Monday, August 3, 2015

Five common misconceptions about Chinese history

Since China is a country which lends itself so well to myth-making and mystification, it is hardly surprising that misunderstandings about Chinese history abound. Some misconceptions are more common among outsiders, some among the Chinese themselves, and some are shared by all sides.

Here are five of the most commonly heard myths about China's past.

1) China was historically cut off from the world

Many outsiders see China as a country which was completely sealed off from foreign influence for thousands of years. Ancient China was indeed a relatively isolated civilization, surrounded by deserts and impassable mountain ranges. The Himalayas separated it from India, Asia's other great civilization, and its Northern and Western borderlands were made up of huge, inhospitable expanses of steppe and desert. Its main foreign contacts were with its own Confucian offshoots of Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Having said that, China was far from completely cut off or impregnable, both geographically and ideologically. In the most obvious case of ideological contamination, Buddhism was introduced to China from India over 2000 years ago, and became the country's most visible religion. Later on, the Silk Road brought a large amount of foreign people and ideas into China. Especially during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often seen as China's most glorious period, the country was quite cosmopolitan.

The Tang capital Chang'an (modern Xian) was one of the most international cities in the world, as well as one of the largest. It included a Persian bazaar catering to Iranian tastes, and Nestorian Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Zoroastrian places of worship.  It was during this period that Islam arrived in China and drew quite a number of Chinese converts, as testified by the Hui Muslims today. It was also at this time that China's only traditional Jewish community was formed, by foreign Jews who settled in Kaifeng. They lived completely free of ethnic persecution for centuries, until they gradually assimilated. This shows that it wasn't always impossible for outsiders to become Chinese.

Of course China's traditional openness shouldn't be exaggerated either. Even during the Tang Dynasty, laws were passed segregating foreigners from Chinese in the capital. The Chinese attitude towards outsiders was always ambiguous and tinged with suspicion. Even though the definition of Chineseness was not racial, foreigners had to adopt Chinese customs in order to be accepted. The non-Chinese peoples in China's vicinity were looked down upon as Barbarians. In later dynasties, attitudes became increasingly negative and inward-looking.

2) Ancient China was sexually conservative

Many Chinese have come to see their own tradition as a sexually conservative one, while sexual openness is associated with the West (and the Japanese, who are seen as a people of closet perverts). The reality however is that for most of history the opposite was the case.

Since they did not follow monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, with their obsession over what people do in bed, in the past the Chinese had a much more relaxed attitude towards sexuality than Europeans did. The local religion/philosophy of Daoism saw sex as a path to happiness and longevity. Sex was not really a taboo, especially for the upper classes who knew how to enjoy themselves. Wealthy men would often have numerous concubines, and prostitution was allowed and regulated during some periods.

Even homosexual activity was tolerated in old China, at least as a way for men to release their sexual tension. Although the idea of people being exclusively homosexual was rare, just like in Ancient Greece homosexual relationships "on the side" were not seen as a problem. Some emperors even had male lovers within their harems.

The Chinese however shifted back and forth in their attitudes, and the Qing Dynasty was a comparatively puritan period. Then the Europeans came crashing into China's history, and the Chinese were influenced by the puritan Western attitudes on sexuality and marriage. Only now are attitudes starting to become more liberal again.

Having said that, I do think that some of the old tolerance is still visible in China today. In spite of homosexuality being illegal until 1997, most Chinese don't really seem too bothered by it (as long as it is not their own children who are gay, since they are expected to marry and give them grandchildren). Attitudes are certainly much more relaxed then in Muslim countries or Africa, where a violent opposition to homosexual love is still the norm. Sex shops also operate pretty openly in cities across China. And let's not forget the mind-boggling custom of inviting strippers to perform at funerals, which sporadically occurs in rural areas (although many people wouldn't dream of it, and the government keeps trying to put an end to it). Or Taiwan's half-naked "betel nut beauties".

