In one of his Odes, the Roman poet Horace portrays Maecenas, Roman statesman, as wondering what the Chinese were up to. Horace lived in the first century BCE. He was exaggerating when he wrote that; he was trying to please his patron by depicting him as someone whose concerns extended far and wide. But, with hindsight today, we can say that Horace’s line was not sheer hollow flattery.
Some 200 years before Horace, Shih Huang-ti, who was called – or called himself – ‘the First Emperor of China,’ employed 700,000 labourers to build the humungous Great Wall of China by linking the many existing fortifications. He also constructed a huge network of roads and canals paving the material foundations of a great civilisation.
Shih Huang-ti was a barbarian conqueror, however. He was illiterate and was despised by his literate subjects. His dynasty failed eventually. His renown became equivocal. But the Great Wall caused him to be revered as the founder of China.
Many dynasties came and went in China. But the country remained steadfast in its basic culture and civilisation. It flourished in spite of its torrid summers and icy winters. In spite of the intractable mountains and the ‘sorrow-inundating’ Yellow River.
It flourished and expanded to become the largest population in the world, a population whose size surpasses the populations of the entire Europe and North America combined. It flourished by both spreading its culture and conquering people.
In the words of historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, “Most of the people who have adopted Chinese culture were not originally Chinese but have come to think of themselves as such. In the course of centuries of borrowing and imitating Chinese ways, Fukienese, Miao, Nosu, Hakka and many others have disappeared into the majority. It was not a cost-free process: it involved cultural immolation. Today’s minorities – Muslim, Macanese, Tibetan and the cosmopolitan sophisticates of Hong Kong – feel threatened by this powerfully homogenizing history.” [Civilizations; emphases added]
No force in history succeeded in overpowering the Chinese civilisation. For example, the White Lotus movement proclaimed a fanatical kind of Buddhism in the 14th century only to abandon the objective once the leaders won power. The Taiping revolutionaries of the 19th century borrowed their key notions from Christianity, but their influence disappeared with their subsequent defeat.
In the 20th century, Mao Tse-tung’s revolution claimed to be based on Marxism. Mao even called for the books of Confucius to be burnt. But 30 years after that revolution, Marxism was abandoned and Confucius continues to shape Chinese civilisation and its values.
Even the foreign invaders who vanquished the Chinese armies ended up succumbing to the superiority of the civilisation of the vanquished. The barbarian neighbours of the Sung dynasty, the Mongol conquerors of the 13th century and the Manchu in the 17th century are examples.
Chinas continues to lead. In the 20th century, it re-annexed Tibet, invaded Korea, re-acquired Hong Kong and Macao and has a number of active border disputes with neighbours including India. China has imposed a kind of economic imperialism in Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
With new ties being forged between the supposedly old friends (Hindi-Chini, bhai-bhai), what kind of cultural footprints will China leave in India?
Today the visiting Chinese President has promised India an investment of Rs120,000 crore over the next five years. Will India become an economic colony of China is a matter that is best left to the future to show since we now live in ‘a global village’ with ‘open borders,’ however selective the openness in reality is.
Two of my earlier posts on China:
The Chinese Dragon on the Move [Sep 2010]
Imperialism – Made in China [Sep 2009]