by Anne Teoh for the Saker Blog
What’s implied in Xi’s description of ‘continuous’ and ‘dragon’ from the Xi-Trump’s conversation in Tian An Men.
Today, it’s generally acknowledged that China is a continuous civilization. During their walkabout in Tian An Men (Heavenly Peace Gates) grounds in Beijing 2017, Xi Jinping told Trump, “China has a continuous civilization.” Trump’s response was the Egyptians had an ancient civilization going back 5000 years ago or to that effect; creating a communication gap by missing the cue, “continuous.” Xi then, extended his opening introduction metaphorically – “We’re descendants of the dragon.” There was no reply to that.
This pithy but significant conversation is well recorded in the many television channels and on Youtube. With the public’s main attention largely glued to the current global political and economic uncertainties, this snappy dialogue is largely ignored by most though my ears picked up on that and dragons have centralized their position as a leit motif in my discourse about the need for cross-cultural pragmatics.
What discourse was Xi trying to engage with Trump? At heart, Xi’s a scholar-president, as we know he reads a lot and loves books; and when in the UK, he lauded Blighty with being, “the Mother of Parliaments,” and quoted Shakespeare. Hosting Trumph, Xi had initiated a subject of profundity related to history and culture, which was lost to Trump’s one liner surface response. My take on this is that Xi was interested to share his world views with Trumph beginning with what is intrinsically Chinese to his all powerful guest, the POTUS, who he probably thought would build a bridge by responding to the gist of his statement such as what’s ‘continuous’ or what’s intrinsically American. Somewhere in between their respective histories, they would be likely to discover common grounds or aspirations so crucial to both countries and the world in the post-millennial new world order. Instead, the missing link in ‘continuous’ turned Xi’s attention to “dragon.” The grounds they were walking on, in Tian An Men was surrounded by dragons.
Our perception is closely bonded with our identity, who we think we are and what we believe and live by. When XJP refers to ‘continuous civilization, he meant we’re part of our history, (and biology). What is that which is ‘continuous’ in Chinese history, and what is the dragon that has captured the imagination of the Chinese people and played a leading role in its folk culture and civilization for over 5000 years?
What is the Dragon culture?
I will begin with the universally legendary dragon as it is largely so iconic in Chinese culture that it’s become a symbolic representation.
The dragon in Chinese belief is the all-powerful manifestation of the omniscient and omnipotent – that imagined vision of an airy psyche shaping its form in the mass all around to become the energy of the mythical dragon. When we breathe out into the wintry cold air, we make a misty vapor in which hides a dragon. In festivals the dragon dance is performed to celebrate joy, community spirit and good energy. Usually, it’s a dragon chasing a golden ball, which symbolizes the dance of energy. ( as in The Dance of the Wu Li Masters : Gary Zukav : Fontana Paperbacks : 1980 )
Since the Zhou period about 3,500 BC years ago, dragon lines are believed to exist deep in the veins of the earth externally, just as it exists in the veins of human bodies along the meridian lines internally – as described in acupuncture. Hence, pre-Han Chinese viewed humans as microcosms of the heavenly macrocosm. In Feng-shui, the interaction between heaven and earth, affecting the flow of good or bad energy, can be modified by experts known as “Dragon Man ,” similarly as acupuncturists can unblock stagnant energy centres (acupressure points) along the meridian lines within man’s anatomy in order to maintain the circulation flow. The whole universe then, is seen like a living organism in which the movements in heaven have their repercussions on the earth. Man is not superior to either heaven or earth but is more like a mediator to harmonize the two spheres; hence the idea of the Middle Way.
Throughout the ages, the dragon has evolved to become part of a normal creature in Chinese folklore, reducing the true spiritual and the ethereal essence of dragons to the symbolic world of a bright and jolly mythical creature representing human aspirations for the positive things in life such as power, joy, benevolence, success and celebration, especially during the new year. Thus, communion with the cosmic forces and nature, is nearly lost, mainly to us city onlookers. But look closely and one finds that the Chinese dragon is hidden in the ancient mists, “the transmogrified immortal (Stephen Skinner: The Living Earth Manual of Feng-shui) that lie hidden in the air as in the writhing of the landscape in mountain ridges, winding rivers, underground water tables, on mountain tops, between contrasting earth formations.”
