Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Isolated China

It has been a while since I posted any links to the site Strange Maps. I've neglected Strange Maps mainly because it is too interesting: if every good map there was reposted here, I'd have a mirror site. So I restrain myself and only mention those with a particular relevance to the purposes of this site.

Today's map addresses a theme that any world history students I've had in the last few years will recognize from the textbook we've been using: the uniqueness of China and the special importance of China in the development of human history. The map and the Strange Maps commentary is drawn from an article by John Mauldin at the site InvestorsInsight;
both commentaries are worth a look.

The point of the map is that China as defined by its internationally recognized boundaries, is not identical to the area inhabited by the Han Chinese (who some of us call the "ethnic Chinese"), all one billion of them plus. Further, the one billion Han who live in one of the most intensively agricultural areas of the world are somewhat isolated from other rich agricultural areas, the kind that can support the rich cultures that in any era are usually called civilized. On one hand there are seas that most Han or and their governments have been traditionally reluctant to sail; on the other, deserts and jungles and mountains separate them from the Indian subcontinent and other populous regions. From this situation follow a couple of others: in search of trade, security or expansion, China can turn to inland empire or overseas contacts, or resistance to outside interference in either direction. It is however hard to do both. A commitment to expansion or outside interaction puts stress on the unity of the Han Chinese homeland. If you want unity and internal peace, isolation is the best strategy. But then the outsiders have the initiative, whether they are pirates or nomad raiders or more up-to-date challengers.

But perhaps more important is the Chinese self-image that results from this semi-isolation. From the inside, Chinese culture is a huge continuum where many basic factors are very similar. It's not that China doesn't have its internal variations, even if we are talking only about the central Han-dominated area. It's that the variations between Island China and the rest of the world are so much bigger. And Island China has few direct boundaries with other heavily inhabited and otherwise comparable cultural regions. Is it surprising then that many Chinese have and have had a very strong notion of their own uniqueness?

Such an analysis could be applied to other major cultures. How about Island USA? How about Island Russia? Food for thought.

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