|Africa: A Fertile Land and Oasis of Culture|
Source: China Culture Daily
Africa: A Land of Culture
In November 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, traveling the African continent from north to south, appreciating the vast land from a cultural perspective. It was a journey of culture in the true sense. In my view, Africa is a fertile land and oasis of culture rather than a desert, as some have claimed.
1.We Need to Know Where We Come from, a Precondition for Knowing Where to Go
Prejudice comes from ignorance. Had I not been given the chance to step onto the ancient land of Ethiopia, I would not have believed that she has such a long history and splendid culture. What the media from the developed countries have been presenting about Ethiopia is a country of hunger, poverty, war and famine. What the media footages and pictures show about the country is either famine infested skinny people or thousands of miles of barren lands.
The best way to learn a country’s history and culture is to visit its museums. The shabbiness of the Ethiopian National Museum is a bit hard to have imagined – a two-storey building with a fenced-in courtyard, could be easily assumed to be a small roadside hotel if not told what it actually is. However, what such a shabby building has to offer is more than amazing. Some of the visitors joked that if any single piece of the relics in the museum were put on auction, it could fetch enough money to build a splendid brand-new museum. The greatest treasure in the museum is the ancient human fossil skeleton that westerners call “Lucy”, discovered by an American anthropologist in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1974. It is a 3.2 million years old 40% intact partial female skeleton, the oldest human fossil unearthed so far. The “Lucy” fossil’s discovery tells us that the great mankind of ours originated from the barren lands of Ethiopia. It is where human civilization came about and is mankind’s birth place. An archeologist in the museum told us that “Lucy” was around 20 years old when she died and the locals call her “Miss Lucy”. As a matter of fact, it could be more appropriate for people today to call her “Grandma Lucy”, as she is the oldest ancestor we have come to know, actually our great, great, great granny.
The museum has a special Lucy Room, presenting human fossils from 2 million, 1 million, 400,000 and 200,000 years ago in addition to “Lucy”. The Ethiopian expert told us vivid stories of each of the fossils, presenting both an archeologist’s sobering recollection of the human evolution process and a historian’s refreshing review of the human history, from ancient hardship to today’s splendor.
Stepping into the room, anyone with a sense of history cannot help but meditate in awe and wonderment. To me, this small room of a few dozens of square meters should be called the temple for celebrating the long human history, as a common worship place for the enormous mankind of 7 billion strong.
In our contacts with the Ethiopians, we could sense their pride from the bottom of their hearts. Towards a people still living at and guarding the birthplace of human race, everyone in this modern world, wherever he is from and whichever nation he belongs to, should pay tribute.
The Chinese people have the tradition of honoring their ancestors, which is a virtue in the nation. The fact that the Chinese civilization has lasted for thousands of years uninterrupted, of course, has something to do with our national characteristic of “Never forgetting one’s origin and roots”. In recent years, there came about quite a lot of criticism against extravagances on ancestor worshipping. Nonetheless, tradition needs be carried on in a certain form. So long as it is not abused as a way of profiteering, we don’t have to consider it wrong, in principle.
In my personal view, the Chinese nation, a civilization with a long and splendid history, could be a bit more far-sighted and broad-minded in root-seeking. Apart from paying tribute under a large pagoda tree, at the home places of Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang and in front of Upper Cave Man site, we could also travel to the African continent, to Ethiopia, where the ancestor of all ancestors came about, being the real home place of mankind. People in a modernized country deserve to have such humanistic concerns and awareness. While racing ahead, we need to take a bit more time to look back, which will naturally bring us more wisdom, calmness and confidence in our way ahead.
A family needs to honor its ancestors and a nation its history. For mankind, it is imperative to respect the place where he took the first step; everyone needs to remember where he comes from. How can we know where to go without knowing where we came from? It is impossible to face the future without knowing one’s own history and culture.
