Keay to be exceptionally good, and from it I learned, I think, these things amongst others:

1. The whole "dynasties" thing is a little over-played in the culture's view of its own history. The arrival of a dynasty was usually a time of huge dislocation and strife , i.e. they were overthrown by violent rebellion, or finally collapsed underneath warring factions. The end of a dynasty could therefore also be a time of lengthy strife. And the periods between major dynasties, such as the "Warring States" time, add up to something approaching the sum of years of stable dynasties.  

The times between dynasties could be times of great cultural and intellectual development, as much as the times of dynastic peace. Confucius himself came out of such a betwixt and between time, as did the Tao Te Ching. The idea of a cycle of dynastic establishment, peace and prosperity, and then decline and collapse, came to be seen as inevitable. In his famous "their finest hour" speech Winston Churchill said "if the British Empire lasts a thousand years..." One can imagine a Chinese mandarin smiling a little and muttering "Xia, Shang, Zhou, Chin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Ching, Mao..."

2. Such things matter, because the culture has a tremendously powerful sense of its own history, going back thousands of years. It is, as "they" will be quick to tell you, the oldest continuous culture on the planet. This: 

is a piece of animal bone which has been thrown in a fire, and the corresponding cracks interpreted as marks of divination. You can also see carved pictograms, which are notes of  the answer the process was believed to have yielded to an important question. eg "When's it going to rain?" Apparently, these marks are recognisable as the origins of Chinese written ideograms as they are today. 

The bone dates from the bronze age Shang dynasty, c. 2000 BC, maybe 1600 BC. Chinese is the oldest continuous written language on the planet. Sure, there are Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the daily paper in Cairo doesn't use a script that developed from heiroglyphics. Ditto Bagdhad and the cuneiform writing on Sumerian clay tablets. (This cracking and divination process evolved into the yin- and-yang-based divination system of the Book of Changes, I Ching, beloved of the 60s counterculture and of Jung.)

2. So what? Well, the powerful sense of its history presumably works like a mulch out of which grow policies and attitudes of China today. eg:
  1. Modern China has no or very little truly democratic heritage (that's not a value judgement, it's a fact) and no heritage of liberal argument. Good government is not based on the fruits of conflicting arguments, except in a specifically limited way within the Communist Party. It was based on the Emperor having the Mandate of Heaven, or in Mao's case, of Marx. A faction is likely seen not as a source of fruitful possibilities but as a threat to the "dynasty." That's how dynasties are overthrown. Look what happened to the Sung Dynasty. So: Tiananman Square...?? And any proposal to genuinely strengthen regional autonomy, for Tibet or XinJiang, is regarded as "splittist." Both regions are the subject of big Han (i.e. Ethnically "Chinese" as opposed to Tibetan or Uighur) immigration. Hong Kong is course very different. Money talks....
  2. Past figures have always been used to buttress present actions. Mao specifically compared himself to the first Emperor, Qin - in fact he said he outdid Qin in necessary ruthlessness. Qin burned the classic texts and persecuted Confucian scholars. so: the Cultural Revolution?
3. The ethnic Han peoples, the largest group in China by a huge %, tend to see themselves as the "Chinese," the the others as "minorities." Historically, this is a dubious idea, it seems to me. Two dynasties were non-Han (Yuan, the Mongols, Kubilai Khan etc, and the last dynasty, the Ching from Manchuria - and this of course means not just the rulers but the ruling and senior adminstrative classes.) 

Also, the interplay of the cultures of the Mogolian steppes and the Central Asian peoples, and the Han of the more settled agricultural "heart of China" area seems hugely important. (One simple example: Tang Chinese depended on Mongolian bloodstock for their cavalry horses. Another: the development of Chinese Buddhism, once again of importance post-Mao, owed a huge amount to Tibetan scholarship and practice, just as Japanese Buddhism does to China.) Alternating patterns of trade and hostility rumbled on round the edge of heartland China for thousands of years.

Heartland China was highly successful in assimilating outside influence, and convincing the outsiders that theirs was a superior civilization. (Naturally, the Tatar horse warriors regarded them as effete and feeble; but they did have an awful lot soldiers!) That is I guess why Western trade and diplomacy missions ran into trouble and embarrassment at the Ching court; they wouldn't kowtow to the Emperor, he who had the Mandate of Heaven, he whose annual rituals secured good harvests and prosperity. They didn't seem to understand that this ancient and sophisticated civilisation was in fact THE civilisation. Eventually, the West's answer was cordite, war and economic oppression.

4. Modern China included vast areas that are, or at least weren't, "Chinese." Not just Tibet, but also areas of Gansu and Qinghai. XinJiang, the largest province of all. Inner Mongolia. The southern border areas such as Yunnan. China's history shows patterns of conquest and withdrawal, rebellion and aceptance, of the borderlands, for centuries. Controlling the North could be the huge economic and military effort that finally broke a dynasty apart. China is not one place or one ethnic group, and the government's nerves about all this are - tense. Just ask the Tibetans and the Uighurs. No wonder they are hostile to "splittist" arguments. No wonder they urge Han Chinese to emigrate and settle in such regions.

5. China has, mostly, a harsh climate and it's geographically difficult for farming and settlement. Huge floods, earthquakes, famines and transport difficulties, all mark Chinese history. It's not like the settled and relatively benign river valleys of other ancient civilisations. The sufferings recorded in their history, not least that of the last 150 years (hang your heads, Europe, Japan and the USA) have been mind-numblingly appalling. Little wonder that they can  sometimes seem to us tough, pragmatic and materialistic (vide Kowloon Saturday nights) and maybe a little impassive in public. Individually, I found them far from impassive. But a Brit who worked in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia for years once said to me that it seemed to be a pretty full-time job just being Chinese. There's a lot of history in there.

And also much beauty, joy and expressive power. The horrid cult of the powerful dead represented by the Terracotta Warriors is not the only remarkable thing to be seen in the National Museum. If I remember my chronologies aright, just a few hundred years after the First Emperor was buried along with hundreds of sacrifical victims, comes this lovely semi-abstract sculpture of a dancer:


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