11/13/09 - chinese myths

In today's excerpt - Chinese myths:

"The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Long March, even the Giant Panda? Myths, declare the revisionist scholars. ...

"Contrary to the tourist brochures, the Great Wall has been shown to be not 'over 2,000 years old', not '6,000 miles [9,700 kilometres] long', not 'visible from outer space'—not visible on the ground in many places—and never to have been a single continuous structure.' It did not keep out marauding nomads, nor was that its original purpose; instead of defending and defining Chinese territory, it was probably designed to augment and project it.' Those sections near Beijing that may conveniently be inspected today have been substantially reconstructed for just such inspection; and the rubble and footings from which they rise are those of Ming fortifications no older than the palaces in the Forbidden City or London's Hampton Court.

"Likewise the Grand Canal. Reaching from the Yangzi delta to the Yellow River (Huang He), a distance of about 1,100 kilometres (700 miles), the canal is supposed to have served as a main artery between China's productive heartland and its brain of government. Laid out in the seventh century CE, it did indeed connect the rice-surplus south to the often cereal-deficient north. ... Yet it, too, was never a single continuous construction, more a series of well-engineered waterways. ... The system was rarely operational throughout its entirety because of variable water flow, the rainy season in the north not coinciding with that in the south; colossal manpower was needed to haul the heavily laden transports and work the locks; dredging and maintenance proved prohibitively expensive; and so frequent were the necessary realignments of the system that there are now almost as many abandoned sections of Grand Canal as there are of Great Wall.

"More controversially, the Long March, that 1934-35 epic of heroic communist endeavor, has been disparaged as neither as long nor as heroic as supposed. It is said the battles and skirmishes en route were exaggerated, if not contrived, for propaganda purposes; and of the 80,000 troops who began the march in Jiangxi in the south-east, only 8,000 actually foot-slogged their way right round China's mountainous perimeter to Yan'an in the north-west. As for the rest, some perished but most simply dropped out long before the 9,700-kilometer (6,000-mile) march was completed. And of those who did complete it, one at least seldom marched; Mao, we are assured, was borne along on a litter.

"Maybe the Giant Panda, a byword for endangered icons if ever there was one, is on safer ground. In the 1960s and 70s the nearly extinct creature, together with some acrobatic ping-pong players, emerged as a notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of the beleaguered People's Republic. Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the pandas, especially females, were freely bestowed on deserving heads of state. The presentations were described as 'friendship gestures', and experimental breeding was encouraged as if a successful issue might somehow cement the political entente. But not any more. From sparse references in classic texts such as the 'Book of Documents', a pedigree of undoubted antiquity has been constructed for the panda and a standard name awarded to it. Now known as the Daxiongmao or 'Great Bear-Cat', its habits have been found sufficiently inoffensive to merit its promotion as a 'universal symbol of peace'; its numbers have stabilized, perhaps increased, thanks to zealous conservation; and lest anyone harbour designs on such a national paragon, no longer may Giant Pandas be expatriated. All are Chinese pandas. Foreign zoos may only lease them, the lease being for ten years, the rental fee around $2 million per annum, and any cubs born during the rental being deemed to inherit the nationality of their mother—and the same terms of contract. Like its piebald image as featured in countless brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself become a franchise."


John Keay


China: A History


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright John Keay 2008 and 2009


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