In early Chinese thought, heaven was considered "round" and earth "square." Westerners from St. Anselm to Kant taught that round and square are opposites. I will explore the connections between east and west (round and square) in a blog that takes seriously the little details of our lives. Round and square; east and west—never the twain shall meet (it has been said). Except when they do, and that is the whole point of this blog.
From Round to Square (and back)
For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project: http://magazine.beloit.edu/?story_id=240813&issue_id=240610
A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again). *Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.
The first three entries (each in several segments) for the Round and Square
series "Asian Ethnicities" deal with the majority ethnic groups in
China, Japan, and Korea. We are starting with these groups precisely
because they permeate all of the nooks and crannies of their respective
histories. Indeed, the history of China is often taught (and this is
especially true in Chinese schools) as the history of the Han ethnicity.
As we shall see, this is particularly problematic in China, since the
history of China can better—this is my opinion—be taught as a constant
set of interactions with ethnic groups to the west, south, and
especially north. It is no less important in Japan and Korea, however.
The relative homgeneity of those populations exacerbate the problems,
and engagement with various ethnic groups tends to be even further
marginalized. I hope to give, in these introductory posts, a way of
thinking about majority ethnicity in China, Japan, and Korea. These are
by no means my last word on the subject(s). As you can see from the
introduction to this series, these are works in process and are meant to
be essays in every sense of the term.
By the tenth
century, a distinct way of life had emerged on the islands of Japan. It represented a blending of
institutions and cultural patterns from abroad, combined with a distinctly
indigenous way of speaking and living. This can be seen even today in the Japanese language. There are "Chinese" (on) pronunciations and "Japanese" (kun) ones. It is not unusual for a single character to have three, four, five, or more "readings" that merge all sorts of earlier patterns, many of which have connections to Japan’s early
history, with roots in the uji and
Shinto religious practices of the early Common Era.
The political changes that
took place over the next millennium were formidable, but the key point for our
purposes is that virtually all of the drama was played out between families and
clans with Yamato ancestry. The major periods that followed the dramatic state building
of the first millennium CE showed a continuing give-and-take between powers of
the capital region and the strengths of the provinces further afield. Class distinctions were changing in profound ways, even as ethnicity hardly created a blip of difference beyond fervent borrowing from China.
(794-1185) saw both the flourishing of Japanese literary culture (the period
was made famous by the Tale of Genji
and other masterworks) and the centrality of the capital city in political
matters. Behind the scenes, however, an overwhelming transition was taking place.
The economic fuel that powered this ostensibly capital-centered political
system was provided by the growing “estates” (shoen) that began dotting the countryside on the main island of
Honshu since almost the time of Prince Shotoku. On the surface, then, the state
seemed to be centralizing. The longer-term process would not be apparent for many years, but by the twelfth century it was clear that power had shifted decidedly
to the periphery, along with a social structure that would dominate Japanese
life until the nineteenth century.
strongmen and a kind of warrior that came to be known as bushi or samurai gained
dominance, and the artificial but significant rankings of samurai, farmer,
artisan, and merchant (in descending order) became cemented in the Japanese
consciousness. This social order so profoundly dominated Japanese life in the
second millennium CE that all future political and military strategies until
the 1860s would require a balancing of regional warlords and central authority.
While Chinese society during the same period would see a constant negotiation
and renegotiation of ethnicity— as “foreign” powers vied for ascendancy and Han
Chinese occupied regions to the south and west—the Japanese historical dynamic
played out almost exclusively within a singular ethnic group. In short,
occupation dominated social thought far more than ethnicity in Japanese
history; it was as though everyone was on the same large “team,” and the prizes
were garnered by making distinctions within the in-group rather than in
competition with outsiders. Like a Republican primary in Utah (or a Democratic one in Chicago), the real competition was within the dominant team.
Through it all,
one further force of ethnic and national identity flowed as a cultural
constant—the imperial family that was linked to the Sun Goddess from the
earliest decades of the Yamato state. To this day, the Japanese imperial line
is spoken of as an unbroken succession of 125 emperors, all of whom—in a secret ritual last carried out in 1989—“merged” with the Sun Goddess to achieve a kind
of imperial immortality that has been used for purposes both peaceful and
profoundly warlike over the centuries. Although the Showa Emperor renounced the
divinity of the emperorship in 1945, it is significant that the ceremony was
still carried out for the succession of his son in 1989. It is another small
glimpse into early Yamato images of legitimacy and centrality in the political
life of a formidable modern democracy.