0730 EST. The Olympics rumble to life, we are witness to the overture of a new superpower. The Chinese are desperate to exhibit their hospitality. Push a microphone in from of any Chinese child, and you'll hear him proudly root for his country. In English. I give you, however imperfectly seen from the outside, a view of the Chinese as they see themelves.
A Ming dynasty painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of New York City: Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden. No martial statues on horseback, brandishing swords for these leaders of China. They sit under blooming trees in Beijing, admiring antiques, gazing at a particularly beautiful rock, doing calligraphy, in the company of lovely women, playing board games in the morning of April 6, 1437. They are in harmony with their world. Each guest composes a poem, attached to the scroll.
By contrast, in Europe, in the 1430s, Joan of Arc was burned. The religious Hussite Wars flare up in the first battles pitting hand-held gunpowder weapons against armored knights. Vlad Dracul seizes control of Wallachia.
Though they portrayed themselves as scholars at peace with their world, the Chinese were in a deadly wrestling match with the Mongols. On April 6, 1437, the Emperor Zhu Qizhen was a boy of ten. The men in the apricot garden are among his advisors. Twelve years later, Zhu Qizhen would become a captive of the Mongols after an ill-advised war called the Tu Mu Debacle. China's worthless army collapsed immediately beyond the Great Wall. It was one of the most shameful episodes in Chinese history and the scholarly gentlemen in the apricot garden proved inept commanders of soldiers. Zhu Qizhen befriended his captor the Mongol Esen Taisi. Four years later, Esen Taisi genially released the young emperor, for Esen had troubles of his own. Esen's adventures south of the Great Wall were as disastrous as Zhu's had been north of the wall.
Zhu Qizhen returned to Beijing to find his brother in charge. His brother the Jingtai Emperor was not pleased and confined Zhu Qizhen to the Southern Palace in the Forbidden City for another seven years. When the Jingtai Emperor's son and heir-apparent died, Zhu Qizhen ousted his usurping brother and declared himself the Tian Shun Emperor, for Tian Shun means Heavenly Obedience.
The world of the Ming was changing: for the first time, taxes were paid in silver and not in grain. Esen Taisi and the Mongols were back on reasonably good terms with the Chinese: both depended on trade and tribute. Economic pressures combined with personal friendship to create a hybrid culture.
When the Tian Shun Emperor begins to revenge himself on those who had backed his usurping brother, it would be General Cao Qin and his Mongol troops who give him the most trouble. Mongols had long served in the Chinese army and we see bearded Mongol elites in the apricot garden. But as Cao Qin prepares to revolt, it is Mongols who leak the coup plot to other Mongol generals within the Emperor's camp. A thoroughly confusing one day coup attempt follows ending with the suicide of Cao Qin. The gates of the Imperial City are burned and only a heavy rain saves what remains for us to see today. A wholesale reign of terror, executions and dismemberments follow as the enraged Emperor wreaks revenge upon the plotters. Though Mongols fight on both sides, Mongol influence wanes in the remainder of the Ming Dynasty.
The parts of the Great Wall we see today just beyond Beijing are the Ming reaction to the Mongol threat. We think of it as a wall to keep the Mongols out, a futile and stupid boondoggle, but it was no such thing. It was in fact an elevated road, wide and safe enough to relay news of contact with the Mongols, with watchtowers and signaling mechanisms. As with Hadrian's Wall in Britain, it was also a series of gates through which traders could enter and leave, with military camps along its length. The Great Wall was built in many stages, but it was the Ming who gave us what we see in the tourist photographs.
But in their heyday, the Ming represented the best of Han Chinese culture. The Ming Empire begins with a vast centralized effort to make China self-sufficient. In the 16th century, external trade with Europe further stimulated the economy. New food crops appear in China, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peanuts. China's population boomed. , Surpluses built up and a consumer culture swept over China. Europe dumped tons of silver into China in exchange for porcelain, silk and tea. Trade on a monumental scale begins: we have records of 50,000 pairs of silk stockings traded for New World silver in a single transaction. The Ming stupidly mismanaged the situation, spending the empire into oblivion, engaged in pointless wars and embargos against Japan. The Europeans stepped into the vacuum: the net result was an ignominious collapse and an era of foreign domination.
The Ming turned inward, restricting trade with the outside world. The later Ming emperors grew fearful and repressive, increasingly paranoid and unjust, especially to their Mongol subjects. When the Manchu Mongols sweep away the last remnants of Ming rule, it would be the last time a Han Chinese ruled China until Mao Zedong.
Like the Ming, who begin their reign with a centralized effort to achieve self-sufficiency then become tremendously wealthy through foreign trade, the modern Chinese are on the brink of becoming a superpower. Had the Ming managed their incredible wealth with more wisdom, avoiding imprudent conflicts with their Manchu and Japanese neighbors, they, not the United States would now be the dominant power in the world today. What we see in China now was what the Dutch East India Company saw all those centuries ago.
In many ways, China is now what it might always have been, certainly what it has always considered itself to be, the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world. If they indulge in a bit of pride at their accomplishments, we must not condemn them overmuch. Between the era of the Ming and today, foreign powers and foreign doctrines tore their country to shreds. Communism was never applicable in China, at heart the Chinese are merchants and artisans. The Chinese now import quality goods from the United States and Europe. As in the time of the Ming, fashion crazes and new foreign foods sweep through China. Chinese children speak English, the language of trade. The Ming attempted to suppress trade with the West, but so much illegal trade was going on that the Ming emperors were obliged to relent, opening ports to the West. The same pattern is still with us today: Hong Kong and Guangzhou operate under different rules than the rest of China.
Will today's newly prosperous Chinese fall into the tragic pattern of the later Ming emperors, lapsing into paranoia and injustice, xenophobia and war? I cannot say: the Manchu and Japanese were always prowling on China's borders. The Europeans contributed to the problem, selling arms to all parties, benefiting from the ensuing wars. Western influences and mores were never Chinese. The West enslaved China with opium and waged wars to continue this wicked trade. We must also never forget Communism was invented in the West.
If China is not entirely free, the Chinese have a different relationship to their government than we in the West. Respect, not love, is what the Chinese render to their leadership. The needs of the many trump the needs of the one. The Chinese have an abiding horror of conflict: they will do anything, no matter how immoral or undemocratic to our Western eyes, to avoid conflict.
Yet at the end of the day, how do the Chinese see themselves? I give you Xie Huan's Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden. This long essay, full of obscure emperors and scheming generals and their Manchu warriors, might seem to undermine the tranquility and elegance of that scroll, but that would be wrong. The Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, come down to us from long ago, serves as an ideal of the essence of the Middle Kingdom, where rulers wish to be seen as men of quality, to whom the brush of the poet is mightier than the sword of the warrior. In the lower right of the painting, a crane preens: the symbol of longevity. While we in the West were an unwashed rabble, memorializing our rulers in armor, the Chinese sought elegance and refinement, the things of the mind and the heart.