3) China has 5000 years of history

Most people around the world would shake their head if asked exactly how long their country's history was. In China however, everyone knows the answer: China's history is 5000 years long. The 5000-year trope is learned in schools across the country and generally accepted as fact. Even foreigners who move to China quickly take it up. The problem is that it is a highly dubious claim.

It is hard to define when a nation's history starts, but no matter whether we take the adoption of writing or the emergence of the first cities as the starting point, China's history is not 5000 years old. The first accepted example of Chinese writing are the oracle bones, which date back to just over 3000 years ago. Chinese history prior to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) is hard to disentangle from myth. Farming probably did exist in China 5000 years ago, but this is true of many other places as well.

While is not true that China developed civilization earliest (Iran, Egypt and most of the Middle East definitely came first), there might be something to the claim that China is the world's "longest continuous civilization". Chinese imperial history does indeed present an amazing degree of coherence and continuity from the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first real Chinese empire, until the Republican revolution of 1911.

The Chinese imperial system, based on the pillars of Confucianism and the examination system, was probably the longest lasting political construct of all times. It even maintained exactly the same official written language for over two millennia. No other country, from India to Egypt to Italy, can claim anything quite like it.

4) The Korean and Japanese languages come from Chinese

In spite of what most Chinese (and many others) believe, the Korean and Japanese languages do not derive from Chinese. To a linguist, they very obviously belong to a completely different family of languages. Their phonetics, structure and basic vocabulary all attest to this. Most linguists classify both Korean and Japanese as language isolates. Some see them as related to each other, and possibly even to Mongolian and Turkish (highly contentious). Nobody however relates them to Chinese.

The reasons for the persistence of this myth are easy to see: historically the Koreans and Japanese received much of their culture from China, which was the main center of civilization in East Asia. As such, a huge amount of Chinese vocabulary seeped into both languages. This can be compared to the way that a large amount of French vocabulary penetrated into English after the Norman invasion. Even nowadays, many Korean and Japanese words maintain a pronunciation similar to the Chinese equivalent.

What's more, both the ancient Koreans and the Japanese took to using Chinese characters to write down their own languages. The problem is however that the structure of these two languages differs considerably from Chinese. The latter is an analytic language, containing no grammatical inflections (no tenses, no voices, no singular and plural forms etc). Words never change their form. Korean and Japanese, on the other hand, do have plenty of grammatical inflections. As such, the non-phonetic Chinese writing system isn't really suited to representing these languages.

As a result, both the Japanese and the Koreans eventually developed phonetic alphabets of their own, which they would often mix with Chinese characters when they wrote. The Koreans have now almost abandoned the use of Chinese characters, except in ceremonial contexts. The Japanese continue mixing the different writing systems all the time.

To a linguist, however, the use of the same writing system and the presence of much borrowed vocabulary does not mean that Korean or Japanese can be said to derive from Chinese, in any way, shape or form. They are, rather, unrelated languages which were heavily influenced by Chinese throughout history.

5) Genghis Khan was Chinese

This particular misconception is only widespread within China, where most people take it as unquestionable fact. This is because of the way Chinese schoolchildren are taught their history.

To many Chinese, the Mongols are historically a part of the Chinese nation. It is true that the whole of what is now the Republic of Mongolia belonged to China throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). China currently still rules over part of historic Mongolia, the province known as "Inner Mongolia". Although most of the province's population is not Mongol, there are still more Mongols within China's border than there are in the independent state of Mongolia. Mongols are thus officially classified as one of China's 55 ethnic minorities, which is reasonable enough.

The Mongols of the 12th century, however, were simply not Chinese. Genghis Khan, who was born North of Ulan Bataar, would never have seen himself as Chinese. If anyone had suggested it to him, he might well have cut their heads off. It is true that his grandson Kublai Khan conquered the whole of China and founded the Yuan dynasty. He then posthumously declared his grandfather to be the founder of the Dynasty, or 太祖.

