Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
INTRODUCTION: CHINA AS A WORLD TO ITSELF
We are now looking at a civilization – the Chinese – that, for geopolitical reasons, looked at itself for the longest time as the world, a world of culture surrounded by groups of “barbarians.” It dealt with these from a superior position, expecting tributes, while ready to share certain cultural benefits, including the teachings of Confucius. In this sense, China was unaccustomed to regarding itself as an equal partner interacting with others. It was outraged and humiliated by military losses under superior firepower, followed by the imposition by Western powers and Japan of “unequal treaties” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
But the Chinese were not arrogant conquerors. On the contrary, their influence was a civilizing one. The Chinese people trace their origin to the mythical Yellow Emperor, to whom is attributed the invention, among many other things, of the compass – which helped to direct his war chariot. He brought order out of chaos after winning a cosmic battle against the arch-villain Zhiyou, the enemy of civilization. It is said that Zhiyou built many kinds of heavy, metal weapons as he prepared for the war with the Yellow Emperor. This myth discloses the cultural disdain for so-called superior weapons and supports the belief that the values of civilization will always triumph. It explains in part the society's preference for civil rather than military virtues, and the consequent inferior status given to the military for most of its known history.