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Outsiders and Insiders
by Valerie Sartor
2012-08-07 11:28:13
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Most Westerners don’t realize that China has hundreds of types Indigenous Peoples. Officially, the Chinese government classifies these unique peoples into only 55 “minority groups” because many of them have low population densities. For most of Chinese history, the dominant culture derives from the Han people (one exception is the Yuan Dynasty, when the Mongols ruled China), who traditionally support themselves as farmers. The Han lifestyle and way of perceiving reality differs from many minority peoples, especially the nomadic peoples, such as the Mongolians, the Evenks, and the Daur.

Anthropologists have long recognized that perceptions of time, space, and land differ greatly between farming and nomadic cultures. For example, ancient Han agricultural practices were bounded in space and time, and measured in discrete increments. And in fact, the circle and the square still define the Han architecture aesthetic. For the Han people, time remains definite, closed and discontinuous; everything can be broken into specific periods, seasons, and epochs. Likewise, space becomes an accumulation of fixed locations.

Chinese dynasty eras controlled by the Han maintained court ritual that presented this fixed sense of space and time. At the very center of the Han court stood the emperor. He was shielded, even isolated, in his palace. The emperor represented the center of the universe and people believed that the emperor’s right to rule came from heaven. The Han believed that if he ruled correctly, nature stayed in balance; likewise, if the emperor were evil or unjust, nature would revolt. To promote balance, the emperor conducted rituals addressed to nature in certain temples located in certain places around the capital city. Today tourists enjoying Beijing often visit what they perceive to be exotic monuments: the Temple of Heaven, as well as the Temple of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. These edifices are not architectural ornaments. They served as sacred spaces to help the emperor establish cosmic harmony between the earth and the heavens. The emperor and his court made periodic, ritual visits to these temples.

Because the emperor was the center of the universe, the further one headed outwards from the capital, the less dense space and time became. The capital housing the emperor was the center of the world, the pinnacle of civilization Thus, a person leaving the center and travelling to the border lands was exiting civilization. The capital had to be secure to protect the emperor. Walls kept the city and the emperor safe.

Unsurprisingly, traditional Han aesthetics focused on fortifications and walls. The best known wall, of course, is the Great Wall. Constructed from the 5th century through the 16th century, the Great Wall is actually a series of walls made of stone and ranges over 5,000 miles. Interestingly, the Great Wall roughly outlines the border of Inner Mongolia with Outer Mongolia. But the Great Wall was built to keep out all fierce nomads, not just the Mongols. Significantly, the Great Wall also defines two soil zones: arable land and steppe land.

In fact, the Great Wall contains multiple symbolic meanings. It defined Han civilization from the so-called nomadic ‘barbaric’ culture, farmers from herders. The outer Great Wall was not a permanent, non-porous barrier; it could not keep nomadic tribes from entering Han territory. Instead, the Great Wall functioned more like a screen, because it allowed for some cultural and economic exchange, while simultaneously serving as a symbolic block between the two types of cultures: agricultural and pastoral. And in fact, the Great Wall was not just a military fortification: it was a structure that assisted the Han in colonizing the steppe. Along the wall, the government sent Han farmers to settle. They helped the soldiers in the garrison to survive by providing edible produce. These farmers also served as slave laborers to extend the walls and renovate the walls; many Han people are buried inside the Great Wall.

Clearly, the Han concept of civilization is based on defined, static space, on building walls. Imperial China had stable, maintained city walls and inner courtyards, all with diminishing space. The Han Chinese love of walls is based upon Confucian aesthetics, which is based on sedentary agricultural practices. Walls symbolically serve as ways to control, to regiment, and to regulate, not just the environment but people as well. Spatial hierarchy represented by a maze of walls or a walled compound symbolically conveys access to power and authority; barriers define human hierarchy. Walls also ward off attacks. They prevent thieves and strangers from invading.  Moreover, a wall serves as a clearly drawn line: it shows what is significant and what is insignificant. It allows some access and denies others; it delineates the sacred from the profane; a wall protects family from outsiders.

The Great Wall, of course, is the supreme cultural relic and symbol of China.  Although scorned during the Cultural Revolution, the Great Wall has now become a patriotic symbol: it represents the indestructible national Chinese spirit. Tourists quickly learn the Chinese proverb: “You cannot be a great man until you have been to the Great Wall”

To understand the Chinese respect for walls (and for hierarchy), it is important to understand the Confucian concept of neibu; the internal mindset. This dualistic mindset centers on the concept of inside and outside (nei and wai). It is an “us versus them” mentality; for example, Chinese versus foreigners; Han Chinese versus minority peoples; Party members versus non-Party members. Walls serve as ideological space markers.

Simply put, Han Chinese identity is based on the ways walls have defined and supported a certain mindset  that is both hierarchical and ecological. Traditionally, the dominant Han are sedentary farmers while the minority nomads are often mobile pastoralists. Han Chinese prefer to live in the center, far from the barbaric herders existing at the edge of the world. Nomads living without walls and without permanent structures are alien and unappealing to Han culture. This philosophical conflict between nomads and farmers exists in China (and other places) to the present day.

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