Last Saturday, I spent a day examining the archeological discoveries displayed in the University of Pennsylvania exhibit Secrets of the Silk Road and listening to an analysis in the accompanying symposium Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity. It was a controversial exhibit. The Chinese government almost canceled it shortly before it opened and then curtailed its duration. The speakers were careful not to say anything that could annoy the Chinese or hurt their own and their Chinese collaborators’ future work. As I listened to the learned discussions I kept asking myself what was it about these mummies that so upset Chinese autocrats? Sorry, but I do not buy the notion that middle level bureaucrats acted on their own.
Then I read Penn Chinese expert and exhibition organizer Victor Mair’s report on the racist manner evident in ancient Chinese records about Western nomads and something clicked. Those ancients words sounded awfully familiar:
They say that they had red hair, bluish-green eyes, and they looked like monkeys, and they had long noses. And they looked like monkeys, hairy all over.
Darwin was clearly not the first to note the relationship between human and monkeys. By comparing the Western nomads to monkeys, the Chinese clearly implied that they were vastly inferior to themselves. The term “silk roads” aids and abets this Chinese sense of superiority as it presents a vision of the world in which a series of sophisticated, high-quality goods flow through barbaric lands from a superior Eastern civilization to an inferior Western one. Nor is that vision inaccurate, provided it is limited to the beginning of the common era. Romans were indeed fond of expensive imported Eastern goods such as the sheer silks which enabled ladies to recline “dressed but nude.” Indeed, it seems that the large outflow of silver and gold needed to pay for Chinese luxuries played a part in the economic collapse of the Roman Empire in the third century.
However, the Tarim Basin mummies reveal that this was not always the case. Indeed, thousands of years before there were “silk roads”, there were wheat, sheep, goats, cattle, horse, wheel and bronze roads. In other words, there was a time when those Caucasoid “monkeys” were far from inferior to the Mongoloid “humans.” During the second and first millennia BCE knowledge flowed from West to East.
Just as importantly, the striking emotional and aesthetic qualities evident in the necropolises found in East Central Asia further undermines any possible Chinese feelings of superiority. Much has been written about the beauty and the elegance of the mummies, the obvious sophistication of the textiles and the gourmet flavor of the baked goods, but I saw nothing that touched me as much as the obvious loving care with which this baby was put to rest.
No, there is no way to look at this baby and feel superior to the people who buried him thusly. His death clearly broke their heart and they spared no effort to secure for him a comfortable afterlife. Those blue pebbles covering the eyes are not easy to find. These people knew the value of individual life. I suspect the Chinese Communist cadre intuit as much and it makes them uncomfortable. Good. It is time that individual life stopped being so cheap in “civilized” China. I understand there is little evidence of a close relationship between the modern day Uighur and the mummies, though it is difficult to deny the physical resemblance. Nethertheless, I have had the opportunity to see numerous manifestation of Chinese racism when I taught at the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, and I do not mean only casual references even in English newspapers to “long noses.” Down the road from the school lived a Uighur community that baked wonderful fresh Central Asian-type bread. None of our Chinese colleagues and students were familiar with the bread and, while they enjoyed sharing it with me, they were most surprised that I would have anything to do with the Uighurs. They certainly had no intention of demeaning themselves thusly.
The Arab spring makes the Chinese authorities jumpy, so jumpy that they even withdrew their permission for the Irish Chinese to march on St. Patrick’s Day in Shanghai. More serious is the fierce crackdown in which they are engaging as evidenced by activist Liu Xianbin’s ten-year prison sentence. They know Lincoln was right and the global village cannot long survive “half free, half slave.” For the present most of the Chinese youth are still satisfied with having the ability to become rich or emigrate provided they do not need to feel ashamed of China. Belief in Chinese superiority and Uighur and Tibetan inferiority helps make their repression seem more acceptable to the Han population.
By toying so callously with the Penn’s exhibition organizers, the Communist autocratic cadre sought to send a message to the academic world that the price of collaboration with China for “long noses,” as well as for Chinese, is stringent self-censorship. It is high time that academia stands up to Chinese bullying. The time for tolerant indulgence is long gone. The same Western intellectual elite that so vigilantly blocks any real or imagined assertion of Western superiority is not doing the Chinese any favors by failing to hold them to the same standard.
Western leaders may have too much on their plate at this moment to tangle with China, but the same cannot be said about academic elites. It is high time they stopped kowtowing to this ruthless rising superpower.
For more, see my History News Network blog Deja vu
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