2. To Love One’s Country Doesn’t Require a Reason But One Is Needed to Have Confidence in One’s Culture
When I talked about culture with the Ethiopians, they were very glad to share their 3000 years of splendid civilization, their eyes often beaming with an intense sense of pride, quite unforgettable. People often say that one does not need a reason to love one’s country, like loving his parents. However, there has to be a reason to have confidence in one’s culture. The confidence of Ethiopians in their culture originates from their long history and splendid culture that their ancestors created and contributions they made to human civilization.
Aksum was the old capital of ancient Ethiopian Empire, whose civilization peaked as early as 1st century B.C. Its advanced economy and trade and excellent architecture once attracted numerous dignitaries and traders from around the Mediterranean and Arab Peninsula. In a certain way, it assembles Xi’an, China’s ancient capital. The difference lies in that Xi’an remains a prosperous city while Aksum prosperity has long gone. The deserted lands and barren fields today can hardly tell its splendid past, and with just obelisks left standing, one could only imagine the prosperity of yesterday.
The obelisks are monuments of the ancient Aksum tombs, made of local granite. They vary in heights, from several to dozens of meters, each carved out from an entire piece of rock. The sizes and carvings of the obelisks are related to the owners’ status. The local cultural relic expert showed us a royal tomb that is best preserved, said to have belonged to the imperial time. Dozens of obelisks of various sizes compose of an impressive forest of monuments. The biggest one was once 33 meters high and weighed over 500 tons, which fell into huge pieces onto the ground. Another two as high as 24 and 21 meters each still stand proudly. Tourists from all over the world would surround the huge stone monuments, admiring the great masterpieces of ancient Aksum over 2000 years ago, some amazed, some stupefied and some pondering, likely out of humility and awe for the Ethiopian culture, ancient history and splendid civilization.
The obelisks tend to remind one of the Great Pyramid of Egypt and Great Wall of China, both symbols of nations and splendid civilizations and, of course, parts of a tangible history. History and culture are inseparable. The history of a nation or country is carried on in the form of its culture, recorded and remembered with symbols and literatures. In the long history of a nation or country, the most brilliant part is the culture. Culture does not come about without long years of accumulation, tests of the times and historical sedimentation. Therefore, when talk about history; one talks about history and culture together. History and culture are like a couple of lovers, always staying with each other.
The Aksum relic expert told us that the 24-meter obelisk was looted away by the Italians in 1937. Thanks to the consistent efforts of the Ethiopian government and people, it was returned in 2005 and placed back to where it belongs. The Ethiopian people, with their just struggle, safeguarded the dignity of the obelisk as well as that of the country and nation. We have every reason to cheer for them. After all, it is cleansing of a nation’s past humiliation and victory for civilization and culture in the modern world.
In history, some countries claiming to be civilized centers looted countless treasures of civilizations from all parts of the world, by hook and crook, and put them in their museums or used them to decorate their palaces without any sense of shame, relying on their powerful ships and guns. It is even more shameful that they scarcely feel guilty for what they have done, and some even take pride in it.
In recent years, we have often learned from the media that when countries like Egypt, Greece or China are asking some western countries to hand back the relics they looted, few have succeeded like Ethiopia. A country or nation’s culture and civilization requires painstaking accumulative efforts, rather than barbarian aggressions and lootings. Although one could strike rich overnight in material terms, one could never do the same culturally. Robbers can take others’ material treasures but not their thoughts or ideas. Even if a country could plunder treasures from all parts of the world, how could it rob another country’s history, civilization and culture? Although Ethiopia remains poor in material terms, with many people still suffering from famine, it is rich because of its profound culture and ideas. From what the cultural relic expert told us, we could feel that the thousands of years long Aksum culture and Ethiopian civilization remain strong, still nurturing the ancient nation of Ethiopia like the rains and the sun and offering a source of inspiration and dynamism for the nation to go forward toward rejuvenation.
