TRAVEL / Great Civilisations of the World: Rulers of all this and heaven too: 5 Imperial China: China gave birth to ideas that changed the world - and made bonfires of books. David Keys on a nation walled in paradoxes

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CHINA's most famous philosophy, Confucianism, contained two fundamentally contradictory strands. Mencius, a Confucian philosopher of the first century BC, held that all humans are born good; the less optimistic Confucian Xun Zi claimed in the third century AD that we are all born thoroughly evil. It is a dichotomy that is in tune with much of Chinese history, which is one of continuous contradiction.

The uniquely Chinese adoration of scholarship and the life of the intellect co-existed with book-burning and levels of violence rarely matched anywhere else. Ferocious jingoism flourished together with an ability - often a willingness - to accept foreign customs and traditions. A theoretical obsession with historical continuity was accompanied by a ruthless practical preference for new brooms sweeping clean. The Confucianist belief in social order even contradicts itself with its caveat that revolution is sometimes desirable.

The story of China seems to embody Yin and Yang, complementary dark force and bright force, negative and positive, more clearly than that of any other country. What were the achievements of Chinese intellectuals - and what damage was done by the civilisation's book-burners?

Writing was probably invented in China. Archaeologists recently found a piece of turtle-shell inscribed with what appears to be a Chinese character, dating from around 5000 BC. New evidence suggests a sophisticated script had certainly evolved by 3000 BC, calligraphy became a high art form by 1200 BC and paper was invented by the second century BC.

Scholarship was always of supreme importance to the Chinese. The first academic examinations were introduced in the second century BC - and by the second century AD there were 30,000 students in the Chinese capital, Luoyang. Whether in poetry or mathematics, science or medicine, music or technology, Chinese scholars excelled. In the fourth century BC, Chinese scientists produced a sophisticated celestial map marking 1,464 stars. In the fifth century AD, mathematicians calculated the value of pi to six decimal places. Education took a quantum leap forward following the development of book printing in China in the ninth century. In the 11th century, Chinese physicians developed the world's first inoculations (against smallpox).

The world's largest surviving body of ancient literature is from China - literally tens of thousands of poems, essays, philosophical treatises and works of science. And there would have been even more if the Yin elements of Chinese civilisation had not sought to destroy them.

The first known bout of book-burning was in the late third century BC, when the Chinese emperor Shi Huang Di, re-establishing the empire, decided the obliteration of all history books would help his cause. Most books containing historical information were destroyed, to prevent them being used by competitors seeking to claim the throne. 'I destroyed all the useless books in the world, summoned to court a multitude of scholars . . . and hoped thereby to bring about an age of great well-being,' he declared. His anti-intellectual attitude prompted him to bury alive 460 of the scholars he had summoned - 'as a warning to their successors'. Yet the empire he re-established existed intermittently for 2,000 years; and for most of that time it was dominated by the scholarly class he so despised.

China was engulfed by a second anti-intellectual purge in the ninth century AD, when many of the country's religions were suppressed. Then in the 13th century, most Taoist literature was destroyed. Another great literary repression was launched in the 18th century, when 2,320 books were banned. Thousands of people unlucky enough to have owned them before the ban were imprisoned or executed. If they were already dead, their skeletons were exhumed, chopped up and reburied. In the same anti-intellectual tradition was the terrible repression of China's intelligentsia during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

China's contradictory attitudes towards intellectualism have always been mirrored by its attitude towards the outside world. Throughout its long history it has suffered a sort of cultural schizophrenia in its relationships with other countries. In the 11th century BC, Chinese emperors developed the theory of the Mandate of Heaven, according to which the whole world - everything under heaven - belonged to them. This attitude was so long-lived that as late as the 18th century the Chinese would permit trade only with countries which recognised them as overlords. Crafty Dutch and Portuguese merchants got round this little problem by giving the emperor tribute from fictitious countries.

Through most of China's history, all foreigners have been regarded as barbarians. In medieval times, hundreds of miles of palisades were built to stop Chinese leaving China - and military expeditions were sent to South-east Asia to attempt to bring back Chinese settlers by force and prevent them mixing with non-Chinese. Even in the last century, it was against imperial law for anyone in China to teach foreigners Chinese.

Yet despite all this jingoism, one of China's principal religions - Buddhism - was imported from India. For a third of its history, the Chinese empire was ruled by emperors who were not ethnically Chinese: for hundreds of years it was run by Mongolians or Manchurians. The country's most famous architectural form - the pagoda - began as an idea imported from India. The national drink - tea - came from Burma, and spread as part of a Buddhist ploy to combat drunkenness in early medieval China.

Perhaps the most striking paradox of Chinese history is the seemingly irreconcilable addictions to both order and revolution. Confucius held that personal goodness was insufficient if it failed to serve society. He advocated an ordered society with specific 'correct' relationships between parents and children, between friends, young and old, husband and wife, government and people. But governments had to ensure the happiness and prosperity of the masses - and if they failed, they were unfit to rule.

