What’s It Like to Be an Ancient Civilization?

As usual, my feisty preschool collaborator, Huang Ren Song, startled me as she tried to stuff some Chinese history into my head. She’d been talking about how massive the recent changes in China really are, like the introduction of public universities.

Terracotta Warrior, Xi'an

Somewhat exasperated at my ignorance, she finally said, “We’ve had 2000 years of a feudal system that said, ‘OBEY.’ Now we change a little bit.” We both laughed, but I knew she was making a serious point and it would take me a long time to process it.

I just can’t get it into my American head that a country can be so old. I know there are many countries and civilizations whose written histories date back thousands of years, but having been raised in a world where my U.S. history books began with the Jamestown and Mayflower, I have—from Huang Ren Song’s perspective—a pretty warped and limited view of the world.

Every time I’m in China I comprehend this a little more. Walking through an exhibit in the Nanjing History Museum one day, Qiu Wei stopped to look at some coins.

“Look,” she said. “These were found on the street I grew up on.” They were ancient. As a kid, growing up in the woods of New Jersey, my friends and I kept our eyes open for the arrowheads of native people we knew had lived there before us. But coins? Terracotta armies? Never.

In Xuzhou, an industrial city south of Beijing, a friend took me to their terracotta army. I was surprised since I assumed the only one in existence was in Xi’an, famous for its exquisite faces and finely crafted horses and often a one-day stop for international tours. In Xuzhou, only the locals go. The soldiers stand two-feet high, all carrying backpacks, their features less fine. Both armies, along with a myriad of other treasures, were found accidentally by farmers digging in their fields. My friend said there are probably lots more to be discovered.

With a high school teacher, I explored a museum in Baoji, a little known city along the early stages of the Silk Road as it heads west from Xi’an. It houses thousands of ancient bronzes from the local area. The teacher pointed at the inscription on the bottom of a wine vessel that dated back millennia. I jokingly asked if he could read it.

Ancient Bronzeware

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I can read about half the characters. They’re similar to ones we use now, but I can’treally tell what the message says.” Even the very first writing found so far, on oracle bones used for divinations and dating back about 3500 years, has recognizable written symbols that, over millennia, have morphed into today’s characters. Many of the originals are identifiable.

China is proud of its long history and I stumble across it in small ways almost every day I’m there. Ancient tales are part of people’s experiences even if they aren’t very literate; pieces of long ago history insert themselves into everyday conversation. Poets from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) are referred to as if they are familiar friends.

The more I try to imagine this reality of China the less I can comprehend what it must be like to dive pell-mell into the 21st century at breakneck speed while having their feet planted firmly in these ancient roots.

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