A single ethnic group constitutes fully 18% of the human species. At 1.3 billion in number, Han Chinese are the largest “tribe” in the world. There is simply nothing analogous in the West — not just their size but their unbroken antiquity. Chinese people speak the same language(s) as their forebears. Mandarin and Cantonese have evolved of course, but there was nothing like the bastardization due to foreign appropriation that characterizes Latin derivatives like French and Spanish.
In fact, that unbroken continuity is the reason Mandarin Chinese in particular is so distinctive. Human mouths are lazy. We tend to slur our words in casual speech, which is why, in the days before widespread literacy when almost all speech was colloquial, hard consonants tended to erode over time — because they take more effort to pronounce. That Chinese has so few hard consonants is linguistic evidence of its great age. It is as weathered as a Roman ruin.
But it isn’t just the language. The Han Chinese occupy the same politico-geographic area as their forebears in a way that has no corollary in the West. The Jewish people, for example, are recognizably and historically ancient, but for most of that time they’ve occupied no lands, had no state, and so their history — by which I mean the narrative of their people, not a scientific accounting of events — is a “private” history consisting mostly of their thoughts about themselves along with records of what has been done to them.
The Han people are also ancient — bewilderingly so. They occupied the Yellow River Valley at least back to neolithic times. But unlike the Hebrews or the Greeks, after establishing the Han Dynasty in 202 BC, they never left. For the Chinese, Han culture is “classic” in much the same way that Graeco-Roman culture, a contemporary, is for Europeans. Indeed, the Chinese still use “Han characters” in the sense that we still use “Arabic numerals” (which the Arabs adapted from the Indians).
Incidentally, the dynasty before the Han was the Qin, the first formal dynasty in Chinese history, from which we get our name “China,” as the land of the Hindu people is “Hindia.” The Qin Dynasty, however, lasted a mere 15 years, from 221-206 BC. If language were less serendipitous, our name for China would probably be something like “Hania,” the land of the Han people, who make up 92% of mainland Chinese.
Theirs is a very “public” history. Any Chinese citizen can look back on thousands of years where people who looked like them and spoke like them did more or less the same stuff they do and in the same place where they still do it — writing music, gardening, filling books with calligraphic poetry, winning battles, giving great speeches, etc. (The same is true of Japan, who trace their history unbroken from about the year 800 but which of course extends back to prehistory, to the Jomon period.)
Therein lies the big lie of world history classes: that Western culture is the successor of the Graeco-Roman. It most certainly is NOT. Your great-great-grandfather was not a Roman consul — not genetically, not linguistically, not culturally. If you’re European by ancestry, your great-great-grandfather was the sweaty barbarian who sacked and burned Rome. We’re not her heirs. We’re her assassins.
Western culture really began in the Renaissance. Of course, at the point of its formulation, it was very much an elite enterprise, which is to say most people in Europe — even most of the wealthy and powerful — were still living a fundamentally medieval-feudal lifestyle (pockets of which survived well into the 20th century). Renaissance culture didn’t spring from nowhere. It built on both medieval and Graeco-Roman antecedents. Nor did it appear “fully formed.” It has continued to grow and change. But still, our fundamental approach to the world — humanistic, rational, ideological — was born in the Renaissance.
Not surprisingly then that in casual use, “classical” refers to Renaissance and related periods. (In academic discourse, it means antiquity.) Yes, we still don medieval dress when we graduate. Yes, there are still lots of people practicing the religion of the Roman Empire. But the fact remains, most major cities in the Western world have a “classical music” station, and what is being played on it right now is not music from ancient Rome. Nor is it even Renaissance music to be honest. As I mentioned, daily life during the intellectual Renaissance was still more or less as it had been, and that included music. Renaissance music was still fundamentally medieval.