3.Art is a Cultural Expression of Human Ideas, Thoughts, and Souls in Essence, Without Which All Forms and Techniques Are Irrelevant
As there are different nations in the world, they naturally bring about different customs and traditions. When receiving distinguished guests, some would present a pretty bouquet of flowers, a fresh cup of tea or a fine glass of wine. The way Tanzanian people treat their guests is presenting colourful dances. We were received with such hospitality in Tanzania. Whether at the airport or in a government compound, I was constantly impressed by the unforgettable dances and songs and touched by the beauty of the unique culture from the bottom of my heart, time and time again. A nation using art to present respect to its guests fully demonstrates its passion for art and culture and art’s dominance in daily life.
Tanzania is home to more than 120 ethnic groups, each has its own songs and dances. Whenever the drum sounds, the people would take to dancing with their entire bodies in an amazing way. Every move is made out the rhythm of life and basic instinct and the energetic singing and dancing are total revelations of the people’s emotions from their hearts, authentic and true to nature. Everyone watching by is enchanted as the performers are conversing with their bodies and talking with their songs.
When the “modern world” is after “green” or organic food, in my view, the African songs and dances, in spiritual and cultural sense, is a “green” art, unpolluted and pure.
A few years ago, the CCTV Young Singers’ Competition established an award for original folk singing, enabling a large number of folk singers from the mountains and villages to show off their talents. For a time, the folk singers are idolized and original folk songs and dances got popular on TV. The folk singers opened a new gateway to singing and dancing and the Tanzanian songs and dances fall naturally under this category.
An art is like a river. While a river needs sources for the water to run on, the sources of art are people, life, mountains and soils. When art is brought into a temple or palace, or goes after fortune and fame, it loses purity and dynamism. In a word, it loses the deepest heartfelt feelings of the blood and bones and would soon become favor-currying, “showbiz”, falsehood, flirtation, absurdity and lifelessness.
Art is a cultural expression of human ideas, thoughts and souls in essence, without which all forms and techniques are irrelevant. Some people often talk about the quality of the art. Where is the quality of the art without sincerity? Art should be a belief akin to religion. The essence of art is connected with the quality of art.
Some people promote techniques, lights and sounds, as art, which is ignorance at least if not blasphemy or disrespect. While it is tolerable to use techniques or technologies to decorate art to draw attention, it would be a disaster to present tricks as art itself. However nicely a robot can dance, it is only mechanical movements of a computerized programme and cannot be called art. Though art needs be enhanced, it has to root in the earth and grow with sunshine and rains rather than out of thin air.
Some academics call Africa a cultural desert but I call it fertile land and oasis of culture. Africa is a treasure house of rich cultures. As a matter of fact, all the so-called “advanced” arts and cultures can find their genes in African culture, be it the highly fashionable modern dance or rap. The problem is that some Africa culture critics have never been to Africa with a vision or perspective for culture. In such a case, they have no say. It is our black African brothers who have been living there generations upon generations and have the final say.
4.Knowing No Boundaries, the More Nationalistic a Culture Is, the More Universal It Is
As one comes to Africa, gains closer contacts with African art and culture and falls in love with them, it is natural to ask: do the African people also love the Chinese art?
It so happens that when we were in Zimbabwe, a performing art troupe from Zhejiang Province came to visit Africa, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, for cultural exchange. I was fortunate to have watched the troupe’s premier show together with African friends in Harare and personally experienced how the African audience admired Chinese folk songs, dances, acrobatics and Kongfu.
The newly completed church of the capacity of 3000 or more was fully packed. From the curtain lifting through to the end, applauses and exclamations were continuous and “boiling” should be the word to describe the enthusiastic scene. Then and there, I eventually found what “boiling” meant, as the entire theater was alive like a pot of boiling water. As the performance ended, the audience would not leave, something rarely seen in China. It was beyond my wildest expectation that an authentic Chinese culture and art presentation could have been so well received in Africa. People often talk about having confidence in one’s culture. On such an occasion and seeing such a scene, any Chinese person cannot help but feel proud and confident. The Zhejiang artists were also seemed overwhelmed, as they neither expected their performance be so engaging.