Feng-shui incorporates the skill to absorb the heavenly energy into our bodies, buildings and the earth’s terrestrial formations. Geomancers study the landscape to find energy lines and places where energy accumulates. Places charged with energy can positively affect the psychology, health, life and movements of the people and the community. Today, geomancy is alive and working to spot dragon lines to harmonize people, buildings and landscapes, with the heavenly energies and they can be found among Chinese communities everywhere; and also in main land China, I believe. It’s important to note that generating the energy is not about using it for personal empowerment but as a harmonizing agent between heaven and earth in the environment, the goal of this being to keep the flow going.
The dragon is part and parcel of ancient Chinese astro-biological science (Wheatly) or in modern day parlance, “astro-ecology,” ( Steven J. Bennett) with connections to Tian Xia ( above as below) and is intrinsic to “Feng- shui” ( originated about 3,500 BC years ago as part of folk culture and Daoism) and the “I-Ching,” (roughly 3,500 years ago). They are integral to the Daoist precept that human actions on earth affect the heavens above and movements in the heavens have consequences on the surface of the earth below – as verifiable in sources from The Form School and The Compass School of ancient Chinese geomancy ( a fitting subject for Climate Change). Hence since the late Zhou period, the emperor ruled as the Mandate of Heaven (Zhou dynasty in China -1046 BCE – 256 BCE) divinely ordained as chief mediator to guide his people, thus establishing human connection with the environment and the cosmos.
However, even in its folklore tradition, there are some telling signs in the physical nature of a typical Chinese dragon – it has a long undulating body but it’s not creepy like those of snakes, more like the great wall, wide and accommodating enough for one to ride or walk on it ; it can bring rain but it doesn’t emanate fire, hence it’s not a threat to humans, unlike the western dragons which breathe fire and are to be slaughtered. To quote Stephen Skinner (The Living Earth Manual of Feng-shui: 982: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd) “ Feng –shui (wind and water) ‘ together express the power of the flowing elements on the surface of the natural environment and through the earth. There are dragon lines of energy in the earth and their interaction with man are viewed as part of his subtle environment.” What do we know about why Xi so passionately endorsed Climate Change?
Viewed in its relation to the earth and the cosmos, dragons are the animating essence of the natural system, like ecology with a capital E. In the wisdom of the Chinese sages, neither heaven nor earth is isolated and complete in itself, but it is left to man to be the mediator between the two. “ The classic role of the mediator,” (to maintain the flow of energy) “ like all Chinese philosophical systems, is to avoid conflict at all cost.”
(S Skinner: The Living Earth Manual of Feng-shui: RKP ; 1995 ) Taking Skinner’s quote into our current historical context, we might have some hopes of peace by getting feng-shui experts or dragon-men to make divinations for warlords and in war zones, modify the personalities and structures of the landscapes to generate good energy flow and transform static metallic and fiery elements stirring conflicts with the softer elements of flowing wind and water. In the eyes of the ancient sages, wars are zones of dead energy blocks and signs of human failure. This is a destructive rut when humans are not in tune with their higher cosmic awareness. We need a dose of positive Win Wins to turn things around.
Following the discussion so far, in this respect then, dragons are shapers of history and it’s vested on our leadership to understand their currents and use them to make decisions and navigate the movements to avoid conflicts, developing a future shaped in the balance of all these forces pertaining to heaven and earth. So let’s be sensitized to the dragon with the code E=MC2 and not get sucked into black holes of no return.
The dragon flies through the long history of ancient China. From the apex down to the rural base, the Chinese perceive their emperors as ‘The Mandate of Heaven,’ divinely ordained; one with adherence to the rites of Confucianism and Daoism. The practice of feng shui, acupuncture, TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) and food cuisine throughout the ages to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 are all influenced by the energy concept of dragon culture; a culture that sees the world evolving between the heavenly (spiritual) and earthly ( practical) forces and where humans mediate to keep the balance and too ensure the flow (circulation) of energy.
Early Recorded History
The Zhou Dynasty period, which had the longest dynastic reign, can safely be viewed as laying the template for successive Chinese dynasties, right up to modern and post-modern China. Excavations of Zhou and Warring States (late Zhou) tombs in the last few decades led to new knowledge of the local traditions and their sacrificial rites. From the relics, we learnt that standardization and quality control were well in place by this time and all the elements of mass production in specialized factory-type settings were in place (see, e.g., Barbieri-Low 2011: 374; Falkenhausen 2006). The thousands of pottery figures used in tombs such as the army of Qin Shi Huang Di shows a complicated production process including management by master crafts persons. The individuality of their faces and artistry of design and mould suggest there were highly skilled craftsmanship. Women (Barbieri-Low 2011: 379), found to be involved, indicate that Chinese women had responsibility roles in society in early imperial times.
