Friday, 18 January 2019

Book review: China, A History, John Keay (2008)

In its early parts this book is fascinating for anyone interested in China but the story gets bogged down in details by about 200BC and stalls in a seemingly endless series of identical dynasties. Chinese leadership is founded on the justification that it could derive from history (heaven’s mandate), so history as a strategy of leadership is of long standing in China. It’s sort of like Shakespeare’s relationship with the Tudors, but for 2000 years instead of half a generation.

Each dynasty tried to corral the facts into making it seem ideal, so you get a continuous rewriting of the written record for two millennia. Imagine if the Romans had survived for that long and you get an idea of how tedious the written record might have been in the west.

In the central areas of settlement from about 3000BC there had been bronze casting technology, but mostly it was used to make luxury items for an elite (and used for burial purposes), rather than for useful purposes such as weapons or agricultural implements. From about 1500BC you have a standardised form of writing. This was used on early “documents”, which were the shoulder bones of oxen and the shells of turtles that had been put into fire to make them crack. The cracking was “read” by members of a priestly caste who then wrote down the meanings of the divinations on the substance thus treated, and this was then stored.

The act of reading the intentions of the gods from nature was embedded in the culture early, therefore, and this habit continued into later centuries in the poetry that was produced at different times. At one point in his review of the early centuries of the culture, Keay talks about diviners using sets of sticks that were thrown down to form patterns (sets of six, to form a hexagram). He goes on:
They also employ a technique typical of Chinese verse, and indeed literature and art as a whole, which engages the reader by juxtaposing, or correlating, naturalistic images with human concerns to delightfully subtle, if sometimes obscure, effect. The same associative technique appears in another near-contemporary (but non-divinatory) classic. This is ‘The Books of Songs’ (Shijing, also called ‘The Book of Odes’), on which Confucius [c 500BC] is supposed later to have worked. The first of the ‘Songs’ – mostly ritual hymns, heroic verses and pastoral odes – provides a standard example of the correlational technique. The mewed call of an osprey is juxtaposed with a marriage proposal to convey, through terse imagery, onomatopoeia and pun (all largely lost in translation) a heavy sense of sexual expectation.
Guan, guan cries the osprey
On the river’s isle.
Delicate is the young girl:
A fine match for the lord.
Keay goes on later:
Classics like the Shijing and Yiping reveal aspects of ritual practice and social life in early first-millennium BC China as well as the prevalence and development of literary culture.
These insights into the nature of Chinese culture are far more interesting than the endless struggle that constitutes the dreary succession of kings and princes and emperors to follow.

I wish that Keay had taken it upon himself to look in more detail the kinds of things that ordinary people were doing. For the most part, ordinary people are absent in the social and ritual life of the various states that would, eventually, be unified under the First Emperor in around 200BC. Under this ruler, weights and measures, language and administration were standardised over a larger area than ever before.

Keay does show how the divine realm combined with the ancestors of prominent people, and then with the rulers on the earth, so that the Chinese cosmogony is a kind of supra-real hierarchy that enabled rulers to monopolise power for themselves at the expense of the individual. Life, for ordinary people in these times, was cheap and harsh, with secular powers conscripting the very gods into the task of overawing the community and getting it to toil and fight for the benefit of an elite.

And the Maoists were not the first to use book-burning. Even the First Emperor burned books in order to consolidate his power. History, for the Chinese, is a constantly revised locus of struggle and debate where the powerful seek the mandate of heaven by making the facts suit them at the expense of their enemies and at the expense of the reputations of those who came before.

There was no earthly god in the form of Christ in China to give the people the hope of redemption in an afterlife. All was unremitting toil and labour to furnish resources for a few. Keay also notes that the distance between the ruler and the ruled in China was always greater than what existed between the ruler and the ruled in the west. Once you had passed the exams to allow you to enter the administration, your life and the lives of all your family, would change radically. You became a kind of living god. And so the story continues today.

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