June 7th, 2008

I’m reading this article in Chinese National Geographic thinking, hmmmm….. I dunno, maybe, but this needs a real historian…… The theory goes that China’s owes a lot to its frequent natural disasters- its writing, for starters, but more importantly, its national unity and the Chinese peoples’ deep consciousness of and desire for said unity. And, of course, the Chinese peoples’ deep abhorrence of the division of the country. I can’t find a name for the author, all it seems to have is the title:

2008年第6期卷首语 祖国的另一面:多灾多难

Issue 6, 2008 preface Another side of the motherland: Many disasters and calamities

Now, I’m not going to translate the whole thing. It’s kinda long, for starters, and I need to be in a fit state to travel up to Yanqing for the holiday tomorrow morning, and also, there are some excerpts from the Records of the Historian which I think I understand, but which are still just a wee bit too difficult. But it starts with Yu the Great (and no, this is not the first paragraph, I’m skipping ahead a little):


Why we formed a nation state, in fact was to protect ourselves, resist foreign aggression and resist natural disasters.

大禹治水的故事家喻户晓,但人们多是把大禹看做一个治水的英雄,实际上大禹最大的功勋是,他是我国第一个民族国家——夏王朝(距今4100多年)的奠基 人。为什么一个治水的英雄大禹创立了中国历史上第一个堪称国家的王朝——夏,这里面有什么象征意义吗?能否说大禹创立夏朝的故事已经预示了中华民族的国家 一经产生,一个最重要的使命就是与天灾抗争。

The story of Yu the Great controlling the flood is known by all, but most people see Yu the Great as a hero of water-control, when in fact Yu the Great’s greatest exploit was that he was the founder of China’s first nation-state- the Xia Dynasty (4100 years ago). Why did the water-control hero Yu the Great establish the first dynasty that can be called a state in Chinese history, the Xia, and is there any symbolic meaning in this? Can we say that the story of Yu the Great founding the Xia Dynasty already foreshadowed that as soon as the Chinese peoples’ state came into being, one of the most important missions would be fighting natural disasters?


Previously, I went to Anyang, Henan’s Shang Dynasty ruins of Yin, and my brain is still full of memories of there. I remember that the Shang Dynasty, which followed the Xia Dynasty, had one characteristic: It frequently moved its capital, moving it more than ten times over the course of the dynasty, and we have the saying “The earlier eight and later five.” According to research by historians, one of the reasons for the frequent moves was to avoid floods.

在殷墟我看到了大量的甲骨文,甲骨文主要是卜辞,是国君向占卜师问卜的记录,那里面的内容大多是对于天灾的问卜,看来商朝的国君最忧虑的就是天灾。在殷墟 的甲骨文中,各种天灾都出现了,如:旱灾、水灾、地震、风灾、雷灾、蝗灾,还有日食、月食等,因为商人把这些天文现象也看成是灾。如果说,甲骨文是中国人 文字的源头,那么可以说对天灾的忧虑成了中国文字产生的推动力之一。

In the Yin ruins I saw many oracle bones. The oracle bones were mainly oracle inscriptions, they’re a record of what the monarch asked the oracle to divine. The contents are mostly divinations about natural disasters, so it seems that what monarchs of the Shang Dynasty worried most about was natural disasters. Every kind of natural disaster can be found in the oracle bones of the Yin ruins, such as: droughts, floods, earthquakes, windstorms, thunder storms, locust plagues, also solar eclipses and lunar eclipses, because the Shang people also saw these astronomical phenomena as natural disasters. If we say that the oracle bone inscriptions are the source of the Chinese people’s characters, then we can say that anxiety about natural disasters is one of the motive forces behind the coming into being of Chinese characters.

And there’s more explanation of how natural disasters helped to bring Chinese characters to maturity. But really, that’s only an introduction, a minor point. The article is, after all, about the unity of the Chinese nation.


In ancient times, everywhere was wilderness, and people could choose to flee might and enter the wilderness, returning to freedom. But people didn’t do this, they wanted to form a state with Yu the Great.


People wanted to do this because of the state- all the people forming a common body can help people achieve all that they can’t do for their own survival as an individual or family, such as protecting their life and safety, overcoming natural disasters.

The obvious question, considering we are talking here about pre-Qin China, is, of course: So why didn’t China continue as a cultural collective of independent states, somewhat analagous to the pre-Bismarck Germany? This is where the author’s logic gets really interesting. This is also where excerpts from the Records of the Historian put in their appearance, making comprehension, and therefore translation, even more difficult than normal for me. The author, using Qin and Jin as examples, shows how a natural disaster, in his examples, famine, could lead to war. Apparently Qin and Jin had alternating famines, and when one state was hit, the other would send grain. But one day Jin refused to send Qin grain, sparking a war. Apparently this all took place in the thirteenth and fourteenth years of Duke Mu of Qin [corrected thanks to Wenwang– see comments]. And then comes the big leap: Not only do these records show that China suffers frequent natural disasters, and that these disasters cover only a limited area, but:


The “request”s and “offer”s regarding grain between the two states of Qin and Jin show on the one hand that relying on the strength of only one state, they already had no way to pass through the disaster, and on the other hand already suggests the necessity of the seven small states of the Warring States Period uniting to become one great state.

