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A Cultural History
Forward and Introduction

This is an introductory essay of Chinese cultural history,

and it is written for people whose first language is not
Chinese. Chinese, as used here, refers to cultural rather
than ethnical characteristics. By this definition, the shape
and capacity of the Chinese mind do not include a biological
inheritance. To understand the Chinese mind, one has to
speak, read, and to understand the tone, rhythm, imagery,
and gestures of the language and see the world through the
Chinese imagination which is expressed in a diverse multi-
media spectrum, crowded with images and connotations that
have accumulated and refined for over five thousand years.

Cultural identity is not determined by the origin of ones

ancestors although this factor can provide easy entrance to
a culture. It is, rather, a way of life that is defined and
cultivated by a unique world of idioms, rhythms, gestures,
attitudes, and wisdom. It is reflected in the way that one
sees, feels, listens and speaks, and how one sings, dances,
laughs, cries, and dreams. It also includes the ways that
one communicates and relates to others and how one thinks of
oneself and the world.

Language often sets the horizon of vision. As it ages, it

provides more and varied images, expends the scope of
imagination, and stimulates deeper thoughts. Cultural
history tells the story of a community as it constantly
reaches for its horizons, shifts perspectives and sets sail
into the unknown and foreign. As they accumulate new
expression and connotation, speakers and readers fined a
higher level of consciousness and a deeper awareness of
their potential as well as their limitations.

This book illustrates the evolution of the Chinese

repertoire of expression as it accumulated, and transformed.
It depicts how Chinese, as a language and culture, acquired

its unique characteristics as it continuously transformed
and reinvented itself.

* * * *

The initial inspiration for this book is my son. He was born

in North America and considers Chinese, my first language,
to be jibberish. Like many Chinese parents in North America,
I failed to keep him in a language school to read Chinese
literature. It seemed irrelevant, and had little to do with
his life here. He thought and still thinks that learning
Chinese is very difficult and extremely boring. He has
become one of those people, whom everyone thinks is Chinese,
yet he knows practically nothing about his heritage. He is
Chinese in appearance only. Even after three trips to China,
his impressions remain a collection of scattered images:
exotic food, the babble of a foreign tongue, and busy
streets with an ocean of people on bicycles.

The first time that I encountered a person like my son was

thirty years ago, shortly after I arrived in America to
study in a graduate school. I had no family in Philadelphia
and I spent most of my weekends at the home of my friend,
Dr. Yang, a math-professor-turned businessman. To become a
successful American, he gave up university teaching and
opened a restaurant. He made a fortune and bought a huge
house in an exclusive suburban neighborhood. He was very
proud to be a member of the affluent middle class. In order
to emulate the American lifestyle (which he believed would
open doors for his three children), he became a Christian
and a loyal churchgoer. He was also spending a fortune on
schooling for his children.

Yang had an American born, sixteen-year-old daughter. Grace

spoke, gestured, thought, and behaved like any American
teenager. Before long, I realized that she had no
consciousness of her own face.

One Sunday in 1981, Yang was hosting a house party. I

arrived at his elegantly decorated mansion just as Grace was
returning from the church.

Grace loved Sundays because she got to wear her designer

dresses and hats, and sing in the choir. She greeted me at
the door with American hugs and kisses, a warm and emotional

expression that a native Chinese rarely displays. She seemed
very happy, and why not? She possessed everything that her
imagination could conceive. Yes, this was America. With her
father's money she could have everything including the dream
that she was someone else.

My conversation with her on that day concerned one of her

teachers, whom she greatly adored. "He told me that I am the
best and brightest student that he has ever taught in his
twenty- year career." This flattering comment obviously had
a great impact on Grace. She was so excited that her eyes
were sparkling and her voice began to tremble. "Guess what?"
She whispered in my ear: "I did not tell him I am a Chinese!
He has yet to see my parents. To tell you the truth, I did
not tell him because I was afraid that he would change his
mind about me." As she averted her beautiful brown eyes, and
looked down, I could see her long lashes trembling as they
struggled to hold back her tears. Her Chinese roots seemed
to be a burden that was too heavy for her fragile soul to

Looking at her pretty, yet mindful face, I could feel her

pain. I really wanted to cry for her. O, God! She had no
idea that her face had already revealed all of her secrets!
She really wished that she was someone else.

On that day I promised myself that if I had a child, I would

let him know what it meant to be Chinese. I probably would
not mind if he decided to ignore his heritage, but he must
at least hear the story of the real China from a real

From my sons sixteenth birthday, I began to search for a

book about Chinese cultural history written for English
readers. After years of research in my field (cultural
history), and checking all the books published on the
subject, I have yet to find a single one that portrays the
essence of Chinese culture. This was, perhaps, the same
reason that I chose to stay away from Chinese studies in my
graduate school. I studied the history of the America,
Germany, Italy, England, and Egypt. English publications
about China at the time definitely did not present the China
that I know.

