Ancient History & Civilisation

2. The Middle Flowery Kingdom


If we consider Russia as Asiatic—which it was till Peter, and may be again—then Europe becomes only a jagged promontory of Asia, the industrial projection of an agricultural hinterland, the tentative fingers or pseudopodia of a giant continent. Dominating that continent is China, as spacious as Europe, and as populous. Hemmed in, through most of its history, by the largest ocean, the highest mountains, and one of the most extensive deserts in the world, China enjoyed an isolation that gave her comparative security and permanence, immutability and stagnation. Hence the Chinese called their country not China but Tien-hua—“Under the Heavens”—or Sz-hai—“Within the Four Seas”—or Chung-kuo—“Middle Kingdom”—or Chung-hwa-kuo—“Middle Flowery Kingdom”—or, by decree of the Revolution, Chun-hwa-min-kuo—“ Middle Flowery People’s Kingdom.”8 Flowers it has in abundance, and all the varied natural scenery that can come from sunshine and floating mists, perilous mountain crags, majestic rivers, deep gorges, and swift waterfalls amid rugged hills. Through the fertile south runs the Yang-tze River, three thousand miles in length; farther north the Hoang-ho, or Yellow River, descends from the western ranges amid plains of loess to carry its silt through vacillating estuaries once to the Yellow Sea, now to the Gulf of Pechili, tomorrow, possibly, to the Yellow Sea again. Along these and the Wei and other broad streams* Chinese civilization began, driving back the beast and the jungle, holding the surrounding barbarians at bay, clearing the soil of brush and bramble, ridding it of destructive insects and corrosive deposits like saltpetre, draining the marshes, fighting droughts and floods and devastating changes in the courses of the rivers, drawing the water patiently and wearily from these friendly enemies into a thousand canals, and building day by day through centuries—huts and houses, temples and schools, villages, cities and states. How long men have toiled to build the civilizations that men so readily destroy!

No one knows whence the Chinese came, or what was their race, or how old their civilization is. The remains of the “Peking Man” suggest the great antiquity of the human ape in China; and the researches of Andrews have led him to conclude that Mongolia was thickly populated, as far back as 20,000 B.C., by a race whose tools corresponded to the “Azilian” development of mesolithic Europe, and whose descendants spread into Siberia and China as southern Mongolia dried up and became the Gobi Desert. The discoveries of Andersson and others in Honan and south Manchuria indicate a neolithic culture one or two thousand years later than similar stages in the prehistory of Egypt and Sumeria. Some of the stone tools found in these neolothic deposits resemble exactly, in shape and perforations, the iron knives now used in northern China to reap the sorghum crop; and this circumstance, small though it is, reveals the probability that Chinese culture has an impressive continuity of seven thousand years.10

We must not, through the blur of distance, exaggerate the homogeneity of this culture, or of the Chinese people. Some elements of their early art and industry appear to have come from Mesopotamia and Turkestan; for example, the neolithic pottery of Honan is almost identical with that of Anau and Susa.11 The present “Mongolian” type is a highly complex mixture in which the primitive stock has been crossed and recrossed by a hundred invading or immigrating stocks from Mongolia, southern Russia (the Scythians?), and central Asia.12 China, like India, is to be compared with Europe as a whole rather than with any one nation of Europe; it is not the united home of one people, but a medley of human varieties different in origin, distinct in language, diverse in character and art, and often hostile to one another in customs, morals and government.

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