Chinese schoolbooks now describe the Yuan dynasty as a legitimate Chinese dynasty, but at the time most Chinese despised the Mongols as foreign invaders. Even if you want to define China's Mongol rulers as Chinese, however, extending this posthumously to Genghis Khan is quite preposterous.


Anonymous said...

The French consider Charlemagne French, the Germans consider Charlemagne German. The French celebrate the resistance of Ambiorix, even though they descend culturally and linguistically from his vanquishers. Bangladesh thinks of Rabindranath as its national poet, even though he probably never visited what is now Bangladesh. Bangladesh thinks of Subhas Chandra Bose as a national hero, despite him fighting all his life for a secular, united India. We've quarreled about this before, but yeah, Macedonians consider Alexander the Great to be Macedonian even though he spoke an entirely different language and lived outside what is now Macedonia. Dutch elementary-school students dress up in togas and learn about Caesar well before they learn about Germanians and Batavians. Brits identify equally with William the Conqueror and King Arthur.

This is how culture and national identity is created. It's a narrative that probably bears some relation to our history, but ultimately, anything is up for grabs. I think the Chinese have a pretty good claim to Genghis Khan. From what I understand, he was born in what is now China, he belongs to an ethnic group which lives mainly in China, his descendants assimilated to some extent with Chinese civilization. The Chinese historical narrative readily and explicitly embraces all Chinese ethnicities as part of Zhonghua Minzu (as bigoted and Han-centric many Han Chinese may be). The surprise among foreigners when learning that Genghis Khan is considered Chinese is understandable, but really, Genghis is long dead and doesn't care who likes to take pride in him. Nor should you.

Of course, the Chinese can't simultaneously claim that Genghis Khan and the Yuan Dynasty were Chinese AND claim that the Chinese have been peaceful throughout history, never seeking hegemony.

Ji Xiang said...

I see your point.

I don't think all of your comparisons are fair though. I don't think the Dutch claim Julius Caesar to have been one of their own. Neither do the British, who might as well claim that Caesar was the British founder of a British ruling dynasty, if they are going to follow the Chinese example. The example of Charlemagne also isn't the same, because at the time there was no France or Germany. It is thus reasonable for both sides to claim him as their own to some extent. China however existed as a clear entity in the 12th century (it is one of the longest continuous nations to have existed anywhere), and it is a fact that Genghis Khan did not consider himself Chinese, had no contact with Confucian Chinese culture, and was not seen by the Chinese as one of their own. In the face of this, claiming that he was Chinese becomes pretty dubious indeed.

It's true that national narratives are all based on some dubious historical claims. Some claims have less basis than others however. Some claims are also more contentious than others, and have more practical implications in modern times. There is currently still an independent nation called Mongolia, and the people who live there find it extremely annoying when the Chinese claim Genghis Khan as their own. If all the Mongols had gradually assimilated into China like the Manchus did, it might not matter so much. This is not the case however.

And in any case, just because all national narratives are based on myths, should we not try to expose the myths they are based on? I think it can only do good.

By the way, Genghis Khan was most likely born in a place which is now in the Republic of Mongolia. See here:

Anonymous said...

Michael writes:

It is not a myth, though.

Kafka is celebrated as an Austrian, German and Czech author. Kipling is celebrated as an Indian author and as a British author. Israelis lay claim to the heritage of Spinoza as much as the Dutch do.

Both the Chinese and the Mongolians lay claim to the heritage of Genghis Khan. And they're both right.

Nobody is arguing that Genghis Khan spoke Chinese or that he was reading Confucius in his spare time. Those would be myths. I think the Chinese are generally aware that Genghis Khan and his descendants invaded the Song and only picked up Chinese culture gradually. Yes, in a technical sense, it's true that Genghis Khan "was not Chinese", but then you'll have to stop calling Dante an Italian as well.

Ji Xiang said...

