Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /nfs/c03/h02/mnt/56080/domains/varnam.nationalinterest.in/html/wp-content/themes/canvas/functions/admin-hooks.php on line 160
Tag Archives | China

The Chinese Manusmriti

The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty

The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty

Xi Shi, who was a contemporary of Buddha, was one of the four beauties of ancient China.  It seems she was so beautiful that when they looked her, the fish forgot to swim and sank and the birds forgot to flap their wings and fell to the ground. She was the concubine of King Fuchai of Wu who it seems was so smitten by her beauty that like King You of the Zhou, he forgot his dharma. King Fuchai’s kingdom was invaded and he was forced to commit suicide.

Examples of Bao Si and Xi Shi taught the Chinese that women can be dangerous and can bring down the city and the nation. Thus when the heavy handed Qin dynasty collapsed and the Han dynasty emerged in the 3rd century BCE, they made changes to differentiate themselves from the Qin. Since the Qin followed a centralized model of administration, the Han followed a decentralized model. The Han also switched from the legalistic model to a Confucian model and with that patriarchy was built into the system.

It was clear that women were trouble and had to be kept out of power. If a woman was educated, it was considered equivalent to arming the enemy. There were three obedience and four virtues a woman had to practice in the Confucian culture.

The three obediences dictate that a woman must obey her father before manage, her husband after marriage and her sons after her husband’s death.These rules originated in conventions concerning the appropriate length of a woman’s mourning period following the death of her father and husband, gradually becoming the normative code insuring women’s lifelong subordination to men.[Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium: Narrative Analyses and Gender Politics]

The four virtues related to the behavior of women and was adopted by families across the nation and the subordination of women was institutionalized.

What about Greece, the land of democracy and culture? It is from Greece that we get the story of Pandora, the woman who bought all the evils to humanity, thus hammering a similar point that women are a problem and have to be controlled. According to Meno, “A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband.”

From Greece again comes the story of Tiresias which goes like this. Once Zeus and his wife Hera have an argument on who has more pleasure during sex – man or woman. Since they could not come to an agreement, they called Tiresias who was transformed as a woman for seven years (long story). Tiresias replied, “”Of ten parts a man enjoys one only.” Once again, a good reason to control women.

Pandora was followed by Eve in the Hebrew Bible and all these stories, from the East and West, justified patriarchy. As global historians, when we examine such stories we find that patriarchy was not restricted to just one culture, but it transcended space in the ancient world.


  1. Lecture 18, 24of MMW 11 by Prof. Matthew Herbst at UCSD
  2. Chen, Ya-chen. Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium: Narrative Analyses and Gender Politics. Lexington Books, 2012.
Comments { 0 }

The King who cried Wolf

Francis Barlow's illustration of the fable, 1687

Francis Barlow’s illustration of the fable, 1687

Aesop’s Fable of the boy who cried wolf is well known, but less known is a story from Chinese history which parallels this.

It happened during the reign of King You of the Zhou dynasty in the 8th century BCE. He had a concubine named Bao Si whom he loved more than the queen. The queen and her son were demoted and Bao Si and her son took the place. Everything looked good, except for one thing: Bao Si would not smile. This “no-laughing-matter” bothered the king and he pondered over various solutions.

The Zhou dynasty was established in the 11th century BCE and ruled by what is known as the Mandate of Heaven. According to this theory, the heaven would react based on the character of the king. If the king had bad character and did not govern properly, the heaven would send messages to correct him. The king had to govern with fairness and provide justice. In other words, he had to govern based on dharma. Confucius would be born into during the reign of this dynasty, but centuries later.

The king had around 148 vassals and they were kept happy and loyal. Once the beacon fire which is lit to summon the vassals in case of an emergency was accidentaly  lit. Various armies reached the capital only to find that it was a false alarm. But Bao Si was very happy seeing the military parade. Seeing her smiley face,  King You lit the beacons again and again and after a few times, the feudal lords said, “You, this is not funny!”

Then one day the real wolf showed up: the steppe people attacked and the beacons were lit again. This time the vassals ignored the king’s summons. The steppe people took over the capital in the Wei valley, killed the king and captured Bao Si. That was the end of the Western Zhou.

Is there any truth to this story? What is known is that the Western Zhou was attacked and the king was killed at this point. Regarding Bao Si, it loos like the story was made up by Chinese historians to either drum up the point that kings (or CIA directors) should not fall under the spell of women or to illustrate how a woman could cause the fall of a dynasty.


  1. MMW 11, Lecture 14 by Prof. Matthew Herbst at UC San Diego
  2. Tanner, Harold Miles. China: A History. Hackett Publishing, 2009.
  3.  Feng, Li. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045-771 BC. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Comments { 0 }

The Zheng He Coin

China’s role in Africa — the infrastructure projects in East Africa, investments in Sudan’s oil industry, mining contracts with various nations — is getting lot of attention these days.  Now China is being accused of colonization and all the evils associated with Western powers.

