Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Brief History of China


In one of his Odes, the Roman poet Horace portrays Maecenas, Roman statesman, as wondering what the Chinese were up to.  Horace lived in the first century BCE.  He was exaggerating when he wrote that; he was trying to please his patron by depicting him as someone whose concerns extended far and wide.  But, with hindsight today, we can say that Horace’s line was not sheer hollow flattery.

Some 200 years before Horace, Shih Huang-ti, who was called – or called himself –  ‘the First Emperor of China,’ employed 700,000 labourers to build the humungous Great Wall of China by linking the many existing fortifications.  He also constructed a huge network of roads and canals paving the material foundations of a great civilisation.

Shih Huang-ti was a barbarian conqueror, however.  He was illiterate and was despised by his literate subjects.  His dynasty failed eventually.  His renown became equivocal.  But the Great Wall caused him to be revered as the founder of China.

Many dynasties came and went in China.  But the country remained steadfast in its basic culture and civilisation.  It flourished in spite of its torrid summers and icy winters.  In spite of the intractable mountains and the ‘sorrow-inundating’ Yellow River. 

It flourished and expanded to become the largest population in the world, a population whose size surpasses the populations of the entire Europe and North America combined.  It flourished by both spreading its culture and conquering people. 

In the words of historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, “Most of the people who have adopted Chinese culture were not originally Chinese but have come to think of themselves as such.  In the course of centuries of borrowing and imitating Chinese ways, Fukienese, Miao, Nosu, Hakka and many others have disappeared into the majority.  It was not a cost-free process: it involved cultural immolation.  Today’s minorities – Muslim, Macanese, Tibetan and the cosmopolitan sophisticates of Hong Kong – feel threatened by this powerfully homogenizing history.” [Civilizations; emphases added]

No force in history succeeded in overpowering the Chinese civilisation.  For example, the White Lotus movement proclaimed a fanatical kind of Buddhism in the 14th century only to abandon the objective once the leaders won power.  The Taiping revolutionaries of the 19th century borrowed their key notions from Christianity, but their influence disappeared with their subsequent defeat.

In the 20th century, Mao Tse-tung’s revolution claimed to be based on Marxism.  Mao even called for the books of Confucius to be burnt.  But 30 years after that revolution, Marxism was abandoned and Confucius continues to shape Chinese civilisation and its values.

Even the foreign invaders who vanquished the Chinese armies ended up succumbing to the superiority of the civilisation of the vanquished.  The barbarian neighbours of the Sung dynasty, the Mongol conquerors of the 13th century and the Manchu in the 17th century are examples. 

Chinas continues to lead.  In the 20th century, it re-annexed Tibet, invaded Korea, re-acquired Hong Kong and Macao and has a number of active border disputes with neighbours including India. China has imposed a kind of economic imperialism in Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.  

With new ties being forged between the supposedly old friends (Hindi-Chini, bhai-bhai), what kind of cultural footprints will China leave in India?

Today the visiting Chinese President has promised India an investment of Rs120,000 crore over the next five years.  Will India become an economic colony of China is a matter that is best left to the future to show since we now live in ‘a global village’ with ‘open borders,’ however selective the openness in reality is.

Two of my earlier posts on China:



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Caliph of Two Worlds


Historical Fiction

His smile could quell a mob or raise an army.  The charismatic Usman dan Fodio was a holy man whom the Sultan of Gobir (today’s Nigeria) brought into his kingdom in order to make the people more religious.  Bringing a religious person too close to your life can be like taking the snake lying on the fence and putting it in your pocket.  At least that’s how it turned out to be in the case of Yunfa, the Sultan of Gobir.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had just brought out their Romantic Manifesto, The Lyrical Ballads, ushering a poetic revolution in England.  The bloodcurdling violence of the French Revolution had given birth to a whole series of reforms implemented by Napoleon.  In Africa, Allah was beginning to bring light in quite another way.

“There is no God but Allah,” Usman’s voice reverberated in the streets and highways.  “All ways are impure except those shown by Allah.”  Usman denounced the ways of the ordinary people as evil.  Suddenly almost everything became evil for the ordinary people.  Usman decided what was holy and what unholy.  Usman decided when people could smile and whey they should weep.  Usman decided what they could eat and drink.  Usman became the law.  “All laws come from Allah,” Usman declared.

“Allah appeared to me in a dream,” he told the people.  “All the prophets of the past stood on either side of Allah.  And Allah told me, ‘I anoint you as the Messiah of Africa. You are the forerunner of the Mahdi, who is coming soon along with Jesus to initiate the cosmic struggle against the Antichrist.  The end of the world is near.  Teach your people to repent and turn to Allah if they are to be redeemed on the Day of the Judgment.’”

Gods of all hues exercise a strange charm on people of every country.  And the prophets of the gods are like the pied piper whom people follow abandoning everything else. 

The Sultan was not very pleased by this usurpation.  Who is more powerful: the sultan or the maulana?  The answer depends on who you are or on whose side you are.

Sometimes the maulana has to be got rid of if the sultan is to save his throne.  The sultan began his conspiracies.  An earthly king’s conspiracies may not be powerful enough to eliminate a god’s representative. 

The maulana became the commander of an army.  The religious followers became political warriors.  The line between politics and religion is an illusion that can be shifted in any direction as required by the occasion. 

“Win the war,” Usman told his warriors, “and you will get seven towns filled with dark-eyed maidens each one of whom being served by ten thousand slaves.  Win the war and you will embrace those dark-eyed beauties for seventy years.  You will do it again and again until you are tired.  You will have no other work, save the play of delight.”

Usman’s warriors stood erect with their swords unsheathed.  They were intoxicated with both spiritual and temporal lust. Armed with such intoxication,
it didn’t take much time for Usman to decapitate the sultan.  Usman the holy man became Usman the Caliph. 

The successful warriors demanded the promised dark-eyed maidens and seventy years of delight.  The Caliph became the holy man once again, “Wait, children, wait.  The final reward is in heaven.  Wait until your time.”

They waited.  People always wait.