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jocelyn

Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 

 

Chinese history

^^I know the above term is indescribably humongous so I won't even try to qualify it.

 

Making the investment to learn Chinese history in a serious, systematic manner has been on my mind for some time. The first and foremost reason is that it's plain fascinating, which I can already tell despite having read very little. What exactly makes it so is harder to express, but for others, it seems to boil down to something like this:

 

1. It's the world's most long-lasting civilization currently in existence, with a history going back almost 5000 years.

 

2. It is also the only living civilization with an original writing system created by its ancestors. Chinese characters have remained virtually unchanged throughout millennia, which in itself is extraordinary and helped contribute to:

 

3. It has one of, if not the, best-documented history in the world. This seems to be key. While the Western world has experienced rises and falls in historical scholarship and knowledge (Dark Ages, Archimedes Palimpsest) each dynasty had court historians who thoroughly wrote out the events of each time, so that generations later had a fairly clear idea of what happened hundreds of years ago. One demonstration of this is Luo Guanzhong, who drew on the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi)--a history of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD) written around the same time--to write his 2,000-page historical fiction/drama masterpiece Romance of the Three Kingdoms 1100 years later, as the Ming looked into the past for the ideal political model in the ancient Han dynasty.

 

 

Having said that, I'm a total newbie to the history buff thing, and so have more questions than answers the deeper I get into this.

 

1. The issue of neutrality. Or lack thereof. Since the vast majority of my historical reading has come from textbook school reading, what I'm chiefly familiar with is a sort of turgidly dry academic style that refuses to engage with political events in any kind of specific or interpretative fashion, except by cultural default (the automatic flak Empress Wu gets for being the only female emperor in China, for example--hello, sexist double standards).

 

2. Coming off that last bit though, the question of evaluating the individual legacies of China's long line of political leaders is an extremely interesting one to me, one that I find suspiciously ignored in what little I've read. It seems that the emperors' relationship with their subjects and the civil servants who served them was a complex one. While the bureaucracy of officials was extensive enough to run the kingdom in the place of a weak ruler, this could cause an inevitable loss of legitimacy for the ruling dynasty and/or create a power vacuum filled by powerful aristocratic families, eunuchs, or military generals. Such was the standard procedure every time a dynasty broke down or split into multiple states.

 

More rambling in the spoiler.

 

Also, the influential power of the Son of Heaven to alter the lives of the people he ruled truly seems to have been enormous. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang's famously prosperous and conscientious reign is said to have been ruined by his obsession with one of his concubines, a distraction that made possible the An Lushan Rebellion. Emperor Yang of Sui abused his privileges and brought about the fall of the Sui through overindulgence and negligence, but he also built the Grand Canal, an enduring contribution to future generations. At the same time, there was a perpetual give-and-take between the ruling emperor and the nationwide circumstances he had no choice but to inherit--there was little that the Qing dynasty could do in the face of Western encroachment, for example, after a long tradition of isolationism that left them crippled to deal with foreign policy.

(show spoiler)

 

 

3. The importance of economics. My main exposure to Chinese history has mostly been political, so I have almost nothing to say about this. I don't know whether to look out for this as separate from the political, or intertwined with it, or what. I don't even know where it's important and where it isn't. The one thing I can think of are the multiple peasant rebellions in Chinese history, most if not all of which were based on economic disparities and failures of the government to provide during famines, disasters etc. 

 

4. The legacies of China's greatest military generals, strategists, and leaders. I know that the romanticism of individual brilliance is only one part of the story and all, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds the battle victories--and the people responsible for them on a strategic level--super damn exciting. The near-legendary fame of figures like Huo Qubing, Li Guang, Sun Tzu, Zhuge Liang, Yue Fei, Gao Changgong, to name pathetically few is so captivating to me that I can't imagine learning Chinese history without indulging myself a little in hero worship/geeking out over military maneuvers and tactics. My sincerest apologies to those who are offended by this! *ducks*

 

5. As a modification of no.4, the separation of the literary from the historical. I'm sure it isn't an accident that I'm so swept up in this stuff; a lot of commonly accepted stories are exaggerations put in to enhance the legendary power. My mom--a native of Taiwan--still believes in the existence of the Xia dynasty, despite the lack of archeological evidence.

 

Another interesting question is the literature itself. Most notably the Four Classical Novels, of which I have read one so far, and all of which have been very influential in as representations of Chinese identity. Suffice to say, the history of cultural interpretation is as intriguing as the history itself: how an entire people choose to define themselves, through what narratives, and why. (Discomfort at the lack of a central authority, hostility towards barbarians, and so on.)

 

6. Pre-imperial history, and chaotic periods of disunity. Shang and Zhou dynasties aside, I'm especially curious about the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, of which I know nothing about. Yet, as the precedent to the establishment of the later Chinese dynastic cycle, and as the time periods in which Sun Tzu and Confucius lived in, I can imagine that it must have been important. Also the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period, and the Five Dynasties Ten Kingdoms Period. All four of these periods are constantly skipped over by historians, despite constituting a fairly sizable chunk of history and represents a regrettable hole in my knowledge I need to fix ASAP. It is fascinating (sorry, keep using that word) that the Chinese have always been suspicious towards times of political decentralization, although unable to deny its multiple occurrences.

 

...And that's all I can really think of right now.

 

TL;DR: my mind just swims all over the place when it tries to grasp the extent of this civilizations's past. Seriously. The complexity, though, is tempered by a recognizable cycle that has repeated itself through the ages due to one of the world's most remarkably successful systems of rule...and maybe that's the main draw of this whole thing, more than anything else.

 

 

The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.

 

--spot-on opening line of Romance of the Three Kingdoms