Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part III: Something Happens

Hello friends, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor, the Show Where I Say Things. Tonight: Something Happens.

Last time we talked about the development of the Longshan culture of the third milennium BC. Here we see an increased social stratification, when village “Big Men” became increasingly powerful chieftains. Finally, we had an urban agricultural society—what we would call civilization. Things were picking up steam.

But then, something happened, something sudden and catastrophic. Around four thousand years ago, after developing and flourishing for a millennium, the Longshan culture vanished. Cities emptied after centuries of growth, as if everyone had suddenly decided to pick up their stuff and go home. We don’t know what happened, but it may have had something to do with changing weather patterns(1). Indeed, Chinese folk history still seems to retain some faint memory of dramatic climatic change in its form of the Flood Myth.

In terms of cultural significance the Chinese Flood Myth plays a similar role to the Deluge of the Ancient Near East. In his book “Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization” Paul Kriwaczek talks about the Great Flood serving an interesting purpose in Mesopotamian history. According to the Sumerian King List, the time before the flood was a sort of heroic age, with kings reigning for tens of thousands of years—a probable parallel to the longevity recorded in the Bible. Following the Deluge, life expectancy dramatically shortens in both the Sumerian and Biblical accounts. Thus, Kriwaczek suggests that the Flood represents a kind of transition between the half-remembered mythical past, and the more concrete annals of what, to the ancients, was recorded history.

So, too, does the Chinese Flood Myth separate the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors from the time of the dynasties. This was the time of my bro Da Yu, who supposedly set the precedent of dynastic succession (as opposed to a Big Man society, where children do not inherit their parents’ positions). The ensuing royal house was known as the Xia dynasty, and although we don’t know for sure, it may well have actually existed. Thus, the Flood Legend marks a kind of barrier between the real and the unreal, history and myth.

Of course a lot of cultures have the Flood Myth, and there have been a few attempts to explain this(2). What seems probable is that these stories were inspired by a real-life event: global warming.

Between nine and five thousand years ago, climatologists tell us that an event occurred known as the Holocene Climatic Optimum(3). Basically this refers to a time following the last glacial period when temperatures around the world were quite warm, warmer than today. Of course, and unfortunately for polar bears, global warming means melting ice:

Melting ice means rising sea levels, and rising sea levels mean floods. To ancient small-scale communities the effects must have been devastating.

Consider, for example, the filling of the Persian Gulf some eight thousand years ago(4). Prior to this, what is now the Persian Gulf was a fertile depression that people must have inhabited. But around 7.5 thousand years ago, we very suddenly have archaeological evidence of settlement around the gulf’s present shoreline. The flooding of the basin must have been a terribly catastrophic event for these people. Imagine your whole community permanently uprooted from their home and forced to settle on higher ground, because the water just won’t stop rising. To these communities, their whole world really did flood, and in an age when natural forces were believed to be sentient, it would not have been difficult to ascribe the disaster to divine wrath. Cultures around the world must have experienced such a shock that it is not difficult to see the flood myths as very faint memories of an actual event.

But the Holocene Climatic Optimum wasn’t all bad. The balmier climate allowed for the spread of agriculture, and with it civilization. Prior to the HCO, humans had reached a stalemate with nature. Societies, say, twenty thousand years ago were just as complex and nuanced as societies today, but due to the harsh climate any large-scale, settled mode of existence was doomed to failure. It wasn’t until the last ten thousand years that the climate was in the right place for large-scale societies to emerge.

As Kriwaczek points out, the transition from a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to one based on gardening, farming or herding must have been incredibly traumatic for societies. It was indeed a “great flood,” one might say, of new ideas and ways of life. This “flood” uprooted and supplanted languages, cultural practices and entire ways of life that had remained intact for ages untold. Next time you roll your eyes at an old person writing checks at the supermarket, imagine the generational gap within a society that has just adopted agriculture. Imagine the vastness of knowledge and tradition, accumulated over tens (or even hundreds) of millennia, rendered suddenly obsolete by the emergence of settled agricultural life. Imagine the antiquity of the languages lost as more and more communities were absorbed into large-scale societies.

As the distant hunting-and-gathering past receded deeper and deeper into the chasm of the ages, a dim memory must have been preserved of some ancient age. This age was disconnected with our own, a time when things were somehow different, maybe even better. And then—suddenly—everything changed, and here we are in the present, with a new status quo. It seems plausible that this transition was so jarring to societies that it is remembered to this day as some great natural disaster. Given that this cultural shift occurred during a time of rising sea levels leads us to the possible origin of the Flood Myth. At any rate, at least in the mythology of China, the Great Flood functions as a kind of dividing line between myth and history.

So, what do you think about the Great Flood in China? Let me know, and be sure to tune in for our next episode, Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part III: The Xia Dynasty. See you next time.


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