The vast mystery that is China demands attention. A journey to this land opens to visitors a geographical, historical and cultural encyclopedia that offers a breathtaking exploration of various worlds within one world.
China is the world’s third largest country, after Russia and Canada. Its most mountainous terrain rises in the west with Tibet and the mighty Himalayas. At 8,847 meters, Mount Everest is the world’s highest peak. China’s lowest point, the Turpan Depression, 154 meters below sea level, is scooped out in its vast north-west. The great mountainous highlands of west China, together with the forbidding deserts of Gobi and Taklimakan in the north acted as a huge barrier to China’s expansion. The land increasingly flattens out the farther east you travel. The vast majority [90 percent] of the population lives along China’s coast or in the fertile lands that line the Yangtze river, Yellow river, Pearl river and the Mekong river. Most of the cultivable land is irrigated by these river systems. Two-thirds of the land is too mountainous, arid or otherwise unsuitable for agriculture. China’s coastline is an affluent bundle of Special Economic Zones [SEZs] and thriving ports.
The country comprises 22 provinces, four municipalities [Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing and Shanghai], five Autonomous Regions including Mongolia, Tibet, and Guangxi in the south, and two Special Administrative Regions or SARs [Hongkong and Macau]. The “renegade 23rd province” of Taiwan is being heavily wooed into a reunion.
For hundreds of years China stood as a leading civilisation, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences. However, in the 19th and early-20th Centuries, China was beset by civil unrest, major famines, military defeats, and foreign occupation. After World War II, on 1 October, 1949, the Communists under Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, a dictatorship that while ensuring China’s sovereignty, imposed strict controls over everyday life. After 1978, his successor Deng Xiaoping gradually introduced the “open door policy” based on market-oriented reforms and decentralised economic decision-making. This resulted in spectacular economic expansion and a dramatic increase in its prestige abroad. Political controls presently remain tight while economic controls continue to be relaxed.
Officially atheist, the Chinese are by no means homogeneous. Although Han Chinese account for 91.9 percent of the 1.3 billion population, officially there are 55 other distinct ethnic minorities, from the Muslim Uighurs and Hui to the decorative Dai, Miao and Naxi of the south. It is, however, predominantly the Han Chinese, a dependable, proud, patriotic, obstinate, quick-witted, resourceful, traditional and family-oriented group, who are the guardians of Chinese tradition and its etiquette, language and culture, and builders of the new China.
In 1973, after decades of encouragement to have multiple children, the Chinese government introduced the one baby policy to control its rapidly burgeoning population. Since then, the one baby policy has, for the most part, been stringently enforced throughout the country, though the policy is not itself written into Chinese law. It is only now, faced with a future population made up excessively of elderly people and the subsequent weight of responsibilities on the younger generation to take care of their elders, that the government has relaxed the laws slightly. Couples where both are products of one baby policies, are at present allowed to have two children in their family. Permission may also be granted to have another child if the first child is handicapped and a girl. The one baby policy does not apply to minority nationalities.
A Chinese national must obtain permission to be married as well as to have a child. Without permission, a second child cannot be registered and, therefore, does not legally exist. The child cannot attend school and later will have difficulty obtaining permission to marry, relocate, and carry out other life choices requiring government permission. In some areas, particularly cities, the one child policy is often promoted through incentives, such as bonuses or larger houses for couples who pledge to have just one child. The government generally pays for birth control and abortions [a woman who has an abortion receives a vacation with pay]. Failure to abide by the policy may result in job loss or demotion. Given the long-standing preference for boy babies in China, the one child policy has made female infanticide common. The population growth rate in 2004 stood at 0.57 percent.
Ancient history: From myth to the glory of the Tang
China calls itself the Middle Kingdom. In ages past, the custodians of the Middle Kingdom firmly believed that Central Hua, the cluster of little city-states in the flood plain of the Yellow river and its adjoining foothills, occupied the space at the centre of the world. Other cultures simply revolved around its perimeter in barbarous fashions, whether they were the menacing nomads of the north or their non-Chinese southern neighbours, namely, the Man people also called Miao, Mao, Min, or Mang.
Some historians earmark 6,000 BC as the dawn of Chinese civilisation. Ancient legends speak of Pangu who created the world, dividing heaven and earth. Three divinities successively created humans and brought them animal husbandry, agriculture and the medicinal properties of plants. The first, Fu Hsi, is revered as one of China’s first wise men. He invented the eight symbols used in divination, which he is said to have discovered by studying the markings on the shell of a tortoise. The Yellow emperor is accorded the greatest respect as the primeval ancestor. Also regarded as the founder of Taoism, the mythical emperor is believed to have invented the boat, improved cattle breeding and introduced bamboo to China. Lastly, the Great Yu is remembered for harnessing the floods and taming the Yangtze river.