Later on in my life, I married a Canadian poet and literary

writer. As a boy he spent hours and hours in his backyard
digging holes and dreaming that he could reach China. As we

were planning our first China trip together, I searched for
a book of cultural history of China to prepare him for the

Once again, disappointed. Most books about China are too

superficial for my husband's taste. The academic books,
mainly written by Chinese scholars, are written in such poor
prose, that educated English readers hardly have the
patience to follow them. A few American Sinologists write
well, but their knowledge and comprehension of China are
fragmentary. The high degree of difficulty of the Chinese
language and the monumental size of its literature forced
them into increasingly narrow fields. In a rigidly
structured academic system, they spend their entire lives
researching textual details and footnotes rather than
dealing with more general and more interesting issues. They
are representation of the fundamental difference between
Chinese culture and those of the West, and clearly exhibit
the reasons that Chinese language, and the social and
political institutions that it has spawned have acquired
unprecedented sustaining power.

The limitation of Sinologists, Chinese or otherwise, is a

language and methodology that is derived from Western
theories of social science and humanities. Most of these
theories were originally formulated by German philosophers.
German is the most competent language in philosophy among
the modern European languages; but it is the least
sensitive, refined and poetic. To apply German philosophy to
Chinese literature is an attempt to measure the volume of
the ocean with a soup bowl, an impossible task. Chinese
experience and reasoning as cultivated by its ancient
literary language is many times more rich, subtle, and more
diverse than the expressive capacity of contemporary
cultural theories. Compared to German, English and Spanish
have a higher degree of poetic fluidity and suggestiveness;
however, they lack the German logical clarity that can
elevate poetic ambiguity to philosophical precision.

Weary of my search, I have decided to write the book myself.

* * * *

I was born in Beijing and spent my formative years (during
the nineteen fifties, sixties and a part of seventies) in
China. I am part of a multi-generational family of
intellectuals who have held prominent positions in Chinese
politics, military, law, media and education. My great
grandparents, grandparents and parents were members of the
high societies of the Manchu Imperial, Nationalist and
Communist regimes. Chinese history, especially, that of the
modern period, is also the history of my family.

I was among the youngest of the educated generation of the

Cultural Revolution. I witnessed both the madness and
profoundness of social change and understood the impact of
Chinese language and culture upon its ideology, social and
political institutions. To enhance the intellectual
portfolio of many generations of my family, I experienced,
first hand, life at the bottom of Chinese society. During my
teens, I lived as a peasant in a remote village at the
cradle of Mao's revolution where he built his military base.
As I toiled, starved, and suffered, I developed not only
empathy for the peasants who had sacrificed everything for
the Revolution (yet were left in the same poverty
afterwards) but also a deeper understanding of how and why
the Chinese system has survived for thousands of years.

I left China in the 1970s and since then have traveled the
world extensively and been away long enough to acquire a
non-Chinese perspective of the world. It took me almost ten
years to learn how to think (not just speak) in English, and
about twenty years to feel and express emotions in the
English sense. During the past thirty years, I have been to
four continents, thirty countries, and learned many non-
Chinese languages. I have written several books on legal
philosophy, and global cultural history. Each time that I
read and write in a different language, I compared it with
my native tongue and my Chinese frame of mind, seeking
similarities and differences. I find a slice of Chinese in
each and every language, English, Latin, Greek, German,
French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. But, there are
always some things missing.

This book is about the things that are uniquely Chinese.

* * * *

Long and uninterrupted literary tradition sets Chinese
culture apart from the rest of the world. Like English today
(the youngest international language) the written language
of China, however pronounced regionally, has been one of the
great unifying and stabilizing factors in Chinese

Chinese is not the only civilization whose history goes back

five thousand years, but it is the longest surviving and
continuing literary tradition in the world. Writing was used
in Greece and Crete during the Bronze Age, but the written
material surviving from that period appears to consist of
inventories and other administrative records, rather than
literature. Greek was a rich oral language (more precisely a
collection of regional dialects) until the eighth century BC
when it successfully adopted the Phoenician alphabet. At
that time, written Chinese was nearly a thousand years old
and possessed a large vocabulary. All other ancient
languages that had developed their own scripts and phonic
systems and were contemporary to ancient Chinese either died
or were replaced, completely or partially, by other
languages. Sumerian, ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Latin
now exist only as referent material to solve scholarly
puzzles. Ancient Semitic languages were reoriented many
times and replaced by several modern languages. Sanskrit,
Latin, and ancient Hebrew became so abstract that they
uprooted from their original oral form and adopted various

