13 February 2004

Traditional China: Multiethnic

The following excerpt from the introduction by Victor H. Mair to a new reader in traditional Chinese culture now in the works emphasizes the multiethnic nature of traditional China.
Linguistic multifariousness is only one of the more obvious features of "the Chinese mosaic." The same may be said of almost any other aspect of Chinese culture and society. Perhaps the most obvious symbol of Chineseness in the larger world is cuisine. Yet it is impossible to point to any particular type of fare that stands for Chinese cooking in general. Hot pots have a Mongolic ancestry, pasta products are derived from Central and Southwest Asia, tea is ultimately from the hills of the Assam-Burma-Yunnan "Golden Triangle," and so forth. Milk products are anathema to most lactose-intolerant denizens of the Central Kingdom, yet they are a staple of the people living along its northern reaches. The more sophisticated American aficionado of Chinese cooking knows very well the difference between Szechwanese and Cantonese cooking, staying clear of the former if he or she does not like spicy hot food and avoiding the latter if his or her palate is not attracted to gelatinous, gooey comestibles.

When we watch a Chinese film and see the heroine encased in a tight sheath slit to the thigh, she is basically sporting an item of Manchu dress. Some Chinese (those who wanted to ride horses) began to wear trousers in the latter part of the fourth century B.C.E., but only because they wanted to ward off the steppe peoples who introduced the domesticated horse (and the trousers) to their land, with devastating consequences. In premodern times, it would not have been difficult to recognize the ethnicity of a citizen of the Chinese empire by his or his costume.

As for Chinese empires, there was not one of them, but a long series of dynasties, more often than not erected on the ashes of their predecessors. Also more often than not, those who established new dynasties were--a supreme incongruity--groups from the north and northwest who either were themselves "barbarians" dreaded for their awesome military prowess or who had exceptionally close affinities with them. Numerous recent archeological discoveries have led to a salutary reconsideration of the nature of the millennial interactions between the inhabitants of the East Asian Heartland (EAH) and their septentrional neighbors. As a result, it is no longer possible to think of the latter only as "traders or raiders." Instead, what we are finding is that--already at least from the late Neolithic period and continuing right through to the twentieth century--the northern peoples were involved not only in state formation, but also in the importation of vital cultural elements such as bronze metallurgy and the chariot. Consequently, in this Reader we place far greater emphasis than is usual upon the northern peoples, for we believe that, unless one takes them duly into account, one's comprehension of Chinese history and appreciation of Chinese culture are bound to be flawed.

The intricacy of Chinese involvement with wide-ranging steppe peoples can be demonstrated by the derivation of Gesar ... from Caesar. How, why, and when this originally Etruscan title of the Roman emperors came to be applied by the bards of a Central Asia nomadic confederation to their greatest hero is an intriguing story. What is not in doubt is that the Tibetans contested with the Chinese for hegemony during the Tang period (618-907). Indeed, the Tibetans not only occupied the strategically crucial Gansu Corridor for a century, but even invested the capital, Chang'an [= Xian, see map], for a while during the year 763 in western China and were dislodged only when the Tang authorities pleaded with the Uyghurs ... to drive them off. Thus, a dynasty that was initially founded by individuals in whose veins ran nomadic blood and who maintained intimate ties with their northern ancestors found temporary salvation from destruction at the hands of northwestern nomads by a confederation of Turkic tribes (whom the Tang actually detested)--a typical series of events that recurred over and over again during the more than three thousand years of known Chinese history. We should remember, moreover, that the Tang dynasty represents the acme of cultural cosmopolitanism in East Asia. It should further be noted that the location of the Tibetans was by no means restricted solely to that of their current nation, which is occupied by Chinese troops. During the medieval period, they were also identified with the border areas to the northwest of the East Asian Heartland, and still today there are large concentrations of Tibetans in the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.

Just as due consideration of the non-Sinitic peoples of the north and northwest is essential for any adequate study of the development of Chinese civilization, the same may be said for the non-Sinitic inhabitants of the south. Chinese culture (including Sinitic languages) marched southward slowly during the latter part of the first millennium B.C.E., gained momentum during the first millennium C.E., and was far from reaching its culmination even by the end of the twentieth century. The large and small pockets of non-Sinitic speakers that pepper all of the provinces south of the Yangtze River attest to the ongoing presence of peoples from radically different traditions within the territory of the modern Chinese state. The fusion of Chinese culture with the indigenous populations has led to a distinctive mix of regional cultures and ethniticities that is conspicuous in customs, languages, surnames, and physical types.

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