China needs no introduction today. It is seen as an emerging superpower, one that is increasingly challenging the hegemony of the United States as the political, military, and economic leader of the world. Its remarkable rise over just a few decades from a poverty stricken peasant nation to a technological leader that is the world's manufacturing center has spawned dozens of commentaries, but throughout its long history, China is used to being the center of the attention. The sheer size and weight of Chinese civilization has made it central to the history of Central, East and South East Asia, and, indeed, the history of the world, for most of which it has been the preeminent power of the world. In the 3,500 years of its written history, Chinese culture, language, script, dress, and philosophy has had a massive impact on the peoples of Central Asia, Japan, Korea, and South East Asia, and its large volume of manufactured goods has found markets all the way in Europe and Africa through the famed Silk Road.
A sculpted reimagination of the famous stone reliefs that make up the six steeds of Zhao Mausoleum, depicting the favourite war horses of Emperor Taizong of Tang.
The long and eventful political history of China has seen it alternate between cycles of smaller warring states who coalesce into a powerful megastate, only yo fall apart again, making China resemble a sort of phoenix, constantly rising from the ashes under a worthy imperial dynasty. This state of affairs gave rise to the Chinese mandate of heaven philosophy, a doctrine of absolute monarchy that gave divine sanction to the ruling emperor but came with a caveat. You see, while the Emperor enjoyed the mandate of heaven he reigned supreme, but if he failed in his duty he would lose the mandate, with the state descending into chaos.
In the West, dragons have been seen as terrifying monsters capable of wreaking havoc upon humans, but they have enjoyed a much more exalted position in the East. In China, dragons as depicted in this brass statue have always been as auspicious creatures associated with power and strength and good luck for those that deserve them.
The traditional social structure of China has been greatly influenced by Confucianism, a detailed system of thought governing one's entire life which was developed by the ancient philosopher Confucius. The influence of Confucianism in China has been greatly syncretized with Buddhism, which originated in India, and Taoism, which arose in China sometime around the 4th century BC. According to Confucianist doctrine, China was divided into four non-hereditary social classes, landlords, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. Through its fundamental belief that humans are essentially good, Confucianism set out an orderly, rules-based disciplinarian system of living. In fact, right up to the modern day, and arguably even today, Chinese governments have taken a great interest in, and active part in, shaping and enabling social and commercial relations in the country.
The philosophical concept of yin and yang, one of the best recognized cultural exports of China, is found within many Chinese schools of thought, including the three big ones of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The striking visual depiction explores duality of values in different forms.
Chinese cultural exports have been many and varied. For much the world's history, it has been the premier manufacturing and innovation center of the planet. The most famous of these, of course, being the four great inventions, paper, gunpowder, printing, and the compass, all of which had a profound impact on the world and changed the course of history, to say nothing of consumer goods such as silk and porcelain. In fact, an exhaustive list of the sheer numbers of Imperial Chinese inventions would take up enough pages to write a full fledged encyclopedia! One of the reasons behind this great level of ingenuity was perhaps the famous Imperial Civil Service Examination, a series of grueling tests designed to allow only the sharpest minds into the Chinese bureaucracy. With its roots in Chinese mythology itself, the Civil Service examination was institute in the reign of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), and greatly expanded by the subsequent, and much more successful, Tang dynasty 618-907). During and after the reign of the Tang saw Chinese engineering and inventions reach ever greater heights. Very soon, a version of the Chinese imperial civil service exam spread throughout Asia, and in modern times, even inspired the civil service examinations in Europe and the United States!
The Hanfu, a traditional Chinese dress, has been a hugely influential cultural export in Asia, inspiring the Kimono in Japan, Ao giao linh in Vietnam, and Hanbok in Korea.
The modern period has not been one that was kind to China however. Arrival of Western imperial powers significantly weakened a declining China under the Qing dynasty, which was carved up Europeans, Russians and the Japanese for "zones of influence". The Imperial British, through the East India Company, infamously defeated China in the Opium wars and forced it to become a vast market for drugs peddled by the British state. World War II saw widespread Japanese atrocities on the Chinese mainland, and left a state that was a husk. The Chinese then suffered a resumption of the civil war fought between Chiang Kai-Shek's incumbent nationalists and the communists under Mao Zedong, who eventually won, forcing the nationalists into Taiwan, where they remain. These turbulent years have deeply influenced modern China's relationship with the world, and as the Dragon rises once again, a key challenge before all of us remains how to ensure peace and stability of the international order, assuaging Chinese suspicions and concerns from these terrible years, while at the same time easing the world's, especially the much weaker neighbors of China, apprehensions that an ascendant China may again seek to establish its suzerainty over much of Asia as the Ming dynasty once did. But as always, it is only by learning about other great cultures and participating in them, that long lasting bridges can be built.