It wasn’t until the elite ideas of the intellectual Renaissance began to seep out of the universities that artists and musicians took note. So, for example, you probably can’t name a single Renaissance (or earlier) composer off the top of your head, but you can almost certainly name some of the stars of the very next era of Western art, the Baroque, which includes household names like J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and Pachelbel, whose Canon in D is a perennial favorite at weddings. Ours is a Renaissance, not an antique culture.
Not so in China, whose culture is contiguous with its ancient past. As an example of this pervasive antiquity, I present the song below. The instrument is the pipa, a kind of four-stringed lute. Of course, the pipa isn’t popular like rap music is popular, but then neither is the violin. Yet, both are still learned and played. There are pipa virtuosos alive today. You can get tickets to pipa concerts in large music halls. It is a classical instrument.
The difference between the violin and the pipa is the difference between Western and Chinese culture. Its origins are murky of course, but the first recorded mention of the pipa came during — you guessed it — the Han Dynasty, around the 2nd century AD. This song, whose origins are also murky, has existed in some form for at least 500 years and commemorates the Battle of Gaixia, where in 202 BC the Han leader Liu Bang decisively defeated his rival, the warlord Xiang Yu from the state of Chu.
The closest thing to the Battle of Gaixia in the West is probably the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), where the Greeks decisively defeated the Persians, thereby creating a Europe free of oriental rule, which had defined civilization up to that point. Alternatively, you could pick the defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra (a Greek descendant of one of Alexander’s generals) by the forces of Caesar Augustus at the Battle of Actium in 27 BC. But in either case, it’s not really the same. For the analogy to hold, everyone in Europe and North America would have to speak Greek — or Latin, but that shift is already indicative of a change not present in the history of China.
To illustrate, imagine getting off work to attend your kid’s Greek lyre recital wherein they pluck a song commemorating Salamis, a song whose tune everyone knows by heart, like Beethoven’s fifth. Imagine going to a wedding this weekend where the pastor reads relevant sections of Paul’s epistles in their original Greek, and you can almost kinda understand parts of it. Imagine the bride walks down the aisle accompanied by flute music that could’ve easily been heard at the Greek-speaking court of Charlemagne. Imagine Fourth of July celebrations where the marching bands don’t sound terribly different than those of Sparta (or imperial Rome) because many of the instruments are very similar.
The fact that none of that is the case shows that our culture is not ancient — certainly not in the way that Chinese culture is. To be native Chinese is to be the recipient of 2,300 years of contiguous history, which is awe-some to me.
One final point. I need only show that we could’ve been the heirs of Greece or Rome to prove that we are not. As a matter of record, when the Greek-speaking Byzantines marched out to face the marauding Turks in 1453 (one generation before Columbus), they called themselves Ῥωμαῖοι, or Romaioi, which is Greek for “Romans,” despite that few of the soldiers, if any, had ever once seen the old city. Alas, Constantinople fell to the Turks and with it the last political vestiges of an empire that had existed at the same time as the Han.
Elsewhere in 1453, the Ming emperors were building a great big wall to prevent exactly that kind of thing from happening. Again. They didn’t know that the next invasion would come not by land, as it always had before, but by sea — in the form of British warships.
Anyway, here is “Ambush from Ten Sides,” classical music for the pipa. There are roughly four “movements.” The first introduces the combatants. The second, a medley of point and counterpoint, describes the battle. The third is a kind of lament — the defeat of Xiang Yu and his subsequent suicide by the river. The last, in frenetic strumming reminiscent of the roaring of crowds, proclaims the victory of Liu Bang and the founding of the Han Dynasty, the first stable, long-lived dynasty in a series of the same that stretched all the way to the 20th century.
This version was made for Chinese TV in the late 60s or early 70s (I think) and is a solo performance by pipa master Liu Dehai, who is still alive. Note the delicate finger work, especially around 2:30 mark. The composition is apparently so difficult it can only be approached by a virtuoso.
EDIT: For comparison, note how difficult it is even to interpret let alone reconstruct music from ancient Greece.