Friday, 25 June 2010

China: An Empire Risen from the Dust

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First published: National Geographic June 2010

Written as part of the TV series 'How Earth Made Us'. This series is also known as 'How The Earth Changed History' on National Geographic, USA.

Paul Williams, Assistant Producer

Winds of Change
China’s civilisation is one of the oldest and largest in the world, and you could say that it built much of its success on something delivered by the wind. Fifty million years ago, India collided with Asia and pushed up the Himalayas. They were pushed up so high that they had a profound effect on the winds across much of this part of the world, strengthening the Asian westerlies and forcing upwards the wet air flowing north from the Indian Ocean. This ocean air forms clouds and rain which intensifies the monsoon that India relies upon each year. Every drop is squeezed from the air so that, by the time it reaches China on the far side of the mountains, it’s bone dry. The Himalayas form a rain-shadow, creating some of the driest and dustiest places on Earth — the Taklimakan and the Gobi deserts.

The prevailing westerly winds act like a huge conveyor belt that blows this dust all the way to central China. Here it's deposited and mixed with rotten plant matter to become a light, fertile soil — perfect for farming. As early as 10,000 years ago, this slab of fertile dust became a seed for the Neolithic revolution and was one of the first sites of rice cultivation in the world. This dust is better known as loess, and the slab it forms is the Loess Plateau, over a thousand feet thick and covering an area almost the size of France.
The Loess Plateau at the heart of China, flanked on the North & West by great sources of dust

Revolution to Empire 
It’s so vast that farming could develop here on an enormous scale. That meant surplus food. And surplus food is the first and most important pre-requisite of any self respecting empire. Farmers produced the food and paid taxes. Their labour freed priests to organize the worship of gods, armies to protect the city, and it allowed rulers and governments to become wealthy and ambitious. Three thousand years ago, this transition led to the rise of the Shang dynasty, the first of China’s famous dynastic empires — the Loess Plateau had become the ‘Cradle of Chinese Civilisation.' All of the early Chinese empires, the Qin, the Han and the Tang, built their strongholds here, and the Great Wall of China was built across the northern edge of the plateau to safeguard the Empire’s heartland. But the crowning glory of the Loess Plateau is the 8000-strong Terracotta Army, built as a Mausoleum to China's first emperor — Qin Shi Huang. It is not only buried in the loess, but the terracotta from which they were created is itself made from loess.
Image: Platoons of Loess soldiers were buried with China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, to accompany him during his eternal rest. These life-size figures, shown here during excavation at the emperor's burial complex near the city of Xi'an in China's Shaanxi Province, are more than 2,200 years old. Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta

The importance of the Loess Plateau has also shaped China’s cultural heritage. In the 5th century, the Wei dynasty carved the Yungang Grottoes — a honey comb of 250 man-made caves carved beneath the Loess Plateau, the walls covered with over fifty thousand Buddhist statues. It was a symbol of the empire’s wealth and of the new philosophies and religion of Buddhism spreading across the land.

Caves in the Loess Plateau were not only constructed as a testament to religion and power, but for centuries they have provided insulated shelter from the cold winters of the region. Even today it is estimated that over a million people still live in the man-made caves known as Yaodong. In the 1930s, they provided the headquarters and home for Chairman Mao Zedong and his communist party — once again the Loess Plateau was the focal point for great change in China.

What began with loess led to empires and dynasties, art and religion. And it was all made possible by the winds. China was lucky. It found itself at the end of a wind pattern that delivered some of the finest quality soil in the world. But that's not the end of the story...

Chinas Sorrow
As China's population boomed and prospered, the pressure on the land grew. Centuries of over-grazing and deforestation have reduced the once lush and fertile plateau to an almost barren desert-like landscape. Without vegetation to anchor the loess in place, the land has been eroded. What has taken millions of years to be blown in by the wind is stripped away by the mighty Yellow River, a raging torrent which washes up to 1.6 billion tonnes of soil downstream every year. Here the loess tightens its grip on the fate of China. It periodically clogs up the arteries of the Yellow River, causing widespread flooding on the lowlands. Dykes and levees are continuously built in defence, but these cannot contain the beast. Flooding and breaching of these dykes have been responsible for some of the highest death tolls in human history. Up to 2 million people lost their lives to this flooding in 1887, and, in 1931, an estimated 4 million succumbed to the waters as it flooded the North China Plain. It’s no wonder that the river is known by man as 'China's Sorrow.'

In 1938, during a war with Japan, Chinese troops were ordered to break the levees holding back the river in order to stop the encroaching Japanese. This flooding of an area of 54,000 square kilometres did destroy its intended target, but, along with the Japanese army, it also killed an estimated 9 million Chinese.

The Loess Plateau, which was once the treasured heart of the empire, is now a major issue for the Chinese government. In the 1990s, they launched the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project in a bid to reverse centuries of neglect. Local people have been educated about sustainable farming practice, and thousands of trees have been planted. Nature is now reclaiming a portion of the Loess Plateau and slowly returning it to its former glory. It is hoped that, with time, more of the land will be made arable, and the load on 'China's Sorrow' will be lessened.
Image: China's Loess Plateau was once covered with natural forests, but high winds and thousands of years of clear-cutting for agricultural purposes have created one of the world's worst soil-erosion problems. Here, a government tree-restoration project aimed at stabilizing the soil and reducing erosion covers miles of hillside on the plateau. Photograph by Jim Richardson

1 comment:

  1. I love China but it saddens me to hear about such disasters. Sounds like more needs to be done.