Friday, November 13, 2009 11/13/09 - chinese myths

In today's excerpt - Chinese myths:

"The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Long
March, even the Giant Panda? Myths, declare
the revisionist scholars. ...

"Contrary to the tourist brochures, the Great
Wall has been shown to be
not 'over 2,000 years old', not '6,000 miles
[9,700 kilometres] long', not 'visible
from outer space' - not visible on the ground
in many places - and never
to have been a single continuous structure.'
It did not keep out marauding
nomads nor was that its original purpose;
instead of defending and defining
Chinese territory, it was probably designed
to augment and project it.' Those
sections near Beijing that may conveniently
be inspected today have been
substantially reconstructed for just such
inspection; and the rubble and footings from
which they rise are those of Ming
fortifications no older than the
palaces in the Forbidden City or London's
Hampton Court.

"Likewise the Grand Canal. Reaching from the
Yangzi delta to the Yellow
River (Huang He), a distance of about 1,100
kilometres (700 miles), the canal
is supposed to have served as a main artery
between China's productive
heartland and its brain of government. Laid
out in the seventh century
AD, it did indeed connect the
rice-surplus south to the often
cereal-deficient north. Yet it, too, was
never a single continuous
construction, more a series of
well-engineered waterways. ... The system was
rarely operational
throughout its entirety because of variable
water flow, the rainy season in
the north not coinciding with that in the
south; colossal manpower was
needed to haul the heavily laden transports
and work the locks; dredging
and maintenance proved prohibitively
expensive; and so frequent were the
necessary realignments of the system that
there are now almost as many
abandoned sections of Grand Canal as there
are of Great Wall.

"More controversially, the Long March, that
1934-35 epic of heroic
communist endeavour, has been disparaged as
neither as long nor as heroic
as supposed. It is said the battles and
skirmishes en route were exaggerated, if not
contrived, for propaganda purposes; and of
the 80,000 troops
who began the march in Jiangxi in the
south-east, only 8,000 actually
foot-slogged their way right round China's
mountainous perimeter to
Yan'an in the north-west. As for the rest,
some perished but most simply
dropped out long before the 9,700-kilometre
(6,000-mile) march was
completed. And of those who did complete it,
one at least seldom marched;
Mao, we are assured, was borne along on a

"Maybe the Giant Panda, a byword for
endangered icons if ever there
was one, is on safer ground. In the 1960s and
'70s the nearly extinct
creature, together with some acrobatic
ping-pong players, emerged as a
notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of
the beleaguered People's Republic.
Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the
pandas, especially females, were
freely bestowed on deserving heads of state.
The presentations were
described as 'friendship gestures', and
experimental breeding was encouraged as if a
successful issue might somehow cement the
political entente.
But not any more. From sparse references in
classic texts such as the 'Book
of Documents' a pedigree of undoubted
antiquity has been
constructed for the panda and a standard name
awarded to it. Now known
as the Daxiongmao or 'Great Bear-Cat', its
habits have been found sufficiently
inoffensive to merit its promotion as a
'universal symbol of peace';
its numbers have stabilised, perhaps
increased, thanks to zealous conservation;
and lest anyone harbour designs on such a
national paragon, no
longer may Giant Pandas be expatriated. All
are Chinese pandas. Foreign
zoos may only lease them, the lease being for
ten years, the rental fee
around $2 million per annum, and any cubs
born during the rental being
deemed to inherit the nationality of their
mother - and the same terms of contract. Like
its piebald image as featured in countless
brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself
become a franchise."

John Keay, China, Basic Books,
Copyright 2009 by John Keay, pp. 1-3.


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