Culture knows no boundaries and is supra-racial. Cultures only differ in styles, backgrounds and environments, yet no one is superior to another. It is like flowers in a garden. Different species of flowers or each individual flower has its own colours and shapes and belong to different varieties. Different audiences, due to varying tastes and artistic standards, may have different preferences. Nonetheless, one cannot say which flower or type of flowers is better, as an old saying goes, “the more nationalistic a culture is, the more universal it is”. We can be fond of African art and vice verse, all due to the nationalistic characteristics and unique appeals.
It is unadvisable to be arrogant about one’s own culture and art and even less desirable to belittle one’s own. It is a pity that some people treat their own treasures as rubbish and others’ rubbish as treasures. For a time, some people in the artistic community tend to put labels on different types of art, praising the western as “high-taste” but branding their own, which is rooted in their native land and popular with their fellow country people, as low-taste or vulgar. While it is understandable that the Europeans tend to preach European Culture Centralism, it is beyond my why some of us are joining in the hype.
I have often come across high-sounding slogans like “let our culture go global” recently. It is laudable to have such an ambition, as it could be some kind of self-confidence in one’s own culture, after all. However, there remains a question – what is going to and can go global, which requires some hard thinking. In my view, what can go global are the most authentic Chinese elements with Chinese characteristics. In this regard there are three points to remember: Never forget where one comes from; Learn from the others; and Look into the future. The first point is the most important. A nation’s tradition is the root of its culture and art. The flower of any culture or art will wither without the root, naturally. A tree of culture taking roots in the land blooms and is able to stand heavy storms and intense heat. The fundamental reason for the Chinese culture to be able to shine among cultures of the world is the nationalistic characteristics. To blindly follow or copy the others is not the way. Only by following one’s own path can one find his position and future.
I called upon Mr. Yan Liangkun, a prominent Chinese musician, before the Spring Festival and we talked about symphonic music development. I was very impressed with his remarks that we should not dress our culture up like a foreign one and offer it to the world. We need to hold onto our own culture, the most outstanding feature being our nationalistic characteristics. The purpose of learning from the West is to develop our national art. While we may draw upon western tools or techniques, the soul and essence has to be our own. Our media often report on “exciting events” – a certain Chinese symphony orchestra performs in the Musikverein, Vienna, or a ballet troupe performs in a certain leading international opera house. There is reason to be proud of such news, as we may call it a success because what we have learned from the Europeans is welcomed by the Europeans themselves. Nevertheless, I am happier to hear the news of a Zhejiang performing troupe being overwhelmingly welcomed in Harare, Zimbabwe. While we can do processing with supplied materials orOEM manufacturing for industrial products, I wonder if we can do the same in cultural export.
5.A Beautiful Garden Knows No Hegemony and No Flower Can Shine Alone, No Matter How Pretty It Is
Talking about cultural exchanges between China and the outside world, one naturally thinks of Zheng He’s westbound voyages 600 years ago. Zheng He’s fleet sailed westward on seven occasions and disembarked on East Africa coast several times. In the National Museum of Tanzania, the curator proudly presented us a number of porcelain pieces from the Ming Dynasty. We were told that they were brought to Africa by Zheng He. Although the porcelains are no longer intact, they are upheld as treasures of the museum. Therefore, the African people call Zheng He an envoy of peace and culture from China and the porcelain pieces evidences of the long-standing China-Africa friendship and cultural exchanges.
Not far from the museum lies the vast Indian Ocean. A Tanzanian friend told us thoughtfully, pointing at the coastline in front of us, that that was where Zheng He landed. Looking at the wide ocean on the coast of Dar es Salaam, I seemed to have seen a fleet looming up from afar, with Zheng He, a sturdy and composed figure, standing at the bow of the ship, with laudable spirit of an envoy from the Orient. Actually, little trace can be found about Zheng He’s journey to Africa apart from those broken porcelains, but he yet sowed the seeds of culture and friendship. The reason why African friends take so much delight in recalling Zheng He’s stories is because of their cherishment of China-Africa friendship and respect to the Chinese culture. The African people know what the Chinese brought to Africa was peace and friendship, with a culture of the highest standard in the global civilization at the time. Large numbers of western colonizers arrived in Africa after Zheng He. What they brought about were warships and guns, lootings and killings, as well as slavery, religion and language that were imposed on the African people.