Before I proceed, a comment on the term “dynasty”. In Chinese history, the word refers to a house that ruled “all under heaven” for a given period. The word dynasty is usually modified by the name of a smaller state from which the founder arose. Thus the Han dynasty was called Han because the founder had been king of Han before he declared himself emperor.
Getting back to my narration, the 500-year long Xia dynasty (2205-1766 BC) dwells largely in myth though historians insist on its existence. They were followed by the kings of Shang (1766-1122 BC) who were rulers of a primordial agricultural nation and had a rich religious and ceremonial life. Today, they are famous for their handsomely designed ritual vessels, skilfully cast in bronze and engraved with sacred symbolic figures such as monster masks and dragons used in elaborate dramas honouring royal ancestors and fertility gods.
About 1122 BC, the Shang nation was overrun by the warlike Zhou people from the west. The new masters of the Middle Kingdom were quickly assimilated into the old agricultural theocracy of the Shang. In time, however, the authority of the Zhou kings declined—perhaps as a result of their custom of granting huge fiefs to royal sons and brothers—and an age of feudal separatism set in. By the 5th Century BC the Zhou ruler was little more than a figurehead, clothed in rich ceremonial robes, performing outdated rituals in his holy city of Loyang, quite removed of power. The realm was divided among petty city-states that came and went like the seasons.
The struggle amongst the states intensified between the 5th and 3rd Centuries BC leading to the Chinese Hua world expanding out of the Yellow river basin towards the south, defeating, absorbing or eradicating—in any case ultimately dominating the peoples it encountered. It was inevitable that these southern tribes should become Hua as well. There was little visible difference between them and the new arrivals. To become a Chinese, it was only necessary that a Man tribes-person learn to speak the Chinese language, write the Chinese script and accept the rule of the Chinese king along with the social and moral beliefs that prevailed in the Middle Kingdom. The only handicap would be that some Northerners might still regard them as a second class Chinese; true respectability required birth in the Middle Kingdom itself.
The constant warring between the states was halted by the inexorable rise of the state of Qin which unified China’s fragments. Qin was ultimately to lend its name to the foreign word for the Middle Kingdom: “Chinastan” which later evolved into “China”. Qin Shih Huangdi was its first emperor and engineer of mass death and oppression against his countrymen. His short and sharp reign lasted from 221 BC to his death in 210 BC. Under Qin Shih Huangdi, the Chinese script and weights and measures were standardised. During these years he led China on a course of territorial expansion, which necessitated the building of the Great Wall to keep the vengeful barbarians to the north at bay. Another lavish building project undertaken by him was the extravagant underground mausoleum of the terra-cotta warriors outside Xi’an. He also instigated an eradication of Confucian scholars and a great burning of the books, reducing most of China’s literature to ashes. After the death of the emperor, China dissolved into yet another contest amongst ambitious barons.
China’s Classical age, the famous Han empire, emerged in 206 BC under the leadership of a commoner, Liu Pang, a military official who rose from the ranks to seize power in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Qin empire. Caravan routes leading westward to Persia and Rome were opened up, inaugurating a great period of international trade based on the universal demand for Chinese silk. The empire’s lack of theoretical and moral justification for its existence was made up for by the creation of an edition of ancient documents that solidified into doctrines certain useful opinions of the wandering teachers of the Zhou era, particularly the teachings of Confucius. These fragmentary “classics” became in Han times orthodox canon, the basis of accepted opinion on manners, morals, and government. Writings of old rival schools were either destroyed or censored. In 220 AD, the glory of Han collapsed in the race for power between court factions and great landed families, and by popular religious and revolutionary movements.
The disintegration of the Han marked the end of the centralised state. For almost 400 years thereafter the country was torn by incessant war and division. Three states rose from the rubble of the Han—Wei, Shu, and Wu—known as the Three Kingdoms (220-265 AD). They were followed by the Western Chin, Northern and Southern dynasties, and the Sui dynasty.
Out of this age of division, came the splendour of medieval civilisation in the Far East. The hallmarks of the house of Tang, which ruled the Middle Kingdom from 618 to 907 AD, were its prosperity, freedom, gaiety, experimentation and unique contribution to art, music, literature, and gardening. It was a second imperial age comparable to the age of the Han, but much richer, more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. It was an age of security and confidence supported by successful wars against the Koreans, Vietnamese, Tibetans, and Turks. It was during this age that the Tang empire became the colossus of Asia, with intellectual, technical and artistic resources that made it both the Greece and Rome of the Far East. The vibrant, lively and complex culture in which seemingly dissimilar and incompatible elements from many parts of the world and many levels of society were welded into a glittering whole, represented the pinnacle of a civilisation that we now identify as “Chinese”.