China and us, then and now

It is said that when Marco Polo was dying, in 1324, the priest who was administering his last rites implored him to retract the «fables» that he had told regarding the wonderful world he had discovered in his travels to China and Central Asia. «I did not describe even half of what I saw,» the merchant adventurer replied. China, a great civilization which developed far from the Greco-Roman world and independent of the roots of Western civilization, has always been a mysterious and exotic country. That is why Marco Polo’s tales were questioned, and why there is still doubt as to whether he was an actual witness to what he described. Some who heard his tales could not believe that there was an unknown urbanized civilization that was greater than theirs, while others expected to hear even taller tales regarding headless men with eyes in their chests and other such wonders of ignorance that had always been thought to exist beyond the great mountains of central Asia. And yet China and the Greco-Roman world were in indirect but continual contact more than a thousand years before Marco Polo’s supposed travels. Since the first century AD, Romans had been buying silk and were crazy about this wonderful fabric, constantly trawling their empire for gold in order to buy raw silk, for which they paid its weight in gold. At that time, between those two great civilizations stood a third, that of the Parthians. This martial and fratricidal people (who were also enormously tolerant of other peoples and religions) grew rich off the taxes they levied on the great caravans traveling across their territory, from the Euphrates to India. In 106 BC the Chinese had sent ambassadors to the Parthian king, Mithridates II, and the two peoples developed warm relations for many years. Together they controlled the silk trade. The Greeks and Romans knew neither what the fabric was made of nor where it came from. When the rich Roman Crassus (unprovoked and in pursuit of glory and further wealth) invaded Parthia in 53 BC, with an army of some 42,000, he suffered the worst defeat Rome had ever suffered. When other generals invaded in later years, they too suffered either defeat or the campaign ended in stalemate. Each time, the effort to cut out the middlemen resulted in fewer supplies and higher silk prices. As things turned out, the Romans never came into direct contact with the Chinese, even though an envoy had set out from China but failed to reach western Asia, and despite the considerable trade between them. In all the time since then, China remained unknown to the West. It grew and declined and grew again in its own secluded world, far from the eyes of Westerners. That is why no one could believe Marco Polo. In our days too, Mao Zedong’s victory – after the humiliation of British colonialism and Japanese occupation – meant that China remained isolated from the rest of the world. And suddenly, the Olympic Games of 2008 are the historical moment in which China, this perpetually introverted giant, opened its doors and its heart to the world. Watching the Beijing Games opening ceremony – the vision of Zhang Yimou executed perfectly by thousands of his compatriots, all of them children of Mao still ruled by his party – I felt something of the awe that the first visitors to this forbidden world must have felt, a combination of wonder and fear. Today, for the first time, China and the other civilizations are becoming one. China is revealing itself by embracing the Olympic Games, one of the most powerful symbols of Greek civilization. Today we are all witness to the moment when all civilizations touch each other. And what we have seen so far is not half of what we have yet to see.