China: New and Old

Truly, you have to see modern China to believe it. The scale of the change across this large nation literally takes your breath away.

A few years ago I caught the high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing. As I sat there in whisper quiet comfort, I mused on the never-ending debate on high speed rail in Australia and all the arguments about the economies of scale. As I thought, we passed the maintenance area for the high speed trains outside Shanghai. Now, you can expect a place to have one or two trains, or even a handful to handle the needs of timetabling, but in this yard there must have been fifty sleek, high-speed trains with all their carriages waiting for their orders. This wonderment at the scale of China is the same everywhere: everything you’ve ever imagined, but more. While still thinking about trains, you can catch a high speed train from Beijing to Urumqi in western Xinjiang province. It covers a distance of some 3,000 km and takes around 30 hours (you can book a ‘standing’ ticket should you wish!). This is impressive enough, but for most of this route the train is on an elevated viaduct supported by massive concrete pillars. It is awe-inspiring to see this structure snake its way across the lower Gobi Desert with modernity elevated above the denizens of the desert scratching out a living below. Whether it is wind farms that stretch for so long that you get bored looking at the turbines as you whizz past in a bus at 100 km/hr, or freeways that plunge into great tunnels in mountainsides, or bright, shiny new cities where before there was nothing; the immensity of China is staggering; particularly for we low-density Australians.

While such sights are worth the trip in themselves, when you layer what you are seeing across the rich and varied history of China that the modern growth spurt can be seen in its true light. Importantly, as they say that to know someone is to understand someone, then witnessing China today helps us make sense of where this mighty country is heading with implications for us all.

As an archaeologist and a historian, I’ve often daydreamed of being somewhere at that pivotal moment in their history that will be remembered forever. Think of being in the Athenian Pynx listening to Pericles in the fifth century BCE, being in the Roman forum seeing Augustus walk past, visiting Baghdad in the ninth century, Venice in the thirteenth century or New York in the early twentieth. These are all moments when history was being made and will be remembered as long as there are people to remember it. Right now, you could say the same of China. So staggering has been its transformation that this period will be long-remembered, for good or ill, but remembered. Keep this in mind as you walk the Chinese streets; in hundreds of years’ time, students will be watching whatever device they will be glued to in those days while trying to imagine what it would be like to be in China in the early twenty-first century. You are part of history: something you cannot necessarily say about being in Australia and many other places at this point of time.

Dig a little deeper (a favourite archaeological pun) and more secrets and ponderances are divulged. The history of China, for example, is as rich as any. While the coming and going of dynasties may appear bewildering over such time periods, there is a certain rhythm that can be detected. Although some may disagree, I feel that there are three great periods of Chinese history before the modern period when the country was unified and largely covered the area we know China as today: the Han Period (206 BCE–220 CE), the Tang Period (618–907 CE), and the Ming Period (1368–1644 CE). However, before each of these dynasties came a brief interlocutory dynasty that had the will and ruthlessness to unite China, but who quickly succumbed to the pressure of ruling their newly-conquered territories. Before the Han, China was united by the Qin (221–206 BCE); now famous as the instigators of the Terracotta Army one sees outside Xi’an and for the first extensive construction of the Great Wall. Before the Tang, the unification was wrought by the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) who bequeathed the Grand Canal linking northern China with the south. In turn, before the Ming Dynasty was the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368 CE), who, under Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, brought all of China under single rule. At all other times, apart from these three shorter and three longer dynasties, China was divided into two, three or dozens of competing states. A pattern is established; a strong leader manages to unite the country but, due to the hostilities this brings about, soon falls to rebellion. From the rebellion a new ruler emerges. The new leader is bequeathed a united nation allowing them to go on to establish a dynasty that becomes one of China’s apogees.

The Xian Terracotta Warriors

One now looks again at modern China and the role of the current government in unifying the country. Yet, every day we hear of the problems this unleashes, from restive provinces to people chaffing under the yoke of centralised control. Now it is the likes of Facebook that is banned, but 2,000 years ago, the Qin Dynasty was burning books and throwing scholars to their deaths in pits. The need to wipe out the old and establish the new can be potent but is far from painless. So are we now witnessing one of these interlocutory regimes? The Qin ruled 15 years, the Sui, 37 years, and the Yuan, 89 years. The People’s Republic of China is now 70 years old; more Yuan than Qin, but will it too soon go and allow a new regime to usher in the fourth great period of China’s history? Or, will the modern world break this paradigm and allow the current regime to establish a rule that will last centuries? We don’t have the foresight to see how the history of China will unfold, but it helps us understand the present by looking back to the past. As the Greek historian Thucydides said, “It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.

In recent months there has been much in the papers about China’s rather stern rule in its western province of Xinjiang, officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. We hear of Uyghur homes being bulldozed in Kashgar to make way for shiny modern Han Chinese buildings, of intrusive surveillance and, worse, of people disappearing from the streets and large-scale ‘re-education’ camps. The typical western response is that China has no right to be in Xinjiang; a province that is ethically and religiously distinct to the eastern Han Chinese motherland. Yet occupation of Xinjiang is no new adventure for the Chinese and they’ve been here before. The method of this occupation may vary, but the aim is the same; to maintain a link from the eastern seaboard across China to its ‘natural’ western border of the Pamir Mountains on the edge of Central Asia.