The Chinese presence in Africa is not new; it is at least six centuries old. Zhu Di, the third Ming emperor sent a fleet of ships under the command of Zheng He in 1405 CE.There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships which held lacquers, porcelain, and silks carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.

Under Zheng He’s leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast.

Now, besides doctors, diplomats and businessmen, China has also sent archaeologists to Africa and they have found a brass coin with a square hole near Malindi in Kenya (see video). This coin was minted between 1403 and 1424 and could have reached Africa through Zheng He’s fleet.

First, ancient texts told of Zheng He’s visit to the Sultan of Malindi – the most powerful coastal ruler of the time. But they also mentioned that Malindi was by a river mouth; something that the present town of Malindi doesn’t have, but that Mambrui does.

The old cemetery in Mambrui also has a famous circular tomb-stone embedded with 400-year-old Chinese porcelain bowls hinting at the region’s long-standing relationship with the East.

In the broad L-shaped trench that the team dug on the edge of the cemetery, they began finding what they were looking for.

First, they uncovered the remains of an iron smelter and iron slag.

Then, Mohamed Mchuria, a coastal archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya, unearthed a stunning fragment of porcelain that Prof Qin believes came from a famous kiln called Long Quan that made porcelain exclusively for the royal family in the early Ming Dynasty.[Could a rusty coin re-write Chinese-African history]

Also read: Chinese Power in Indian Ocean 

Comments { 1 }

Confucius Strikes Back

The most popular cinema in China recently was not Avatar, but  (due to protectionist rules), a biopic of Confucius. During the Cultural revolution, the Communists were not big on the philosopher; there was a campaign against his ideas. During the 1919 May Fourth anti-imperialist cultural and political movement too Confucianism was regarded as incapable of responding to the challenges of the West: It held China back; it made China vulnerable.

This is quite evident from the 14th century episode of Zheng He when Ming fleets reached Kerala and sailed across the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf and the Swahili Coast. These were no ordinary fleets and for perspective we have to compare Vasco da Gama’s and Zheng He’s first voyages. Gama arrived in Calicut on two carracks and a caravel with a crew of 170 people; Zheng He’s first voyage to Cochin and Calicut had between 200 and 317 ships with a crew of 28,000 men.

While China could have monopolized the Indian Ocean trade that did not happen. One of the reasons China withdrew from these voyages was due to Confucianism.

The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

The attitude towards Confucius has changed in the past three decades. He is popular not just among academics and the business community, but also among ordinary people. Yu Dan’s Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World sold ten million copies in two years and Chow Yun-Fat is playing the philosopher in the latest blockbuster.

Besides Yu Dan’s book, one of the reasons for the surge in interest in Confucianism is due to the interest by parents. Though it was not taught in Government schools, Confucianism became popular in private schools and children can now recite from his books.

Confucianism is big with the Government too; they are setting up  institutes named after him around the world to promote language and culture. The popularity of the philosophy works for them since Confucius promoted order, harmony and respect for hierarchy and authority. It can be used to justify authoritarianism.

But with this new found interest in Confucianism are the Chinese going to scale back on their global trade, support for Pakistan and North Korea and investments in Africa? The current administration is not going to commit the blunder of the Ming emperors. They know that this is good for cultural identity, but not for foreign policy.


  1. The Return of Confucius on NPR
Comments { 1 }

The Earliest Satyagraha?

In 629 or 630 C.E., the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang reached the oasis city of Gaochang on his way to India. The king at that time was a Buddhist by the name of Qu Wencai and he was was thrilled to see the Master of the Law. He was so thrilled that he did not want the Master to travel West; he wanted him to stay in Gaochang.

This posed a problem and it started a diplomatic dance between the Master of the Law and the monarch. First the monarch sent a eighty year old master with this request. When that did not work, the monarch himself made the request. The Master praised the monarch’s goodness, but said that his heart disagrees. The monarch tried more praise: he said he had seen numerous teachers, but none as impressive as the master;he would provide for the Master till the end of his life; he would make all his subjects the Master’s disciples.

Nothing worked. Instead the Master explained why he was traveling to India – to correct the imperfect knowledge of Yogacara in China and to find the truth for himself. This angered the monarch and he threatened the monk with other means to resolve this debate.

Thus the stubborn monk faced a stubborn monarch. Faced with uncertainty, the Master told boldly that the the king had control over his body but not over his spirit, went into meditation, and refused to eat or drink. On the fourth day the monk almost fainted. The king felt guilty about the whole affair and gave permission for the monk to travel West.

This probably is one of the earliest use of hunger strike as a political weapon.


  1. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002). 
  2. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005). 
Comments { 2 }