What we can learn from Zheng He’s stories is that cultural exchange needs be based on respect and peace. The reason why the African people cherish friendship with China is because of Chinese culture’s tolerance, rather than arrogance and self-acclaimed supremacy.
Someone presented the hypothesis of “clash of civilizations” some years back and later others attempted to push “cultural globalization”. Deep in their hearts, some people are trying to rule and apply their “superior culture” in the world, attempting to consolidate their position as the “cultural center”. I think the colorful varieties of cultures in the world tell us that cultural diversity should be the common ideal of the entire mankind. Economic globalization should help to promote exchanges between different countries and nations, facilitate various cultures to showcase their own strengths, rather than promoting only one or a couple of cultural models or using it as an excuse in pushing the “universal value”. Should there be only one uniform culture, it would be a cultural disaster to the world. The Chinese philosophy advocates harmony in diversity, which means zero conflict and harmonious coexistence, sensible and far-sighted. I agree to the slogan put forward by some cultural workers that China is a stage for the world and the world a stage for China. It shows our culture’s inclusive and tolerant characteristics, as well as our confidence in and ideal about culture. The world is too large for any single one to dominate. A single flower, no matter how pretty it is, cannot shine alone and a beautiful garden knows no hegemony, neither does culture.
Cultural exchange has to be two-way with the purpose to interact and regenerate. Of course there are clashes or even conflicts but the result of exchange should be cultural diversity, development and prosperity. Cultural diversity and cultural exchange are two concurrent trends, exchange being the guiding force and harmony a necessity. Of course, clashes are inevitable and they are needed because from them grow inspirations and new cultural dimensions.
6.Ecological Civilization Means Man Needs Be Civil to Animals and Nature
A few years ago, some people still found it hard to comprehend the concept of “environment-friendly society”. Friendliness was considered a people-to-people relationship, so how could one be friendly to the environment? Does man need to be friendly to the mountains and rivers, the animals, grass, flowers and trees?
In Africa, one can truly understand what friendship between man and animals means. We stayed in a hotel located in the Zambezi National Park close to the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The National Park is actually a natural reserve or open zoo with no enclosures. There you can see herds of wild elephants, oxen, boars and rare animals like the African lions and cheetahs as well as hippopotamus and crocodiles in the Zambezi River.
It was almost dark when our hospitable African friends invited us to take a boat tour on the Zambezi to see the “Big River Sunset”. Sailing on the river in a boat, we breathed in the fresh air and appreciated the sunset, watching sea gulls flying above our heads, an enchanting experience indeed. The most impressive scene, though, was the people on the upper reaches of the Zambezi living in harmony with the hippopotamus and elephants.
The moment our boat left the pier, our tender, pointing forward, told us that we were very lucky, declaring, “See, the hippopotamus are welcoming you.” Not far, we saw five or six hippos, two cubs playing while several grownups watching over them. When our boat coming closer, the hippos lined up and opened their huge mouths towards us, like guards of honor saluting in the river, as if having received some sort of an order. To be frank, I was kind of nervous about the unsightly behemoths when getting close to them. After all, wild animals must have wild natures. But in front of me what I saw was nothing but nice and gentle animals despite the lack of cuteness.
As we came back to the pier, the sun had gone to bed. Our African friends on the boat suddenly spotted some elephants crossing the river. A herd of 20 or 30 them was swimming across from south to north, resembling a big black warship looking from afar. The elephants have a strong sense of collectivism, though crowded close together they did not squeeze on one another, so orderly that their formation resembled a flock of geese in flight. We kept hearing roaring from the herd, appeared to be the leading elephant’s commands.
