Sunday, July 6, 2008

Natural disasters and national formation

When Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Beichuan Middle School in Sichuan soon after the May earthquake, he wrote “Numerous hardships make a nation strong” (多难兴邦), a Chinese aphorism, on the school’s blackboard. The phrase was quickly quoted throughout Chinese media, and the blackboard itself was even preserved, along with Wen's calligraphy. But what of the saying itself? The latest issue of Chinese National Geography includes an interesting article that explores the background of the saying, arguing that it is rooted in the idea that the Chinese nation was fundamentally shaped by the experience of natural disasters.

The article (which is an editorial and hence unsigned) harkens back to the first famous natural disaster in China: the floods that Da Yu, the mythical founder of the Xia dynasty in the 21st century BCE, struggled to control. The author argues that the fact that Da Yu, whose great contribution was flood management, is credited with founding China demonstrates the importance of natural disasters in the makeup of the Chinese nation: “The reason we wanted to found a nation-state (民族国家) was to safeguard ourselves—to combat foreign aggression and to resist natural disasters.” Da Yu, the author writes, was the founder (奠基人) of the nation-state because “one of the most important missions [of the nation-state] is to combat natural disasters.”

This idea has several implications. First, it reinforces the notion of historical continuity and progress, vital preconditions in conceptualizations of nation. The author argues that Chinese history is comprised of an unbroken series of natural disasters, which challenged the Chinese nation and made it stronger, forcing it to progress. This process is evident from the beginning of recorded Chinese history—one of the main preoccupations of the Shang oracle bones was predicting when and where natural disasters might strike (a preoccupation that was certainly seen throughout dynastic history, such as Zhang Heng and his famous seismometer)—and has continued until today:

A culture needs to confront challenge after challenge. In the process of standing up to challenges, [a nation] will have true leaders and the whole country will become united. Only then will there be enough impetus for culture to continue to develop and progress…. It is precisely because the Chinese nation (中华民族) was successful in confronting so many natural disasters that it was able to continuously safeguard Chinese culture over 4000 unbroken years.

Second, the idea of natural disasters as a vital part of the Chinese nation offers a partial explanation for the (alleged) powerful unity of the Chinese people by closely linking the national body and its geography. Focusing on the Warring States period to illustrate this point, the author agues that the problem of surviving natural disasters was a significant factor behind the ideal of eventual (re)unification that ran through the period. The author uses famines as an example: if one of the seven states of the period was suffering a famine, it would look towards one of the other states for relief. That such relief was rarely forthcoming strengthened the desire for unity. “Natural disaster after natural disaster forged the most important thing for the Chinese people—a united national consciousness,” the author concludes. “A baptism of blood and fire that lasted for thousands of years resulted in the obtainment of this priceless treasure.” This is why the Chinese people value unity so much: “I believe an important reason why the idea of unity has so deeply entered the marrow of the Chinese people is natural disasters.”

The article also points to the future, offering the certainty of future natural disasters as a reason to continue civilizational progress. In so doing, the author makes a subtle but interesting comparison between Japan’s handling of natural disasters and Da Yu’s. The author points out that in Japan, another very earthquake-prone country, the numbers of deaths and toppled buildings caused by earthquakes have diminished. “The real tragedy is that, even though we [here in China] have seen earthquakes again and again, we still pay the price of massive numbers of dead. [In the latest earthquake] we saw how school buildings collapsed while buildings standing beside them were safe and sound. We must admit that our civilization has a problem.” (Something many readers will know is that many of the buildings that survived the earthquake were government buildings; anti-corruption measures might therefore be part of the author’s vision of national progress.)

How has Japan managed to lower its earthquake casualties? By following Da Yu’s example, the article implies. “[Da Yu] treated flood control as a long process, a process that, though it had many difficulties, was nevertheless on the whole unremarkable…. The essence of Da Yu’s flood control efforts was that natural disasters are part of normal life.” The author writes that natural disasters create many short-term heroes, but Da Yu, though his efforts were not dramatic, was a long-term hero because he labored over many years to create a strong infrastructure against the potential of natural disasters. Again, while not saying so explicitly, this remark perhaps points to media coverage of the Sichuan earthquake, which focused on the individual heroism of rescuers but often failed to address the larger problems of poorly-constructed buildings, the frequent ineffectiveness of government response, and other issues.

Numerous hardships may make a nation strong, but intelligent safeguards represent true progress. The article ends with a final exhortation: to build a statue of Da Yu in front of an earthquake museum in Sichuan. The implication is that Da Yu’s example, if less dramatic, would be far more useful than the image of countless soldiers clawing through rubble with their hands.

No comments: