China – the fantasy land of the east

Photo by Manuel Joseph from Pexels

When the famous explorer and Venetian trader Marco Polo traveled to China in 1275 AD, there were plenty of marvels to gasp at in the land of the East. Therefore, when he finally returned to Europe again –​ after 24 long years in China as advisor for its emperor –​ it was no wonder that he had a number of epic​ fascinating tales to narrate back home, and it was also no wonder that his book ’The Travels of Marco Polo’ would become an instant classic and the best seller in Europe. From the concept of burning coals to wines made from rice to giant unicorns to pasta growing trees, here was a book filled with some facts, some exaggerations, some fictions and some pure fantasy, and even if there remained a blurry line on what remained fact and what remained fiction, his book was an eye opener to the common westerners to the vast riches of east and the fantasy land of China.  

But there was one marvel that had fascinated even Marco Polo more than anything. It was the use of the very magical pieces of papers we talked about previously, ones that could buy you gold and silver and other riches in return. He was so awestruck by that particular idea that he had actually dedicated a complete chapter about it in his book, titled “How the Great Khan Causes the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money All Over His Country”. Understandably, it would not only be Marco Polo who would be enchanted by the concept of paper money, as the idea flew around the time when even paper wasn’t produced in Europe, never mind paper money. So, to understand why China was perceived as a fantasy land brimmed with astounding marvels, we have to go back in time and understand a bit about the history of China.  

China has always been a land known for its own charm and mystic, important philosophies, and above all – a unique identity. China is also probably the only country on earth that has always been one of the largest and richest unified countries on earth. And when it comes to producing astounding feats, inventions and innovations throughout history, China is probably second to none, starting from the very earliest of civilization.

China housed two of the oldest civilizations in the world – Yellow Valley and Yangtze. Much like other ancient river valley civilizations like Egyptian Civilization, Mesopotamia Civilization and Indus Valley Civilization, both Yellow Valley Civilization and Yangtze Civilization flourished on the banks of rivers, Yellow River in the North and Yangtze River in the South respectively. China is so massive that for someone who doesn’t know much about the country in detail, it always helps to think of China in terms of its two important rivers: Yellow River (also known as Mother River of China) and Yangtze River (the longest river in China). Both starting from the high plateau of Tibet, Yellow River flows along the North part of China, before finally meeting the Yellow Sea and the Yangtze River flows along the Southern part of China, before finally joining the Pacific Ocean in Shanghai.  And it is around these rivers the two important Chinese Civilizations flourished –​ the fusion of which would go on to become the ancient Chinese​ Civilization.  

Yellow River Civilization contributed to the invention of Mandarin (one of the oldest and yet still massively prevalent languages) and Millet, and the Yangtze River Civilization is often credited for the invention of rice farming. The impact and influence of these two civilizations would be massive not only in China, but in nearby East and South East regions of present day Asia.  

Ancient Chinese Civilization was able to come up with an invention that would make human lives merrier forever, as early as 7000 BC, around 9000 years ago from today, which I personally feel is the greatest invention ever made on earth. Yep, here I am talking about beer, obviously! 

Since China has been ruled by several imperial dynasties, from 221 BC to 1911 AD, the history of China is usually sectioned into 3 eras: Pre-Imperial China, Imperial China and Modern China. During its Imperial Era, China had eight powerful dynasties in the order: Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing, before becoming Republic of China in 1911 and People’s Republic of China in 1949.  

Even before the Imperial Era, China did have different dynasties. But the birth of a strong unified state happened only in 221 BC, hence considered as the beginning of the Imperial Era, which started with a dynasty known as Qin. The Qin dynasty unified fragmented warring states in a ten-year long campaign to unify and create a China. In fact, the name China itself comes from Qin (pronounced as Chin). 

Although the name China comes from Qin, it would be the Han dynasty that would have the lasting impact in China. It was during the Han dynasty that China sustained a period of stability and prosperity. With the introduction of revolutionary systems like the Civil Service System, the Han dynasty was able to create a stronger, more organized government. China also got more connected with the outside world through trade, bringing in foreign cultures, ideas and philosophies. Buddhism, which later went onto have huge influence in China got introduced during the Han Period. The influence of the Han dynasty in China can be testified from the fact that the name Han was taken as the name for the Chinese people. Today, the Han Chinese make up more than 90 percent of the population of China, and are the largest ethnic group in the world, comprising 20 percent of the total world population. 1 out of 5 people on earth are of Han ethnicity.  

The contribution of China, as mentioned above, started right from the dawn of civilizations. But China has not only contributed the world with its groundbreaking physical and materialistic inventions, but also given the world two of the most important philosophies. Even before the start of its imperial era, China contributed the world with Taoism and Confucianism.  

Taoism is a philosophy founded by Laozi around the 6th century BC. Taoism believes people should be one with nature and believes in letting things be, and letting things happen, an idea of doing by not-doing, also known as Wu-Wei. The concept of Yin and Yang, two opposing and balancing forces in nature also comes from Taoism. Be it dark and light, cold and hot, or male and female, Taoism believes in reveling in the complementary nature of opposites.  

