The Middle Kingdom

The following entry may contain triggering material.

Chinese influence might, by example or conquest, extend to Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, but its culture lacked a transcendental set of values that non-Chinese could adopt. An individual could become a Muslim; it was not so easy to become truly Chinese, even if one occupied the throne of the Middle Kingdom.

— Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History

I haven’t been able to read the whole book that I quoted above. This one other title by the same author goes from riveting to snoozeworthy in the span of, well, a title—Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economzzzzz…zzz… The scope of Kotkin’s City is broad, tackling civilizations from the beginning of recorded history and worldwide, but scant in contextual positioning and sort of slapdash when it comes to details that are supposed to characterize city life.

That said, I agree with the quote above. Well, maybe not that an Emperor would have any cultural purity contested, maybe not even when the Empire was shared with the Mongols. (It’s just an intuitive ambivalence I have, for Kotkin began the first section mainly dedicated to Chinese cities with…the Polos from Venice. Tsk, tsk!) Some transcendental values could easily be named Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism; a braid of these philosophical lineages could be adopted…and turn out as Chinese maybe as a mushroom stew recipe from Minecraft turns out to be mushroom stew.

In Southeast Asia, where I was born and bred, Chinese-ness has been at once ubiquitous and unattainable. I felt it more evident in Metro Manila than any part of Indonesia that I lived, although awareness of Singapore was always somewhere there being its First World Island City State self and reputedly more Chinese than Malay, although I don’t have the demographic statistics and don’t know of any objective measure of cultural power.

Here I feel it’s safe to generalize that every other random person probably knows their Chinese zodiac, to wear red on New Year’s (whether Gregorian or Lunar), that eight is a very auspicious number, that there’s a difference between hopia and mooncake…a cousin of mine even attended a prestigious private school where Mandarin was a mandatory subject whereas French was probably an elective. I have also read of slurs used by families with a peculiar complex about being of Chinese descent (because most people where I live could casually claim a fraction of Chinese ancestry) for their youth’s paramours who are not themselves Chinese enough. It might be an Old Money thing. An erstwhile roommate (of Miasma’s, Cecilia’s, Anjie’s and mine) is Taiwanese, and while we lived together she used to voice some angst about relatives from back home giving her flack for having gone native and lost her Chinese-ness, and at the same time she would often make all-embracing jokes about not being one of those dodgy mainlanders.

Oddly, I was never forced to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West at school. Instead, I picked up on a handful of folktales: Why There is a Rabbit on the Moon (which doesn’t even really explain why there is a rabbit on the moon; most of the versions I’ve read focus on the quarrel between the lovers who become the sun and moon spirits and renders the rabbit completely incidental), Why the Jellyfish Has No Bones (it failed to steal the liver from a monkey to cure the illness of a deep-sea dragon princess, so the king dragon had the guards beat the jellyfish into a pulp and the jellyfish did not die from this), how twelve animals raced to the Buddha for a place in the zodiac, and how P’an Ku hatched the universe and went around with a chisel and a turtle and some sort of bird…I forget what happened next.

While browsing one of the library cafes in Universityville, I came across China: Land of Dragons and Emperors by Adeline Yen Mah, which I found richly informative. I got a lot more context for the linguistic-numerical associations that decide which numbers would be considered auspicious. It provided a concise history of the dynasties of Imperial China, from the arrogant, ostentatious, inventive and phenomenally effective First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (one event of his reign which made a very pretty movie)…

…to the Qing Dynasty’s reign over an empire in tragic decline (Yen Mah unfortunately describes this Eastern Imperial contemporary of Victorian England as a “crippled” nation) and who passed the law for Chinese men to shave their heads and grow rat tail braids for essentially the same motive as a fraternity hazing…but on a nationwide scale. And all the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot historical drama in between. Well, not all. Red Cliff was fairly Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Religio-politics gets better coverage in this book than I’d ever been taught, such as how General Yang Jian established the Sui Dynasty in 581 CE via holy war in the name of Buddhist enlightenment. Chinese historians considered the defeat on the Talas River during the Tang dynasty (731 CE) as a border skirmish, a minor loss, whereas world historians attribute the spread of Islam through Central and South Asia to the result of this battle.

Eunuchs of the Imperial court became a history-changing demographic in their own right, from a single prominent figure such as Eunuch Zhao (who brought in a deer and called it a horse, which the Second Emperor of the Qin dynasty considered so funny that he put to death any advisors who insisted that Eunuch Zhao’s “horse” was a deer, which is of course a disastrous abuse of honest advisors by their Emperor, but Zhao and Qin II still thought it was funny,) to the stigmatization of eunuchs in later dynasties that led to the limitation of all sea travel, as the eunuchs had traditionally advised overseas trade. Imperial courtiers implemented that policy just as the rest of the world was going through what would be considered the Age of Sail. The courtiers celebrating this spiteful victory over the eunuchs had, arguably, doomed the Empire. (The following photograph of a Chinese barque isn’t from the book, my roommate and a classmate of theirs from the university had to visit a museum for one of the papers and they let me tag along.)

This concise and detailed history doesn’t only capture the decisions of major players through time, it also includes information on artifacts for nerds that like to know the difference between the porcelain from the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty and Ming dynasty. Or, that the first movable type was made of pottery, that people wrote on silk cloth or bamboo slat scrolls before an artisan figured out how to make paper thinner (before then, wood pulp was used to make…armor? That one artisan must have had a very peculiar mind.) Or how the third Song Emperor took a tribute of drought-resistant and fast-growing rice seeds from Vietnam and distributed the bushels to the peasants in the Yangzi basin, and why that established rice as a staple in the south whereas wheat bread and noodles remain more popular in the north.

I appreciate that I got to read all this. It explained a lot, and informed a lot more. At the same time, it gave me a sense of awkwardness about learning culture from research rather than growing up in it that I don’t get from, say…living a sort of faelatry that includes Japanese yokai just because that is what happened or this is what I’ve found that I think makes too much sense not to be it, probably because so far no one’s been arsed to tell me that I’m culturing all wrong on that front. (Religioning all wrong, well yeah, that’s happened often offline and I guess that’s part of culturing, but eventually my reaction just usually became “no u”.) But I have grown up on the periphery of the Middle.