Monday, April 1, 2013

History of China (contd-1)

Chinese history is long and complex—with records dating to around 1600 BC. Although the histories of Egypt and the Middle East are considerably older, cultural threads, exemplified in written language, architecture and other aspects of material culture, beliefs, and custom clearly link contemporary China to a distant past—more so than most contemporary cultures today. That cultural legacy has been at times a burden, but more often serves as a valued pool of philosophical, material, and spiritual traditions.
Among the important themes that characterize Chinese history are the pattern of dynastic rise and fall , intermittent aggression from northern aliens, varying degrees of openness to outside cultural influences, and the dynamics of stability and social harmony. All of these themes still bear on China’s stance and position in the world today. Being aware of China's history and traditional culture will enable us to better understand events presently unfolding in the country.
Map of China (pic top left)
Dynastic Rise and Fall ( pic-below)
The Chinese record their own history as a succession of ruling dynasties that begins with the legendary Xia dynasty (2100-1600 BC), followed by Shang Dynasty (1700-1046 B.C.) (pic top rt)  and ended in 1911-12 with the formation of the Republic of China–which was soon followed by the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. A dynasty is a succession of kings or emperors of the same family line. Although by the Qin dynasty (221 BC-207 BC) officials were appointed—eventually by participation in an examination system—the role of emperor was hereditary, in a succession that was ideally father to son. In many cases, however, other relatives, and on a few occasions even non-blood relatives, occupied the throne. Although Chinese history is regarded as a succession of dynasties, during certain parts of Chinese history the land area we call China today was under the control of a number of different kingdoms. After the fall of the great Han dynasty around 220 AD, China fell apart into many smaller kingdoms, and was only reunited over three hundred years later by the short, but powerful Sui dynasty (580-618 AD). During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), invading tribes set up the Jin and Liao kingdoms in northeast China, and a large kingdom of Tibetan-related peoples called Xixia existed in western China. Therefore, when thinking about Chinese history, it is important to imagine it as a complex picture of unity and disunity over a very long time span.
In a general sense, there was a pattern of dynastic rise and fall, often reflected in historical accounts, poetry, and other literature of China. According to the pattern, a dynasty is 1) founded by force during a period of disorder; 2) vigorous rulers create a stable, prosperous state that secures or extends the borders; 3) after a period of success and stability (which often entails population growth), leadership declines, wealth concentrates into fewer hands, and the population outstrips resources; 4) the dynasty collapses due to internal uprisings—sometimes coupled with foreign invasions; 5) after a period of weakness and disunion, the cycle starts again with dynamic leadership (sometimes foreign, as in the case of the Mongols and Manchus), often in a climate of lowered population and redistributed wealth.
This theme of dynastic rise and fall resonates especially strongly in the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Many poets used allusions to patterns and events in past dynasties to comment on situations in their own times. Even today modern Chinese look back on their history as they attempt to make sense of their emerging nation today.
Aggression from Northern Aliens and Other Non-Han States
Relations, often antagonistic, between nomadic Turkic and Mongol peoples of the northern steppes and forests and the settled agriculturalists of the North China Plain go back far into antiquity. Among the northern invaders were the Xiongnu and Xianbei, who were followed in later centuries by the Qidan (Khitan), Jurched, Mongol, Turk, and Manchu (Manju) peoples. During periods of division, small states appeared and disappeared in northern China on the borders with the steppes. This was especially so between the Han and Tang dynasties. During this time many such states had Creole-cultures that combined steppe and sedentary cultures. Among these peoples were a group known as the Toba, whose descendants were among the founders of the great Tang dynasty.
Xixia Tomb
Besides the northern steppes and northeastern forests, alien states existed at times in other border areas. Among these were the Tibetan empire in the west, the Nanzhao in the southwest, the Tangut (Xixia) empire of the northwest (in present-day Ningxia), and the Uygur kingdom farther to the north in Xinjiang. Many smaller kingdoms existed as well, including the little-known Parhae kingdom located in parts of present-day northeast China and North Korea.
