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Abeja Dispatch

Pagodas From Heaven
July 1, 2000

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Bai women harvest tea, with the pagoda and the lake in the distance
I'm in the Yunnan province of Southwestern China and as I bike past a horse-drawn cart full of Bai villagers headed to market, they smile and wave to me. The straight road is flat, and the green fields on either side are separated into small plots of land. To the east, birds swoop over wet rice fields that extend at least a mile to the huge Erhai Lake; misty mountains tower in the distance. To the west, the fields of dryer crops like corn, spring onions, peppers, and other vegetables rise in steps up to where the green mountains begin. On the face of the mountain face are gaping holes, where marble has been mined.

Dotting the fields are straw-hatted farmers bent over their crops. "Is this what the landscape looked like 3000 years ago, when the first inhabitants settled this valley?" I wonder, enchanted by the beauty and simplicity of the scene. A minibus rumbles by, belching black smoke in my face, and I'm thrown back to the present. Cough! Gag! Sigh. It's hard to be a romantic these days!

In the distance are three beige pagodas rising from the green fields. Qianxun pagoda is the centerpiece, with its 16 tiers reaching 70 meters (230 feet) towards the sky. On either side, two smaller 10-tiered pagodas stand guard. The three pagodas look tiny against the backdrop of the huge mountains. Still, they are pretty impressive, especially considering the fact that they're the oldest structures in Southwestern China!

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These Pagodas have survived while most remnants of the dynastic times have been destroyed
This valley has been inhabited for 3000 years, and China had organized dynasties before then, so these pagodas must be really old. Right?

Well, yes and no. The pagodas were built in the mid-9th century CE, less than 1200 years ago. Yes, that's old, but shouldn't there be some older stuff around here somewhere? The Chinese had a written language, settlements, agriculture, and a powerful central government over 1000 years before the Common Era (BCE).

I'm not going to name the countless dynasties that have ruled China since as far back as 1766 BCE, when the Shang dynasty began to organize on the central plains of China along the Yellow River. Dynasties rose and fell due to intrigue, corruption, and revolutions that brought different rulers as the borders of the empire expanded and contracted. But the basic unity and organization under dynastic rulers lasted until 1911!

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Lions like this guarded the temples of China
The Chinese empire was largest under the Mongol's rule, known as the Yuan dynasty, between 1279 and 1368 CE. Before phones, cars, airplanes or even decent roads, one central government expanded its rule out from the fertile plains at the center of China. The empire expanded into the deserts in the north, the mountains in the East, and the tropical regions to the south (now part of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), and all the way to Europe. That was the biggest empire in the history of the world!

So where are all the fabulous palaces and temples that should be all around here?

Well, I'll try to explain what happened. For the last few days, I've been sitting in a little café with a pen in one hand and highlighter in the other, trying to wrap my brain around the long and complex history of this massive country. I've taken in cup after cup of Chinese green tea, page after page of dynastic intrigue, wars, rebellions, barbarian invasions, and royal intrigue. My head is spinning! And I'm supposed to be teaching YOU about it!


dynasty - family that maintains its power for a considerable time
mandate - an authorization to act given to a representative
pagoda - a Far Eastern tower usually with roofs curving upward at the division of each of several stories and erected as a temple or memorial

The Chinese dynastic system was based on several ancient political concepts. The same way we in America look to democracy as the best form of government because the people give the ruler the right to rule, the Chinese deeply believed in something called the "Mandate of Heaven." This meant that good, wise rulers were given the responsibility to rule from heaven, and that bad, corrupt rulers were removed from power by heaven, too.

Unlike monarchies, which consider the descendents of one particular family as the god-given rulers, this philosophy meant that bad rulers would be removed from power, either by natural disaster or rebellion. If a rebellion succeeded then it meant that the rebels were doing the work of heaven. If they failed, well, then the ruler was right, and the rebels had a lot of explaining to do!

These pagodas are some of the only remaining historic structures in the area because each time a rebellion took place, wiping out the preceding dynasty, all the structures of the old dynasty were destroyed. Somehow, these three pagodas in the middle of nowhere survived several revolutions.

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larger view
Local kids goof off on one of the few remnants of the dynastic times: an early cannon!
The basic rebellion happened like this. When the ruling dynasty was weak and corrupt, the masses (mostly peasant farmers) became dissatisfied. An intelligent farmer who'd gathered a large following then defeated the old regime. These revolutions were always brutal and destructive. The new rulers rebuilt the empire, adjusted the ruling structure, and did away with the blatant corruption. A period of stability or even expansion followed in the hands of the new, more capable ruler, who clearly had a mandate from heaven to rule.

But time passed, the great ruler died, and eventually, the next ruler became corrupt. The economy weakend, people became dissatisfied, and the power of the government lessened. Heaven, obviously, wanted that dynasty out. And so boom, the cycle began again.

Some dynasties lasted hundreds of years, and others fell within a few decades. Heaven is allowed to be fickle, I suppose.

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This old statue of a monk didn't survive the Cultural Revolution.
Many temples, monuments, and works of art that survived all the wars and revolutions were destroyed at a much later date, during the time of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960's. The Communist party was trying to wipe out all remains of superstition and feudalism or capitalism. We'll talk about this dark period in China's history later, but it's important to know about it when studying the distant past, because it destroyed the remains of ancient civilizations. The fact that these three pagodas survived all of that makes them that much more impressive, don't you think?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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