By Steve Kelman

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China's future may be glimpsed in its past

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.

Posted on Jul 29, 2011 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Tue, Aug 2, 2011 AZ

Have not been to Xi'an before, but have heard a lot of stories of it.I have said that the thing in history that is most unlikely to happen is to learn from the history.Even thought the muciple g'vt of Xi'an has built the Daming Palace to commemorate the glorious dynasties, I don't think they are meant to learn somthing from the history. They are doing this simply to show off in front of the central g'vt so to let the central know that they have done a brilliant job on their land.BTW, it is confirmed that the journalist/TV producer Wang Chunlei has been repremanded and sacked from CCTV. His official webpage on Weibo disappeared, too.

Tue, Aug 2, 2011 Yang Wang BJ

It's true that glory from Tang Dynasty is one of the most significant sources of Chinese pride. Tang dynasty's glory is more than rich and powerful, but a vibrant culture that was influential to the whole known world. For example, after decline of buddihism in India, it was enriched and then further introduced to Korea and Japan via Tang empire, Kyoto to was built after the model of Chang'an (today's Xi'an); another case was paper, after a battle between Tang and Persia, some captured artisan introduce paper to Persia and later further to the west. Similar to America today, Tang was a cosmopolitan empire not only for its military glory and material prosperity, but for its export of literature, architecture, ideology, and technology. In that sense, China today is far from being a superpower. btw, Palace in Tang dynasty is called Daming(great brightness) instead of Deming, and the size of Chang'an during Tang dynasy was about ten times than the area of xi'an inside its city wall. Xi'an is a name given to the medium-sized fort against northwestern babarian during the Ming dynasty (around 14th century AD)

Mon, Aug 1, 2011

I think it's funny how some Chineese still talk about their former glory days, which were ** 1000 ** years ago! That is along time ago.

Sun, Jul 31, 2011 Chun Li Beijing

Why do American basically regard China as a poor nation? I can understand why most Chinese think China is a rich and powerful country that went through a bad period and then is regaining her glory. At least, in our historical textbook, we are taught with the notion that China is big country and has the glorious history. Realistically, China exerts her influence toward the world, after all because she has large population and broad land. Of course, China’s development needs to be reformed better. I guess the misunderstanding between Chinese and American lies in the incomprehension of each other’s history and culture.

Sun, Jul 31, 2011 Chun Li Beijing

Please allow me point out that, in our textbook, Tang Dynasty existed from 618 AD to 901 AD, not around 1000 AD. I don’t know why I cannot read the whole article via Sogou browser. What a pity!

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