The Confucian sage Mencius went even further and said that evil rulers could be overthrown through revolution. Certainly most of China's 12 imperial dynasties came to power, not through heredity or other legal right, but through revolt. China's other great indigenous philosophy, Taoism, had no time for either order or revolution. It was anarchist, teaching that all governments and conventions are 'unnatural', and 'destructive' of human happiness and freedom.

But on a practical level, Chinese civilisation has always been intensely organised and ordered. Perhaps the most visible element of its concept of order is the peculiarly Chinese phenomenon of 'The Wall'. Walls were used not simply to defend, but to delineate units of administration, to separate insiders from outsiders.

At a domestic level, most individual houses were built within their own walled compounds. Many villages were surrounded by their own walls. All towns and cities in China also had massive ramparts, often up to 20 miles in circumference. Many of the small kingdoms which were eventually amalgamated to form the Chinese Empire of the third century BC also had walls built around them, at least in part. And of course the empire itself built a succession of Great Walls (30,000 miles in all) to delineate its border and distinguish it from the barbarian world beyond.

The empire established by Shi Huang Di in 221 BC was dedicated to order. Imperial inscriptions, carved on tablets on a series of remote mountain-tops, declared that 'the state established by the Emperor is the foremost since all ages past'. They describe how Shi Huang Di 'rooted out disorder and rebellion with authority effective to the world's four bounds with military justice undeviating and exact'.

The creator of this awesome system was obsessed with only one thing more than power: eternal life. His behaviour reflected an extraordinary central paradox unique, in its intensity, to ancient China. The emperor prepared for life after death by conscripting 700,000 peasants to build the world's greatest tomb - under a huge, 250ft mound, with a base four times the size of Egypt's largest pyramid.

Inside his tomb he ordered the construction of a miniature replica of his entire empire, complete with palaces, rivers and seas - made of mercury so they would never evaporate. The workers who built this empire of death were killed in the tomb so that they would never reveal its secrets. The whole vast complex was guarded by a model army of 7,000 terracotta warriors.

Despite his preparations for the after-life, the Emperor, like many other Chinese, was not a wholehearted believer in the world to come. The search for the elixir of life dominated Shi Huang Di's existence. In pursuit of it he sent sages to commune with the spirits on the tops of the highest mountains and despatched a thousand children in a great fleet out into the China Sea. They never returned. Others, too, perished searching for the elixir - many poisoning themselves.

But for us in the West, China's most fascinating paradox is perhaps its failure to expand substantially outside its borders. In medieval times China had the capacity to conquer half the planet. By the 13th century it had the largest army and navy in the world (with 1.5 million and 52,000 men respectively) and the world's largest population (80 million). The Chinese developed bombs, cannon, grenades, flame-throwers and the magnetic compass by the year 1300. By the 15th century, they were navigating far greater distances than their European counterparts: in 1433 the Chinese fleet sailed 6,000 miles to Africa - but the only novelty they brought back was giraffes.

Unlike the comparatively less advanced European powers, the Chinese never sought to build a global empire. After all, they believed that ' all under heaven' belonged to them anyway.

Where to go, what to see

1 PEKING *** Early 15th-century Forbidden City, residence of emperors for 400 years.

2 CHANGSHA ** Second century BC tomb. The local museum has all the spectacular grave goods, including laquerware and the world's earliest surviving silk clothes. The mummified corpse is also on display.

3 DANYANG ** Two fine sixth-century AD statues, 12 feet high, stand guard at the entrance to an imperial burial ground. The emperors lie interred in secret tombs hidden (and unvisitable) within the mountains.

4 DATONG *** 12th-century wooden library of Huayan temple complete with 31 statues - among the finest in China.

5 DAZU *** The best place in China to see medieval sculpture. In 298 caves and along the cliffs

are thousands of often painted sculptures of deities, sages, and buddhas. Lively scenes portray allegories against meat-eating and drunkenness.

6 DINGXIAN *** 11th-century Liaodi Ta pagoda, 250 feet high, built as a frontier watchtower.

7 DUJIANGYAN ** An irrigation scheme established in 250 BC is still working. The best view is from the wonderful Taoist temple of Fulong (the submerged dragon) which contains the original statue of the engineer Libing, who designed the scheme 22 centuries ago.

8 DUNHUANG *** Nearby at Mogao, see the world's most important repository of Buddhist art - 45,000 square metres of 4th- to 11th-century frescos, adorning more than 1,000 man-made caves (only 40 are open).

See also the ruins of Shazhou.

9 FOGUANG *** A 9th-century wooden temple hall and 12th- century buildings amid mountain scenery near Taiyuan.

10 FUJIAN PROVINCE *** In the south of this province are hundreds of medieval villages.

11 GAOCHANG *** Ruins of 8th-century desert city, mysteriously abandoned.

12 GONGXIAN *** Over 1,000 10th- to 11th-century stone statues scattered in eight groups over just a few square miles.

13 GREAT WALL OF CHINA *** There are dozens of places where you can see the Great Wall, the most frequently visited being one of the most recently built stretches (16th-century) at Badaling, north of Peking. The Great Wall - or walls, 18 of them in all - was built at various different times over the past 2,700 years. In total, 30,000 miles worth were built as defences between Chinese kingdoms or against barbarians from outside China.