Aha. And the advantage of size, of course, is that the state is bigger than any natural disaster, allowing it to easily overcome whatever challenge nature throws it’s way. And reading this, I thought, global warming? No, that’s not exactly a natural disaster, though, is it? But of course, it goes beyond mere survival:


It’s precisely because China has so many disasters and calamities that Chinese people know the value of one united great state. Each successive disaster has tempered the Chinese people’s most valuable thing- that is the “national consciousness” of the pursuit of unity. This is the priceless treasure Chinese people won through the baptism of thousands of years of blood and fire.

The words “blood and fire” reminded me of my Salvation Army heritage, but moving along…


Regardless of when or where, what Chinese people most abhor is division. The unity of the state is the Chinese people’s highest principle.

Then, after using Zhuge Liang and Yue Fei as examples of that ardent Chinese desire for the unity of the state, the author moves on to discussing just how many natural disasters China experiences, asserting that it must be the most disaster-prone country in the world. And so why, he asks, would the ancestors have stayed here? Why not pack up and leave for more stable climes?

其实,尽管祖国多灾多难,但是就“天灾”这个词而言,它的潜台词应该是“福地”。因为我们说“灾”,意味着这是一种非常状态,是不正常,即正常的状态不是 这样。我们从来不说新疆的塔克拉玛干沙漠中闹了“旱灾”,因为那里常态是“干旱”;我们也不说青藏高原的可可西里受到了冻害,因为那里常年如此。因此,我 们说一个地方遭受了“天灾”的时候,意味着这里平时是“福地”。

In fact, although the motherland has so many disasters and calamities, speaking of this word “natural disaster”, it’s implication should be “blessed land”. Because when we say “disaster”, we mean that this is a kind of extra-ordinary situation, it’s not normal, that the normal situation is not like this. We never say there’s a “drought” in Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert, because the normal state of things there is “drought”; we also never say that the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau’s Hoh Xil was “frozen”, because it’s like that every year. Therefore when we say a place suffered a “natural disaster”, we mean that it is normally a “blessed land”.

And, of course, disasters are periodic in nature. They come and they go. And most of the time we are living in the calm periods between disasters, when we can stock up and prepare. And disasters have a similar relationship with space, affecting only a certain area, leaving the rest of the country unscathed.

But wait, there’s more: Without all these disasters, Chinese civilisation wouldn’t have grown and matured into the great civilisation it is today:


Natural disasters have never destroyed the Chinese peoples. We can even go so far as to say, if there had been no natural disasters, our Chinese civilisation would have had no way to develop and strengthen.


China has a saying: Distress rejuvenates a nation. The British historian Toynbee proposed the mode by which a civilisation is born and develops: Challenge- Response to a challenge. As it turns out, this theory explains how distress can rejuvenate a nation.

You see, if the ancestors of the Chinese people had settled in one of those magical places where life is always easy and nothing bad ever happens, they’d have just quite happily gone about their lives picking fruit and catching fish and generally just living an easy, cruisy, life, because, you know, that’s how it is in the tropics.

Obviously the author didn’t notice the cyclone that hit Burma recently. Or the many, many difficulties and disasters people living in tropical areas face. Or the many splendid cultures and civilisations that have flourished in such areas.

He says something equally ignorant about the polar regions. Of course, Antarctica was never permanently settled- Tierra del Fuego was as far south as people got (although New Zealand was the last place to be settled), but although none of the “Great Civilisations” arose in the Arctic, there’s never been any lack of human life or highly developed cultures up there. Nor is there any lack of natural disasters. One could say that the Arctic peoples had the common sense to keep things small and manageable.

Well, it’s an interesting article, which follows an interesting logic. Seems to me the author is too caught up in modern Chinese nationalism to either examine China’s own history in any real depth or to fully appreciate the outside world (although he does credit Japan for having done a better job of responding to earthquakes than China). I can accept that China’s frequent natural disasters have had a pretty huge effect on the development of Chinese culture and civilisation- how many other countries include flood control in their founding legends? Oh, and disaster relief goes way further back into Chinese mythology…. But natural disaster as such a primary motive force in the development of Chinese civilisation? Taking things a bit too far, perhaps? I mean, was it really the added efficiency in disaster relief of a large state that prompted Qin to conquer the other six states and unify China? And if all the Chinese people are such great fans of a single, large, unified state, why did Lao Zi and Confucius seem so sceptical? I could be wrong on Confucius, but from the 道德经/Dao De Jing, Chapter 80:













Let there be a small state with few people.

It has various kinds of instruments,

but let none of them be used.

Let the people not risk their lives, and not migrate far away.

Although they have boats and carriages,

Let there be no occasion to ride in them.

Although they have armour and weapons,

Let there be no occasion to display them.

Let the people return to knotting cords and using them.

Let them relish their food,

Beautify their clothing,

Feel comfortable in their homes,

And delight in their customs.

Although the neighbouring states are within sight of one another,

And the crowing of cocks and the barking of dogs

On both sides can be heard,

Their peoples may die of old age without even meeting each other.

