Empires of Time

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September 22, 2015
Audio Transcript:

Sept. 19, 2015

First Podcast – on Empires of Time



When you hear the question “Whose Century Is It?,” what comes to mind?  Do you think of a country – China, or the United States, maybe India?  Do you think of a kind of person?  The creative type.  Someone who’s quick to learn.   Perhaps it’s the century of ever more advanced technology – though, didn’t the 20th century feel that way, for those living through it?  Or -- maybe you have a more dystopian view – it’s the century of climate change and climate disaster, or ISIS, or resurgent strongmen – Modi in India, Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China.


Or – maybe you question the very question.   I mean, does a century have to belong to anyone?   And even if it does, who gets to decide, and when, and based on what?   And in any case, isn’t it a little early to say?


Welcome to the premiere podcast of Whose Century Is It.   I’m your host, Mary Kay Magistad.


So why this question?  Why this podcast?   Well, for most of my adult life, I’ve been a foreign correspondent – mostly in Asia, but also reporting in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.   And I’ve got to say -- there are many great things about being a foreign correspondent – you get to travel, meet really interesting people, you learn constantly –  and – I’m going to leave out the part about working in the wee hours to match the schedule of your editors back at home -- you get your own assumptions and world view challenged on a regular basis.   Step outside your own comfort zone, and into someone else’s and you sometimes find that things look quite different.  What seemed self-evident before that encounter, might deserve a second thought.


So in this podcast, I’m going to try to do some of the same.  I’m going to be looking at ideas, trends and twists that matter in the 21st century, at how power and influence accrue these days, in ways both similar and quite different from how they did in the last century.  There’ll be interviews, and stories, some of my own, some from my friends at PRI’s The World – I was their East Asia correspondent, based in Beijing, for more than a decade.   Sometimes I’ll hit the road, and see how the question “Whose Century Is It?” plays in other parts of the world. 


There are, after all, a lot of perspectives to consider -- a couple hundred nations on earth, about 7,000 languages, each with its own worldview and, actually – speaking of “whose century” it is -- many different ways of marking time, and deciding what units of time matter, and why, and what to do about it.    


And that seems, to me, to be a good place to start.  So I reached out to a professor of astronomy and anthropology – yes, there is such a person.  His name is Tony Aveni, he’s at Colgate University.  He wrote a book awhile back called “Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks & Cultures.”  He says, first, let’s just be clear about the fact that any way of marking time – like, in decades or centuries, or even in Base 10 – is a subjective choice.


A colleague of mine recovered an old barn door down in Yukatan some 20 or 30 years ago, and on the back of this barn door, there were these charcoal marks, these stroke marks.  And he analyzed the stroke marks, and lo and behold, they were in a Base 20 system.  And he studied the document, in fact even did infrared photography, and found that the char marks had been erased and reentered, maybe over part of a century. And what he was holding onto was a barn door with a record of the Tsolkeen (sp?), or the Mayan calendar, one the cycles of the Mayan calendar, a 260-day count.”


And in Indonesia, he says, there are all kinds of calendars.


  “We know that in Indonesia, there are multiple calendars that are kept on wooden sticks, all kinds of cycles – 9-day cycles, 8-day cycles, 12-day cycles.  They are still in use in rural areas.  They are still used among agricultural prognosticators, who pay close attention to constellations in the sky – where they are, when they appear, when they disappear.  They have a constellation called the plow, and when it’s upright it’s time to plow, and when it turns over, it’s time to stop.”


 There have been countless calendars over human history.  When I lived in Thailand, many official documents used the Buddhist calendar – so, for instance, this year isn’t 2015, but 2558.  The extra 543 years brings us back to the year of the Buddha’s passing.  When I lived in China, there was the Western calendar – which is used for most things, like business and travel and making appointments – but there’s also the lunar calendar, and the lunar New Year, and a long tradition of connecting with the stars and the planets both to set the rhythm of life, and also to seek meaning.  In fact, for centuries, Chinese astronomers were way ahead of those in the West.  When I lived in Beijing, one of my favorite places to visit, was the ancient observatory, in the heart of the city.  I wove it into a story I did for The World – on China’s history of innovation. Here’s a little snippet from  it:


“Drive down Beijing’s Second Ring Road, and just before you turn toward the Forbidden City, you’ll see something incongruous.  There, amidst the hi-rises and mobile phone ads, stands an ancient stone tower, with ancient stargazing equipment on its roof.   This was China’s national observatory for 500 years.  Astronomers studied the heavens, at the pleasure of the emperor.  Lu Di Shan is a researcher here:


  “In ancient China, people pay a lot of attention to celestial phenomena, because they believe the phenomena that happen in the sky means something happens to the emperor, or to the whole empire.”


And, Professor Tony Aveni says, they weren’t alone.