14 GUILIN ** Magnificent 14th to 17th-century statues guard small Ming princely tombs.

15 HUIZHOU ** Nearby villages have fine medieval houses.

16 JIANLING *** 64 magnificent 8th-century statues form an avenue leading to hidden mountain tomb of a Tang Dynasty emperor.

17 JIN CI *** (near Taiyuan), 11th to 19th-century temple complex, including a medieval stage for dramas funded by trade guilds and a fish pond crossed by an 11th- century cruciform bridge.

18 JIXIAN *** Two 10th-century wooden temple halls at Guanyin Ge with original statues.

19 LESHAN *** See the 8th-century, 71-metre cliff sculpture of Buddha (bigger even than the Abu Simbel statues in Egypt) - and two 1st-century AD tombs with sculpted reliefs including one of an attempt to assassinate an emperor. See also the 13-storey pagoda and the temple of Wuyou.

20 LONGMEN *** 1352 man- made 6th-century cliffside caves containing more than 100,000 carved Buddhist figures.

21 LUOYANG ** Tombs - one of which has beautiful frescos.

22 MAIJI SHAN *** 500-foot rock honeycombed with caves, sculpted to resemble wooden halls complete with columns.

23 MAOLING ** The earliest datable (117 BC) stone statues in China - 16 of them - can be seen outside the unopened tomb of an imperial general.

24 MING TOMBS *** 15th to 17th-century tombs of 13 emperors, but only one is open. Beautiful avenue of statues. See also two replica, above-ground funerary palace complexes.

25 MOUNT SONG *** The Buddhist Song Yue temple pagoda (AD 523) is the oldest brick building in China. Four miles north west is the Shaolin Monastery with eight 18th-century miniature pagodas.

26 NANCHAN *** Oldest surviving wooden building in China, this temple hall (complete with original statues) was built in AD 782 and is located near Taiyuan amid beautiful mountain scenery.

27 QIANLING *** 125 superb stone statues (AD 700) form a half-mile avenue leading to an imperial tomb still hidden (and unvisitable) under a mountain. See also the tomb of Prince Zhanghuai with its (replica) frescos. The originals are in the historical museum in Xian.

28 QUFU *** Beautiful walled town where Confucius was born 2,500 years ago. Much of the population is descended from the Confucius family, although the sage's direct descendant (77th generation) left in 1949 and now lives in Taiwan. See many fine medieval houses, the great temple (rebuilt 15 times) with its original 2,000-year-old stone human and animal figures, and the magnificent early graveyard (with hundreds of stone statues) where Confucius himself is buried.

29 SHAOXING *** The founder of China's first royal dynasty, the semi-legendary King Yu died here, supposedly in 2197 BC. This little town, surrounded by lakes and rivers, boasts a fine selection of medieval houses.

30 SHUNLING ** 30 stone statues guard the (unopened tomb) of Lady Yang (AD 700) the mother of a Chinese empress.

31 WANPING ** See the restored 13th-century Marco Polo Bridge.

32 XIAN *** Nearby see the famous 3rd-century BC terracotta army (7,000 figures) and the huge man-made hill over the emperor's tomb the army was meant to guard. See also Xian's massive city wall, two 7th-centurypagodas and the Banpo neolithic ruins.

33 XIXIA ** 150 medieval mausolea near Yinchuan.

34 YUNGANG CAVES *** 53 man-made caves covered with carved scenes from the life of Buddha. See also a 14-metre stone statue of Buddha, and a revolving library inside a nearby temple.

35 ZHENGDING XIAN ** 11th- century buildings in the temple of Longxing.

36 ZHENGZHOU * A tiny section of the city wall is all that remains of Anyang, the 12th- century BC capital of China's earliest empire.

37 ZHOUXIAN *** Magnificent bridge built AD 610 - the oldest in China.

FURTHER READING: Blue Guide China, Frances Wood ( pounds 16.99), by far the best cultural guide. Do not go without it; China: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet pounds 12.95); China A Short Cultural History, C P Fitzgerald (Century pounds 7.95); China: A New History, John King Fairbank (Harvard pounds 21); Cultural Atlas of China (Facts on File pounds 22.95); The Chinese Spirit Road, Ann Paludan (Yale pounds 25); Behind the Wall, Colin Thubron (Penguin pounds 5.99), is amongst the best travel writing on the country; Wild Swans, Jung Chang (Collins pounds 17.50), an autobiography that captures the bewildering change China has undergone in the century.

All titles available from good bookshops, and by mail order from Daunt Books, 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (071-224 2295).

(Photograph and map omitted)