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…From nearly the beginning of time it seems, China was ruled by emperors. And before that, what you might call “proto-emperors.” All-powerful at times, tangled in struggles for that power in other times. Emperors served the people right. Some of the time. When they didn''''t, problems arose. You see, when we talk about emperors “ruling” China, it''''s a bit misleading. There is always been a balance of power between the working class and the ruling class. Sometimes those classes were near each other. Other times, there were layers upon layers of people divided them. Traders, landlords, peasants, royalty. There were sometimes hundreds of classes to speak of. The tales of these people and their legacies went on to lay the groundwork in thought. They laid the foundation for the China we find today. But first, long before China had a name, there was only people and land. An area in fertile East Asia became the bedrock of China in ancient times. 4,000, 5,000 thousand years ago is what you often hear. But already the mainstream understanding is misleading. While Chinese civilization proper could be considered that old, in reality we know people were drawing symbols reminiscent of Chinese characters much, much earlier than that.


Take a look at this image, It’s from 4 or 5 thousand years ago. But take a look at this one. The bottom image looks surprisingly similar to the Chinese character日, meaning the Sun. It''''s from over 8000 years ago, right inside the region of East Asia we now call China. That''''s how old the roots of China. So sometime before that, around 9 or 10 thousand years ago, people formed groups which became tribes, factions and eventually kingdoms. As states came and went, a small amount of stability created a new center. Among a constantly changing outer region, the inside became known as中国. That roughly meant the “middle Kingdom.” Contrary to popular belief, the name didn''''t suggest ancient Chinese consider themselves the center of the Earth. Or the center of Asia. And while for various periods of time some upper-class Chinese did consider themselves the most elite in the world, 中国 was never meant to reflect that idea. It was simply in reference to the center of the Kingdom itself, the heart of an ever-shifting region. A constant flux of borders and control. But the heartland created stability. Over the centuries it became one name for all the states together. As an American, I have a certain background and cultural history that I can identify with. The expansion of people across a vast and open area of North America. War with Native Americans. Slavery. Development, the Wild West. It''''s interesting to somehow identify with these things, even though no one on either side of my family was in America for nearly any of it. Somehow, the history of a nation becomes part of the culture of those who living in it, even if it technically has little to do with them. But being a Chinese person must be different, I tell myself. Because so many are indigenous, there''''s a long cultural chord connecting from belly buttons to ancestors’ graves. I fantasize sometimes about what it must feel like to look around and realize everyone in your family, and everyone in their families, and theirs, all the way up the line, lived in one country. Or at least one single area. That sense of shared blood and history forms a gravity between Chinese people, in my imagination. One moment there''''s no attraction between strangers. But in times of crisis, despair or desperation, the people for better or for worse become one. These are the types of dreams I have in the daytime. What a fascinating bond.


The people were never much empowered on the whole. Nearly every single person in China in all of its history has done one thing. Agricultural work. If you somehow could communicate randomly with a Chinese person throughout the past, the chances are overwhelming that you would be talking to a farmer. A worker. A peasant. Emperors knew enough to know that the people were the true power. The force of the country. They were the body of China. Look at these men. They have no names. No one knows them anymore. But they and the billions like them use the land to make food. Prosperity. Wealth. Power. One common theme we see throughout all of China''''s history is rebellion and revolt. Often led by one of those very same farmers. And just as often, the goal and promise was land reform. Give the land to the people. Take it from the rich and return it to the rightful owners, they said. Thousands of years before socialism or communism existed, the Chinese were pioneers in the politics of stripping property from the rich to provide for the poor. But the Chinese weren''''t always alone. Some of the earliest European visitors to China came around the time of the Qin dynasty. For perspective, this was about ten United States’ life spans ago. And it''''s around that period foreign languages began referring to 中国 as however their closest way to pronounce Qin was.


This image is a map from knowledge gained around that time. While it doesn''''t focus on China, you can clearly see that China had been reached by the West. Foreigners develop their words for China from Qin. For example, Kina, Cina and so on. That evolved in English to be “China.” So, technically speaking, today we’re actually calling their country the name of an ancient dynasty-the Qin dynasty. That dynasty, by the way, didn''''t even last 20 years, but managed to be extremely influential on future dynasties. Some examples of foreigners? This Greek soldier found his way to Xinjiang, in West China, around the time we saw our first Western maps with China on them. Around 200 BC. Here we see a Westerner and some Koreans in China before 1000. And let''''s not forget the legendary travels of Marco Polo, around the 13th century. This is a tombstone for an early European living in China, who died in the 14th century. Foreigners came for trade, for exploration, or for conquest. Like this ancient Jew trader who came in the Tang dynasty.


