By Chet Yarbrough
From Yao to Mao (5000 Years of Chinese History)
By: Kenneth J. Hammond (Great Courses)
Lecturer-Professor Kenneth J. Hammond
Kenneth J. Hammond (Professor of History at New Mexico State University.)
In some ways, America’s 300 hundred years is a microcosm of Kenneth Hammond’s informative lectures on China’s 5,000-year history. Not to carry this idea too far, America has no emperors and is a mere baby in the history of the world. However, social struggles of China and America have striking similarities.
The fabric of a nation’s society is woven by leaders and followers. Hammond recounts long stretches of China’s history that demonstrate social and political changes that predate and foretell America’s history. American presidents are unlikely to experience dynasty. However, there are similarities between American leaders and the reign of Chinese Emperors.
Yu the Great (2123 BC to 2025 BC–95 years of life.)
In 2070 BC, “Yu the Great” manages to organize China’s fragmented ethnic groups into a kingdom. Yu makes the first written record of an attempt to control nature. By introducing flood control, Yu improves the lives of millions of his followers in what becomes China’s Xia dynasty. This dynasty, with various emperors, lasts for over 400 years.
Yu is characterized as an “upright moral character”. Though the Xia dynasty is a hundreds years longer than the United States, Yu reminds one of George Washington’s brief role in America.
Both set the stage for all national leaders who have successes and failures in their journey through history. National leaders strive to form one nation from people of many different ethnicities and beliefs. Successful national leaders manage external and internal crises to unite disparate followers.
Hammond identifies 16 different China’ eras, from Yao to Mao. China’s leaders are not uniformly successful which can be equally said of Presidents of the United States. At times, leaders of nations are petty, greedy, self-righteous, and wrong but China became the most advanced, powerful, and rich country in the world at different times in their history.
Religion and society play parts in both China and America’s rise in the world.
Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam play parts in China’s successes, and failures. Hammond notes how Confucius belief reinforces importance of family in the success of nationhood. Buddhism, though imported from India, instills introspection, meditation, and abstinence into China’s leaders during tumultuous times. At times, Christianity and a burgeoning Islam threaten China’s future. Hammond recounts a claimed brother of Jesus who nearly overthrows a Chinese emperor but fails.
The Uyghurs, a largely Muslim Chinese minority, join Genghis Khan to establish the Mongol Empire. This empire rises at the end of the Song Dynasty that leads China for several generations. The Islamic faith is adopted by descendants of Genghis. It plays a role in China’s history. Fundamental religious and societal conflicts are equally evident in America’s short history.
In Hammond’s last lecture, he reviews China’s pragmatist movement. Deng Xiao Ping, in modern China, introduces capitalism into Maoist communism. Private property (though restricted by government limits) encourages accumulation of private wealth.
Entrepreneurial vigor is unleashed in China.
Hammond chooses not to mention Xi but conflicts between Maoist communism and Deng’s capitalist introduction are renewed. Xi reinforces the importance of the communist party at the expense of capitalism. One might argue Xi’s political moves are to combat the temptation of greed.
However, human nature ensures greed will play into communist party bureaucracy just as it does in capitalism. Capitalism and communism have a common failing—the desire for power which comes from entrepreneurial wealth as well as bureaucratic privilege.
One gathers from Hammond’s history of China that there remains no perfect form of governance. Every country’s leadership deals with the failings of human nature.
All these conflicts are evident in America’s 300 years—they are played out in China’s history. China has managed to remain a nation state for 5,000 years. Presumably, America can do the same.
There are no pat answers that can abate the rise and fall of China or America. Rome is no longer Rome, but Italy is still Italy. The same may be said of America if one uses China’s history as a guide.