Taking it on the Qin: how I learned to love Chinese history

June 23, 2012

If the past is, as L.P. Hartley put it,  a foreign country, then China must be a distant galaxy. I suppose that Chinese students studying the Holy Roman Empire, the Albigensian Crusade, the Hundred Years War or the build-up to WWI may well experience a similar feeling. Be that as it may, I am determined to get a handle on Chinese history.

One of the first problems you have to deal with is the names. All literate Chinese can read the characters; the script is indeed common throughout China. This is tremendously useful in a country of this size. But the characters are pronounced differently in each local or regional dialect. To render this complex system into western script is a daunting challenge. The standard method today is the pinyin system. Developed in the 1950s, pinyin is used to teach Standard Chinese and spell Chinese names in foreign publications. You can also see it on Chinese keyboards. I have even read that pinyin could one day replace Chinese characters, a view held by Mao Zedong. It would seem inconceivable to me. When Pinyin was originally introduced in the 1950s China was an ally of the Soviet Union and the possibility of using the Cyrillic script of Russia instead of Latin script was real. However, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated from the late 1950s the latter won out.

Pronunciation is also a bit of a minefield, but I am beginning to get the hang of it. Here are a few examples:

Qin = Chin

Zhou = Joe

Sui = sway

Before the pinyin system there was the Wade-Giles system which gave us Peking,Canton and Mao Tse-tung. These have now been replaced by Beijing,Guangzhou and Mao Zedong respectively.

At the heart of Chinese history are the dynasties. There have been dynasties in China for millennia. The Chinese know from bitter experience what happens when dynasties collapse. Chaos kills. The death tolls can be quite horrific but for us in the West they hardly register. In Mathew White’s book Atrocitology: Mankind’s 100 Deadliest AchievementsChina features prominently, with ten atrocities in the top fifty:

2= Mao Zedong (1949–76) 40,000,000

5 Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1635–62) 25,000,000

6=Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) 20,000,000

13 An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) 13,000,000

14=Xin Dynasty (9–24) 10,000,000

17= Fall of the Yuan Dynasty (ca 1340–70) 7,500,000

19=Chinese Civil War (1927–37, 1945–49) 7,000,000

25 The Three Kingdoms of China(189–280) 4,100,000

37 Fang La Rebellion (1120–22) 2,000,000

40 Age of Warring States (ca 475–221 BCE) 1,500,000

46 Qin Shi Huang Di (221–210 BCE) 1,000,000

And remember China suffered the second highest losses in WWII after the USSR.  The Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45, saw the deaths of at least two million Chinese troops and 7 million civilians. The official Chinese death toll is much higher – 20 million. The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned into the greatest, bloodiest guerrilla war ever fought. Both sides destroyed crops, farms, villages and bridges as they retreated, so as to prevent their enemy from using them. Widespread famine and starvation were the inevitable result of this scorched earth policy. Millions of Chinese were willing to fight and die. By the end of the war, 95 million Chinese were refugees. Early on in the conflict, after capturing Nanking, Japanese troops went on a six-week spree of mass murder, torture and rape that left 300,000 dead. This is known as the Rape of Nanking, what author Iris Chang called the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. During the eight years of fighting 200,000 Chinese women were kidnapped and forced to work in Japanese military brothels. And another 400,000 Chinese died after being infected with cholera, anthrax and bubonic plague that the Japanese had dropped from military aircraft. But, despite all the atrocities and deprivations the Chinese just wouldn’t surrender.

However I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Chinese history is all about massacres. There is a rich history of culture, thought, architecture, and inventions. The list of Chinese inventions is impressive: cast iron, porcelain, gunpowder, civil service exams, paper, printing, paper money and toilet paper to name but a few.