They even came to spread their ideology to China. But more on that later. It''''s important to reiterate that at almost no time in China''''s ancient history did it ever consider itself what we would call a “country,” exactly. This is a very interesting thing, when you really think about it. China was a group of states, held together by a central authority. States often had their own militias, and local governance. Time and time again when the central power failed, China fractured and put itself back together again, often in a new shape. Land reforms, anti-corruption campaigns and purging of the old regimes were common. And more often than not, these purges involved significant overlap in rule. That mean war. Lots and lots of wars. In addition to the problems of vastness China''''s rulers faced, there was another issue. It’s one that many people overlook or under-appreciate to this day. Often China is described as a super-nation of subnations. But there''''s a real, down-to-earth backbone to that. You see, there’s a primary language for the people of china, and in each town or city, another language for the locals. For millennia, rulers struggled to keep these states together, a painstaking task made much more difficult by the language barrier. That has been the majority of effort the Chinese dynasties unification and stability as a unified what we would call today-country.


But the situation was different than Europeans experienced. This makes up the first in a very long line of fundamental differences in Chinese history from European history. We are already, as of this coming point, breaking away from the intuition of westerners. You see, written Chinese has no alphabet, instead originally relying on imagery to convey meaning. That''''s quite useful in the sense of spreading the written word. It''''s easy for multiple tribes to understand the same image. But a downside of not having an alphabet is pronunciation is not exported with the image. You cannot “spell out” Chinese. If you don''''t know a character, you simply cannot know it without someone else telling you the meaning. And however they pronounce it is how you will think it''''s pronounced. In combination with the fact that the vast majority of people on Earth were uneducated throughout history, a very wide range of pronunciations evolved in China. Even though a written character might be similar or even identical, the pronunciations at hand numbered in the dozens, hundreds or thousands. Regions developed their own dialects. Each city had their own. And then, each town. Some dialects grew to languages, with more branches growing in turn. Even now, cities right next to each other often have different ways of pronouncing words in their traditional dialects. Throughout history, and here''''s the point, this helped maintain rifts between regions, and a constant pressure against the ruling class, which usually couldn''''t speak the language of most people in China. Think about that. The normal, absolutely common situation in China would be that no one anywhere could actually speak to everyone. The remains of this ancient fact still live in rural China today. What an amazingly powerful problem to try to overcome. How do you rule a region or regions in which no single person can speak a language everyone else can understand? Their answer was to do it in writing. Chinese writing was used heavily over the ages. Carving turtle shells led to inventions like the paper-making process or movable type. It was extremely important for leadership in China to have the ability to write. States combined and split over the generations. Ethnicities blended together, languages blended. Cultures collided and blended and collided again. Chinese people found their identities in those powerful dynasties of the past and carried many traditions forward. Most empires were closely associated with the race in power. Racial tension was a major factor in conflicts as far back as we have record.

Religion started in China as basic beliefs in an afterlife. Later, major ideas converge into what might be best described as Chinese traditionalism. Belief in the spirits of ancestors fostered a culture in which looking backwards was encouraged. Remembering one''''s elders and what their lives were like has been part of Chinese culture from the early beginnings. Religion has also played a major factor in conflicts of the past. But it’s this looking backwards that interests me more. I never cared about history as a young man. But in speaking with Chinese people, I was often quite surprised by how much he or she knew about the past. And it’s this sense of looking in the rear view mirror that has kept China…Chinese. This is one thing I really feel missing from my own American culture. We are often so progressive and desperate for change that we dismiss the past as all bad. This looking back is a valuable, sometimes difficult activity. Collectively as a species, our pasts are quite painful. But perhaps no modern country’s past as painful as China''''s. Certainly none much more painful. Eventually, in the process of bringing traditions forward, gods emerged. But, Interestingly, while direct beliefs in those gods declined, beliefs based on those gods survived. The Chinese people have often viewed the world as having an undercurrent of causality. Some call it superstition, but I don''''t really agree with that characterization. It''''s more like a basic skeptical view. They''''ve always had the motivations of the universe in question. And that''''s had many effects on the culture; one of which is the belief in the Mandate of Heaven. Originally based on interpretation of a deity''''s wishes, the belief outlived much of the faith in the deity. This is how Chinese belief systems have ultimately worked-utility and practicality is what reigns supreme in the end. The actual deity takes a back seat to the prayers the deity can answer. And over time, each God vanished, leaving behind their most useful traditions and tenants. The Mandate of Heaven is a simple concept of distilled for western minds. The rulers of China could only remain so if they pleased the gods. What pleased the gods was taking care of the people responsibly. When the rulers failed in that duty, they would inevitably be replaced through famine or plague. Earthquakes. Rebellions or war. Anything and everything that could happen, would happen. This concept is a crucial element of the historical Chinese psyche. Overthrowing a government or emperor could only work if the Mandate of Heaven was won first. This instilled an interesting necessity to many revolutions. Before an uprising, before an empire changes hands, the agitators must be sufficiently indoctrinated. They must extensively believe not only that they reigning empire has lost the Mandate of Heaven, but that they have gained it. And even the modern Chinese judgment of past rulers is different than I expected it to be. Some cultures in the world view the qualifications for leadership to be moral alignment. That is to say, the hope is that each leader should be a better moral person than the previous one. More polite, or more Christian, or more righteous. But Chinese people tend to reflect on leaders’ performance by the standard of how good their rule was for the people. And thus, the specific morality of the ruling class has never been as important as the efficacy of the reign. An immoral tyrant who overall did good for the people is nearly always preferred over a moral “nice guy,” who did little actual good. Some eras had formal state religions, or belief systems.


