Famous People from China

Ma_Yuan_-_Water_Album_-_Clouds_Rising_from_the_Green_SeaYeah, well, my list isn’t very long, either.  Easy enough to list Mao, Chang Kai-Shek, Chao en-Lai, maybe the classical pianist Lang Lang, and the basketball player Yao Ming. Maybe Jet Li, who is probably from Hong Kong (I checked; he is from Hong Kong).

Here’s one of the most powerful, significant, nations, one with enormous history, and I can’t name a half dozen important people from the whole country! (Genghis Khan? Kublai Khan?) I found a pop culture site and found out that Audrey Meadows, from TV’s The Honeymooners, was born in China. I also left out the architect I.M. Pei, who was born in Shanghai. Still, my list is so embarrassing, I figured I ought to know more. So I found a book about important people from China. Appropriately, it’s called Chinese Lives, and it begins, as it should, with a map of China’s many provinces, only half of which I knew by name (Hangxi, Anhui, Shaanxi, and Gansu were among the unfamiliar ones).

I wasn’t sure whether Confucius was a real person, so I never added him to my list, but there he is on page 22, a real person born in 551 BCE, just over 2500 years ago. He was a teacher, and a government minister, eventually becoming an acting Prime Minister. Apparently, he did not play the political game very well; he was exiled, and that allowed him to do his best work, in texts that he edited after he turned 67 years old. The ideas that he wrote, compiled and edited became the philosophical basis for a particular sort of Chinese education, the kind that led to government jobs. Lots of emphasis on “unwavering loyalty to the lord” in a “harmonious society.”

Mo Zi was born around the time that Confucius died. Mo Zi was an philosopher who toured China spreading his ideas of an “egalitarian society based upon devotion to the common good.” He was strongly anti-war, and in favor of universal love.

I especially enjoyed the story of King Wuling of the Zhoa, whose reign began around 325 BCE. The King had a problem, though. According to tradition, his military force dressed in long robes, and traveled into battle on chariot. By 307 BCE, his men were being routinely beaten by the barbarians who traveled not by chariot, but by riding directly upon the horses’ backs. The robes were a problem. King Wuling’s contribution: he convinced the Chinese troops to abandon their traditional gowns and instead dress like the barbarians–in trousers, with boots.

The book is filled with statesmen associated with dynasties whose names are vaguely familiar (I really should read a good book about the whole history of China), more philosophers, a slave who became emperor, military leaders, and more of the stuff I expected to see here.

And then, a familiar name and an unfamiliar one: Li Bari (familiar, also known as Li Po) and Du Fu (not). Both were Chinese poets around 700 or so. Here’s Li Po goofing on Du Fu in a poem:

I ran into Du Fu by a Rice Grain Mountain

In a bamboo hat with the sun at high noon

Hasn’t he got awfully thin since our parting?

It must be struggle of writing his poems.

I keep checking these dates because they are so far outside of the sphere of U.S. consciousness. Su Dongpo was a poet born in 1037, more than 700 years before anybody had an inkling that the United States would exist. He was a painter, too, and a good cook whose recipes survive (Dongpo-style pork remains a Chinese delicacy.) Here’s part of his poem, “Time ‘Immortal’ by the River:’

I drank at night on East Slope, sobered up, got drunk again.

When I came home it was some time past midnight

The houseboy was already snoring like thunder.

I pounded on the gate and got no response.

Then leaned on my staff and listened to the river noises.

A drunk dude sneaking into his house, screwed up again. Things don’t change much, I guess.

Ma Yuan was a court painter. He lived from about 1190 to 1225. If you search for his name (also called Qinshan), you’ll find a lot of wonderful images. The painting at the top of this article was painted by Ma Yuan.

timthumb.phpThere are good stories about emperor Kublai Khan, and the beginning of Chinese drama as initiated by Guan Hanqing. You may know Zheng He, an admiral who led a large fleet to Africa and other far away places a few decades before Christopher Columbus was toilet-trained (I wonder whether there were toilets in Genoa in the 1450s?) Rumors about Zheng He discovering the American mainland are, apparently, quite wrong, the work of someone who mistranslated Chinese historical documents.

There are eunuchs (Zheng He was one, in fact), bandits, rebel leaders, generals and writers who specialize in ghost stories, emperors and national heroes whose names you’ve probably never heard before (they were certainly new to me). There’s Cao Zueqin, “China’s greatest novelist” who died just before the American Revolution and Lu Xun, “Greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century”–a whole culture to explore.

Imagine someone in China first encountering the stories of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Armstrong, Robert E. Lee, Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, and Bob Dylan–never having heard any of these names before, finding a book called American Lives.


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