Wang Zhaojun with pipa
Nomads on the northern steppe depended on trade with the agriculturalists for grain, cloth, metal tools, ceramics, and other items. In turn the agricultural peoples desired promises of peace from raiding parties, and demanded tribute in the form of horses, furs, gems, and other rarities from the steppe and forest nomads. In the course of diplomatic negotiations, Chinese states sometimes sent beautiful brides to far-off “barbarian” rulers on the steppe. One of the most famous was Wang Zhaojun of the Han dynasty, who lived many years among the Xiongnu. Her tomb mound lies near the city of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.
In some cases, Chinese rulers attempted to play off rival groups of “barbarians” against each other; at other times, the border peoples created alliances to attack China. When the Mongols invaded China they had to defeat the Jin, who had already conquered the northern part of the Song dynasty, as well as the Xixia kingdom in the northwest.
The Great Wall near Beijing
At certain moments the nomadic peoples feared the strong Chinese armies, at other times the steppe people offered great enough challenges to the Chinese to stimulate the building of walls on the northern frontiers – culminating in the greatest “Star Wars” project of antiquity: the Great Wall. The wall, actually a series of smaller walls, reached its most advanced state during the Ming dynasty after the Mongols were driven from China.
Degree of Openness to the Outside
Due to its geographical location, China could limit contact with the outside world. Aside from the northern nomads (who were not a cultural threat to the Chinese), the deserts and mountains of the west and the oceans of the east allowed the Central Kingdom relative (and often peaceful) insulation from entities such as the Roman Empire, which was at its height during the Han dynasty. The Silk Road was a narrow thread across the northwest barrens that allowed a limited but steady flow of goods and ideas across Central Asia between the high cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and India. During the Tang period, China was at its most open stance in antiquity. Elements from the cultures of the West, particularly India were welcomed and took root within China’s borders.
After the Mongol invasions of the 13th centuries, China was for the first time under complete foreign control. When the Mongols were finally driven out in the mid-14th century, the rulers of the new Ming dynasty were more wary of foreign influences than emperors in the Tang period. By the mid-15th century the Chinese had made voyages to the coast of Africa, but in an inward turn the Chinese ships of exploration were ordered burned by the emperor and the Great Wall was refurbished.
As China began to lose ground technologically to the West, the Manchus invaded in 1644. Less than a century later, the British were warring with China over rights to peddle opium within China. By the turn of the 19th century, China was in danger of being cut to pieces by Western and Japanese imperialists. Over the centuries, ambivalence towards foreign contact developed. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries the principle of “taking what is best” from the outside was developed in an effort to import positive things from the West while keeping out influences thought to weaken or humiliate China.
The most recent expression of this open/shut dynamic was the near closing of mainland China to much of the outside world between 1949 and the late 1970s. Feelings derived from negative experiences with foreign contact still linger under the surface in China today.
Concerns of Government Stability
As explained in more detail in Module 3, social harmony was a key component of the ideas of Confucian statecraft. If rulers and subjects alike acted in proper accord with their positions, all would be well with the realm. It was up to the ruler to set the example by behaving properly so as to preserve the supernatural permission —or right to rule—known as the Mandate of Heaven. If a ruler was out of sync with the heavens, then chaos in society was sure to follow. What was feared most in this ideal system was instability and chaos. Instability was the result of any number of factors, including famine, invasion, unfair conscription of laborers and troops, over-taxation, and incompetent, corrupt, or malicious rulers. When conditions become unstable, popular uprisings can result that may prove difficult or impossible to quell.
Mao Zedong
According to legend, the empire of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, was brought down by a popular rebellion ignited by a group of workers on the Great Wall. Delayed because of a rainstorm, they were sentenced to death – but chose rebellion instead. In the first half of the 20th century, popular uprisings lead by Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party brought down the Manchu government. Not long after, other popular forces, led by the Communists, took advantage of chaos within China caused by a weak central government, local warlords, and foreign invasion, to bring their movement to power over most of the territory in 1949. During the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, particularly from 1966 to 1976, young minds and emotions were whipped into widespread chaos that endangered the vitality of the state. Today, with an eye to the past, Chinese leaders must consider the effects of their policies in terms of state stability