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.