The Zambezi is the boundary river separating Zambia and Zimbabwe. The elephants are said to be cross-border citizens. Our tender on the boat joked, saying that the elephants had double citizenship with passports of the two countries. Due to seasonal and climate changes, they need to move between the two sides of the river, just like cattle and sheep in the prairies. No matter where they choose to live, the elephants are always taken care of by the local people. Our African friends told us that it is an auspicious sign to see elephants crossing the river, rarely by visitors.
In order not to disturb the elephants, many boats on the river had their engines shut, floating quietly, with passengers standing on board watching. While the people were very excited about such a rare sight, nobody shouted or even made a sound. One could only hear the sounds of dozens of elephants swimming in the river. About half an hour later, the herd disappeared out of sight.
Although the Zambezi boat tour was short, we had a chance to appreciate the gentleness of the hippos and orderliness of the elephants, having gained a true understanding of the beautiful harmony between man and animals. Like harmony between people, harmony between man and animals can also bring about pleasure, warmth, enjoyment and happiness.
On our planet, man and animals should be friends. To be fair, compared with animals, man is the stronger. However ferocious an animal is, it can be a king among animals at best, while man can be the king of all species in the world, animals unable to rival man in this regard. Man’s act should not go unchecked, let alone allowed to intrude on animal habitats or take their lives just to satisfy his endless desires.
Haven’t the diversified animal kingdom in the African continent suffered from the mindless slaughtering by the self-acclaimed civilized European colonizers? Such acts led to the sharp decline of many animal species and near extinction of numerous rare animals. Man has created culture and civilization, however, if his achievements are not used to serve a civilized purpose but to commit barbarian atrocities, isn’t it alien to the aim of civilization and culture?
At present, many African countries have set up national parks, purported to create a peaceful home for the animals. Man has asked for too much from the animals and done too much harm and intrusion to them. It is time to pay them back. A civilized man should not attempt to take the entire planet for his own and should that happen, it would cost everything he has.
A local friend of Chinese origin told me that once a Chinese tourist stayed in the hotel we were last year and forgot to lock his windows and thus got all his fruits, drinks and candies looted and even his suitcase rummaged by the monkeys in the park. This compatriot of ours made a complaint to the hotel management, hoping something could be done to prevent animals from disturbing the tourists. The hotel manager, however, told him that the place used to the home of the animals and it was humans who were disturbing the animals and it was us who should be more polite.
In my view, ecological civilization means that man needs be civil to animals and nature. People like to talk about culture but culture includes not only man-to-man relationship but also that between man and nature. Man does not only need to understand, make use of and make changes to nature but also need to protect, respect and live in harmony with it. All that should be a part of our culture. As a matter of fact, our Chinese ancestors put forward the concept of “man being an integral part of the nature” thousands of years ago. In Chinese classics, when human culture was first mentioned, it was defined with the “heavenly culture”: “The mix of Yin and Yang is the heavenly culture and within the boundary of civilization is the human culture. Observing the heavenly culture to gauge the changes of times and observing the human culture to transform society.” Our ancestors realized the need for man to treat nature and animals in a civilized way and live in harmony with the environment. That seems to me to be a kind of cultural conscience. Today, governments and citizens are advocating and calling for ecological civilization and it is a leap forward in the process of national and civilization progress.
7.Nature Is Mankind’s Teacher from Which Both Culture and Civilization Originate
When we try to study the culture of a certain place, we naturally turn to look at its architecture because it is a visible part of the culture, needless of translation. Architecture showcases the characteristics and connotations of a local culture most directly and vividly. Amongst architectural styles, the historic and local folk ones are the most noteworthy, from which we may detect the cultural genes of a region or a nation, tracing back to the source of the locality or its national culture.
In Zimbabwe, one must-go is the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a UNESCO world hheritage site. The place was once the capital city of Monomotapa Empire whose history the Zimbabwean people are very proud of, being the oldest historical site in southern Africa. 350 kilometers from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, it takes an entire morning to drive there.
