The Environment and China
The Environment and China
Unity. Mountains, deserts, rivers, and other topographical features have had a profound effect upon China throughout its history. They frequently represented insur-mountable barriers; the southern hills in particular were havens for various rebel groups during the period 617-1644. However, four major dynasties (Tang, Song, Yuan or Mongol, and Ming) managed to arise and achieve cultural and political unity from the seventh to seventeenth centuries. Moreover, these empires achieved economic self-sufficiency.
Isolation. The Pacific Ocean is the source of moisture-laden winds that provide China with rain, but it is even more effective in isolating China than are the great land masses to the north and west. To the east the Koreans and Japanese were the only civilized people with whom trade was possible. Culturally, both of these groups borrowed more from than contributed to China Proper. The Pacific coast of North America was too far away for the Chinese to have any relations with the people living there. Southeastern Asia was considered to be civilized, but the nearest kingdoms had little cultural impact upon China. India, the closest great cultural center noticeably different from China, was difficult to reach either by sea or land. Enjoying the natural protection of the ocean, the Chinese did not need to worry about any major invasions from the east and southwest, although Japanese pirates plagued the coast in Ming times. Throughout the imperial era the Chinese were extremely isolated, and they did not look outside for an outlet for their surplus population until the seventeenth century, when many began to migrate to Taiwan and other places.
Superiority. Isolation contributed to intense national pride in China. To the Chinese all other civilizations with which they had close contacts were actually derived from them and were considered to be inferior. Chinese lands represented the Middle Kingdom, and all other peoples were barbarians.
Wang Fuzhi was a famous philosopher of the seventeenth century. In the following excerpts from the opening portion of his Yellow Book, he makes observations on barbarian tribes:
The strength of the barbarians lies in the paucity of their laws and institutions. As long as their shelter, food, and clothing remain crude and barbaric, as long as they continue to foster a violent and savage temper in their people and do not alter their customs, they may enjoy great advantage. And at the same time, because of this China may escape harm. But if they once begin to change and to adopt Chinese ways, then the advantage of their situation will also change. They may there in time grow braver and mightier than the Chinese, which will be an advantage gained, but they will also open the way for eventual weakness. There-fore it is said that, as fish forget each other in the rivers and lakes, so men should forget each other and follow their own ways and principles. While the barbarians are content to roam about in pursuit of water and pasture, practicing archery and hunting, preserving no distinctions between ruler and subject, possessing only rudimentary marriage and governmental systems, ranging back and forth over their territory in accordance with seasonal demands, then China can never control or rule them. And as long as the barbarians do not realize that cities can be fortified and maintained, that markets bring profit, that fields can be cultivated and taxes exacted, as long as they do not know the glory of elaborate marriage and official systems, then they will continue to look upon China as a perilous and inhospitable bed of thorns. In like manner the Chinese who are seized and carried off to the lands of the barbarians will regard them with hatred and bitterness and refuse to serve them. The two lands will ignore each other to the advantage of both. It is in accordance with the ordinances of Heaven and the dictates of human feeling that each should thus find delight only in his own ways.
John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).
Charles O. Hucker, China to 1850: A Short History (Stanford, CaL: Stan-ford University Press, 1978).
F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass. & London:Harvard University Press, 1999).