Again, those examples are not relevant. People can have multiple national and ethnic identities. Kafka spoke both German and Czech, and the ambiguity is understandable. As for the Jews, the whole point with them is that they live scattered in different countries. If I became a famous author, I might well be "celebrated" by both the Italians and the British at the same time, and maybe the Jews might also chip in.

All this is pretty irrelevant to Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was seen by the Chinese of the time as a foreign invader and barbarian (even Mao Zedong reportedly agreed). The modern Chinese are indeed aware that the Mongols invaded the Song and only picked up Chinese culture gradually, but some (although not all) of them simply don't make the leap from knowing that to thinking "oh, perhaps then Genghis Khan can't really be said to have been Chinese at all then". The Mongols are seen as a nomadic tribe which somehow always belonged to China, because they just did. Ring any bells? At the same time, as you correctly point out, it doesn't strike them that this calls into question their claim that China was always peaceful and respectful of other countries, since Genghis Khan was a horrendously brutal conqueror. It is about time someone exposed these contradictions.

About Dante, he was not Italian only in the sense that there wasn't a country called Italy at the time. China did exist as a country, and Genghis Khan wasn't in it. He didn't even conquer it. It is clearly not the same thing. Comparisons like this can only be taken so far.

justrecently said...

The French consider Charlemagne French, the Germans consider Charlemagne German.

Schools may differ regionally in Germany, but that's not what I learned in school, and that's not what's taught in schools around here today. As far as I can tell (no stats, only impressions), West Germans and French have a more common picture of Charlemagne, than West Germans and East Germans.

Even foreigners who move to China quickly take it up.

There's an incredible lot of stuff that foreigners quickly take up in China. Oddly, that would hardly happen in Russia.

Scottie said...

Some thoughts:

Regarding Genghis Khan, I've seen quite a few debates in China regarding whether he is Chinese or not, especially on the internet. I also don't know how the textbook covers him these days. However, as for people in the past, while it is most likely that Chinese in general during the Song-Yuan times perceived Genghis Khan as a foreign ruler, the case of the Mongol empire is more complicated. Indeed, once the Song government was defeated, many Chinese began to see the Mongols as the legitimate rulers of the land, not foreign, barbarian invaders. Many literati, for example, actively assisted the Yuan to consolidate its rule, the most famous is perhaps Xu Heng. While Xu had his detractors both in his life time and later generations, he was generally held in high regard by his contemporaries. Later writers in the Ming-Qing era such as Sun Qifeng and Quan Zuwang also did not see Xu's action as problematic.

We can also see this with the famous "nationalist" hero Wen Tianxiang of the Southern Song. When many modern Chinese see Wen as a hero of the Chinese nation for choosing death rather than serving in the Mongol court, they are reading modern concepts back into history. Wen in fact was willing to be an advisor for the new regime, but he just couldn't accept an offer to become an government official from the Yuan court because he had already served in the Song. This is a matter of dynastic loyalty, not ethnic loyalty. Wen never denied the legitimacy of the Yuan dynasty. He was not saying he wouldn't serve the Mongols because they were foreign but rather because he was already an official in the previous dynasty, that's why he couldn't be a minister under the new regime.

There were also many Han Chinese officials and literati who either committed suicide or refused to serve the Ming after the Mongol regime had fallen. This suggests strongly that the educated class at the time did not necessarily see the "foreignness" of the Mongols as a problem; they chose to identify with the Mongols as the legitimate rulers of the land and that dynastic loyalty was of the utmost concern. The 20th century historian Qian Mu discovered this when he wrote in one of his essays that it is hard to find any literary pieces celebrating the defeat of the Mongols and the restoration of Han rule when the Yuan was overthrown. One can say the reason is because many people back in the Song-Yuan-Ming period did not necessarily share the modern conception of ethnic nationalism.

Just to be clear, I am not claiming that everyone back then recognized the Mongols as the legit government of China. Ethnic distinctions certainly existed and some used it to justify their own political actions. There were definitely writers back then who were hostile toward the Mongols. Still, as several Chinese historians have suggested, at least during this period, the available sources show that many people did see the Mongols as the legit rulers of China, not some foreign usurpers.

