Saturday, October 24, 2009

Myth of the 5000 year-old civilization

"No -- 5,000 years, and don’t forget, we invented all these things, and we’re going to go ahead in the next 5,000 years. It’s the only country where a language has survived 5,000 years, the only country by the present generation shares the same basic thinking as the past. And they’re very proud of it.

You read Hu Jintao’s speech on the 60th anniversary, translated on the web -- what is it? We have 5,000 years of civilization. We’re going to get there."

-Lee Kuan Yew (taken from here)

Actually, Mr. Lee, you are wrong about two things.

1. China hasn't been around for 5,000 years. The earliest archaeologically confirmed dynasty was the Shang dynasty which lasted from 1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C.). We have only evidence for at best 3,700 years of Chinese civilization. Furthermore, Chinese civilization originated in the plains of North China and present day China is a lot bigger than the China of a thousand years ago.

2. There is no 5,000 years of the same language. Old Chinese is very different from Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese or any other modern Chinese language. The Chinese languages, like all other languages, evolve and accumulate changes with time. The relationship between contemporary Chinese languages and Old Chinese is akin to that between modern Romance languages (such as French, Italian, Spanish, etc) and Old Latin.

There is nothing wrong with being ignorant. However, if you were ever in a position to decide or control ethnic and linguistic policies of a country, then you should have at least tried to learn more.

4 comments:

Chee Wai Lee said...

Well said!

mjuse said...

for someone supposedly as intelligent as LKY, he sure has swallowed hook, line and sinker the ethnochauvinism so liberally doled out by the Chinese government.

ask any mainland chinese when the first restaurant was set up, when the first written chinese was developed, and when the first anything was come up with in China, and the inevitable reply is 5000 years ago. it puts an end to any intelligent discussion before it can even begin.

this closemindedness is the same reason why most mainland Chinese are intransigent on the Taiwan and Tibet issues. No reasonable discussion is possible, even for the simple purpose of debate.

Fox said...

mjuse,

LKY has a history of assimilating ideas that flatter him or harmonizes with his ethnic self-image, never mind the evidence.

For example, LKY, on account of his Hakka heritage, believes himself to be of North Chinese genetic heritage. At least that is the excuse that he gives for his poor tolerance of Singapore's tropical climate.

Genetic surveys of Hakka-speaking people in China and Taiwan cannot distinguish them from their Hokkien- and Cantonese-speaking neighbours. Linguists generally classify Hakka as a South Chinese language in terms of its grammar and lexis.

He has other fairly idiotic ideas such as how Chinese Singaporeans are hardier than Indians and Malays because they come from an agrarian culture and acquired useful cultural traits to survive the harsh winters of China.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Chinese Singaporeans are descended from immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian where winter is very very mild and crops can be grown all year round.

Anonymous said...

wasn't this the attitude that caused the fall of the Qing dynasty?