North and South

Insomnia sets you up for some funny discoveries. A few weeks ago I was reading through a literary history of China (not entirely off my own bat; it was a commissioned review) and came across this quaint piece of type-casting:

“Chinese civilization resulted from the gradual fusion of multiple sources . . .  however, the Yellow River Valley culture obviously played a dominant role” (pp. 1–2). “Harsh living conditions” in the north compelled the members of that culture to “gather their dispersed people together into large and powerful communities”; thus “the ideology of the state reached maturity there far earlier than in other regions” (p. 2). 

“In the Yangtze valley, the climate was hot and humid . . . it was relatively easy to lead a simple existence there. Consequently, even though there was a similar need to form large, powerful communities, it was . . . by no means as pressing as that in the north. Thus, in the Yangtze valley . . . the ideology to preserve social order and strengthen community power through restraining the individual was not as well developed as that in the north” (pp. 4–5). In the culture of the North, “music, dance and singing were regarded as the means to regulate community life and to carry out an ethical purpose. . . . The main functions of the arts of Chu are represented, however, in providing the satisfaction of aesthetic pleasure, and in this way fully display the dynamism of human emotions” (p. 33).

I’m quoting from A Concise History of Chinese Literature by Luo Yuming, translated by Ye Yang (2 vols., Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011).

I already sent in my review, but insomnia led me to read Yen Hsiao-pei’s dissertation on paleontology in China. Splendid dissertation, by the way. And in it one finds this:

In his famous article, “Why Central Asia?” of 1926, [Henry Fairfield] Osborn presented a full picture of his idea of human evolution. Developed on Matthew’s framework, Osborn argued that “in lowlands in tropical and semi-tropical regions, where natural resources were abundant, the process of evolution was hindered and even retrogressive; only dry and open regions could stimulate the development of intelligence. The dry uplands of Mongolia and Tibet in Central Asia offered the perfect invigorating environment for the evolution of our ancestors.”

So now you see the measure of academic progress. A theory propounded on racist grounds (for Osborn was eager to refute the out-of-Africa hypothesis about human origins, hence he preferred the dry uplands of Asia as our original homeland) in the 1920s survives as the armature of a literary history in the 2010s. There must be a higher standard.

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