There were also evidence of the development of Chinese food production, distribution, and consumption in the late Zhou of the Warring States period. It was during these times that China’s basic food system developed. The division between the wheat-and-millet north and rice-based south also became established. The science of nutrition, food and health was part of the development in Chinese medicine, verifiable in The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Medicine ( Nei Ching) written probably end of Zhou Dynatsy or in Han Dynasty. In the military world, there were interstate conflicts and periods when various leaders vied for hegemony.
The main philosophical schools of influence originated during the warring states of late Zhou Dynasty by which time bureaucracy, systemic governance, language, writing and literature and food techniques were already standardized. Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism were the main schools of thought. China had this civilization in place by the end of the Zhou era but it’s the main philosophies of Confucius and Dao that gripped the Chinese to internalise the essence of these teachings so thousands of years and generations later, most Chinese are inherently Confucian and Daoist even without learning what they are about.
Early Chinese Philosophy
Confucianism taught conformity to an ethical code of righteousness. Confucius’ teachings focused on the individual in his relationship to others strictly based on ethical considerations and moral principles – Do not do unto others what you wouldn’t do unto your self . Do not put off what you can do today till tomorrow etc. The central tenet is the ‘Lunzi,’ the scholar gentleman trained in self-control, develops self-respect and is a virtuous and filial son following the rites and rituals structured within a civilised world. Legalism is a theory of the law under autocratic and centralised rule with strict laws and harsh penalties the purpose of which was to instil law-abiding behaviour and orderliness. Daoism focused on the individual and his relationship with nature and living in harmony with it. Central to Daoism is the practice of “Wu Wei” or inaction, a state of mindfulness giving in to thought-free mind, effortlessness and natural action as exerted by the qi or energy. These three philosophies influenced the early Chinese empires and have a lasting impact on Chinese thinking to this day.
To my mind, it’s Daoism that, due to its inherently organic and ecological considerations, has entrenched itself with the dragon of feng-shui as ‘the living organism’ in Chinese culture; and it aided development in the natural sciences in the forms of the I Ching divination, herbalism, acupuncture, the Yin and Yang binary concepts, Chan Buddhism and Tai Qi Chuan .
By the end of the Zhou Dynasty 3,500 BC years ago, there was King Wen, meaning Civil or civilized king who excelled in civil virtues, arts of peace and civilizing influence on his people and ruling an empire with a well-structured bureaucracy, industrialization, standard language and writing, literature, music, rites, rituals, tenets and a food cuisine as we know today. Hence, from the time of King Wen there was a civilisation already set in place. Some celebrity from one of the Women’s magazines claimed that Xi looks like Winnie Pooh Bear we loved so much, but my take is Xi is a greater King Wen reincarnation. There’s a chasm if we compare King Wen and Winnie Pooh knowingly in cross-cultural pragmatics speak.
The Chinese character, Wang, 王for king depicts the mediator between heaven and earth (three horizontal lines) with a vertical line cutting half way through the three horizontal lines, signifying the mediator and Mandate of Heaven. The character for guo or nation 国
shows the king with a dot over the base line signifying order and stability. The king in his throne is set within a rectangular frame or borders. Here we have the essence of the Chinese world-view for their civilization – centralization, mediation and order. Apart from the debatable Tibet and Xinjiang issues, this image of Chinese king ship and nation can safely be regarded as influencing the Chinese’s disinterest in taking from others (based on observations/experience and shared talk) or invading other countries.
Following the warring states, Qin Shi Huangdi (221 BC) conquered the various disparate states and created for himself the title, Emperor of the Qin. He further unified China, made advances on standardization of the wheel and extended the construction of the Great Wall. It was a short reign when the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) took over and marked the golden age of China, a long reign when the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ brought peace and prosperity on earth, the Silk Road traded and there were foreign exchanges of goods, travels and religion among many things.
Here we backtrack to the origin of the main philosophies of China – Traditional or Chinese folk religion, a belief related to nature and the energies generated to create deities and immortals in the environment. It probably originated from nature worshipping and developed alongside agriculture, incorporating the seasons, the earth and the heavenly bodies. The character 神 (shen) meaning the psyche, divinity, soul or spirit developed, probably alongside rituals such as ancestor worshipping, practiced in Confucianism and Daoist rites and rituals. Chinese New Year celebration, which runs for 15 days, beginning with the waxing of the new moon and ending with the full moon waning is a celebration of spring and a rejuvenation of life in traditional folk religion. It starts with the dragon dance (invoking good energy) and fireworks ( driving away evil spirits). Celebrating Chinese New Year is an internalization of this traditional rite for all Chinese do the same things from New year’s eve to the 15th of the full moon. They chuck out unwanted hoardings, clean the house, stay up late, get new clothes and make a feast of food for the new years’ guests. No one should be negative or argue on New Year’s day but children and the elderly get red packets when they greet the new year.