Confucius (Kongzi, literally “Master Kong”) believed in the superiority of antiquity over the present. He harked back to the early years of the Zhou dynasty.  He didn’t want to introduce innovations but to restore what was good. He promoted strong family loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children, and the family as a basis for ideal government. He is well known for his early version of the Golden Rule:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  He was out of fashion in the twentieth century; both foreign analysts and Mao Zedong criticised him for symbolising the past and of holding the country back. Today, Confucius is back in favour. His emphasis on harmonious societal relations fits n nicely with the Communist party leadership’s desire for stability and social harmony. The interest in Confucius may also be a reaction against what some see as excessive Western influence and their criticism ofChina’s democratic deficit. The other famous Chinese thinker was Sun Tzu an Eastern Zhou military strategist; author of The Art of War, a manual of military strategy, in which the central idea was that all war is based on deception. It is still used today by armies, business strategists and even Australian cricket coaches

But that’s enough philosophy. Let’s get back to megalomaniacal tyrants, a subject dear to my heart. The leader in question is Qin Shi Huang. With the assistance of his Prime Minister Li Si, he constructed a highly centralised totalitarian state. Qin Shi Huang broke up the old aristocracy and abolished feudalism so that he could keep power out of the hands of ambitious nobles. He also reduced all regional variations to one official version of everything. This meant standardised writing, weights and money. All wagons had to have the same axle length so they would fit on the new roads he had built all over China. These roads made it easier for him to quickly send his armies to any area in revolt.  He ordered that every book in China be brought to him.  This was not because he was an avid reader; he wanted them all to be burnt except for a few technical manuals. And he had 460 scholars buried alive. In was in Qin Shi Huang’s reign that construction on the Great Wall of China began. To build this wall, he sent a general to the frontier with 300,000 soldiers and a million conscripted labourers, most of whom were said to have died in the construction. They were replaced by more workmen who were forced to go north. Legend has it that every stone in the wall cost a human life

Qin Shi Huang was also obsessed with eternal life and took large doses of mercury.  He sent Xu Fu, the court sorcerer, to the eastern seas twice to look for the elixir of life. In 219 BC and 210 BC he made two journeys with a fleet of 60 ships and 3,000 virgin boys and girls. He never returned from the second mission and it is thought that he may have arrived and died in Japan. Some historians have credited Xu Fu with being the catalyst for the development of ancient Japanese society. He brought new plants, farming techniques and knowledge that improved the quality of life of the ancient Japanese people. Xu Fu is worshipped as the “God of farming”,God of medicine” and “God of silk” by the Japanese.

What Xu Fu didn’t manage was to find the elixir of eternal life and Qin Shi Huang died at the age of 49. Ironically the large doses of mercury he took probably hastened his death. He wanted to be buried in style. The Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing a century after the emperor’s death, claimed that it had taken 700,000 men to construct the emperor’s mausoleum, but this does seem implausible. Nevertheless, it was a breathtaking project. It took around 40 years to build. What is most famous is the Terracotta Army a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang. There are around 6,000 Terracotta Warriors and their purpose was to protect the Emperor from evil spirits in the afterlife. There were also horses, chariots and 40,000 real bronze weapons.

I haven’t got that much further. I am now reading about the early Han dynasty. I don’t know if I will be able to get through the book in one go. I think I already have an overdose of names and places. If you feel that this is all too much for you, then I will close with a handy aide du memoire to help you remember all those tiresome dynasties that I found online. It should be sung to the tune of Frère Jacques:

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han;

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han;

Sui, Tang, Song;

Sui, Tang, Song;

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic;

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic;

Mao Zedong;

Mao Zedong;

Some trivia about China

June 23, 2012

Here is some trivia about China that I have found in books and on the internet. Once again I hope that most of it is true:

The first flush toilet was discovered in China in 2000 in the palace of a king of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). It is a stone latrine with a seat, armrest and a system of pipes for flushing the pan.

Westerners find it terribly hard to pronounce Chinese words, and the Chinese find it hard to pronounce ours. In the nineteenth century when British merchants were over in China trying to trade opium, they found that the locals couldn’t even say the word business, and instead pronounced it pidgin, which is why strange colonial dialects are still called pidgin English. And we’re so bad at pronouncing Chinese that when we want one of their phrases we don’t adopt them as we would a French one, we just give in and translate. Do you have any idea how to pronounce xi nao? Luckily, you don’t need to, as we translated it to brainwashing (it was originally a form of Buddhist meditation). We never lost face by trying to pronounce tiu lien, instead we took the phrase and translated it to lose face. As for Mao Tse Tung’s tsuh lao fu, we call them paper tigers. However, some Chinese words do get into the language, mostly because of the delicious food. These remain untranslated, which is generally a good thing. Kumquats and dim sum might sell more if English-speakers knew that they meant golden orange and touch the heart; however, fish brine would probably not sell as much as ketchup, odds and ends (basically leftovers) doesn’t sound as exotic as chop suey, and nobody would eat tofu if they knew that it meant rotten beans.