 “In most of the world, as I understand, who deal with time, is that human history and natural history are connected.  You cannot separate the history of the universe, which is to say the development of geology, geologic periods, evolutionary biology, cosmology, you cannot separate those events – when the dinosaurs got bombed and so on, from human events, like when Woodrow Wilson died, or when we went to war in Southeast Asia. “


Ok.  So this isn’t to say that we should all run out and consult the stars about whose century it is, or might be – although, many people do.    In fact, Tony Aveni says, that’s what the ancient Chinese astronomers were doing: 


The Chinese, in the 12th century, 13th century, and in the Ming Dynasty, even later, very much believed that it was planetary conjunctions that had to be watched, the close coming together of planets – not just which ones came together, but how they came together – did they go around this side? Did they go around that side?  Because these were the minions in heaven.   These are the minions of the emperor.  And you have to keep an eye on them, because when these planets conjunct, when they come close together, this means that the dynasty is threatened.  There is something that’s going to happen, and it’s not going to be very good.”


So – every year, there would be rituals, and sacrifices to the temple of the Earth, and of the Sun, to placate nature, and harness time. Each year, the cycle would begin again, and the empire would be preserved.  Usually.


 “Because when you have cycles of time, you can almost say that you have another chance to renew – you can renew yourself, you can make yourself better.  Well, it comes from fertility, the idea that the crop that was not fertile last year can be fertile the next year, if we do the right rituals, if we do the right things.  And the Maya, and the Aztecs – I think most cultures of the world, as I try to suggest in Empires of Time, at least based on my research, believed in cyclical time. Did you ever have the Sunday night blues?  You know, the time has rolled around, the end of the week.  It was a horrible week, I insulted the boss on Monday, and I did a bad thing on Thursday, and I overate on Friday – but this week will be different.  So we go through the Sunday night period to start a new week.  So I think in many ways, we live cyclic time.  But when we get to the longer periods, the longer cyclic periods, we see it more as linear – we see the Big Bang, the end of the universe.  It’s our culture.  We’re the peculiar ones.”


But one thing we do share with the ancient Maya, and with many other cultures, is that we imbue eras of time with meaning.  We might measure those eras differently, but the basic impulse is the same.


“So, yeah, it’s about celebrating the rituals that keep us going.  We sacrifice.  Why do we sacrifice?  We sacrifice so we can be guaranteed fertility in the next cycle.  We give up a part of ourselves, a part of our corn crop, some of our blood.  But the real situation for the emperor, I think, is to acquire the legitimacy to the continuity of rulership.  I want to be able to guarantee that I’m going to make my kingship everlasting, through my sons and my daughters, by connecting myself through this, what I call, politics of time.”


He gives as an example a Mayan inscription on an ancient monument that marks Mayan eras of time – the tuns, the katuns, the baktuns.


 “There’s a politics to Mayan time-keeping, and I can go back to Stele B at Copan, where we say the ruler, Mr. Uoaxaclajuun, it’s his katun!  Well, next to that statement, are statements relating to his ancestors, who were his aunt, and his mother and his father, and great-grandfather.  And it goes back, and back, and back, very much like the Old Testament, begats, to the founder of that dynasty, who came from Teotihuacan, a thousand years ago.  And what the Maya are doing here is that the ruler is using the concept of time, and the astronomic events used to mark it, to plant his roots, the deeper the better, into the past.  And if you can plant them so deep that you can say, ‘why, when we went back to Baktun 1, 3300 years ago, there was my father, who was the founder of the Baktun and the creator of the universe, because the universe is 3300 years old in our calendar, and I am related.  I am his descendent.”


“This is not unlike what our own politicians do, since we are already in politics season, maybe a year or so early, when someone will say, ‘I stand for the principles of Reagan’


…They even held a round of debates among Republican presidential candidates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential library, with Reagan’s plane serving as the backdrop. 


So – yeah.  We do imbue time with meaning – sometimes political meaning.  We say – the Reagan era, the Kennedy years.  We talk about the 20th century as having been the American Century.  And in China, when I lived there, in the ‘90s and in the first decade of this century, there was a lot of confidence that this century, would be China’s. 


Remember that moment, during the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, when a sea of drummers from the People’s Liberation Army pounded in perfect unity, and the stadium crowd roared?  People felt real pride, all over China. And around much of the world, people thought – wow.  They really have it together.


From that moment, I started to hear more and more, in China, that China was coming into its time, that this is the Chinese century.  That feeling was amplified weeks later, when the economic crisis kicked in, and Chinese could look to the United States and say – ‘huh.  You don’t really have it together so much after all.’  There were even increasingly snarky comments.  Wen Jiabao, who was then China’s premier, said at a press conference that he hoped the United States was being responsible enough with China’s money.  


A Chinese ambassador said publically around that time that when it came to criticizing China about its human rights record and such, it was time for the US to just shut up.  Even Xi Jinping, who was then vice-president said, “there are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country.”