There isn’t any authoritarian dictate to prescribe how to celebrate Chinese New Year but, like Confucianism and Daoism, everyone follows the tradition instinctively.
Around 67 BC, on the Silk Road, Nepali and Indian traders and monks spread Buddhism through Hotan, then Xinjiang. Mahayana Buddhism spread across China and developed into Chan ( metaphysical Buddhism examining the Buddha nature) or Zen Buddhism which later spread to Korea and Japan as Zen Buddhism in the 3rd and 4th century AD. The Chinese readily welcomed Buddha’s teachings about Compassion for all sentient beings, the transience of life and finding a way out of all suffering but they also developed the more esoteric aspect of the Buddha nature with their understanding of Daoism and Wu Wei (non action). This is an interesting analogy with Wang Lorbin, a famous folk song collector in the 60s being called a “thief,” and the current Trump accusation of China “stealing” technological ideas. In fact, the Chinese didn’t make a single claim about developing Zen or protest against the accusation. Ideas spread and if they’re any good, they get better developed.
The Han dynasty was followed by successive rebellions and enthronement of a line of famous emperors creating their hallmarked names. There was standardization in various areas in bureaucracy, the sciences, philosophy, the military and the arts, writing and literature and construction. Briefly, each dynasty was noted for its particular contribution, the Han for its golden age, the Yuan for the Silk Road, the Sung for its refinement in the arts and sciences, the Ming for its exquisite porcelain, the Tang for is expeditions abroad and the Qing for its territorial expansion. From the dynastic line and the achievements of each dynasty, I am inclined to see the inherently competitive nature within the Chinese empire to excel, innovate and push boundaries internalized by many Chinese families. There, we have Lang Lang’s father urging him “No.1, No. 1”!
Most Chinese, with their Confucian moral, civic and ethics, believe that good kings bring order, peace, prosperity and progress. There’re also believers in Daoism who develop the undying arts of the natural sciences like Wu Shu, Tai Qi Chuan, acupuncture, Feng-shui , TCM and has influence on the I Ching , Chinese Poetry and Military strategists like Sun Tze (500 BC ) and Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976). As chartered by Joseph Needham in his 14 volumes of Chinese Science and Civilization, China made many inventions, too many for it to make claims for. Combined with their well-known industriousness, it is reasonable to think they lived a purposeful existence and they were scientific, artistic, creative, innovative and productive in outlook. The dynastic courts ensured there was classical as well as folk cultures e.g. the literati engaged in the fine arts like painting and calligraphy, the town folks and villagers had paper cuts and embroidery. There were great craftsmanship in pottery, fabrics, silk and brocade, furniture, wood carving, gymnastics, martial arts, meditation, road shows operas, sport like archery, horse polo, table tennis and so on. Today, their continued existence makes China a rich place to explore.
By 2011 – 12, the Qing dynasty (Manchurian) had weakened considerably in the face of continuous and expansive foreign invasions, extracting greater concessions whenever there were unrests and making demands on China from their unequal treaties. The Qing’s inability to modernize or defend the country in the face of western aggression and their failure to consolidate the Chinese economically, militarily or nationally turned many Chinese to look toward the west for modernizing China. Many Chinese elites, empowered by new enterprises, trade and modern technology, forsook the Manchu courts, which was corrupted and had failed to feed the poor and hungry, provide jobs or enforce population control. There were reforms, uprisings and revolutions, culminating in the early Republic of China as a constitutional republic (1912- 1949). The breaking up of the Qing Dynasty ended over 4000 years of imperial Chinese governance.
The short time they took to establish a modern Constitution indicates the effectiveness of the old bureaucracy and the foresight of the transient leadership, namely that of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who had a pivotal role in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. In the chaos of the Qing’s dissolution, Japanese and foreign invasions and WWII, we forgot that China had a meritocracy system and that education and receptivity to foreign influences had a strong foundation in its civilization since the Han period.
