Beginning(s), turning points, and the politics behind the process of periodisation

There are many ‘small beginnings’ in the 5,000-year Chinese history; after all, each Chinese dynasty has a beginning. However, there is only one ‘big beginning’ : The very beginning of Chinese national history starts from the war between the Yellow Emperor (who is then regarded as the shared ancestor of all Chinese people) and Chiyou in about 2696 BC in the ‘Legendary Era’. During the war, the Yellow Emperor defeated Chiyou by summoning the Fire Goddess, and the victory of the Yellow Emperor is seen as the triumph of ‘Han’ ethnicity and the beginning of Chinese history Although the ‘big beginning’ indicates a 5,000-year Chinese national history and provides a long-term national history that can easily ‘outpast’ most other nations, events that happened before 2696 BC are left unmentioned in Chinese history. In other words, by collectively remembering the war between the Yellow Emperor and Chiyou as the beginning of national history, events that occurred before it are not only deemed to be ‘irrelevant’ but are also seen as ‘prehistory’, having nothing to do with the national history (Zerubavel 1997: 314-328). Therefore, as Zerubavel puts it, people are inclined to remember ‘the beginning as preceded by actual void’, and it is the assumed ‘prehistorical void’ which facilitates the mnemonic decapitation (2003: 93). It is the collective amnesia that leads people in Taiwan to ‘bracket’ events that happened before 2696 BC, and it is social convention that causes people in Taiwan to commemorate 2696 BC as the big beginning of Chinese national history without feeling it is arbitrary. Figure 2.1 shows the sociomental effect of the narrated big beginning.

In terms of the ‘small beginning’ of each Chinese dynasty, it seems that we need no less mnemonic manipulation to sociomentally find a ‘neat’ temporal point to anchor the ‘dynastic beginning’. Thus, the dynastic beginnings are actually no less ‘arbitrary’ than the big beginning of Chinese national history. Taking the Republic Era, for example, while people in Taiwan are inclined to ‘remember’ the first year of the Republic Era (which is 1912) as the ‘beginning’, it is not

2696 BC The big beginning

 
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