Monday, August 03, 2009

"shan gao, buang di yuan"

In an earlier post, I had quoted a passage from Lee Kuan Yew’s book, wherein he had talked about the multiplicity of dialects in China and corrected the general impression ( at least the one I had) that it was bound by a common language.

In a subsequent passage in the same book, he also demolishes another myth, that the communist system in China made for complete unified central control, and that the writ of the central rulers ran large throughout the vast country.

"Every province of China is different in geography, economy, education and standard of efficiency. The pre-occupations of their governers are different. Their accents, dialects and social habits vary. America may be a continent, but the population is not as large, and excellent communications allowed their elite to meet and interact regularly. China is too populous and until the 1980s, when they built up their airports and imported Western aircraft, communications were so poor that they lived in different worlds. There is strong interprovincial rivalry. Hence every leader who rose to the top in Beijing brought with him as many of his provincial colleagues as was decent without arousing resentment from those excluded. Fellow provincials understood and could best understand their leader’s mind.

I had assumed that the communist system made for complete unified central control. This never was so in China. From the earlier dynasties, provincial authorities have enjoyed considerable independence in interpreting imperial edicts, and further away from the center a province was, the greater its independence. Five words, shan gao, buang di yuan (the mountains are high, the emperor is far away) express the cynicism and skepticism of generations of the disaffected who have been shortchanged by the local authorities.


Shalini said...

A fascinating story. The China I know was only from a couple of Pearl S buck I have read and from Vikram Seth.
Looks like I am Sino-challenged. Must read up more. Thanks for the info.

Raj said...

Shalini, also read the book by Pallavi Aiyar. As correspondent of The Hindu she lived in China for 6 years and has narrated her experience well.

Shalini said...

Thanks Raj. I have read a few articles by her. Will look for her book.