The continuing literary tradition channeled Chinese history

along a unique path: a unified empire (with periodic
political instability and war), sustained by a combination
of a secular morality and legal institution, administrated
by a lasting monarchy (including Maos Communist kingdom).
China would have died (as did ancient Egypt and Rome) as an
empire of God and/or law if its written language had not
been revitalized by its poetry, rooted in songs and oral
expression. China might have turned into a Christian or
Buddhist country if its worship of high God and elaborate
religious rites had not been transformed into secular
philosophies and complex ethics through centuries of
literary cultivation. China would have turned to a diverse
and fragmented India if its increasingly refined literary
language completely uprooted from its everyday speech as
Sanskrit had. Chinese civilization survived because its
literary tradition lived and was nourished by a rich soil of
oral, regional, and artistic idioms.

Chinese literature absorbed and assimilated expression of
music, visual imagery, and dramatic gestures. This
historical accumulation of idioms substantially expanded the
horizon of Chinese imagination and elevated its reasoning.
Chinese mind became able to see and hear; it could imagine
and suggest sound and imageries that other languages were
unable to do in words alone until the twentieth century.
Chinese evolved into a language that as abstract and
analytic as German, as fluid as Arabic, and as suggestive
and flexible as English and Spanish. Most important of all,
Chinese had become a language of all of these capacities at
the same time.

This book is a comprehensive history of Chinese imagination

narrated in the familiar terms of English speakers. It
attempts to show that the way in which Chinese literature
grew and reacted to its music and visual expression is
essentially the same, as contemporary English and other
western languages. The only difference is timing. The longer
a language lives, the richer, more diverse and refined it
becomes. What happened to Chinese will take place in younger
languages in their unique and native forms.

An understanding of the history of Chinese language and its

impact upon Chinese mind can be helpful for the students of
Western culture because they present an experience beyond
the horizon of contemporary speakers of western languages
whose literatures have evolved for only few hundred years.
One might see a future of a mature literary language that is
overly inflated with law, and a political system that is
maintained by increasingly sophisticated media rhetoric.
Western scholars of social science and humanities might also
benefit from this study. Within Chinese cultural history,
they can find explanation for many major issues that have
been haunting historians and cultural theorists for decades.
How does language relate to worldview? What would happen to
law after its language loses absolute boundary and binding
power? How do music, visual, and theatrical images influence
literature, especially a mature literature? How does an
established language and ideology penetrate and cultivate
the collective consciousness and unconsciousness by creating
endless repetition of seemingly varied images and tones?

This work provides an alternative to the established

cultural theories and bypasses linguistic jargons such as
linguistic system, universal grammar, original meaning,

truth and emotion. These theories ignore or deny the
restrictions of their own language. To play God in the field
of cultural studies is an attempt to counteract gravity by
pulling ones hair or fly as a bird soaring, swooping, and
changing direction instinctively. Contemporary cultural
theories have produced less a penetrating or valid worldview
than the bold claim of a teenager who announces that he
knows everything about life before he has lived it. The
only way to fly beyond the limitation of ones own language
is to study the history of other (preferably older)

This book traces the emergence of Chinese language from its

concrete interaction with various sub-verbal idioms, music,
theatre, and visual imageries, and investigates how these
idioms contributed to particular literary repertoire at
given time. It sees no fixed boundaries and barriers between
variety of cultural expressions that interacted with
literature differently according to the maturity of literary
language. Without a universal/or psychological shape, the
meanings and connotations of literary language always
fluctuate and transform with the flow of communication in
various idioms at various times.

Focusing on diversity and non-linear development, this

history sees the interaction and exchange among various
forms of expression (tones, images, words, and gestures) as
the main dynamic of Chinese cultural development. Its
language grew and transformed through an accumulation of
sub-literary, literary, and post-literary expression.
Chinese imagination and reasoning were constantly inspired
by and evolved through the expansion of its literary


This part describes how Chinese language emerged with music,

dance, and visual images.

Chapter I: Music, Dance, and Words is a history of formative
Chinese poetry. Like ancient Greek, Ancient Chinese was
born and grew up intact with its music and dance. The
oldest musical instrument dated back to 8000 BC and the
earliest depiction of dance is dated about 3500 BC.
The legends about the pre-history life of music and
dance were handed down by word of mouth, recorded on
oracle bones and isolated pictographs, and accompanied
by musical instruments that have been unearthed by

The formal connection between words, music, and dance was

rhythm. Percussion instruments, which had remained in the
background of the Western music composition until the
twentieth century, were the most important music instrument
in the early Chinese antiquity. Like the ancient Greek epic,
the tone and rhythm of Chinese poetry was fundamentally
shaped, transformed, and refined by music through singing,
chanting, and recitation.

