China today seems mysterious with its very own version of Communism, Capitalism and Democracy. But the mystery vanishes when we see it through a mythic lens and realise that China functions as it always has, magnificence from behind an expressionless face — the wall.
Chinese culture does not claim universality. It is focused on China, isolated from the world by natural and artificial barriers. The former are the snow-capped mountains of the south that circle west and turn into the cold deserts of the north, which then lead into the eastern seas.
The artificial barriers are the Great Wall of China built to keep out northern nomads, now transformed as the Great Firewall of China that keeps the world out. As if that was not isolation enough, China was once full of walled cities that thrived along the Yellow (Huang He) river and Yangtze river basins in the heart of China. Bordered by cold grasslands to the north and warm tropical forests to the south, this region had 4,000 walled cities 500 years ago. This, for the Middle Kingdom, was all things under heaven. Everything else was peripheral.
Dynasties and kings
The history of China has always been presented as a well-recorded, elegant sequence of dynasties of over 500 kings, from the mythical past to the present republic, a record maintained by the court. The script was sacred in China, over 3,000 years old. Through it the Emperor and shamans could communicate with the gods. Each royal dynasty sought to uphold the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and replicate heaven on earth, organising an orderly society in harmony with nature. Otherwise, they risked the displeasure of heaven, revolution by the people, and replacement by more worthy rulers.
Many Chinese believe that their superior cultural ways have inspired their neighbours to imitate them and even voluntarily give tribute to the Chinese Emperor. Of course, the neighbours themselves, be it the Japanese, Koreans, Tibetans, or the Vietnamese, don’t agree with this Chinese world-view. That being said, neighbouring cultures do share many features of Chinese culture such as top-down control, cultural inwardness bordering on xenophobia, and a great value placed on nature, filial piety, and ‘saving face’. But, despite its walls, we must never forget that China gave the world rice, silk, tea, paper, printing press and gunpowder.
And, despite the Wall, China did succumb to foreign influence. The horse appeared in China around the same time as it did in ancient Egypt and India, 3,500 years ago, in the Shang era. Buddhism entered China 2,000 years ago, in the Han era. Both these became so integral to Chinese culture that no one in China sees the horse or Buddhism as foreign.
Yet, at one time, Buddhism met with fierce resistance in royal courts, as it threatened the old ways. Eventually, it integrated itself into the Chinese system, its benevolent side aligning with Confucian thinking, and its occult and mystical side aligning with Taoist rituals. Today, Communist China feels threatened by the influence of Islam to its west and Christianity to its east, and maintains a firm grip on religious ideas.
China also had foreign rulers. The Yuan dynasty that ruled China in the 13th century were Mongols from the north, while the Qing, who ruled China from the 17th century until the rise of the Chinese Republic in the 20th century, were Manchu from the northeast. Even though these foreigners adopted the trappings of Chinese culture and insisted they had the Mandate of Heaven to declare themselves Emperor, their presence was tolerated with great resentment.
For many in China, only the Han are legitimate rulers. The Han dominated China from 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE, roughly when the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean regions, and the Indo-Greeks, Kushans and Satavahanas controlled South Asia. Even today, Han culture is synonymous with what stands for classical Chinese.
History of resistance
Chinese history is a history of resistance to fragmentation. Periods without central control have been described by Chinese historians as dark chaotic times of fighting warlords. But these were also times that saw the emergence of great literature, including those that were later grouped as Confucian and Taoist.
After centuries of instability and war, China was brutally united by Emperor Qin roughly 2,300 years ago. Qin burnt all books, for he saw ideas as a threat to unification, a belief that prevails even today.
Shortly afterwards, China saw the Han period, when centralisation and standardisation became the dominant theme of governance. Confucianism became the favoured state religion, though the peasants preferred to continue with the Taoist faith.
This early China did not include the Uighyur and Tibetan regions to the east, which became ‘integral’ to China only in Mongol times 700 years ago.
Replete with stories
China is full of temples to gods, heroes, and ancestors, but the major literature of the Chinese people are semi-historical novels that deal with strategy and tactics of legendary kings and courtiers.
Gods and spirits and ancestors thrive in folktales and divinations, but generally leave the affairs of humans to humans. The concept of a single all-powerful god, located outside nature, does not play any role in the Chinese system. What exists is an all-powerful Emperor, on his Dragon Throne, in the Forbidden City. Within this secure, ‘square’ space, he replicates the rituals and the bureaucracy established by the Jade Emperor in ‘circular’ Heaven. Perfection here is copied, not invented. In China, to copy is not seen as stealing as in the West. It is seen as admiration of the best.
What distinguishes China from the West is the centrality of nature, hence the idea of interconnectedness of all things. Individuals exist in a system, so there cannot be Western style individualism that is seen as isolationist.
In the Confucian way, everyone is answerable to someone else: the subjects to the ruler, children to parents, women to men, juniors to seniors, students to teachers, living to the dead. These are again arranged hierarchically, as a cascade of authority, with the Emperor at the top. Obedience, ritually reinforced, ensures order. Failure to uphold the system brings shame to the family, and is frowned upon by the venerable ancestors, whose shrine is found in most traditional households.
The Taoist way
China is a dominant civilisational force because the Confucian way has an equally powerful counterbalance, the way of the Tao, which is more individualistic, rural, internal and mystical. In the Taoist way, disharmony between the yin and the yang creates disease and despair. So extremes are best avoided.
Individualism expresses itself differently in China. In the West, individualism is getting the state to enable individual rights. In China, it is to be invisible to the state: not being predator to the prey or prey to the predator; like a ninja warrior who goes with the flow and so remains unseen. And that’s how most Chinese survive in a regime that demands complete submission to the hierarchy in exchange for order. For nothing matters more in the Chinese scheme of things than cultural order and natural harmony, perhaps not even truth.
The writer is author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.