During the Han Dynasty, it was the Chinese desire for ‘heavenly horses’ for their cavalry, and to contain the Xiongnu, a collection of nomadic pre-Mongol tribes to their north, that prompted them to venture west from the Hexi Corridor and establish a presence in Xinjiang. This movement is best epitomised by the story of the traveller Zhang Qian who from 139–119 BCE opened up this ancient trade road during the reign of the Han Emperor Wudi. In two journeys, each lasting several years, Zhang Qian crossed the Pamir Mountains, and for the first time, brought back news to the central court of what lay beyond. This prompted the Han Dynasty to establish a loose control over Xinjiang, establishing from 120 BCE military colonies (tuntian) and commanderies (duhufu) to control Xinjiang and garrisoning towns such as Kashgar. Today you can visit the Yumenguan Pass (Jade Gate Pass) near Dunhuang which was the Han period border post. Here a portion of the Great Wall exists constructed from adobe, or rammed earth. This wall makes the ‘pass’ in an otherwise flat and featureless desert, and acted to channel merchants travelling the Silk Road, some of whom would have been carrying jade, towards a border fort that controlled entry into China from the west.

In 1877 the term “Seidenstraße” (Die Seidenstrassen, literally “Silk Road”) was coined by the German geographer, cartographer and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen

In the Tang Dynasty, China experienced a free-flow of people and ideas; one of which was Buddhism that entered China from India via the southern branch of Silk Road. Buddhist monks, such as Xuanzang, made the journey from China to India and brought back priceless manuscripts that were eventually housed in the still-standing Wild Goose Pagoda in Chang’an (the present Xi’an), the Tang Period capital. In the ninth century, the ancient Silk Road was at its height and the Tang Empire, like the Han Dynasty before it, sought to control Xinjiang so as to control the trade that poured in from the west.

Wild Goose Pagoda, Chang’an

During the Yuan Dynasty, originating as it did from Mongolia, Xinjiang was more ‘homeland’ and the eastern seaboard of China was the far flung province. Genghis Khan early on defeated the Qara Khitai: a sinicized empire spanning Central Asia and brought the subjects of this empire into his fold. One such people were the Uyghurs based in present-day Xinjiang. As the Mongols lacked the urban accoutrements, particularly a written script, Genghis utilised the Uyghurs in his administration and modified the Uyghur script to express the Mongolian language. Later, under Kublai Khan, Buddhist Uyghurs, were resident commissioners running Chinese districts. So while technically Xinjiang was part of the ‘Chinese’ Yuan Empire, in reality, the tail was wagging the dog and the people of Xinjiang were in charge of the Han Chinese.

The desire of the eastern Chinese to control Xinjiang at various times of their history was mostly due to one thing: trade. And when one speaks of trade in these parts, we talk of trade along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was sometimes a single road, but in most parts it is merely a euphemism for the east–west trade that linked China with India and the Mediterranean. Silk was certainly a trade good, but so too was jade, tea, salt, sugar, porcelain, spices, cotton, ivory, wool, gold, and silver. Whether coming from India, or from Central Asia, merchants would first congregate at the city of Kashgar in western China. From Kashgar, the path split into a northern road and a southern road around the Taklimakan Desert before joining again as the road passed through the Hexi Corridor giving entry into the heartland of China and the main terminus of the Silk Road at the city of Xi’an.

This trade has underpinned many of the great periods of Chinese history, and as we look at modern China, we also see a revival of this ancient trade network in the Belt and Road Initiative enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. This development strategy involves infrastructure development and investments in countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. The ‘belt’ refers to the overland routes for road and rail transportation, called ‘the Silk Road Economic Belt’; whereas ‘road’ refers to the sea routes, or the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. Already this institutive is viewed with suspicion by the west who sometimes see it as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs with a China-centered trading network. While the merits of the initiative can be debated elsewhere, the point here is the convergence of the old and the new: in this case with the revival of the ancient silk road.

Trade is fundamental to human civilization, and when conducted freely and openly, trade can bring huge benefits. The Tang Dynasty flourished in an atmosphere of openness to foreigners and their ideas, while the Ming Dynasty ossified when the initial expansion under the great admiral Zheng He was curtailed and China began to raise the barriers of isolationism. China has always been a trader rather than an invader. In its long history China has never produced an Alexander or a Genghis or a Napoleon who wished to conquer for glory’s sake. Nor have they ever planted colonies away from their motherland as have the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians, or modern Western Europeans. Interaction for China beyond its borders has always been by trade and the Belt and Road Initiative is a modern rethinking of this concept.

While the future is unknown, history can show us a few things to help us understand modern China. Firstly, the Chinese are a proud people: proud of their history and especially proud of what they have achieved in the past 70 years. And being proud they want respect and a seat at the global table. While we’ve seen that Chinese control of regions like Xinjiang has waxed and waned over the years, there is nothing new in China reasserting its control of this area and for re-initiating the ancient Silk Road that relies on Chinese control of this region.

Any transition is difficult but one is occurring now. The west has had everything go our way for the past couple of hundred years but now we have to share our toys. While in no way needing to accept everything that China does, we also need to understand that their time has come and that we need to work with them rather than imagining them soley as rural workers. Gain some solace from the fact that China has rarely relied on expansionist military stratagems to achieve her ends and see in her long history a nation that is inventive and poetic rather than brutal and aggressive. History does tend to repeat and to know China is to understand China. And to know China, you have to go there and see this emerging giant for yourself at this pivotal point in its history.

Ben Churcher

Ben Churcher has a wide range of experience as an educator, and an archaeologist. Since 1994 Ben has led tours to Jordan, Greece, Syria, Egypt, China & Morocco. Ben works both in the Near East, as well as with Aboriginal archaeology in Australia. He has a strong personal interest in history and archaeology, primarily of the Muslim world, but not exclusively. Ben holds the position of Field Director at the University of Sydney’s archaeological excavations at Pella in Jordan. Ben holds a BA (Hons) from the University of Queensland and a Dip. Ed from the University of Sydney.


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