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The Middle Kingdom Wallas …

July 30, 2016

The Middle Kingdom Wallas


Just across the Himalayas, there lies one of the ancient civilizations. The Chinese like to call it the Middle Kingdom or the centre of the world. Like us, they also celebrate the birth of a son and a bride is expected to dress in red. The families are close and elders, dead or alive, are highly revered. They also have something known as `saving one’s face’ or `losing one’s face’ and are shy of opening up with strangers. Wife is considered a property of the in-laws and a master can be very harsh with his servants (and the concubines). Silk is high fashion. Like us, they also believe in superstition, myths, spirits, fortune telling and have a rich folklore. That is where our similarity with the Chinese ends.


To understand the rest, one has to begin with Mr. Confucius (500 BC). The strands of Confucianism run deep through the Chinese history, culture, society and consciousness. Confucianism is all about ethics and earthly matters having nothing to do with the Heavens. Its pillars are the everyday rituals, filial piety, humaneness, mutual respect, obligations and loyalty. Another local philosophy, Taoism, gets a bit closer to the mother nature. Its ying-yang philosophy (as indicated in the picture) is about the opposites in nature – day/night, male/female, white/black, husband/wife etc. The message is that both the opposites are equally important and a harmony is to be maintained between the two. Over this mixture of two philosophies, if we pour in a bit of Buddhism and sprinkle it with some Marxism/Maoism, we get what could be loosely described as the Chinese belief. The Confucianism can comfortably coexist with other faiths and about 10% Chinese belong to other faiths. Religious education is banned until the age 18.


Before we take up effect of Confucianism on the Middle Kingdom, a quick dip into its geography and history. It is fourth largest in size and is the most populace nation in the world (1.3 Billion). Mostly mountainous with high plateaus, its all rivers flow from the West and wash into the Pacific ocean. The South is hot while it gets freezing cold in the North close to Mongolia. It was the heartland of the yellow river from where this civilization began at least 3500 years ago. There were local war lords of the likes of the Shangs and Zhous until Ying Zheng of the Kin dynasty united China. Thereafter, the dynasties kept coming and falling. The Kingdom kept splitting up and uniting again and again. After the Kin dynasty, there were the Hans, Jins, Suis, Tangs, Songs, Yuans, Mings and Qings until the last little boy emperor left the forbidden city in 1912 and China became a republic. Out of the 56 ethnicities, 93% of the Chinese are of the Hans origin. They established Confucianism as the state practice. The Tangs brought prosperity. The Jins, Suis and Songs can be credited with uniting the China after its break ups. The Mongols, for whom the Great Wall was built (3 BC), came via the Gobi desert and Kublai Khan set up the Yuan dynasty. Similarly, the Manchus, who came from Manchuria, established the Qing dynasty (1644) and got assimilated into the Chinese melting pot. The peasants (Mings 1368) became Rulers and eunuchs like Zheng he (1405-1433), a Mongol Muslim, went on naval expeditions with 62 ships, 28000 men and Chinese commodities like silk. China remained the most advanced civilization between the 7th and 14th century and its decay began in 17th century.


By 18th century, familiar colonialist like the British, French and Portuguese were eyeing the Chinese riches. The Japanese and Americans were not too far behind either. But just as the Chinese have a periodic urge to unite, they also get a periodic urge to purge themselves of the foreign influence. They restricted the colonialists to the Eastern China only. And during the boxer’s revolution (1900 AD), both the Christian missionaries and the converted Chinese were massacred. It is anybody’s guess what a sizable Christian minority in the East could do to China. The Muslim 

Uighers in the West are proving to be an headache. Anyway, both Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists and Mao’s communists got together to get the Japanese out (1931-1944). By 1949, the Mao’s communists drove out Chiang-kai shek to Taiwan and there came the peoples republic of China.   


It was Confucianism that kept China together making it the longest living civilization whereas its compatriots like the Romans simply vanished. There is a concept of immediate family and extended family. And all the rest non-Chinese are considered `others’. The `filial piety’ is stretched to the extent of `ancestor worship’. The Chinese diaspora display a stronger bond with homeland than others. The deep One China ethos has resulted in the continuity of the civilization. Hong Kong re-enters as “one country, two systems’’ and Taiwan is only a `renegade province’.


Another of Confucianism’s pillar, `Loyalty’, is also seen in the context of a Ruler-Subject relationship. The Ruler is deemed to always have a `mandate from heavens’, a concept readily accepted by all rulers. It is believed that when a Ruler becomes unpopular, he loses the mandate until a stronger Ruler replaces him. In the absence of any Devine or Dogma, the `mandate from heavens’ comes as a handy filler. There is another corroborative theory that says that the Chinese society is inherently instable and, thus, very dynamic and creative. But it requires an `external Force’ to prevent it from going into a chaos and let it play to its full potential. With an undisputed Ruler at the top and a basic family unit at the bottom, the void in the centre is filled by an efficient `civil service’ and the Chinese were conducting civil service examinations centuries before the others picked up on this practice. The `civil society’ was always kept week because a strong civil society diluted the power of the Ruler. 


