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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A flat earth and a racing land 3

Before I finish my story, I just want to go back to that little four year old child sitting there in the classroom. Even then, when I looked at the map of the world, particularly of great continents, I could see that they fitted together. The world might have been flat, but it was in the end one gigantic geological jigsaw puzzle. This affected my whole outlook on life.

   Also, I am by profession an historian. In my story, I'm particularly interested in the people who came to what we now call India and China. We know that humans came originally from Africa, and that some of them left that continent to go to other parts of the world.

   So India and China were not the birthplaces of civilisation. From a human point of view, they were empty places just waiting for people to come along. 

   I'm not sure the creatures already inhabiting those places felt quite the same way. They could have done without the humans quite happily.

   To track the progress of people into India and China is a fascinating process, but I don't want to get into it here. All I'll say is that the great mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, made a dramatic impact on people's progress and choice of where to go. 

   India was protected from massive invasions by that great mountain barrier. It was difficult to get into, going through those narrow passes in the Hindu Kush – the Khyber pass for example. Just about no-one in their right minds would attempt to enter India via the Himalayas. In many ways, if yours was a nomadic group travelling from Europe through the heartland of Asia, it was easier to give India a miss altogether and move on in the direction of China.

The rivers provide the clue
   If you want to track the migration of people on land over large distances, and where they eventually settle down, practically all you have to do is to look at the rivers. People need water, and they need lush fertile places where they can hunt, and fish, and stay, if a settled life becomes agreeable. Unless people live right on the coast, where fish and tropical foods are in abundance, they need to travel along rivers.

   Obviously, I have to cut a long story short and simplify it so I can make my vital point. People did come into India, but it was a difficult journey, so mostly they came in dribs and drabs. They didn't come in in massive numbers at any one time. Generally speaking, they came into India at a rate that India could absorb without sudden changes.

   The overall effect of this was to create a society where people of all sorts were accepted and integrated into the social system that was there.

   China's story was completely different. People occupied the great river valleys, and settled civilisations became the pattern for various reasons, mainly because of the establishment of farming; “the hydraulic society,” it became known as, based on water.

   A settled existence compared with a nomadic one changes everything. If things get uncomfortable for some reason, nomads can vote with their feet and move on. Settled people can't. Sedentary people invest time and effort in the farm, to build solid houses, and to secure them from attackers.

   Ideas about property and ownership change. People who develop particular skills can sell their time and labour rather than farm and tend animals. Little villages can eventually become large cities. New rules are needed to govern urban populations.

   The Chinese succeeded admirably in doing all of that, but they had one huge problem. They were wide open to land invasion from their western and northern frontiers. There were plenty of people prepared to attack the settled communities in the river valleys of China. For voracious raiders like the Huns, and later, the Mongols, they were easy pickings.

   These were barbarians, as the Chinese called them, and for good reasons they feared and despised them. The constant threat posed by the barbarians caused the Chinese communities to bond tightly, to sacrifice individual rights for the needs of the community. And that mentality has carried through in China [until recently perhaps. We can't underestimate the nature of the changes that are taking place today, because they go against the fundamental traditions of China.]

   It was for that very reason that the Chinese Emperor in the third century BCE ordered the construction of the Great Wall. It was intended to mark for the first time in history the area that the Chinese regarded as China proper. There was a defined border that no one could cross without invading China.

   So there was the fundamental difference between India and China. India, because of an accident of the planet's formation, had its boundaries defined by nature, but in a way outsiders were accepted and included. There is no Indian race.

   This may surprise some outsiders, who have their own perception of what an Indian man or woman should look like. Forget those perceptions if you have them. The divisions in traditional Indian society are based on class and caste, not upon race.

   And what about China? That open boundary on the north and northwest has created a completely different attitude to the foreigner from the Indian one. The foreigner is the invader, the barbarian, with no real perception of civilisation.

