Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part II: BIg Men and Kings

 Hi everyone, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Tonight: The Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part II: Big Men and Kings. Or as I like to call it: Ongka’s Big Chinese Moka.

Last time we talked about some of the early cultures along the Yellow river during the neolithic period—remember, neolithic means “new stone age” and refers to the period between the dawn of agriculture and the first use of metal tools. Basically we had during this time settled farming villages that were too small to really call a civilization, but were already forming some of the cultural elements that we see throughout Chinese history even to modern times. One of the most important of these societies is called the Yangshao culture by archaeologists. Its heyday was around the fifth millennium BC, and by the third millennium BC it had developed into what is known as the Longshan Culture.

As I say, the Longshan culture flourished between five and four thousand years ago in the Yellow River basin. During its second half of development there existed, for the first time in China, what we might have called “civilization”(1)--that is, a culture with cities. Although we cannot really call this the beginning of Chinese “history”, as written documents from this time have not (yet?) been discovered, all of the foundations were in place by the end of the Longshan period(2). In traditional Chinese historiography, the period between five and four thousand years ago was a larger-than-life time of heroic badasses like the Yellow Emperor and Da Yu getting up to all sorts of heroic badassery(3). It’s could it be that these myths are in fact folk memories of actual people and events from the Longshan period? Maybe not, but it’s fun to speculate. At any rate the late Longshan period is, in my view, really where the “China ball” started not just rolling, but picking up speed. By this I mean that the distinctly “Chinese” cultural elements we discussed last time now existed in a stratified urban society. Regardless of whether the language of the Longshan people was ancestral to modern Chinese (though it may well have been) the culture certainly was.

As this new civilization grew, villages became cities. Hundreds became thousands, then tens of thousands(4); The result of this population growth, as in other ancient civilization, was increased social stratification. A priestly ruling class governed, and being part of it meant some pretty sweet perks: for one thing, you got to have bitchin’ parties with tons of booze, ostensibly to honor your ancestors (5). The drink of choice was probably not unlike Huangjiu(6), or yellow rice beer, still widely enjoyed in China today.

The strong emphasis of partying by the ruling class during the early millennia of Chinese history is particularly interesting when viewed in comparison with other cultures’ tradition of the “Big Man”. To this day, among some Papuan and Austronesian speakers of the South Seas, societies tend to be nominally egalitarian, but in reality things are run by the local “Big Man”, who everyone respects as the de-facto leader(7). The position is maintained by a) giving gifts to your neighbors, and b) throwing awesome parties. Anyone who wants to become the next Big Man has a simple task: throw a more epic kegger than the last guy. Friendly competition between Big Men is of course highly encouraged in these societies, since the ones who benefit most are the neighbors and friends of the Big Men. The institution of the Big Man is central to many, if not most, cultures of the South Seas. In Tok Pisin, a creole language of Papua New Guinea, the word for “president” is bikman bilong kantri—“Big Man belong country”(8). On the other hand, the thing that you don’t want to be in Tok Pisin is liklik man “small man”.

The Big Man society appears to be a fairly natural development in the emergence of sedentary societies the world over. Consider the Potlatch of the Pacific Northwest Indians, for example. Even the term “Big Man” appears in different times, places and languages, always referring to a man who was not physically large, but rather socially influential. In ancient Sumer, the earliest kings were known as lugal—which literally translates to, you guessed it, Big Man. I’ve always wondered if this term was a holdover from the very earliest days of sedentary life, when a Big Man society actually did exist.

As populations grew, Big Men became chieftains, and chieftains became kings. In ancient China, the proper form of address to a nobleman was 大人 da1ren2 “big man”. The antonym to this was of course 小人 xiao3ren2 “villain”. Compare both with Tok Pisin bikman/liklik man. I don’t know when these terms were first used, but if they were present in the earliest written documents, I can’t help but wonder if it’s a holdover from the Longshan period: a time when city chieftains and kings had been, just a few generations before, village Big Men. Indeed, traditional Chinese histories talk about the “Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns” of the extremely remote past not always following a hereditary dynastic succession—which corresponds beautifully to a Big Man society, wherein influence is held by an individual, but not passed on to children. Very interesting. I think Ongka, of Anthro 101 fame, would feel quite at home in this society.

So, that’s my hypothesis: that in the Longshan culture we are seeing a transition from a Big Man society to a stratified civilization, and we can hear very faint echoes of that transition in Chinese mythology to this day. What do you think? Send me a comment or email, I’d love to discuss this with you guys. Also, be sure to tune in next time, for Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part III: Something Happens. See you next time!


8. Baing, Susan, and Craig Alan Volker. Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin English Dictionary. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

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