Saturday, August 09, 2008

Olympic Ponderings
August 9, 2008

Anyone who watched the pageantry of the Olympic Game's opening ceremony in Beijing knows it is unlikely to be topped in our lifetimes. My wife offered this analogy: the previous Olympics were like county fairs, while Beijing was a full Hollywood production.
As someone who began formally studied Chinese culture, history and philosophy in 1973 (i.e. beginning in university, including several graduate-level courses), I was struck by the depth of the opening ceremony's many levels of representation and allusions.

I was especially impressed with the lavish references to the Tang Dynasty and the voyages of Admiral Zheng He. As the NBC commentator pointed out, these two periods of Chinese history were marked by a remarkable openness to the world and a stupendous exchange of goods and ideas.

Without doubt the most highly praised work on the glories of the Tang Dynasty is The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics. This book is simply amazing, for it illustrates the Tang era's uniquely glorious place in China's long history.

This book examines the exotics imported into China during the T'ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), and depicts their influence on Chinese life. Into the land during the three centuries of T'ang came the natives of almost every nation of Asia, all bringing exotic wares either as gifts or as goods to be sold. Ivory, rare woods, drugs, diamonds, magicians, dancing girls--the author covers all classes of unusual imports, their places of origin, their lore, their effort on costume, dwellings, diet, and on painting, sculpture, music, and poetry.

This book is not a statistical record of commercial imports and medieval trade, but rather a "humanistic essay, however material its subject matter." While Europe decayed in the Dark Ages, China reached an apogee of wealth, knowledge, trade, peace and art.

The marvelous voyages of Admiral Zheng He occured early in the Ming Dynasty, (1368-1644) another flowering of art, wealth and relative internal political stability. (The Mongols conquered China in 1315 and were driven out in 1368, which marked the founding of the Ming Dynasty.)
Here is a detailed entry about the Admiral's 50,000 kilometers of seafaring with an unprecedentedly vast fleet: Admiral Zheng He.

Zheng He was born in 1371 in modern-day Yunnan Province, which was at that time the last stronghold of the Yuan Dynasty in its struggle with the victorious Ming Dynasty. Like most Hui people, Zheng He was a Muslim. In 1381, following the defeat of the Northern Yuan, a Ming army was dispatched to Yunnan to put down the Mongol rebel Basalawarmi. Ma Sanbao, then only eleven years old, was captured and made a eunuch. He was sent to the Imperial court, where he eventually became a trusted adviser of the Yongle Emperor.

Although his precise religious views were not recorded, Zheng He has been portrayed by subsequent generations as either an orthodox Muslim who helped spread his faith into southeast Asia, or as a possible syncretist.

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Yongle designed them to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. He also might have wanted to extend the tributary system, by which Chinese dynasties traditionally recognized foreign peoples.

Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Zheng He's first voyage consisted of a fleet of perhaps 300 ships (other sources say 200) holding almost 28,000 crewmen.

His missions showed impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological might, but did not lead to significant trade, since Zheng He was an admiral and an official, not a merchant. Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared. The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels.

Zheng He's initial objective was to enroll far flung states into the Ming tributary system, but it was later decided that the voyages were not cost efficient. After Zheng's voyages, China turned away from the seas due to the Hai jin order, and was isolated from European technological advancements.

Unlike the later naval expeditions conducted by European nations, the Chinese treasure ships appear to have been doomed in the long run because the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty and ambassadors more than outstripped the benefits of any tribute collected. Thus when China's governmental finances came under pressure (which like all governments' finances they eventually did), funding for the naval expeditions melted away.

In contrast, by the 16th century, most European missions of exploration made enough profit from the resulting trade to become self-financing, allowing them to continue regardless of the condition of the state's finances.

In the last chapter of The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, David Fischer observed that the global upheavals/ famines/ invasions/ epidemics of the 13th and 14th centuries coincided with the high water marks of the Islamic empire and the Chinese empire, as well as apparent peaks in the Meso-American empires.

Some 600 years later, we are witnessing a resurgence of Islam and China-- or at least a resurgent desire for the greatness lost 600 years ago. In both empires, the walling off and/or rejection of "foreign" ideas, goods and innovations doomed each to decay. Is 600 years of going in the wrong direction finally being reversed? Only time will tell, but tolerance for the beliefs of others and an openness to new goods and ideas were the hallmarks of the Tang Dynasty.
It was truly profound for the Olympic pageantry to pay homage to the greatness of the Tang Dynasty, for that era is indeed a marvelous "map" or "goal" for today's China: wealth, art, and prosperity through trade, not conquest.

I have one more Olympic observation. Yesterday I noted the three measures of a nation's greatness had nothing to do with the usual yardsticks of greatness such as GDP, the number of medal won in a series of games or the tonnage of steel produced. The three measures I identified are:
1. the rights and opportunities it extends all its citizens, especially the lowliest
2. the manner in which it absorbs and responds to the criticism of its citizenry and the world
3. the willingness and ability of its citizens to question and actively resist the propaganda of that nation's elites

Today I would add the porosity of its culture to other peoples and ideas. Cultures which exclude others' presence, belief and ideas are doomed to failure/decay. Those which enable and encourage the free flow of people, ideas and beliefs into their own culture become great via the cross-fertilization of all these influences.

In a way, this strength is akin to the immense powers of Natural Selection: Nature picks and chooses from the widest gene pool available, and the depth and variety of their gene pool enables successful organisms to adapt and respond to changes in the environment. Those species and civilizations which fail to adapt die or fade.

My wife and I will cheer on the athletes of many countries, for we have friends from all the following nations. I don't mean passing acquaintances, I mean we could show up on their doorstep and be fed and shown a place to stay. Some are unable to return to their homeleand (Iranians, for instance) while others prefer not to return to their homeland; and so we enjoy them as American friends who were born elsewhere. Nonetheless we have met all these people in California, U.S.A. We did not have to travel the globe to meet all these people, they came to us in a manner of speaking.

If the U.S. restricts the flow of people, ideas, etc., into its border and mindspaces, then we will decay. On the other hand, no other nation or "empire" can ever hope to match the U.S. in innovation and influence unless it too can enable a regular standard-issue citizen to meet such a variety of people within its own borders:

South Africa
Hong Kong
South Korea
Canary Islands (Spain)

Yes, we live in a town with a great university; there are many great universities in the U.S. and abroad, and they are the fundamental engines of innovation and thus adaptation.

Perhaps you too correlate the nations parading by in size and population with your home city, county and state. For me, these are the natural benchmarks which popped into my head:

Nations with less than 120,000 citizens. Gee, Berkeley or Pasadena or the Big Island could be separate nations. Not a bad idea....

Nations of about 1.5 million residents or less. Hey, that's smaller than Alameda County, or about the same as Hawaii.

In 2005 Alameda County had a population that was 38.0% non-Hispanic whites. African-Americans constituted 13.8% of the population. Asians were 24.2% of the population. Hispanics came in at 20.8%, while both Native Americans and Pacific Islanders came in at 0.7% of the population.)

Nations of around 5 - 9 million. Gee, that's like the S.F. Bay Area (7.5 million).

Nations with around 15 - 20 million citizens. Hey, that's just like L.A. (Los Angeles Metro area: 17 million) Metropolitan Areas with Population of 5,000,000 or More.

Nations of about 35-40 million people. Hmm, about the same as California (37 million officially, probably 39 million unofficially). Nations of 60 million, (Britain and France, etc.), 50% larger than the great (bankrupt) state of California. Germany: 85 million, two Californias (minus the diversity, Hollywood, surf and Austrian-born governor).

Nations with 200+ million residents. Kinda on the scale of the U.S.

It certainly helps place the concept of nationhood in perspective.

Thank you, Gregg S. ($11), for your most-welcome generous donation to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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