Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Dynasties of China by Bamber Gascoigne

Bamber Gascoigne is well known in the UK as the refined and educated quiz master in University Challenge. Sometimes when such celebrities write a book it makes disappointing reading; the book is perhaps published on the strength of the author's fame rather than talent. This is not the case here.

This is a fascinating book. It is short: 'a brief history', and because of this the information has to be selected, but despite this it gives an excellent feel of not only the character of the dynasties but the staggering age of the Chinese dynasty as a whole - an almost continuous record lasting more than two thousand years. It makes the history all other civilisations seemed slightly puny in comparison. As Bamber Gascoigne says: 'The Roman Empire was founded during the Han empire and came to an end in the gap between the Han and the Tang. The British Empire began early in the Qing dynasty and barely survived it.'

First comes the Shang 1600BC, which is semi-mythical, and their barbaric rites; new buildings had to be consecrated by burying huge numbers of captured slaves in set positions - on their knees facing the threshold, for instance. Shang towns were square and viewed the rest of the world as a series of squares within squares with the dynasty capital at the centre - and this layout and outlook has persisted throughout the subsequent millennia.

The Zhou dynasty began 1100BC, and was also the time of Confucius (Kong Fuzi) with his reverence for family and adherence to the social order, and also his recommendation for a meritocracy which was taken up enthusiastically later. A little later Mozi laid down his rules for living and these developed into Mohism. He envisioned a more egalitarian utopia. Daoism originates at a similar time and advocated surrendering self to nature; and Gascoigne points out that the philosopies of Confucianism and Daoism are opposite and complementary; town and country, practical and spiritual, rational and romantic. Another philosophy of the time was legalism and recognised that man is weak and advocated more and better enforced laws. This idea was embraced enthusiastically by later emperors.

The Han empire skirted 200 years either side of the birth of Christ, and developed after a widespread rebellion of peasants. Qin, the first emperor, had unified several warring states but had been a ruthless Legalist. Peasants were required to report for wall building duty, and when (shortly after the end of Qin's reign) a group were delayed due to bad weather, they decided to abscond rather than report for (capital) punishment. One of the leaders, Chen She, established his credentials by writing 'Chen She shall be king' on a piece of silk and then putting it in a fish. When the fish was cooked the prophecy was impressively revealed.

The Han dynasty was established a little later by Gaozu who had 'a prominent nose', 'beautiful whiskers on chin and cheeks' and had 72 black moles on his left thigh (a lucky sign). He, and his descendants, expanded the Chinese empire into Vietnam, Korea and, mostly importantly, to as small area above Tibet and the Himalayas (which was soon of importance to the development of the Silk Road).

In 138BC Wudi, one of the Han emperors, heard of potential allies against the troublesome Xiongnu (may have been also known as the Hun). He sent a man called Zhang Qian to negotiate together with 100 people including a Xiongnu slave. The party disappeared for 13 years with Zhang Qian returning eventually with just the slave and a wife given to him by the Xiongnu (given to him during his 10 years as their captive). Eventually he had escaped and completed his mission, but after all that the potential allies had been uninterested. However, Zhang Qian had reached northern Afghanistan, close to where Alexander had arrived from the Mediterranean just 100 years before, thus almost bridging west and east. He was also able to report that in this westerl point he had seen Chinese goods - bamboo and cloth (presumably silk) - brought via a place called Shendu. Shendu (India) was reportedly hot and damp and was already trading with China.

In 106 BC the first caravan worked its way from China to Persia, and after that the development of the Silk Road was rapid. By 50BC there was silk market in Rome (Vicus Tuscus) and in 33AD Tiberius was prohibiting silk because too much gold was being drained from the country. Since 10AD the Chinese had been confiscating all gold, and the effect of this was now being felt in the Mediterranean.

The silk road led to the introduction of Buddhism, and Bamber Gascoigne deals with this in the chapter on the Tang dynasty (618-907). He also describes the first of two British ignoble acts (viz the theft of the Dunhuang manuscripts by Aurel Stein in 1907), and also the famous friendship of two poets. Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen were scholars, poets and government officials - and who owed their positions due to their success in examinations. China was a meritocracy and even people of humble birth could rise to prominent positions if successful.

The Song dynasty (960-1279) is divided into the (earlier) northern Song and the southern Song, when the Chinese were forced to establish a new capital in Hangzhou due to inroads by barbarians, and Bamber Gascoigne tells an appealing story about Li Qingzhao. Her husband was an official and also a lover of old manuscripts and used to spend all his spare money on them. His ambition was to compile an account of all the surviving ancient inscriptions on stone and bronze. It was a passion his wife shared and they spent many evenings staying up late discussing pictures and bronzes, and challenging each other to find a passage in their collection of manuscripts. The winner was allowed to drink their tea first and sometimes she would laugh so much she would spill all her tea and there would be nothing left to drink. However, due to the unrest, they were forced to pack their belongings and move south, then, when her husband was given a more dangerous post, he decided to send his wife and belongings somewhere safer. There is an affecting passage describing how they take leave of each other on a river and she asks what she should do with what they have left. She never saw him again, but was forced to gradually sell everything in order to survive. However she managed to keep his work together and prepared it for publication. In the postscript she gave an account of their life together.

The Yuan dynasty began in 1279 with Genghis Kahn, who started with nothing and was, incidentally, a late starter with very little to show for his despotism before the age of forty. By 60 he had a vast empire including China. However this foreign occupation of China had little lasting effect - by 1368 the Mongolians were driven out and the Ming dynasty began.

During the Ming dynasty there was a brief period when China made overtures to the rest of the world by travelling forth, but mainly the outside world was far more interested in coming to them. A notable visitor, in 1582, was a Portuguese missionary called Matto Ricci. He tried to bring science to the Chinese, but unfortunately his knwledge was being outmoded in Europe and inluded Ptolemy's geocentric idea of the heavens.

In 1644 the Manchus, a tribe from the north, were invited by the Ming emperor to help him put down rebels, but in return for the favour seized the dragon throne for themselves. This was the start of the Qing empire which lasted until 1912. During this period Europe continued to be fascinated by China and followed the Arabs (who traded peacefully) in trying to establish trading posts there. The way in which the British gained access was particularly shameful. When China showed little interest in trade (in 1793 the Chinese emperor, Qianlong, declared to George III via Lord Macartney, the aspiring ambassador, that 'nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures...') they deliberately introduced an illegal commodity almost guaranteed to take hold: opium. Many Chinese swiftly became addicted. When Emperor Lin forced English merchants to dispose of their opium overboard in 1840, Great Britain declared war. This resulted in China making concessions: Hong Kong was ceded to the British and 5 other ports opened. France and America exacted similar concessions later.

After dealing briefly with foot-binding (its origins in dancers, its spread through the ethnic Chinese but not the Manchus (who were not allowed to bind but admired it so much developed shoes that forced the wearer to mimic the walk), and the weird fact that Chinese men found the bound foot erotic (including its smell of fungus infected flesh), and eunuchs, Bamber Gascoigne gives a short account of the child emperor's abdication. He then asks an interesting question: if the interval between 1912 and 1949 just that - an interval - will historians of the future view what next as a resumption of the old system and traditions: a dynasty in the modern sense?

Since finishing that this morning I have been reading The Passport by Herta Müller ( kindly sent to me for review by Serpent's Tail). Herta Müller won this year's Nobel Prize for literature.