Not long after Lao-Tzu founded Taoism, another important philosopher known as Confucius was born in 551 BC.  Confucius’s teachings, known as Confucianism, believes in the importance of cultivating five important virtues, namely: benevolence, ritual propriety, righteousness, wisdom and integrity. Known for his golden rule –​ ​ “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for​ yourself.”, Confucius believed it was important to treat others with respect and sense of fairness. ​   

Confucianism in particular had a huge impact in China, as it shaped not only the culture and lifestyle of a large portion of the population of the land, but also its governance structure. The Han dynasty in particular was heavily influenced by the principles of Confucius. Master Kong (as Confucius is referred to by that name) believed in the importance of a strong central authority and that philosophy of thinking shaped the policies of Chinese Emperors for more than 2000 years.  

It is interesting to note that Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism all developed within a span of just around 100 years, and Taoism and Confucianism, along with Buddhism which got introduced to China afterwards, heavily influenced the philosophy and religion of China.  

In addition to these important philosophies, China has been a source of many innovations, scientific discoveries and inventions. Be it Silk, Porcelain, Noodles, or Tea alone, which has become the most popular drink in the world after water, Chinese contributions have massively shaped the lifestyle of people around the world. However, the contributions of China that have impacted the world the most are: Paper, Printing, Gunpowder and Compass, which are also often heralded as the four greatest inventions of China.  

China was the first nation on earth to invent paper. Before its invention, people used bamboo, stones, wood and even animal bones for writing, and as a result writing could not flourish smoothly. It was a Chinese court official known as Cai Lun who changed the course of history by inventing paper in 105 AD. It would take 1000 more years for Europeans to produce paper, after it got introduced to Europe through the Arab world, which itself learned about the craft of paper making from China.  

China was also the first nation to invent printing. The Chinese people first invented the technique known as block-printing, which meant engraving writing or pictures on a wooden board and smearing it with ink to print pieces of paper page by page. As the same board could not be used again, China came up with movable-printing, by carving individual characters on a printer which would be moved along. It would take Europeans another 400 years to come up with their own version of printing press, which came in the form of the famous Gutenberg Press in 1440 AD in Germany.  

Gun Powder is another major invention that was invented first in China. Although it was invented out of serendipity first (while trying to invent an elixir of immortality), and originally used just for making fireworks, Gun Powder would eventually find its way in revolutionizing wars throughout the world, in the form of firearms and cannons.  

And finally, there’s the compass – mine workers in China came across natural magnetite that attracted iron and fixedly pointed north, which later became the modern day compass. The concept of compass would first spread to the Islamic world, and then eventually Europe. Before compass, navigation relied heavily on astronomical knowledge, like the positions of sun, moon and climates. Therefore, without compass, the era of ocean exploration and discoveries that was to shape the world would not be possible.  

As China was a sophisticated land that had excelled in the art of inventing and innovating, Chinese products were always in high demand in other parts of the world. Be it Silk or Porcelain or Tea or Spices, Chinese products were always very much coveted, especially in the Middle East and Europe. Thus, with trade being an important part of its economy, coupled with that fact that China was also a vast land in itself, it is no wonder that China came up with an invention that would revolutionize the world of trade. And China also happened to have had just the right tools for the revolution – Paper and Printing​ – much before any other part of the world. ​Therefore, China became the first country to invent paper money, under the Tang and Song dynasty.  

The first concept of paper money originated during the Tang dynasty around 800 AD, in the form of what was known as the “flying cash”. As it was inconvenient to ship huge lumps of coins to distant places, the Tang government paid their merchants with paper certificates called flying cash, due to paper’s tendency to fly away. These papers could later be covered into coins, and one could even use these paper certificates to buy daily products like salt from government owned stores. But it was during the Song dynasty when the concept and influence of paper money became far more pronounced. The Song dynasty in China issued the world’s first government produced paper money, known as jiaozi.  

The use of paper notes instead of heavy coins enabled the Chinese merchants to conduct long distance business, as it was both the easier and the safer option. Thus, the creation of paper money greatly eased the trade of the Chinese merchants, and over the time merchants from all around. It would take Europe 600 more years to come up with its own paper money, as the earliest European paper money was printed only in 1601 in Sweden. So, in that sense, China was light years ahead of Europe and other parts of the world in terms of using and revolutionizing the evolution of Money.  

The paper money soon went on to become the only official currency in China, which happened under the reign of a foreign ruler. Unlike most of its history where China was ruled by its native ruler, there was one notable exception – the Mongols that we last talked about at the end of our chapter on Islamic Empires.  

Remember at the very beginning of this article we talked about Marco Polo and how he got introduced and was fascinated by the idea of paper money? It was during the time of Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan, that Marco Polo had traveled to China and lived for more than two decades. The Mongol empire, first founded by Genghis Khan, was the only foreign empire in history to conquer and rule almost the whole part of China.  

So, next up, we finally talk about the great Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire, as well as its lasting contributions in history.  

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