An Idiot's Tale

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An Idiot's Tale

Cacography of a madcap story teller, JAYEETA GHORAI

Those who snigger at my perceived Anglophilia ought to know, I’m a bigger Sinophile.

(That’s it! Throw her out of the country, take away her citizenship, try her at the docks, twice!)

The longest living civilization in the world, a whopping 12,000 years of continuous organic human development, deserves respect, border politics can go take a wee.

Paleo-anthropology calculates China’s prehistory as pre-dating India’s by several epochs. Even when the peoples who migrated through the land, from Africa on their way to the Pacific coast, or the Lantian, Yuanmou and Peking Man of Pleistocene Age are not considered, Chinese history is a behemoth. According to Prof. Patricia Buckley Ebrey:

“Distinctly Chinese history…begins…after the end of the last ice age in about 10,000BC. By 5000BC Neolithic cultures with agriculture, pottery, villages and textiles had emerged in many of the river valleys of today’s China.”

To novice Sinophiles I’d suggest the concise This is China: The First 5000 Years as a start point, but those interested in a more intricate journey, need to stop by at the Ebrey serai called Cambridge Illustrated History of China. A history textbook, expected to be filled with dry, technical details, was made charmingly readable with excerpts, images and observations on various fields. The simple language, without those mysterious jargons beloved of Social Science, makes a formidable civilization appear approachable.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey is a Professor of History, University of Washington. She is an expert on social and cultural history of China, especially of the Song dynasty. For a complete profile, read here.

The perspective of how commoners were affected by socio-political changes was refreshing. Ebrey converts the usual elitist chronicle of rulers and regal attainments, into a story of the masses that is China’s vulnerability, made into strength.

War, civil unrest, invasion, foreign rule, corruption, despotic or sterile sovereigns, regional factions, nature’s fury have constantly coloured Chinese history. What is remarkable is the resurfacing of the national identity, repeatedly, a sense of unified purpose and pride that’s survived through the usual hells which have sent many a lesser civilization packing.

To naysayers, China is a badly scripted drama…with multiple stellar acts. If one resurrection could do such good to Christ’s reputation, this cheeky consistent habit of the world’s bulkiest population – it isn’t in just the twenty first century that China tops the department – to wake, stalk and subdue the world deserve to be a political parable. Unlike the steam of Indian nationalism which quickly turned to disgruntled pockets and large-scale abandonment of personal integrity, China’s is an awe-inspiringly lasting one.

What is even more striking is that, through its periods of disruption, the tradition of linguistics, literature, arts, craftsmanship, technical innovation, unique material outputs and trade haven’t been allowed to flag. These ruled the world – and still do.

Tea. Porcelain. Paper. Printing. Silk.

Almost every aspect of world culture that spells refinement and sophistication is a gift from China. When we bring out our best ‘China’ tea service for a special guest, that's a debt two many. When we flaunt our libraries and learning, we owe her. When those best sarees and gowns are unwrapped from mothballed tissues for the winter soirees, concerts and marriage receptions, there she is.

A big fat Indian wedding – without silk?!

What of the meaningful rubbing of the thumbs against fingertips and the banknote filled brief cases parlayed under the table -? Can't imagine bribe in coins being dragged up governmental stairs in observable trunk-loads, can you, and which Indian enterprise survives without?

Chinese Guanxi possibly beats Italian Cosa Nostra in antiquity.

Then there is its prodigious twenty first century ability to disintegrate any West-bred technology and machine and clone it at a faster pace and lesser price, thereby shaking the world economy. Want it cheap, want it quick, you know the coordinates.

While to the rest of the world ‘Made in China’ is a joke, it is the Chinese who are laughing their way to the Zhōngguó Rénmín Yinháng. The reputation of China’s manufacturing durability starkly contrasts and undermines the larger Chinese lineage.

Oh the clever little ones, you think they can’t produce better? It serves their purpose not to, you dolts! These were the makers of goods that have lasted humanity and shaped its fate.

Indian artefacts are routinely pinched. China’s artefacts aren’t. (All theft of Chinese antiques in the last decade have been from foreign museums, never Chinese ones.) Herein lies the attitudinal difference in their two administrative approaches.

Yes, China has won Nobels, Oscars and Olympic Gold-s; no, they haven’t allowed them to get stolen, thank you so much.

India (as Pakistan and Bangladesh) was raped and left maimed by a three-hundred years alien attack. China was never defaced by a foreign imperialist. (The Xianbei thought it wise to sinify themselves and the Chenghis-Kubla Khans are accepted as integral to the Chinese heritage in a way the British can never hope to be.)

John Keay, in The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company examined British commercial correspondence and famously concluded that the entire Indian empire was constructed to get at that one elusive Chinese commodity, at that time nowhere else available: tea. (There, there, my crestfallen Indian patriots with your aggrieved historic egos in tatters around your ankles, take heart.)

What he overlooked was, Britain owed its naval prowess and imperial supremacy to China, too, on the latter’s invention of compass, gun powder and explosives (hand held guns, cannons, cannon balls, rocket launchers and land mines), stirrup, pontoon and chain-held suspension bridge.

Find a detailed list of Chinese inventions here.  

Go, blame China!

I am not condoning or glorifying its patriarchal treatments to women, human rights violations, state-machinery for oppression, far from. Thoughts of facing a howling dog being skinned alive on a Beijing street gives me the shudders.

But this is a post-revolution nation that had the pragmatism and flexibility to turn around its economy, and bring the world begging to its feet. This is also a place where its traditional script is taught, learnt, used and kept alive (especially in Taiwan, a land that is politically incorrect to call ‘China’ as much as Bangladesh is to be called India) – unlike our great scholastic language of Sanskrit which is dead. Let’s give credit where it is due.

For those of my friends who whack China its political, military, commercial ambition to overshadow India, and lead Asia, a gentle reminder – if we could, wouldn’t we also? Our spoilt cribbing over the LAC is a whimper of an injured tiger that cannot ride out the dragon. Its Neolithic civilisation is senior to our beautiful Mohenjodaro; its civil service examination and merit system was the daddy of England’s Indian Civil Service and granddad of Indian Administrative Service. Its national spirit, and the common Chinaman (and woman’s) sense of duty, discipline, ethical code, hard work, personal perseverance and national pride we are no match for. Getting there in fertile sperm generation won’t take us a whit closer.

Read, my friends, their excellent history and their continuing headlines.

In the meanwhile I'll dig into my equally delectable takeaway chowmein dinner.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey’s generously shared A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization can be found here.




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