Wednesday, 10 April 2013

All under heaven

Walk 10 li and speech starts to get 'fuzzy'; walk 50 li and it is hard to understand anything. 

Nine Flowers Mountain, Anhui
Robert André LaFleur

For all the sociolinguistic fireworks in that old Chinese saying, a basic geographical solidity lies beneath it. The farther you walk, the harder it is to understand what people are saying in a dialectally challenged world. One of the most famous phrases in all of Chinese history has a similar geographical bent. Laozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher, noted that the journey of a thousand li begins beneath one’s feet (千里之行始於足下). The popular Western version is somewhat different: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Both the correct one and the cultural translation still hold to a world in which distance can be measured in steps, li (about a third of a mile) and miles. 

Let us call this 'practical geography.' 

One more transparent example will ensure that the practical is understood as the practiced - that people often go places, and with a purpose. Imagine travellers on the Silk Road in the thirteenth century. Their caravans loaded with treasure, they lumber between oases on what was more route than road. Such travellers not infrequently found themselves lost, and could be heard asking some version of these words: "Which way (and how far) is it to Beijing?" They had a purpose, and only the combination of vast, measured spaces and their concerted labour separated them from it. Space was real (and often so gritty and sandy as to cause frustration and despair). Their task was to cover it. 


Nine Flowers Mountain, China
These examples represent a fair approximation of the ways we usually talk about distance. Not everything fits GoogleMaps®, though, and that is the real purpose of this week’s post. 'Real' geography is just our way of getting started. We are going to discuss imaginative forms of time, space, and distance, and the best way to begin might well be with another story. Ten years ago, while serving as the Chinese translator and cultural guide for a colleague, I felt so overwhelmed with work that I encouraged her to explore a little on her own one day. While I sat and caught up on e-mail at the Friendship Hotel, she decided to go to the Temple of Heaven. Approaching the English-speaking help desk, she told of her plans to visit the venerable altar for imperial sacrifices on the southwest side of the city. She asked a version of the practical question we saw above: "How far is it to the Temple of Heaven?" Pretty straightforward; practical, even. The answer was anything but that, however. 

"It’s somewhere between near and far."

When she told me the story later that day, I thought again about what I regard as conceptual or imaginative geography. Depending on how much neuroscience you study, this may or may not be a new idea for you. Still, I had rarely thought about the interstices of conceptual geography and Chinese language. What I am certain that she heard was something along the lines of 近遠之間 (near-far’s middle-area). The more I reflected, the more I began to realise that Chinese thought and religious practice has an enormous amount to do with these 'middle areas.' My post last week on the Temple of Heaven explained how the temple itself, with its altars to heaven, is all about middles. Chinese sacred architecture connects to a centred heavenly realm and the moral force of the heavens gushes out in each of the four cardinal directions. 

Heaven (天) is 'in the middle' (中). The centred virtues of space above link to the vast territories of peopled earth below, just as sunlight seems to shine from on high and illuminate the world beneath it. From there, we come to one of the most significant themes in Chinese history, philosophy, and religion - the not uncontroversial idea that territories governed by Chinese rulers were in some sense a realm lying 'under heaven'. So powerful was this idea that, for the vast majority of Chinese imperial history, what we today call 'China' was not referred to in any such manner. The realm, the country, the dynastic territories - all were referred to by two characters and one idea: 天下, (all) under heaven. 

Mount Tai Temple, China
There is perhaps no more famous reference in Chinese literature than a resonant passage in the Book of Documents (尚書) that displays imaginative geography in a sequence of widening circles, like ripples on a pond struck by a heavenly pebble: "Order was established in all areas of the Nine Provinces…The inner five hundred li composed the centered territory and its outskirts…Five hundred li further on lay the territory of the nobility, extending outward from close allies to vassals. Five hundred li further still were the territories of pacification: in the first three hundred could be found the cultivation of culture and education; in the next two hundred were the concerted exertions of military arts and defense.

"Five hundred li further yet was the territory of constraint: in the first three hundred were found the tribes of the Yi peoples; in the next two hundred were the Cai. Finally, the most distant five hundred li were known as the desolate territories: the first three hundred were occupied by the Man people; the outermost ring held exiled convicts."

To be sure, the geography is impossible. Peoples and cultures cannot vary in expanding zones of 500 li. Yet here we have one of the earliest cultural documents in China asserting that goodness and 'proper' culture lie in the centre, just as they weaken and are eventually lost in each successive region away from the centre. It carries a quite simple, yet problematic, message. Virtue is centred; those living beyond are not fully 'one of us'. It is a theme that, despite its fanciful tones, would be repeated throughout Chinese history. 

Mount Tai Temple, China
To understand the conceptual force of all under heaven, as well as its inherent flaws, is to understand the general outline of China's religious history. Centredness was a powerful integrative force, to be sure. It also led to a peculiar relationship to ideas from afar. As we will see in coming posts, some of those interactions were fruitful in profound and surprising ways. The acceptance and integration of Buddhism into a syncretic conceptual network is one example. Frustration and failure in dealing with Western Christianity and technology - not to mention the religious beliefs of peoples in western, central, and northern Asia - show the very real downside to such centralized thinking. 

We have just started down the middle path. Many li stretch ahead, but remember - the journey of a thousand ideas begins with all that is above and beneath us. @sima1085


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