   The Chinese view was that theirs was the most civilised nation on earth. At its highest, there is good reason why they might have thought this. They developed the most complex and sophisticated bureaucracy to run a nation that had ever been devised. Their literature, arts and sciences ranked with the world’s most impressive.

   India’s achievements over millennia are no less impressive in all these fields, but the Indians saw the world in a different way. And Buddhism, the export product of Hinduism, provided a uniting thread for all Asia.

   All of this has been defined by geography. If you don't understand geography, then you can't understand history, because you can't understand the human response to the challenges that geography poses. And if you can't understand a country's history, then you can't understand why it is as it is today.


  1. A brilliant post, Denis, as I expected it to be. We are all going to need a better understanding of geography and history to survive a global society without tearing each other to shreds, and it makes me worry that in so many secondary schools, kids end up having to choose between geography, or history, or they can even drop both in choosing electives.

    1. Oddly enough, I was forced into making a choice between history and Latin. I would have done better at Latin than some of my science subjects.

      A choice between history and geography you say? The yin and the yang of the past. Sad.

      Thanks for the nice comments. I left out so much I wanted to say about the brilliance of the Indians, but I know the limitations of attention span these days – including my own!

  2. I wish you had been my history teacher, Den! (oops - you're not old enough to be that!)
    Geography was my favourite science subject.
    Hence my sheer and utter enjoyment of this blog trilogy.
    Thanks Den.
    I'd never thought, before now, about why India can be the biggest democracy on the planet (is it?) whereas China is not so....yet they're positioned so geographically closely together.
    Now I get it!
    Thanks for popping my mind once more.

  3. I (notably exceptional) am itching to post. So many bells are going off in my head.

    I suppose I might start, really because I saw it first, with the ABC Rise of the Continents series. Much fascination for me but above all impressed by the way he drew together geological developments and their effect on biological evolution as with the emerging connection between North and South America and the lama.

    What you have done here Den is to take this process one step further into human social "evolution" (for want of a better word) It is fascinating to learn of the differences in Indian and Chinese national character being related back to continental drift (one question though - isn't there a lowland, coastal way into India from the west?)

    First thought - can this exercise be done for other national types?

    Second thought - when do the current world changes, tiny on a time scale, begin to have their effect. Will they ever since the extent to which natural selection (ie death) seems to be attenuated. On the other hand the very wide spread extermination at the end of the global warming track might be precisely such an event.

    Third thought - the mind boggling nature of geological time. That which the creationists and (sic) intelligent designers are starved of. It makes sense really to replace one incomprehensibity by another. It's simply turning one's back on so much evidence.

    As ever thank you

    1. To cut to the chase, Dave, The fact is that the people who could get to China were people to its NW – the Huns earlier on and later the Mongols [actually the only surviving branch of the Huns to be precise] and the Manchus – meant the imposition of many centuries of foreign rule over the Han Chinese. This not only confirmed their poor opinion of outsiders [including the uncultured Europeans later], but meant the racial mix would be different from those who found their way into India. In the latter case, Negrito, proto-Australoid, southern Mediterranean [Dravidian], Aryan and others was the mix. Very different to the invaders of China.

      Yes, it can be and has to be done for the movement of other people, everywhere. This is where the academic disciplines mix. It’s impossible to explain the notion of the Fertile Crescent without including the importance of geological faultlines. And yes, there was a way round the Hindu Kush, but it wasn’t the migration path from Central Asia, so not highly significant in that respect. There was a sea route too, but still admitted people at a rate India could absorb.

      The world is already experiencing the impact of modern climate change, causing dramatic movements of peoples, exacerbated by all sorts of other events including and precipitating revolutions. Climate change in the past 200 years is irreversible. All that can be attempted is mitigation. New factors have come into play in the past 30 years, with incalculable consequences. The next generation will indeed live in ‘interesting times’.

      Third thing: faith I have no quarrel with, but faith that is blind to the stark evidence is appallingly retrograde. This era of faith that is blind will pass. Regrettably it will do much damage before it does.


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