Daoism and Confucianism competed for influence and adoption, but it’s Confucianism that overall influenced and was influenced most by Chinese culture. At the core of Confucianism is the idea that rules and rituals are necessary to correct for the degraded state of people. Strong concepts of rationality, as opposed to the spiritual, more emotional Daoism. Not to say Confucianism was the only influencer-not at all. But there are very clear signs of it glaring out from Chinese culture. In Confucianism, humans are meant to respect their superiors. A son must honor absolutely his father. One of the major goals Is a structured, stable society. Societal harmony, peace, rules and structure. Family. Groups. Society. Stability. Collectivism over the individual. These are some confucian messages so tightly intertwined with Chinese culture. The survival of the People is more critical than the survival of the few. Your father is more important than you are. And China is more important than he, for China contains many more fathers. The origins of this series, Epic China, begins with the end of the Yuan Dynasty. Mongolian clans United to overthrow the rich and used that power to conquer. And as we see nearly every time, the new emperor undertook Land reforms-redistribution of land to the people. That, and a purge of political opponents. The goal was often to undo corruption left over from the previous dynasty. Support of the people was won by their return to balance and faith in government restored by seeing corrupt oppressors executed, exiled or removed from post. The Yuan dynasty was one of the oddest dynasties, certainly worth more attention than I''''ll give it in this series. In less than 200 years through, incompetence and negligence in the Yuan ruling class opened vulnerabilities. Race-based persecution of Han Chinese fueled rebellions, while natural disasters and plague decimated the population. This is what it looked like to lose the mandate of heaven. The infamous Mongol empire finally crumbled in the middle of the 14th century. In its place cam the Ming dynasty, a new Han empire. It was a return to the classic Chinese rule, in many people''''s eyes, a conservative, strong-government state. And policies reflected that. In part to counter Japanese piracy and in reaction to millions dead from the plague, private foreign trade was criminalized. China had almost always been concerned with national stability rather than conquest partially because it was such a difficult task to keep each region unified in the first place. But with reduced trade, it grew increasingly isolationist. As was normal throughout history, China, no matter what it was called, was worried about issues within itself more than in the rest of the world. China''''s diplomacy was very unique, as was its position in the world.

In most of the world international relations were generally placeable on a range of all-out war to peaceful ally. Choose any two countries and you’ll usually find their relationships on that spectrum. China could never negotiate or trade with another nation; that would be to admit equality. Instead of trade was the concept of tribute. Some areas we now consider countries were for much of their existence in many ways part of China. Or at the very least, deeply connected to China in ways that go beyond what we think of as alliances. They gave huge tributary donations to China, which sometimes offered protections in return, or gifts, or nothing at all. Gifts were how two-way trade often worked. Offer up tribute and receive A gift back from the self-declared superior empire. Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Thailand are some examples of formerly tributaries. It''''s interesting to see how Chinese culture blends in to make significant contributions to each of these countries even today. Most of the time they weren’t formally part of China, but one could be forgiven for thinking that they were. That''''s how close tributaries could be. China was the father of the tributary nations. That''''s important to understand. Though the ruling class might have viewed the empire as the most supreme government in the world, it was rife with internal issues. Famine, disease and tragedy struck an unimaginable number of people in China over the last several thousand years. Throughout most of recorded history, China has been estimated to have experienced an average of one famine per year. Movement of food through the country has always been an issue. Weather, wars, insects, floods. Death and suffering has always been with china. And there was an almost unimaginable amount of people. That''''s the thing. Many people underestimate China’s sheer size.


In 500 BC, it already had more people than Australia has today. By 400 BC, it had passed the modern population of Canada. Today''''s British population was surpassed around 750 AD. The boundaries shifted, and with it the census areas, but over time China grew to be massive. During some periods, one in every 8 people in the world were Chinese. In other periods, that number was more like one in every three. Count up all the romance stories of the past. All the arguments. All the families and the interactions by people. A large portion of those were Chinese people. Everything humans have experienced has been experienced in China. By 1405, the Ming’s navy was larger than all of Europe’s navies combined. The enormous Navy sailed not for conquest, but for tribute visits and gifting trade. Though many Chinese believed the Earth was square-shaped, 28,000 men traveled the seas in a heavily armed military formation. Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East. Southeast Asia. China''''s powerful Navy flexed its muscles to all nearby countries. While it did occasionally interfere with local politics or daily life, in seven major voyages, China never sought to colonize. China was worried about china. And maybe it should have stayed that way, because a single encounter with a foreign nation set into motion a series of fateful events. These events would eventually lead to the near total destruction of the entire super-nation, the end of the empire, and the deaths of countless millions of people. Though this episode seems like the beginning, it''''s only the background of the story. Next, we will discuss the beginning of the end of china. And then we''''ll start the real story-it’s rebirth…