As for the term "barbarian," to keep long story short, it is the translation of several different terms in Chinese, many of which have multiple meanings. In some cases, terms that are often translated as "barbarians" should have been rendered as foreigners in their proper contexts. In other cases, some of these terms have positive meanings, such as peaceful and virtuous. Of course, words and concepts usually change meanings over time. However, while it is generally true that China has historically considered itself to be the superior civilization to all others, this does not mean that they always refer to foreigners as "barbarians."

Finally, I don't believe segregation laws were passed for the capital during the Tang. There was, however, such a law passed in the Guangdong area around 836 AD by the governor Lu Xun, in response to social tensions due to bad governance from the previous magistrate.

Scottie said...

I should add that I think even in the case of Genghis Khan, once Yuan dynasty's rule became stable, many Chinese literati in that period began to see him as the legit founder of the dynasty, not just another foreign conqueror. For in the minds of many (not all), dynastic loyalty trumps ethnic loyalty and distinction.

Ji Xiang said...


thanks for your long and well informed comment.

I am obviously not as well informed as you are about the Yuan Dynasty. It may well be as you say, that many educated Chinese came to regard the Mongols as China's legitimate rulers.

On the other hand, the fact remains that Genghis Khan himself would certainly have been seen as a foreigner, and it was only his descendants who perhaps became Chinese.

I can imagine that there are discussions on the internet on this topic, but the fact remains that if you ask ordinary people on the street in China, the consensus seems to be that Genghis Khan was Chinese. I've asked a few young Chinese I know and they all say he was Chinese, and that they learned it in school.

I take your point about the word barbarian, it may be used to translate terms which were not meant to be derogatory.

Scottie said...

Hi Ji Xiang,

This is the intriguing thing though: how did these Han literati view Genghis Khan before the Mongols unified China versus how they viewed him after? Certainly for the many who saw the Yuan as their own dynasty, they most likely wouldn't have viewed Genghis Khan as foreign. However, for those others who saw the Mongols as invaders, well, that's another story.

Btw, if you haven't done so already, you should sometimes try to look up stuff on baidu baike, baidu zhidao, baidu tieba, and other forums. Although the fact that it is internet so the quality varies widely, and that depending on the topics, censorship and its potential effect can be an issue, you can still find a diverse amount of opinions, including the well-informed and the utterly ignorant, on topics like Genghis Khan, the relationship between the 3 languages of Chinese, Japanese, Korean...etc.

Scottie said...

Just to add, I think by looking through the Chinese sites, one can at least get a sense of how some net citizens think and feel about issues they are interested in, a way of gauging Chinese public opinion, albeit in a very limited sense. Certainly talking to people in real life is good as well. Of course, if one can read a well-researched book or talk to a world renowned expert, all the better.

Ji Xiang said...

What I meant is that at the time he lived, Genghis Khan would have been seen as a foreigner by the Chinese. Maybe later he did come to be seen as the founder of a Chinese dynasty.

I just looked up the question 成吉思汗是不是中国人? on Baidu.
The most upvoted answer is 应该不算。我们没必要争他。

Clearly not all Chinese see things one way. I remember also reading a book by an intellectual from Shanghai called Chan Kai Yee, in which he mentions in passing that he thinks its ridiculous that most Chinese think Genghis Khan was one of their own.

Having said that, it still seems like most young Chinese, especially the ones who take little interest in history, think he is Chinese, because that is what they learn in school. When you teach something in school, for most people it sticks. Similar misconceptions and simplifications of history exist in other countries as well.

The misconception that Japanese and Korean come from Chinese is really nothing special, in comparison to other countries. All over the world, most people believe quite unscientific claims about their own language's relationship to other languages. Most Americans believe English comes form Latin (it doesn't). Many Indians believe all languages in the world derive from Sanskrit, and so on.