Now, I’m relying on 王柯平/Wang Keping’s The Classic of the Dao, A New Investigation for the quotation and its translation, so I can’t, and won’t vouch for the accuracy of that. I will say that it seems pretty clear Lao Zi wasn’t so keen on the idea of one, single, large, united state, though. Indeed, Wang Keping’s explication of that chapter suggests that Lao Zi was advocating a return to simplicity and peace in place of the greed, acquisitiveness, and consequent wars of agression common in his time. That in itself suggests that perhaps Qin’s motivation to conquer the other six states perhaps wasn’t such an altruistic desire to help the people weather natural disasters with greater ease.



5 Responses to “unity”

  1. perspectivehere Says:

    Thank you for a most interesting summary. Although I am no expert in history as well, one can plainly see that the writer of the Chinese National Geographic article is employing a form of the “geography is destiny” theory of history.

    This theory of history is by no means uncontroversial, but the writer’s use of it in the article is hardly due to his (or her) being “too caught up in modern Chinese nationalism”. No less than the noted economic historian David Landes, professor emeritus at Harvard, has written on similar themes.

    See, for example, this essay review on Landes’ book “Wealth and Poverty of Nations: http://www.foreignaffairs.org/19980301fareviewessay1379/barry-eichengreen/geography-as-destiny-a-brief-history-of-economic-growth.html

    “The ultimate product of Europe’s geography and climate was Western democracy itself. In India and China, flood and drought made the control of water flow essential to the production of food. Controlling water in turn entailed the construction of large-scale hydraulic projects by forced labor. This implied a powerful, centralized state whose tentacles extended into all parts of the economy. Private property and individual initiative were luxuries such societies could ill afford.”

    Again, Landes’ views are debatable (and indeed, they are a fun and illuminating subject of debate), but I would not be so quick to dismiss the CNG writer’s thesis as a parochial and uninformed expression of Chinese nationalism.

    Also, one should note that the National Geographic Society in the U.S. was (and perhaps remains) motivated by the spirit of Manifest Destiny and its cousin, American Exceptionalism. The reason Americans read NG is to help understand who they are as a nation (hence the title), so it should not be surprising that CNG follows a similar theme with respect to the Chinese nation. This link talks a little about that.

    You’re right about Laozi, but the fact that Laozi’s ideas might have argued against this kind of vast organized state does not invalidate the “unified state” theme. Don’t forget that Taoist, Confucian and Legalist ideas have always been in competition.

    But thanks again for an interesting comment. Good luck on Chinese study.

  2. perspectivehere Says:

    Not to belabor the point, but Landes’ thesis also provides an answer to this question: “The obvious question, considering we are talking here about pre-Qin China, is, of course: So why didn’t China continue as a cultural collective of independent states, somewhat analagous to the pre-Bismarck Germany?”

    Landes’ view (as summarized) goes like this:

    “The more benign geography and climate of the West, by contrast, supported a more independent life. There was less need to concentrate labor on the land. It was possible to survive outside the confines of the coordinating state. Germanic law and tradition, appropriate to the circumstances of Central Europe’s nomadic tribes, recognized each individual as master of his possessions, a custom of which mobility was the ultimate arbiter. Since the oppressed were able to vote with their feet, state power derived from consent and was therefore limited. From this followed the rise of city-states and competition among them, including competition to attract economic resources and cultivate military might. To be sure, the growth of the Smithian market required a strong centralist state in sixteenth-century England and seventeenth-century France, but there was still a sharp contrast with Eastern despotism.”

    Interesting perspective, here.

  3. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for the excellent comment.

    I did write: “I can accept that China’s frequent natural disasters have had a pretty huge effect on the development of Chinese culture and civilisation- how many other countries include flood control in their founding legends?”, so yes, I do see the connection between geography, and in China’s case, frequent natural disasters, and the development of a civilisation.

    Also, in quoting Lao Zi, I was certainly not trying to invalidate any theories, I was simply pointing out that there is much less unanimity on the value of a single, large, united state than the author was suggesting.

    As for this guy Landes, interesting ideas, but don’t you think he takes things a bit too far? As for climate and geography: Does Europe not have many canals? What about Holland’s dykes, built to reclaim land from the sea? Roman roads and aqueducts? Water seems to me to have been pretty important to Europe, too, and surely Europe’s many large infrastructural projects required a lot of cheap, quite possibly indentured, or worse, labour? And like the author of that CNG article, he asserts that a tropical climate prevents development, which is patently absurd: Ever heard of Angkor Wat? And Buddhism played the role in Japan that Calvinism played in Europe? Then why not in Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Mongolia, or Sri Lanka?

    And, of course: If Europe’s climate is so favourable, why is that for most of history Europe was playing catch-up?

    Clearly, climate and geography affect the development of a culture and civilisation. The house I am sitting in, a traditional, northern Chinese siheyuan, is proof of that, is are all traditional forms of architecture. Climate and geography are only two of many factors, though.

  4. Wenwang Says:

    ‘Duke Mu of Qin’ is correct.

  5. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, Wenwang, that’s exactly the comment I was hoping for.