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The Chinese View on History (starting with a Silk Road example)


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We often hear about elaborate claims made by China as to having invented various things, or being the earliest source of something or other.  Sometimes these claims can be a bit extreme, sometimes completely beside the point, or sometimes right on the nail.  It's also fully possible for other countries to make similar exaggerated claims, but this is a forum for discussion of China, so that's what we'll focus on.


I was reading a Chinese History book today and came across the following claim:




Firstly, the tone of this sentence strikes me a little as "Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others" in nature. 


Secondly, this seems like a strange claim to make - deriving the meaning/role/importance of a thing solely from its name is a bit amateur.


Thirdly, it seems like the author hasn't considered the fact that the name "The Silk Road" is western in origin, and it's fair to assume that they are more likely to name it after the thing they import from it, rather than export along it.  


Maybe I'm just a bit sensitive to this kind of thing and I'm overreacting, but I feel like I could argue that because China has adopted the Chinese translation of a western naming convention, the Chinese perception of its own history is framed entirely in a western perspective - and I'd be using roughly the same logic of the Chinese historian.


Admittedly, I don't know much about the Silk Route, so if I've made a crass error, please enlighten me.

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The terms East (as in Oriental languages) and West are of western origin.


If you want to understand the Chinese view on history you should consider the term 天下.


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More than anything I was worried I might have been overreacting and wanted to see what other people thought.  Are inaccuracies in Chinese textbooks real, factual inaccuracies, or do we just interpret them so because we are approaching the topic from a different frame of reference?


Realmayo, yes, China was indeed more advanced and I do not claim that was not the case.  But it seems a little strange to claim one country is more important in a bilateral east-west trade system.  But maybe thats not the case.  Maybe China really was more important.  Maybe it was all westerners buying silk and China hoarding cash reserves - then maybe what the author is saying is not so wrong after all.


Sorry Angelina, I don't see what point you are making.

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I think you need to take a balanced view of all this.


Yes china came up with paper, gunpowder, printing, the compass, coins, silk, fine porcelain, magnificent buildings, wonderful poetry, and many more things.


But they never mastered glass, they didn't invent clocks, and some of their inventions stagnated, once they reached a point of usability they never refined it further.


In the 1400's there was the great exploration where 5 or 6 ships were sent out by Emperor Zheng He (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He) to go and search the four corners of the world for anything that would be useful to the chinese empire. On their return it was decided that the world had nothing to offer them that couldn't be done/had in china, if not better. Whereupon China as it were closed their doors on the world and continued with what they had.


This remained much the same for next 300 years or so until the late 1800's when they slowly began to look to the west and started once again to apply their skills and knowledge to improving things.


As with all histories there is good and bad , it also depends on who is telling the history, as they say history is written by the victors.


My advice is if you are really interested in the history of china you will have to really do some intensive study, read as much as you can and then draw your own conclusions.


I have several modern histories and it is fascinating. I am prepared to believe most of what I read but if things conflict I try to find out more and then decide for myself.

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To be honest, I was more interested in the subtle use of language.  Let me give you another example:


西方的封建社会,从公元476年西罗马灭亡起到1640年英国革命为止,前后一共1164年。在中国,这段历史年限的计算要复杂一些。 ( ... 比西方多了一倍)


The bit I missed out is a few different ways of calculating the time length that he proposes.  


Like I say, it's not like he's coming in and claiming things that didn't happen actually did, or vice versa, but rather it seems to be a fairly subtle use of language just making suggestions.  It seems to me to be fairly ludicrous to put exact year dates on the start and end of the feudal system in the west, only to claim that its an impossibly more complicated task to do the same for China.  Unlike my previous example, this isn't even saying that China is better, but it does seem to imply that issues in the West are simple but issues in China are more complex - and you can make whatever deductions from that you would like.  It also possibly plays up to misconceptions about the West being obsessed with precision while China, imbued as it is with Confucian teachings, is much more open to different interpretations.  


It's almost like he's saying Western history is simple and boring while Chinese history is complex and fascinating.

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It's almost like he's saying Western history is simple and boring while Chinese history is complex and fascinating


Your writer is following a Marxist view of history, under which is possible to assign events (and therefore dates) to periods such as feudalism. For 1640 see https://www.google.com/search?q=civil+war+English+marxism+feudalism&oq=civil+war+English+marxism+feudalism.


But I'm guessing that Marx didn't write much about Chinese history and the neat sections of historical time that 'work' for Europe do not work for China. Hence the 复杂ity.

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Surely, if the Marxist view of history allows events to bookend periods of time then he should be more than eager to apply the same theory to his own country.  Or is it that he's only willing to commit to events that Marx has already outlined himself?


And how can he take England to be representative of 西方?  Or is that another Marxist affectation?

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I think you would be a very brave writer of history textbooks in China if you started making up your own Marxist interpretations.



I don't believe he is trying to tell you that overnight all of Europe suddenly turned post-feudal, but that a Marxist version of history sees the English Civil War as the first point at which a feudal society in Europe was overthrown.


And how can he take England to be representative of 西方?  Or is that another Marxist affectation?


Consider the Renaissance: if someone said the Renaissance started in Italy in the whateverth century, that's not taking Italy to be representative of Europe, it's just saying where in Europe this eventually Europe-wide event started.


If I was going to read made-in-China history books I'd read up more on Marxism first (but I'm not sure I'd have the energy..).

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I used to often read 读者(sort of a Chinese Reader's digest you can pick up at any newsstand) as a method of increasing my vocabulary across a variety of topics. There was a fair bit of Sinocentricism in many of the articles I read, including some outrageous claims about the moral superiority of Chinese (to be fair, I also read articles praising other cultures and suggesting ways Chinese could learn from them, and yet other articles criticizing different aspects of Chinese culture, society, or government.) I did feel that Chinese differs from English in that most Chinese writers are assuming an exclusively Chinese audience, and those that make outrageous claims are not expecting foreign eavesdroppers. In light of the fact that relatively few foreigners ever learn to read fluently, it is not surprising that some authors pander to a homogeneous audience. (this phenomenon is not limited to printed media, but I feel it is perhaps more frequent and intensified.)


Many Chinese are aware of their tendency to exaggerate their accomplishments and supremacy. A Chinese friend told me a supposedly true story that has become a joke about a Chinese who interviewed an African (zoologist?) and asked him, "Didn't the 'African tiger' actually originally come from China?"

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