The New York Times is running a 5-part series on China, and it makes for fascinating reading and plenty of thinking. The first article, this past Saturday, was entitled “The Land that failed to fail”. The second article appeared almost immediately thereafter, called “The American dream is alive. In China.” Both titles give you a sense that there is a lot to absorb and understand about China, both past and present. In the so-called West, for decades we were accustomed to thinking of China as a poor dictatorship, a developing country under oppressive rule. As things started to change in the aftermath of the truly failed “Cultural Revolution” of Chairman Mao, the West may have come to see that China was indeed “on the move”, becoming a success story for a developing country. But there is so, so much more to the China story. It has a very, very long history with many extraordinary firsts to be proud of. With several centuries-long empires of amazing scope and scale. With many of the world’s important innovations across millennia. A diversity of populations and religions absorbed into one vast empire. Trading and interacting with many other cultures through the ancient and now not-so ancient Silk Road.
Years and years ago, an esteemed professor at my university gave a talk on being a good teacher. He used an illustration that stayed with me. It brilliantly illustrated how important it is to keep an open mind and to be able to think from different perspectives. I can’t find the illustration anywhere online, so you’ll have to imagine it:
A line drawing of an explorer in a pith helmet, holding a magnifying glass and looking carefully at the ground right in front of him. From his perspective, he’s exploring in a large geological depression, but when viewed from a greater distance, the depression in which he’s working is one ENORMOUS footstep!
We humans are creatures of the environment in which we live, and we work from certain expectations and preconceived notions. We’re not so good at seeing beyond our expectations, even when we should know better. Thinking of the explorer looking for small evidence inside a giant footstep that, could he see it, would provide quite a different story to that which he is expecting, reminds me of the nearsightedness with which we view history. We are inclined to think of ourselves as building on the shoulders of those who have gone before, having learned from their mistakes. I wish!
In the same light, we would do well to view China – and many other countries – by the length and richness of their histories, as opposed to or at least in addition to the narrow view we hold from our own lifetimes. If nothing else, there are the lessons that empires rise and empires fall … and empires rise again. Lessons that the world’s youngest empire might do well to take to heart and learn from.
We visited China back in 2006, enjoying a few fascinating weeks with good friends as part of an organized tour group. It was an eye-opener to see not just the tried and true – and amazing – tourist destinations, but also the extraordinary building and infrastructure projects throughout the country. As a retired computer science professor, I’ve taught many, many students from China who were in Canada to get the training they could not get at home. By 2006, it became pretty darn clear that this was not going to be the situation for long. Even when driving in our coach from our hotel in X’ian to the site of the absolutely extraordinary Terracotta Army mere miles away, we passed not one but two brand new universities, each with student enrolments of 10-20,000. Each airport we were in was new, all the airplanes were new, the dam project on the Yangtze River was a marvel of engineering, and on it went. The scale and scope of building and ingenuity in both China’s past and its present are immense, not to mention the energetic vibe of their equally immense and enterprising population. Many, many significant challenges, for sure, but also many, many significant opportunities.
We in the West view the rest of the world through a very Eurocentric lens. It would serve us well to learn more about the history of others – and to appreciate those histories fully; this should include the social history of others, not simply relatively recent military and economic history, and not just Eurocentric interpretations of that history. That does not serve us well. These articles in the New York Times are a good starting point.
Some of the many world-altering Chinese innovations
- Bronze 1700 B.C.
- Iron smelting 1050 – 256 B.C.
- Acupuncture ~ 2300 years ago
- Paper making 105 A.D. (Chinese paper-making technology spread along the Silk Road)
- Earthquake detector 132 A.D.
- Porcelain 581-618 A.D.
- Mechanical clock 725 A.D.
- Movable type printing 960-1279 A.D. (predating Gutenberg’s 1439 printing press)
- Gunpowder 1000 A.D. (spread to Europe by the Mongols)
- Compass 1100 A.D. (used in Chinese ships for navigation)
This list does not include the invention of silk cultivation and production, which is thought to have started in China in around 3000 BC. The overland Silk Road, which enabled trade between China and the Mediterranean and points in between, brought the highly prized silk to Europe, with China maintaining a monopoly on the secrets of production for nearly 3 millennia.
Dates of major dynasties
2205 – 1575 BC: The Xia Dynasty becomes the first dynasty in China.
1570 – 1045 BC: Shang Dynasty
1045 – 256 BC: Zhou Dynasty (551 BC: Philosopher and thinker Confucius is born)
221 – 206 BC: Qin Dynasty (220 BC: The writing system of China standardized)
206 BC – 220 AD: Han Dynasty (207 BC: Chinese Civil Service established)
A government census is taken in 2 AD. The size of the Chinese Empire is estimated at 60 million people.
222 – 581 AD: Six Dynasties (250: Buddhism is introduced to China)
589 – 618 AD: Sui Dynasty
618 – 907 AD: Tang Dynasty
907 – 960 AD: Five Dynasties
960 – 1279 AD: Song Dynasty
1279 – 1368 AD: Yuan Dynasty
1368 – 1644 AD: Ming Dynasty (1517: Portuguese traders first arrive in country)
1644 – 1912 AD: Qing Dynasty
A few of China’s famous landmarks
Terracotta Army at X’ian – 210-209 B.C.
Ming Tombs – 1409-1644
Summer Palace – 1750 (destroyed on the orders of Lord Elgin, of Elgin Marbles fame, in 1860; rebuilt in 1886)
Li River and wondrous karst mountains
Photo credit: Jane Fritz