Chapter II: From pictures, graphs, to words illustrates the

birth of the Chinese writing system. Although the exact date
of the beginning of the Chinese written language remains
uncertain, scholars have agreed that the Shang oracle bones
inscription (1766-1122 BC) exhibit a well- developed system
of writing. This system is compared here with Egyptian,
Sumerian/Akkadian, and Mayan writings. It focuses on when
and how these systems emerged from graphic signs and visual
arts and gradually distilled into symbols of meanings and
ideas. By the beginning of the first millennium BC, Chinese
words, although pictographic in appearance, were no longer
pictographs in function. They were words representing
concepts rather than symbols representing things or objects.

Chapter III: Song and Sound of Poetry is a history of the

formation of Chinese literary poetry. Unlike the Medieval
Latin text that dominated the sound of church music and
produced an increasingly perfected unison between words and
melody, Chinese poetry allowed music, both native and
foreign, to provide original and innovative rhythm and tone
for its poetic form. Every type of Chinese poetry originated
from song which provided the basic rhythmic and verbal
structure of the poetic composition. Since Han dynasty (202
BC220 AD), the grammatical structure of Chinese has not
changed; yet its poetry has accumulated increasingly
sophisticated forms. Initially, music that carried poetic
rhyme with four, five, and seven character lines established

as the predominant poetic form until the Tang dynasty (618
907). Ci (literally meant lyrics of a song) in the Song
dynasty (9601279) inspired new forms of poetry. This broke
the monopoly of quantitative poetic structure and led to the
emergence of poetry of uneven lines. This innovation allowed
poets more creative freedom while maintaining a highly
complex form.


This part depicts the development of literary poetry in the
context of the evolution of artistic imagery of Chinese
painting and theatre.

Chapter IV: History of Painting is a brief history of

Chinese painting. It began with ornamental design, such as
Stone Age pottery painted with spirals, zigzags, dots, or
animals. The artists from Han to Tang dynasties mainly
painted human figures. Many examples have been found in
burial sites, where paintings were preserved on silk
banners, lacquered objects, and tomb walls. However,
landscape is considered the highest form of Chinese visual
art. The Five Dynasties period (907-960) and the Northern
Song period (907-1127) is known as the great age of Chinese

Chapter V: Rhythm and Imagery of Nature focuses on the

poetic nature of Chinese landscape and its contribution to
literary refinement. Chinese landscape painting projects a
personal vision of nature on the canvas rather than its
imitation. On this canvas, the painter expresses particular
emotion and momentary mood in various shapes, colors, and
shades, and in distinct degrees of contrast, movement, and
harmony. Painting does not intend only to be seen, but also
to be felt. It is poetry for ones eyes. This visual poetry
contributed a great deal to refocus and refine verbal
imagery, which gradually became as sharp and precise as
painting. It inspired poets to use words as line and color
to paint mental pictures into the minds of readers.

Chapter VI: Rhythm and Imagery of Feelings Chinese lyric
poetry could be called romantic, but only in the sense
of the English poetry of the twentieth century. The
natural images in Chinese poetry were much more
enriched compared to those in English Romantic poetry
of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Chinese
poetry never had to make a general choice between
nature and man. Chinese believed that nature was
neither divine in origin nor universal in its
structure. Mountains, rivers, trees, and flowers, as
isolated objects described a specific vision of a
single literary mind and portrayed the pulse of his

Chapter VII: Poetry on Stage describes the influence of

theatrical performance upon Chinese literature. Unlike
Greek, Roman and English Renaissance theatre, Chinese
theatre, which emerged and flourished from the 8th to 17th
century, was a post-literary theatre, comparable to Italian
opera and the modern theatres of Europe and North America
during the twentieth century. It was concerned less with
story (plot), and concentrated on the theatrical display and
performance as words were heard, seen and acted out. It
equipped words with music and dramatic affect that was not
possible to be perceived by silent reading alone. After
being saturated in theatre for centuries, Chinese words now,
like modern English, provoke various sound (music), imagery
(scenery and gesture), and meaning.

Chapter VIII: Conclusions

The most distinct character of Chinese culture is its
exceptional diversity and fluidity. The boundaries between
words, literary genres, literature and philosophy, reality
and fiction, have leveled out and intermingled by timeless
literary evolution. A literary mind that is trained in its
entire repertoire acquires a much larger and multi-
dimensional vision compared to one that emerges from younger
culture. The Chinese mind can simultaneously reach for the
most analytical and the most sensual expression without
losing its literary and logical coherence. However, only a
small minority of Chinese speakers is adequately educated in
its literature because everyday spoken Chinese only includes
a small fraction (perhaps one or two percent) of its known
written vocabulary, and a functional literacy requires
knowledge of only about up to five percent of Chinese words.