The fastest supercomputer,China’s Tianhe-1, is capable of 2.5 quadrillion flops. (A “flop” is the number of mathematical operations involving decimal fractions that a computer can make in a second.)

In northern China, an estimated 40 million people currently live in cave homes known as yaodong. As the human population of the entire planet in 8,000 BC was probably only five million, there are eight times as many cavemen now than there were people of any kind then.

While Europeans were still cutting up carcasses on the dinner table, the Chinese had for centuries considered the practice barbaric. A Chinese proverb, “We sit at the dinner table to eat, not cut up carcasses,” dictated that eating should be simplified, and so food was cut into bite sizes in the kitchen before serving. The chopstick (from kwaitsze, which means “quick ones”) was the perfect instrument to convey this pre-cut food to the mouth.

Here is a famous quote about Chinese cuisine:“The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables; and everything that flies, except airplanes

In China, men currently outnumber women 6 to 5.

The Chinese played football for over 2,000 years before the English claimed it. Cuju or tsu’ chu – literally ‘kick-ball’ – began as a military training exercise but was soon popular all over China. It used a leather ball (stuffed with fur or feathers) and two teams trying to score goals at opposite ends without using their hands. According to some accounts, each goal was a hole cut into a sheet of silk hung between bamboo posts. Cuju was first recorded in the fifth century BC and was at its peak during the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), when cuju players became the world’s first professional footballers. The sport eventually fell into oblivion during the Ming period (AD 1368–1644).

The first paper currency was made from wood-pulp paper. When gold and silver coins became too heavy to carry around, in the eleventh century during the Song dynasty, ‘promissory notes’ were issued in China. These were pieces of paper agreeing to pay over to the bearer the equivalent value in gold or silver coins if asked. The notes were made of dried, dyed mulberry bark printed with official seals and signatures. It was called ‘convenient money’. It is thought that local issues of non-metal money were made as early as the Tang dynasty in Sichuan.

Chinese dogs say wang wang,

If the entire population of China jumped as high as they could and landed at the same time, the resulting thump would not, as some have suggested, be enough to knock the Earth from its orbit, or set off a tidal wave lethal to the world, but it would be equivalent to about half a megaton of TNT.

The domesticated goldfish was first documented in China in the tenth century. They were popular among the privileged classes and eating them was forbidden. The first book about goldfish was Essay About the Goldfish, written in China in 1596.

During the Lunar New Year celebrations in China, an estimated 1.3 billion city workers migrate back to their rural family homes. In 2010, c. 2.26 billion railroad journeys were made in China over this 40-day period.

The Imperial Palace in the centre of Beijing,China, covers 960 x 750 metres over an area of 178 hectares. The outline survives from the construction under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle (1402–24), but owing to constant reconstruction most of the internal buildings are from the 18th century. By way of comparison, the Palace of Versailles, completed for Louis XIV in 1682, is 580 metres long.

One of my favourite Adam Smith quotes, from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is about China:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

The tallest woman ever Zeng Jinlian (248 cm) was Chinese. Sadly she died in 1982 at the age of 16.

Humans first began drilling for oil in China as early as ad 347. Drilling was achieved to depths of 787 ft(240 m) using rudimentary drill bits attached to “pipes” made from bamboo

On December 3,2010, a CRH380A-type unmodified passenger train reached 486 km/hon a stretch of track between Zaozhuang City in Shandong Province and Bengbu City in eastern Anhui Province,China. At the time of going to press, this is the fastest officially confirmed speed ever attained by an unmodified passenger train.

China is the country with the highest consumption of cigarettes. A breathtaking 1.69 trillion cigarettes are smoked in China each year, and one out of every three cigarettes smoked in the world is smoked there.