Questions about China

I would like to know more about the Great Wall of China and why it was constructed.
The Great Wall is the single greatest construction project ever carried out before this century. It runs about 4,500 miles from east to west in northern China. There had been earlier defensive walls, but the Wall became Great when in the late 3rd century BCE the First Emperor connected several of them and extended the whole considerably in an attempt to keep maurauding nomads and invaders out of China. Scholars disagree about how well it worked.

The pieces tourists visit near Beijing are considerably later than the First Emperor's day.

It is often said that it is the only human-made object visible from space (or, more dramatically, from the moon): but this is dubious, since although it is very long, it is not very wide. A site explaining that this is a myth.

I would like further explanation of the arts--like the writing. I think it's so interesting because it's foreign.
Chinese writing is famous for its beauty, and the Chinese themselves have long regarded calligraphy as an important art. Ideally, the characters should be beautifully formed by hand in a combination of spontaneity and craft. Calligraphers must practice long and hard to achieve the beautiful look of classic writing.

It is tempting to regard Chinese characters as a series of little pictures, and many introductions to the subject overstress the pictorial aspect. Just as there are many different type faces on a modern Western computer, there are many ways to write the same characters. For examples, see "China the Beautiful."

I noticed that the Chinese had pillar structures in their architecture. Did they get these ideas from Egypt?
Post-and-lintel construction (the "posts" are the pillars) is pretty universal, and probably goes back before the Egyptians. It's the particular form of the Egyptian temple pillars, shaped like tree trunks, that inspired the Greeks. I suspect the Chinese developed their own construction styles separately but I don't really know.

I would like to know more about Confucius' ideas of order.
You'll find some good information at http://www.friesian.com/confuci.htm.

I was wondering if you could explain more about the mandate of Heaven.
A mandate can be understood as a sort of vote of confidence. When the people overwhelmingly elect and official, he is said to have their "mandate." The Chinese thought of their rulers as being given their mandates not by democratic elections, but by the will of the Gods in Heaven. That's what the "Mandate of Heaven" means--these rulers deserve to have power because the Gods have chosen them and support them. So far, this all sounds like the Western concept of the Divine Right of Kings. What makes the Chinese version different is that they acknowledged than Heaven could remove its mandate when the ruler was not living up to proper Confucian standards. Such a concept is handy if you are a rebel who has just overthrown the previous government: you can claim that the defeated rulers had lost the mandate of Heaven, and it has now passed to you. No other nation had so prominently built into its political concepts a concept that explained how the government could be overturned without the result being mere chaos. Centuries might pass, but eventually everyone expected that a dynasty would grow corrupt and lose the mandate of Heaven.

During Song Dynasty exams, could the poor take them to become officials?
Theoretically yes, and there were at times rather poor scholars; but truly impoverished peasants had no access to education or the leisure necessary to take the exams.

Why weren't the Chinese interested in anything European? Why is it that they only wanted European money?
Until the mid-17th century, China was the leading nation of the world. It had the most advanced technology, the mostly highly developed economy, some of the world's most beautiful and sophisticated art and literature. It was a huge nation, very self-sufficient. While China was at its height, Europe was in a relatively crude stage of development. They got into the habit of thinking of themselves as literally the center of the world and lost interest in outside matters--justifiably--because nothing they had seen of Europeans impressed them very much.

Since there was tension between Confucianism and Buddhism, have there ever been religious wars fought amongst the two sides? If so, what weere some major results?
The early T'ang emperors were very strong Buddhists, yet tolerant of Confucianism. However, in several periods Confucian governments persecuted Buddhists. It didn't come to war because Buddhists were never an organized military force. Buddhists died for their faith, but they didn't kill for it.

What does the weird sitting-leg arrangements do for those who meditate (Buddhism)? What's the point of doing that?
Keep in mind that in the cultures where Buddhism originated and flourished, people usually sat on the ground, not on chairs. The "lotus posture" you see in a lot of images is not particularly weird by their standards. It became tradition to have various aspects of the Buddha depicted as sitting in various postures, simply for identification. Some meditation disciplines stress certain bodily postures to promote certain kinds of awareness in the meditator.

How similar is daily life in ancient China like that of today?
Not very similar at all. China went through a series of profound revolutions starting in the middle of this century, and is now developing into a major capitalist nation, paradoxically under the guidance of the Communist Party. There is probably far more change than continuity. But China was remarkably stable until this century.

I would like to know more about the Chinese family structure. What was it like in the household?
The structure was much like that of many cultures: oldest male at the head, younger males under him, women subordinated to men. Women left home and joined the extended families of their husbands, subservient to everyone older than themselves, especially to the eldest wife. Rich men often had several wives; poor men often had none. To get some idea of what it was like to live in a traditional wealthy home, you could watch the great movie Raise the Red Lantern, set early in this century but reflecting traditional life. It shows how hard polygamy was on women. (Extra credit available.)

If Chinese were so into nature, why did they kill all (most all) their tigers?
They only got around to slaughtering most of the tigers in this century. Many Chinese men have been obsessed with the quest for drugs to increase potency, and several rare animal species have suffered as a result. I've always thought the best thing environmentalists could do in China would be to promote Viagra. Surely it couldn't be more expensive than tiger bones and bear gall bladders--the current favorites.


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