The 20th century witnessed how China outwitted foreign invasions, unequal treaties, extreme hunger and poverty, natural disasters and civil war. There was growing nationalism that culminated in the May 4 Movement, led by students after the Versailles Treaty in which the Europeans conceded Chinese Manchuria to Japan. Many different groups sprang up in Guangzhou and all over China to answer to the cry of the country’s needs; the most prominent among them were Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuo Min Tang (KMT) Nationalist Party and Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist arty (CCP). In a century of utter dehumanization, chaos and living with internal threats, the two parties briefly united to fight against the barbaric Japanese invaders; but soon after fell apart due to foreign support for the KMT. Corruption was rife and an inability to uplift the starving, displaced and jobless as well as concessions made to foreign and Japanese powers saw Mao’s CCP, with its powerful message of hope, tenacity and equality for a new China staunchly supported by the majority of Chinese across China, particularly the peasants, students and workers.
1949 was a decisive year when Mao announced that China had stood up on 1 October 1949 and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China to the cheering masses. Mao had a vision of a society with full equality, living communally, therefore sharing resources, and attending education classes on Marxist and Maoist dialectics. It started a modern Chinese socialist world view; a radical change from the feudal imperialism of the dynastic periods. It took a revolution, years of civil war, a daunting sacrifice of many lives ( many were tortured and executed for being communists) and major structural and societal upheavals to change imperial China into a communist country. Some sources claim 45 million died as a result of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward; other, (more reliable) sources claim 15 million died in the CR and the GLF. Natural disasters, famine, the civil wars and the Japanese killed more than 30 millions. We shouldn’t forget there were sanctions against China in that time too.
China made a ground-shifting phenomenon to shake off imperialism, foreign invasions and internal divisions, made possible only with Mao’s unique character and world-view. Mao was a Daoist of the dragon school who knew the mountains first hand, a superior strategist of the traditional Sun Tze academy, a Marxist socialist who also liked aspects of American philosophy, a poet and a revolutionary leader. Obviously, he had a great love for universal humanity, which enabled him to galvanize the energy of the people wanting a new world order.
It’s impossible to summarize a world-view for 1.6 billion strongly independent Chinese minds. The ancient division of scholar, peasant farmer, soldier and merchant in this hierarchical social order, placed scholarship at the top; hence, the meritocracy system was established since the Zhou period. The positions of each group was not fossilized but subject to changes depending on the capability of the individual for upward mobility. However, it’s evident that the concept of ‘Above as Below’ kept the radicals in check and that in each dynastic rule there was scholarship, literature, the arts, trade, science and military advancement and explorations while the changing governments of the various dynasties could rely on a skilled and stable bureaucracy or Mandarin system supported by the educated elite who had gone through the imperial examinations. Compared to the outgoing, industrialized and imperialist colonization of the West in the later 19th century, Chinese civilization was ancient, fragile, genteel, bureaucratic and slow moving. Moreover, China was largely dependent on manual labour and the production of porcelain, tea, silk, arts and crafts while the west had machines to mass produce and armed themselves with weapons and armaments.
As English-speaking Malaysian British Straits Chinese I haven’t lived through the history, culture and revolution that had taken place in China. What I know of China is gleaned mainly from books, contacts with the various types of Chinese and personal experiences of mainland Chinese within and without China.; as well as among the various Chinese ‘dialect’ communities such as the Cantonese, Hakkas, Hokkiens, Beijinger, Shanghainese, Huananese and Tibetans and Urghurs. I have known them all to be different in many fine ways, yet, among the Han Chinese, I also know they all share an unbreakable Chinese world-view. One needn’t be taught Confucianism or Daoism; they’re inherently in us. Most Chinese, mainland or overseas, understand virtue, filial piety and how to celebrate the Chinese New Year. They will all understand which food is yin or yang, how to speak to the elderly, refusing to take anything unless almost forced upon, vying to pay for hours till someone’s already paid and in China, having the same knowledge of the lengthy Chinese history.
Apart from the traditional practices and food, new ideas will catch on like fire and spread so one finds every Chinese household having the new ‘Yee Sang” or “Lo Hei” in Cantonese fortune dish whether they’re in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia Singapore and else where in the Chinese communities of the west. Similarly, as a main land Chinese friend once said, “A famous celebrity wore red shoes and when the spotlight fell on her red shoes, all the women in China started wearing red shoes.” I had an inkling of that when I heard all my Singaporean colleagues singing Teresa Teng’s, “The Moon Represents My Heart,” and a decade later, was I surprised, when all my Chinese colleagues in Guangzhou sang the same song. What amazed me was everyone knowing that song. Yet, if you’re engaged in deep discussions with a group of Chinese, you will surely find that no two Chinese ever share the same perception.