Standing on top of a high hill, most of what one can find now is ruins or desolate and broken walls. The only thing well preserved is a stone fortress once was the palace for the emperor’s wives, from which one could imagine its past magnificence. It is said that the palace used to the home for the empress and concubines, looking like a Romanistic colosseum or amphitheater. Built of grey granites, tall and strong, it has neatly lined stone chambers inside. The most impressive sight in it is a 30-meter high stone tower, also of grey granite, still smooth and shiny, as if freshly carved and chiseled, in spite of thousands of years of winds and rains. It is shaped like a plumb bamboo shoot, with a tapering spire rising up to the sky. It is a symbol of Zimbabwe for its elegance, longed history, and legendaries. The local people call it the Zimbabwe Tower, which can be found on the banknotes, stamps, all kinds of promotional objects or souvenirs in Zimbabwe.
All arts come from and are created by the people. In a valley near the Ruins of Zimbabwe lies an ordinary looking village, with dozens of circular shaped thatched cottages like a cluster of brown-grey mushrooms, uniform in style and colours. Though looking shabby, the cottages impress the viewers with a prehistoric charm. A closer look let one know that they are just like the Zimbabwe Tower in the stone palace, the former being miniatures of the latter. It is quite imaginable that the cottages must have been the source of inspiration for the architect of the Tower or, in other words, the Tower is a larger copy of the cottages.
The thatched cottages remind me of the yurts of my home place, Inner Mongolia, and the conical houses of the Ewenk and Oroqen (Elunchun) huntsmen in the Great Xing'an Mountains, all featuring the circular shape. From the perspective of cultural diversity, the thatched cottages of the African aboriginals, yurts of the Asian herdsmen, and tree-bark houses of the Great Xing’an Mountains huntsmen are seemed to be unrelated, as it is hard to tell which came about earlier. But why all these peoples built their shelters into circular ones? That reminds me of an aesthetics book by Mr. Zhao Xinshan, a writer from Shanghai, I came upon a few years ago. The book talks why mankind prefers circular shape in constructing their shelters. He believes that man copies nature. I think this surmise is reasonable. In either Africa or Asia, whether living on a plateau or in a forest, when born into the world, the first thing one sees is the circular blue sky, the sun or the moon. Our being determines our consciousness and common existence makes common awareness. A well-known line in a poem goes, “The sky is like a dome covering the fields”. However, it should actually be the dome taking after the sky, as the sky came into being before the dome. The thatched cottages of the African aboriginals, yurts of the Asian herdsmen and tree-bark houses of the Great Xing’an Mountains huntsmen must have all used the sky as reference. That is why nature is mankind’s teacher. The development of culture and progress of civilization are all based on our cultural existence. All our thoughts, ideas and consciousness are determined by our being. Mankind’s wisdom, intelligence, material or spiritual wealth is all bestowed by nature.
A few years ago, there was a controversy about the construction of the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing and the focus of the arguments was around whether an ultra-modern egg-like glass architecture in the heart of the ancient capital would undermine the city’s characteristics. Nonetheless, since its completion, the building has won more and more recognition. A growing number of people are praising its circular shape, in particular. Many tourists, Chinese or foreign, would like take pictures at the Performing Art Center when in Beijing. This highly fashionable architecture has become one of Beijing’s landmarks of the new era.
I think shape should not the only criterion to judge whether architecture is modern or not. A circular structure like the Performing Arts Center has been in existence in ancient, modern and present eras. When one looks at a collection of renowned architectures in the world, one sees numerous landmark buildings having circular elements in their shapes, like the Pantheon in Rome, Maria Church in Florence, New Church in Paris, Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul, Vasile Assumption Cathedral in Moscow, Taj Mahal in India and the Capitol in the United States. Isn’t the Temple of the Heaven in China a circular structure? It seems that the circle is the most beautiful of the architectural idioms, primitive yet modern.
The mankind has a common pursuit for beauty, as we find similar criteria in telling what is beautiful. Be it ancient or modern people, from East or West, all bows in front of beauty.