Civilizations: China

Perhaps the most astute comment ever made about China came not from Mao Tse-tung, Confucius, or even Marco Polo it appeared in a routine memorandum written by Napoleon Bonaparte: "There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep, for when he awakens he will shake the world.

China is huge and its civilization almost unthinkably ancient: traces of organized farming communities, including evidence of domesticated animals, have been dated back to at least 10,000 BC! These facts have sometimes caused Western observers to regard it as a vast, inert monolith. In reality, Chinese civilization evolved from the interaction (often violent, always dynamic) of many different races, tribes, and primitive cultures. Many centuries of diversity (and adversity) created a civilization of great resiliency, enormous innate strength, and a questing intellectual curiosity that sometimes produced innovations that did not appear in foreign cultures until much later.

Citizens of the earliest documented dynasty (the Hsia kingdom, c. 2200 – 1766 BB) employed plows, irrigation systems, bronze weapons, a true written (as opposed to pictographic) language, and a fairly sophisticated administrative bureaucracy, at least 500 years before Moses crossed the Red Sea. Quite without any “help” from Europeans, the Chinese invented paper, printing, the wheelbarrow, the compass, the crossbow, and most famously, gunpowder. Small wonder that when Chinese merchants first encountered Western traders (c. 100 BC), they regarded this hairy, vulgar, greedy people as “barbarians”.

While most non-Chinese cultures were still pouring blood on the altars of uncouth stone gods, China gave birth to Mankind’s gentlest, most tolerant religious philosophy: Buddhism. And, despite centuries of civil strife, catastrophic invasions, natural disasters of Biblical proportions, and the occasional truly memorable massacre or epidemic, every Chinese dynasty nurtured, even venerated the fine arts. Armies might be necessary, and good generals were preferable to nincompoops, but a great poet, painter, or designer of exquisite lacquerware was generally accorded much more respect than a field marshal.

China’s great enduring strength was a combination of natural resources (including the largest, most fertile river valleys in the world), its sheer unconquerable vastness, and its capacity to mobilize armies on a scale that could not be matched by any foe, along with labor forces capable of colossal achievements. One cannot imagine any European civilization, circa 220 BC, even conceiving of a project like the Great Wall, much less having the manpower to actually construct it across a distance of nearly 4,000 miles.

In Empires, the Chinese civilization may not be the most technologically agile contender – its very size makes it seem slow and ponderous at times – but its natural resources and gigantic manpower advantage provide a foundation for tremendous economic power, sooner or later. Well-led, the Chinese – even when their culture is going through a lethargic period – can outlast or exhaust almost any enemy who might exhibit a temporarily superior technology. And the fitful brilliance of its military inventors can produce some wondrous, exotic, and very dangerous battlefield innovations.

As the Mongols and the Japanese learned (the hard way), it is a grave mistake to underestimate China…at any time in history.

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