China's future may be glimpsed in its past

Steve Kelman considers the Tang Dynasty and its potential reverberations today.

I have been visiting the city of Xi'an in central China, home of the Terracotta warriors from one of China's oldest dynasties (and hence a place many American tourists visit), and also the capital of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, which ruled China for more than 200 years around 1000 A.D.

Recently, the city opened an enormous park at the site of the Deming ("virtue and brightness") Palace complex, home of the Tang emperors. The palaces themselves were destroyed many centuries ago, but the park has a museum and an amazing 3-D movie shown on an IMAX screen that gives a dramatized story of an episode in Tang Dynasty history. Visiting the area gave me a chance to learn from several Chinese professors about the key role the Tang Dynasty plays in Chinese consciousness.
It is a widespread view in Chinese culture that the Tang Dynasty was the golden age of China. Why? That is an interesting question because it yields different answers that suggest different views of China's current situation and future.

Everyone agrees that Tang was a period when China enjoyed a great deal of contact with other nations, more than in any other dynasty — indeed, the volume on the Tang Dynasty in the Harvard University Press series on Chinese dynasties is called "China's Cosmopolitan Empire."

These contacts were of two sorts. On the one hand, this was the heyday of the Silk Road of trade routes with the West. In China, the Silk Road terminated in Xi'an, the Tang capital. Many foreigners lived in the city, on the west side.

On the other hand, this was also the classic period where foreign ambassadors came to the emperor's court to kowtow and express subservience — the period when Chinese definitely thought of themselves as the most powerful and richest country in the world. Indeed, in the 3-D movie, a Japanese professor participating in an archeological dig with evidence of Chinese influence in far-off central Asia, says something to the effect of "Of course during this period Japan and Korea had much to learn from China."
So when Chinese admire the Tang Dynasty, what are they admiring?  What are they hoping for China to become?
Different people admire different aspects of the period. But no matter what answer one may hear in China, the common thread is that there is a very important difference between how Chinese and most Americans think of the current rise of China.

Most of the Chinese students I’ve talked to during this trip, when I ask them whether they think China is a poor nation becoming rich and powerful, or a rich and powerful nation that went through a bad period and is regaining its former glory, pick the second option. I am guessing that the overwhelming majority of Americans look at China in the first way. That's a gap in perceptions that makes understanding more difficult.