Xi Jinping, of course, is now China’s President, and Communist Party Chief, and in the almost three years he’s held those positions, he’s concentrated an exceptional amount of power in his own hands.  His vision is of China reclaiming what he sees, what many Chinese see, as China’s rightful place as the world’s preeminent power.  A step toward that was a huge military parade in Beijing in early September:


There were 12,000 troops, jet fighters overhead, tanks and armored personnel carriers and the latest missile systems rolling by on the ground – with a pointed message that some of the missiles could reach US troop positions in the Asia-Pacific.  And there was Xi Jinping, standing up through the sunroof in a sleek black car, with an almost deadpan expression -- giving the slightest of waves and shouting greetings to the troops, who were standing at attention. 


What he said was, roughly, “Comrades, greetings!  Comrades!  Thanks for your hard work. 


Now…you might reasonably ask why China was holding such a massive military parade at this particular moment.  There have only been 14 such military parades in the history of the People’s Republic of China, and every other time, they’ve been on National Day – Oct. 1st .  So – why now?  The Chinese hosts from Chinese Central Television, or CCTV, said one set of reasons was to remember China’s role in World War II.  The male and female hosts spoke in a kind of call and response.  He started:


“China, the main battlefield in the East, suffered tumult like never before,” he said.

She added: “It endured war the longest, paid with its blood, and fought against the greatest odds.”

He came back:  “Today, we mourn and reflect.  We draw lessons from our losses, and remember who we were, and how we fought, and won.

And she wound up:  “We celebrate our victory, and move forward, build on our legacies, and show the world our ability to defend.”


And then, there was this exchange between the anchor, and Colonel Zhou Bo, of the Ministry of Defense.  Remember, this was broadcast in English, for a national audience.


Anchor: China has developed its own strategic bombers, its own carriers.  Does that mean China will go further in its defense tactics?  What exactly will change?

Col. Zhou:  Of course, because in the old days, essentially defense is on your territory, with your coastline, but nowadays, there is such an increase in China’s overseas interests.”


Of course, he says, China will build a strong navy.  Its ships have already become more active and more aggressive in the South China Sea. Those  waters are claimed, at least in part, by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.  Its seabed is thought to be rich in oil and gas, and much of world’s seafreight passes through its waters. For years, the Chinese line to its neighbors on this was ‘let’s set aside our differences, and work together for mutual benefit.’  Now, the line is, ‘the South China Sea is ours. It’s always been ours.  And we have the right to defend our interests there.”  Building up a strong navy, and military, and showing off what they’ve got – sends a message of, ‘we prefer peace, but don’t get in our way.’


But this parade – and China’s new muscularity in reaching for what it wants – isn’t limited to other claimants of the South China Sea.    It’s also challenging the existing power structure the Asia Pacific.  It’s challenging Japan, with which it also has a conflict over islands in the East China Sea, and it’s challenging  the United States, as the preeminent Asia-Pacific power. Xi Jinping has talked to President Obama about wanting a new kind of great power relationship – one in which a new power can rise, without threatening the existing power militarily.


Ostensibly, the Sept. 3 parade was to mark the day in 1945 when the Japanese formally signed their surrender, ending World War II.  For decades, China and Japan have been important trading and economic partners for each other.  Some two and a half million Chinese tourists visit Japan each year.  So – why mark the Japanese surrender in such a big way this year with, for the first time, such a huge show of force, and hours of coverage on state-run television, and a three-day national holiday? 


I mean, sure, it’s the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, but there was the 60th anniversary, and the 50th, and this didn’t happen then.  So why now?  Well.  Meaning is created by what we choose to remember.  If you’re a rising power, or an ambitious leader, and you think this is your century, connecting yourself with a victorious past doesn’t hurt.  And if you’ve got a slowing economy, and big problems to deal with at home, appealing to patriotic sentiment doesn’t hurt either.


Xi Jinping had this to say,in his speech  at the parade:


 “As an ancient Chinese saying goes, "After making a good start, we should ensure that the cause achieves fruition." The great renewal of the Chinese nation requires the dedicated efforts of one generation after another. Having created a splendid civilization of over 5,000 years, the Chinese nation will certainly usher in an even brighter future.”


That’s Xi Jinping, reaching for a future legacy by planting his roots deep in an ancient past.   The ancient Mayan ruler Uaxaclajuun (Wa-sha-kla-hun), who tried to enhance his legitimacy by connecting himself with the beginning of the universe,            -- couldn’t have said it better.


And that’s our podcast.   Thanks for listening.  As a special double-feature for the premiere of “Whose Century Is It,” you can also listen to an interview I did with the David Wertime. He’s a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, and the founder of Tea Leaf Nation.com, which follows the trends and sentiments on the Chinese internet and Chinese social media.  There are more than 600 million people online in China so, even with increased censorship over the past couple of years, this is an important space.  You can download that interview – marked Episode 2 – on iTunes – and please subscribe to the podcast, while you’re there -- or go to our webpage, pri.org/whosecentury.  You’ll find our biweekly podcasts, blogposts, links to learn more, and other extras.


Whose Century Is It is a coproduction between me, Mary Kay Magistad, and PRI’s “The World.”   It’s funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. 


We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a new episode.  Come on back, and listen in.