The more I learn and see in my life, the more I am convinced that “history” is a multi-faceted term, and that history itself is largely subjective, relative to time and location, and deeply influential in national psyche. Within each city, museum, temple, mausoleum, and other culturally significant thing I have visited, I am reminded constantly of China’s truly ancient civilizations. This is something that is remarkable in the mind of an American, as my nation’s history stretches only so far as the discovery of the Americas in the late fifteenth century. Compared to China, North America and the United States specifically are infants in terms of social evolution, innovation, war, and cultural identity.
China was also the homeland of one the four academically accepted “cradles of civilization,” the areas of earliest known human habitation. While I might consider my own nation’s history—early New England settlers, western expansion, the famed founding fathers, entrepreneurialism, the advent of television, rock & roll, and fast food, for instance—to be lengthy, progressive, dynamic, and influential, it is relatively uneventful compared to the thousands of years that China has been cultivating its own stories.
While touring half a dozen museums full of relics from the past does lose its novelty, there is something remarkable about statements like, “This was from the Shang dynasty, dating back around three thousand years.” It makes centuries of history seem frighteningly minuscule in relation to the life span of individuals, and puts in perspective the relative significance of different nations and civilizations and different times in history.
As an American in the 21st Century, I tend to think of the U.S. as an everlasting leader, more owing to my American psyche than by my understanding and education. While I have always been fully aware of the fleeting leadership of any nation, mine included, being in China and learning about its long and dynamic history have put that idea into more literal and realistic terms
One thing my history teacher in Zhengzhou mentioned was that Chinese people tend to each claim a favorite dynasty from their nation’s past, and that which one they choose is largely suggestive of that person’s character. This is an interesting observation, and I have found China’s past to indeed be largely influential within the nation and upon its citizens.
What comprises history and fact changes depending on who one asks, the context in which said information is analyzed, and its relation to other, correlating and opposing histories. I find that the more I interpret and understand Chinese history, my grasp on world history and U.S. history is also challenged, reaffirmed, and adjusted.