The Story of ChinaDVD - 2017
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China is the oldest nation on earth. For thousands of years its rulers believed their task was to keep human society in balance with the eternal order of the universe. The emperor who achieved that harmony would receive the mandate of heaven, blessed by the ancestors. But in the late 19th century the collision with the West shook China to its core. In midwinter 1899, the emperor came here to the Altar of Heaven in Beijing to ask the ancestors for support in China's hour of crisis, as the empire crumbled in the face of rebellion and foreign armies. It was the last time the ritual was performed. Here, just before dawn on the winter solstice .
Today China is writing its own story once more, under a new mandate. So long the greatest civilisation on earth, China is rising again. It's a great time to be looking at the events which have shaped the history of China and the ideals which have made its culture so distinctive and so brilliant for so long.
All four of the great old world civilisations began on rivers -- the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Yellow River. China alone has come down until today. It was the ability to harness the waters of the river for irrigation that enabled ancient people to feed bigger and bigger populations and eventually to create cities and make civilisation. But where the rising of the Nile, for example, was predictable to the day and seen by the Egyptians as a joyful and benign source of life, the Yellow River here in China has been a destroyer. The killer of millions in its great floods throughout Chinese history, right up to the 20th century. And so the beginnings of Chinese history, the control of the river and its environment, lay at the very heart of political power. And the tale of the king who tamed the mighty Yellow River and claimed the right to rule the hundreds of tribes along its banks became a myth still told by today's storytellers.
China's oldest religion is Taoism. In their ceremonies and their music the Taoists, the "seekers after the Way", are a living link with these ancient ideas about the relation of the kingdoms of earth and heaven.
1899, Chinese scholar called Wang Yirong, who was the Chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing, a great scholar and a collector of ancient bronzes. He was interested in the earliest Chinese writing systems. He falls ill with malaria and his local pharmacy, just like this one, delivers a series of ingredients which include dragon bones. These were animal bones Just like this, they use them today… which you ground up and boiled and drank to alleviate the fever. When he opened the packet, to his amazement, this is what he saw. Some of the bones were inscribed with what he could see were primitive forms of the old writing that he knew from the inscriptions on his bronzes.
Right across the Old World in the sixth century BC, thinkers and rulers were debating these ideas. A new age of human thought had dawned, what we call the Axis Age. The Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophets, the Buddha in India, all of them were wrestling with ideas about conscience and social justice and human autonomy. How can a king be just in violent times? What is law and what is virtue? Here in China it was said 100 schools bloomed. And the most famous thinker came from an obscure state in eastern China. He was descended from a family of Shang diviners, oracle-bone crackers. And his obsession was not the inner life but how we act in the public world. Small-town China, but what a small town. Because this place, Qufu, has nearly 3,000 years of continuity, life on this spot. And it gave birth to one of the most influential figures in the history of the world, Confucius.
Confucius was not an innovator, he was the distiller, the crystalliser of an already ancient tradition. The idea of the virtuous ruler. Of filial piety, of ritual and ceremony as the glue that bound society together and the overruling power of education. Those are the values that still underlie Chinese values today. And South Asian values from Korea and Japan all the way down to Vietnam. What a legacy.
Mandate of Heaven. The early Chinese believed their rulers should protect the people, keeping harmony with the order of heaven. It was said the first Shang king had even offered himself as a sacrifice in time of drought. But legend said the last Shang king was so depraved and cruel that heaven withdrew its mandate, and it gave a sign. Five planets came together in the rarest of conjunctions. 'As this happens only once every 516 years, we can pin down the very day.
That's Confucius's little blue book … 'The Analects would become China's guide 'to the principles of good government.' He says that if you govern people by cheng -- it could be translated as "law" or "punishment" -- then you get people who have no sense of shame. You get order but people don't really know what they're doing wrong. But then if you govern by de -- a sense of virtue, morality -- then people have a sense of shame and with that idea it's implied that they will have moral progress as well. It's a very old idea in the story of China that the basis of all government is not law but established morality. And the key end -- to preserve the state. In the West we tend to think of Confucius as an archconservative, a bit pious and a bit pompous. But without virtue he thought any rule is morally bankrupt and should be resisted, even until death.
Still today the Chinese call themselves Han. They speak of "our Han culture" and "Han speech". As if one great tribe. A tribe with many stories but one great story -- China itself. And at the very heart of the story the link between the state and the family and the ancestors. Over the next 2,000 years these values will run under the surface of the great river of Chinese history. Often tested, sometimes seemingly broken, but still passed on across even the tyrannies and cruelties of the 20th century. At the Temple of Nuwa, the mother goddess of the Chinese people, the pilgrims are gathering again to give thanks to the ancestors. This prayer ceremony was last done 100 years ago at the end of the empire. Now the rituals are brought back to life for today's people, recreated with words from sacred books over 2,000 years old. It's a symbol of today's China.
This floating life is just like the water under the ice, flowing eastwards day and night and no-one notices.
In the seventh century, when Europe was in its Dark Age, Tang Dynasty China became the greatest power on earth and would be for 1,000 years until the rise of the West.
It's often said that in history China has been a closed civilisation, introverted, cutting itself off from the world. And there have been times when it has looked that way, but since prehistory China has never been isolated and has thrived on contact. And the Tang Dynasty was a great age of international connection. That time, vast numbers of foreign peoples poured into China with exotic goods, foods and ideas, and even new religions. And the great pathway of exchange was the Silk Road.
So it is a place rich in culture, rich in trade and merchants and interested in foreigners. And if you want to see just how interested, go a few miles outside Luoyang where the most famous Indian of all time is commemorated. The Buddha. The foreigner who most fascinated the Chinese through the whole of their history. The adoption of this Indian religion would leave its mark on the very DNA of Chinese civilisation.
"The way for humanity, at different times, different places, "did not have the same name." And the great Sage, at different times and different places, "was not in the same human body." Over history, heaven ordained "that true religion would be established in different countries " and different climates so that all of humanity could be saved." And we've considered the Christian scriptures and have decided that, " in all their essentials," they are about the core values of humanity "and we have decreed that they be propagated throughout the Empire."
And the key to the success of the city and to the rise of the south was one of China's great practical achievements, the Grand Canal. Built at the start of the 600s the canal connected the north and the south with the river routes east and west. And it is still crucial to today's economy. Originally built 1,500 years ago, Shaobo Lock today handles over 70 million tonnes a year. It's an amazing scene. It goes on all through the day, does it? Yes, 24 hours a day.
- 24 hours a day!
- Wow! It took five million men to build the first section in 605, eventually running north to a small place called Beijing.
China's influence on the East was as profound as Rome in the Latin West. In the East, in the seventh century, all roads led to Xi'an. And if you want a symbol of the age, just outside Xi'an stand the statues of 108 ambassadors from Central Asia to Japan, and Vietnam to Persia.
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