10. The Old World Empires

10.2 China: the socialistic empire

The Chinese Old High Culture developed along lines sensibly different from those taken in the Near East and Egypt. The population was segmented into a large number of different villages. These were protected and insulated through rivers, mountains, deserts and swamps in such a way that the whole of the Culture, moving as a unit along the path of technological advances, retained to a large measure its village autonomy. Warlords carved out various kingdoms that were united for the first time in the bloody fist of Shih-Huang-ti (221 BC). The empire crumbled on his death and was rebuilt by the Han’s into a humane socialistic Universal Empire led by the Son of Heavens. The Immortal Son of Heavens was usually content to let his administrators enjoy philosophy, food and sex provided they collected taxes from the peasants busy in their fields and rice paddies. The Emperor and his Rule were far away and not needed. Things followed their course without His interference.

For the Chinese, human activities were regulated by the sun and by stellar constellations. These celestial bodies influence the destiny of the State and of its subjects. As in the Near East, the Chinese conceived Life as an insertion into temporal cycles. In the Near East and in Europe, Sun, Moon, Planets, Time and Space were united through the Zodiac. The apparent rotation of the sun around the earth during a year defines a zone of Space called the Zodiac. This space is subdivided into twelve roughly equal segments. Each segment stands for a particular month of the year, starting from the 21st of March. Each segment is characterized by the constellations (Pisces, Virgo, Leo, Scorpio etc) that occupied that segment about 2000 years ago (today they have shifted places). The conjunction of all these elements was supposed to have an incidence on individual lives. In China, the accent was put more on Time than on Space. The four cardinal points (N, E, S, W) are inscribed in Space by the various positions the Great Bear constellation takes during the year and these positions are associated with Time, i.e. winter, spring, summer and autumn. From a perfect Heaven, the Great Bear descends on Earth to the center of the Empire and is incarnated into the Son of Heavens, the Emperor, who ordains and regulates everything.

The Chinese script is still a direct adaptation from the Paleolithic imagery. This imagery traveled very probably from Europe to the East via the Siberian plains. The fact that blond people are found in Neolithic tombs in China demonstrates that the preponderance of the “Han” race in China was not initially evident and also that an intercourse between Europe and China was not impossible. The Han race was only one of several races thriving in China and won preponderance because the rulers followed stubbornly during centuries a policy of population increase and expansion at the expense of its well being. It is still doing so in Tibet today. However, indigenous roots cannot at present be dismissed. This script retained strong primitive overtones: for conveying a thought, every idea or representation (man, woman, child, dog, house, pregnancy, joy, sorrow, happiness, God, etc.) is translated into a picture. These archaic pictograms present a significant advantage over other modes of writing since they can be read and understood regardless of the various changes the spoken words may have undergone in the course of the millenaries. Within the Chinese Old High Culture, this advantage turned into a tremendous handicap for further progress. The Culture, centered on village life, family life, thriving almost exclusively on agriculture, respecting tradition, assimilated old writings to the cult of the ancestors.

The relationship between China and the Islamic regions during the T’ang (618-906) and Sung (960-1278 in the South of China) Dynasties was peaceful, as shown by the abundance of Muslim visitors who took the Silk Road or the southern sea route to China. A number of Muslims resided in China and Chinese businessmen went as far as the Persian Gulf. Islam found its devotees in China during the Sung Dynasty, especially the Uighurs of East Turkestan, and the Chinese word Huihui for Muslims derives from Huighur. During the Mongolic Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368), the Mongols were at the top. The Moslems occupied the second highest position, usually Huighurs who could read, write and administer: the Mongol badly needed these skills and the Moslems were eager to serve. The Northern Chinese followed, and finally the Southern Chinese, at the lowest level of society.

Under the Mongol rule, a number of Muslim scientists visited China. The Huihui observatory, i.e. the Islamic observatory, was founded in Peking in 1271 but Islamic astronomers worked segregated from Chinese astronomers. Since the Muslim astronomers knew that their methods of computing eclipses and planetary positions were better than those of their Chinese colleagues, they offered their results to them, who made no use of it. Books were translated into Chinese but found no Chinese readers. The situation did not improve during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644): the Chinese and Muslim astronomers worked in the same office but were as indifferent to each other as they had been in the Yuan Dynasty. The Manchu Ch’ing dynasty (1644 to 1911) abolished the Huihui department of astronomy in 1656.

The refusal of the Chinese to familiarize themselves with developments like Arabic numerals and sine tables is probably due not solely to their distrust of foreigners but also to the atrocities committed in China by the Mongols, of whom the Moslem Turks had been the faithful and competent collaborators. When Jesuit missionaries came to China and introduced the Western system of calendrical computation, it was so successful that the Chinese calendar was composed according to this new system. Chinese scholars carried out a calendar reform based on European methods. However, the heliocentric system was rejected. The main subject of Chinese astronomy throughout its history was calendrical computation. In this, the Chinese selectively accepted European computational methods but they never accepted the whole system. To make matters worse, persecution of Christians combined with isolationist policies prevented the Jesuit missionaries from entering China, and eventually stimulated the revival of traditional learning. It was only after the Opium War of 1840 that the government of the Ch’ing Dynasty opened their eyes to Western Science. It was too late to protect China from the humiliating spoliations inflicted by the Western powers and greedy Japan. The rock bottom of humiliation was reached during WWI, when the US opposed the demotion of the whole of China to a Japanese province.

The achievements of the Chinese Old High Culture are impressive. A usually benevolent government secured peace and happiness for millions of peasants and artisans provided these were content to remain peasants and artisans. Besides this great achievement, numerous technological inroads were made: gun powder, printing, paper money, magnetic iron, silk, porcelain, the axial rudder and various engineering feats in the realm of bridge and road construction, house building and water control. Also, an attempt at logical reasoning was initiated in the fourth century BC, before the creation of the Empire. This attempt floundered and was never resumed again. It had the consequence that rigorous demonstrations of facts were never praised by that civilization. There is however no doubt that the Chinese were the peers of the Byzantines but, as for the Byzantines, the very nature of the Old High Culture forbade these achievements to be exploited and applied on a grand scale.

In China, human physical labor abundantly available was despised. The resourcefulness of the individual was bridled by tradition and social structures, the geniuses were expelled together with the fools from the social fabric, government officials were chosen according to criteria other than the ability to foster a creativity of which the rulers had no need and were indeed positively afraid of. Under these conditions, the elevation of the individual man above the status of anonymous provider of food for the rulers will be stunted. Profound disdain and distrust for strangers, profound dislike of manual labor, a whole way of life steeped in tradition, these were the trademarks of the Chinese Old High Culture until its disappearance in 1912 AD at the doings of the Christian physician Sun-Yat-Sen, Tchang-Kai-Check and Mao-Tse-Tung, the last two betraying the vision and generosity of Sun. Neither grasped the value of individual life and both drew their strength from traditional group approaches. There has been no revolution. Socialism was replaced by communism. The vocation of a chief and leader is to foster within the mass of the sleeping, indifferent and disillusioned, vocations of leadership. This, the contemporary Chinese rulers seem to have understood.

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