Confucianism’s another pillar, `humanness’, makes the Chinese what they are – humble, modest and polite. You may like to count out the expatriates like the New Yorkers and Singaporeans. The Chinese do not like to insult, embarrass or shame others. They bow from the shoulders unlike the Japanese who do it from waist. A Chinese nod does not mean an `agreement’. It only means that he is understanding you. There handshake is with interlocking fingers and waving up and down. The Chinese diplomacy is without any abruptness, theatrics or dramatics. They convey the intent through subtle shades and innuendoes like the Mao’s `great leap forward’.


The `great leap forward’ was about rapid industrialization (iron industry) which backfired and caused a famine (20 million died). The decadent West and the Russian revisionists were conveniently blamed and Mao thrust China into the cultural revolution – to purge itself of bourgeoisie. Mao glorified poverty – `poor the better’. Luckily, Deng came along who said `It does not matter what colour cat is, so long it catches mice’ and began opening up the economy. With that, China also began the policy of `peaceful rise of China’ which meant playing down the differences with other states and not messing up with America which it considers not to be a declining power yet. Its disputes with its 14 neighbors never make a headline. If the `peaceful rise of China’ has been a success story, so has been its ethnic cuisine available all across the world.


To a curious eye, the neighborhood Chinese restaurant has a lot to tell. The red ambiance conveys happiness and gold colour is considered imperial. The paper shades and lanterns that you notice is an ancient Chinese art. Paper was invented in China (1 AD) and later the printing technology. Silk is a Chinese invention that was kept secret for some centuries. The figurines on the walls may include dragons, bamboos, pandas, jade – all very Chinese in essence. To me, the Chinese songs and music (mostly string instruments) always sounds soft, little high pitched, sad and romantic. The aroma of soy sauce and Chinese salt wafts in the restaurant. The food has the inevitable rice and noodles with an emphasis on vegetarian. The Cantonese style is carbohydrate based and the Sichuan style of cooking is spicy and meaty. The art is in fine cutting and preparation, little oil and ginger and garlic. The Chinese like to drink warm water and soup is served last. Chop sticks are used since placing a knife on food table is considered barbaric. Tea also means the dim sim tidbits. The top delicacy is old eggs, 100 years old. Luckily, delicacies like the snakes, dogs, rats, silkworms and beetles are confined to only die-hard locations. And the reptiles scamper into their holes because of the Eastern men’s obsession with aphrodisiac. Feel free to belch, slurp or talk while eating but it is rude to pour your own drink. Similarly, pointing fingers and whistling is rude. The Chinese language is a monosyllabic language – meaning each word describes one idea or object with no inflections like run, running, ran. But a change in the tone (rising or falling) can completely change the meaning. Only the Chinese write with brush and, that too, from top to bottom. The cashier may have an ABACUS, another Chinese original. They also created acupuncture, gun powder and cross bow.  


Confucianism may not have created a Divine but the Chinese folklore does have gods, ghosts and spirits. A saying goes – `A god in need is god indeed’. An older person gets a ceremonial burial; and a child is buried in silence. In fact, birthdays are celebrated after 60 years. There are also superstitions like the crow cawing in the morning indicates coming of gifts. It is a taboo to marry with same family names. Being pregnant is auspicious and a pointed belly means a boy. Widowhood is considered noble.


I visited China a few times in the 70s and witnessed the cultural revolution where the entire China was draped in grayish bush-shirts, trousers and Mao’s caps with Red Book. The guests were treated to the red flag waving musical operas by the peasants and workers. I could never imagine that after 30 years, China would be hosting the world beauty contest of women who have undergone plastic surgery. China has become the second biggest economy with a purchasing Power Parity (PPP – $ 6.449 trillion), second to only the United States, with a GDP growth of 9%. But with a per capita of US $ 1000 and 10% of population below the poverty line, it is still a poor country. The process of political liberalization has not yet begun. 63 million strong Chinese communist party rules with a tiny opposition like the Falun Gong (spiritual movement) and a few pro-democracy parties kept under a tight lease. A party political officer is posted in each army unit and he reports directly to the party. Periodically, the national people’s congress meets and selects the new Ruler. The power transfer seems to be remarkably peaceful. Press is under control and no foreign media is allowed to operate freely.


In a nutshell, the Middle Kingdom is unique in three aspects to the other ancient civilizations. It did not produce any God. It has been the longest continuous civilization. And it has yet to have the bitter-sweet taste of democracy.


I wish it well when it has to cross the last bridge ……


CIA Country Fact Book (China)

Provinces : 23 provinces. (China considers Taiwan its 23rd province)

Autonomous regions: 5 (Guangxi, Nei Mongol, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Xizang (Tibet)

CDP purchasing power parity – $6.449 trillion (2004 est.)

GDP per capita purchasing power parity – $5,000 (2004 est.)

Investment (gross fixed) 43.4% of GDP (2004 est.)

Inflation 1.2% (2004 est.)

Budget Revenues: $265.8 billion

Expenditure: $300.2 billions

Industrial growth: 30.4% (2004 est.)

Oil production: 3.3 million bbl/day (2004 est.)

Oil consumption: 4.57 million bbl/day (2001 est.)

Gas production: 30.3 billion cu m (2001 est.)

Gas consumption 27.4 billion cu m (2001 est.)

Foreign exchange reserves: $412.7 billion (2004 est.)

Foreign debt: $197.8 billion (2004 est.)

Military expenditure $60 billion (2003 est.)

Military expenditure percentage of GDP 3.5-5.0%


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