I had an opportunity to visit Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe in November 2011. As I traveled from north to south on the African continent, I was able to take a close look at African culture. The trip convinced me that Africa is not a "cultural desert" as some have claimed, but an oasis steeped in culture.
We should pinpoint where we first came from before knowing where to go
In essence, art comes down to a cultural expression of man's views, emotions and inner feelings. Without emotions and spirit, presentations and techniques have no artistic value. Culture transcends borders--the more national characteristics it exhibits, the greater global recognition it enjoys.
Prejudice results from ignorance. If I had not set foot in Ethiopia, I would never have imagined the country has a long history and a splendid civilization. That's because today's highly developed mass media have made Ethiopia synonymous to hunger, poverty, war and disaster. TV images and news photos invariably portray Ethiopia as a country of malnourished people with vast expanses of waste land.
Museums provide the easiest access to a country's culture and history. A two-story building with cement walls and a fenced courtyard in front, the National Museum of Ethiopia is incredibly shabby. Before told what it is, you could mistake it for a hotel by the road. The inconspicuous museum, however, houses a huge number of relics that beguile the world. Someone joked that earnings from auctioning a single exhibit are enough to build a magnificent museum.
The most precious item in the museum's collection is the fossilized remains of an early hominid named Lucy by Westerners. U.S. paleoanthropologists discovered the remains in Ethiopia's Afar Region in 1974. Representing 40 percent of the skeleton of a woman who lived 3.2 million years ago, they are the earliest human fossils unearthed to date. Lucy shows that despite its barren land, Ethiopia is the origin of mankind, the cradle of human civilizations and the native place of human beings. Archeologists at the museum said since she died at around 20, Ethiopians affectionately call her Miss Lucy. As a matter of fact, we should call her Granny Lucy instead, because she is our oldest known ancestor and deserves respect as the grandmother of mankind.
In the museum, there is an exclusive exhibition room for Lucy. Also on display in the room are human fossils dating back to more than 2 million, 1 million, 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. Ethiopian experts gave us a vivid account of the story behind each fossil. They dwelled upon the evolution of human beings with solid evidence from anthropologists' point of view, while recalling the triumphs and tribulations they have experienced since remote antiquity from historians' perspective.
Visitors with a sense of history are bound to take a break in this small exhibition room, lost in thought and filled with reverence. In my opinion, this room, only several dozen square meters in size, serves as a shrine for all humanity that documents our long history and an ancestral temple of the big human family, which has 7 billion members today.
While in Ethiopia, we were impressed with the Ethiopians' heartfelt pride. Every member of modern society, no matter which part of the world he or she is from and no matter which ethnic group he or she belongs to, should pay tribute to the birthplace of mankind and those who have lived there to this day.
Worshipping ancestors is a deep-rooted Chinese tradition, which I believe is a virtue of our nation. The continuity of the Chinese civilization over the past several thousand years is partly attributed to the special importance the Chinese attach to remembering the past. In recent years, extravagant worshipping ceremonies have sparked much criticism in China. But we should refrain from being overly critical as long as the ceremonies do not aim to reap profits or have a hidden agenda, because rituals are indispensable to preserving cultural traditions.
Moreover, I think as a nation with splendid culture, the Chinese can be more farsighted and have a broader vision when exploring their roots. Apart from paying homage under the giant pagoda tree in Hongdong County, Shanxi Province, in the memorials of legendary emperors Yandi and Huangdi and in Zhoukoudian caves on the outskirts of Beijing, they should go to Africa and Ethiopia, which are home to the ancestor of our ancestors and where all human beings find their origins. People in modern society are supposed to recognize their shared cultural identify. As we move forward, reflections on the past can make us wiser, more at ease with ourselves and more confident and determined to go further.
A family should respect its ancestors, and a nation should prize its history. Likewise, mankind should venerate its place of origin. Everybody should remember and cherish the place where he or she first came from. Without knowing our origins, how can we possibly know our destinations? Ignorance and disrespect of history will lead to an uncertain future.
While patriotism does not require reasons, cultural confidence does.
The Ethiopians take great delight in their 3,000-year-long civilization. When discussing culture with them, I often saw their eyes sparkle with pride--an expression that I will not forget. Patriotism is an instinct for those who have a motherland, just as it is in our nature to love our parents. But there are reasons for the cultural confidence of a person or a nation. The Ethiopians' confidence about their culture stems from their long history as well as their ancestors' remarkable cultural achievements and contributions to human civilizations.
The civilization of Aksum, the capital of the ancient Empire of Ethiopia, peaked in the first century B.C. Its flourishing economy, trade, architecture and art attracted numerous bureaucrats and merchants from the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. Aksum bears some resemblance to Xi'an, an ancient capital city of China. Unlike Xi'an, which remains a thriving metropolis, Aksum's prosperity has long been consigned to history. Rubble and withered grass seen everywhere in the city can hardly remind visitors of its glorious past. Towering obelisks in the bleak ruins of ancient Aksum are the only signs of its historical civilization.
Obelisks, made of local granites, were the grave markers of Aksum residents. Varying in height from several meters to dozens of meters, they were all carved with single pieces of stone. The size of an obelisk and the sophistication of its carvings are indicative of the social status of the buried. Aksum archeologists showed us around one of the best preserved graveyards, which was said to be the royal cemetery built in the prime of the empire. Dozens of obelisks, high and low, formed a stunning stele forest.
The largest obelisk, which was 33 meters high and weighed more than 500 tons, is now fallen, with broken rocks lying on wild grass. Two other major obelisks remain standing, at 24 meters and 21 meters respectively. Legions of visitors from across the world rallied around the imposing structures. As they looked up at the masterpieces of Aksum people more than 2,000 years ago that still dot the city's skyline, they were all taken aback with astonishment. At the same time, they appeared puzzled, meditative and, most notably, struck with awe by Ethiopia's time-honored history and brilliant culture.
Gazing at the obelisks, I naturally thought of Egypt's pyramids and the Great Wall of China, all being symbols of the nations and their civilizations as well as tangible testaments to history. History and culture are two sides of the same coin. A nation passes down its history in the form of culture and preserves history in cultural symbols and heritage. Culture creates the most glittering ripples in the river of history. But it takes shape only with the passage of time and the accumulation of historical achievements. Therefore, when talking about history, we tend to use the phrase "history and culture." History and culture are like lovers deeply attached to each other.
Archeologists said the Italians plundered the 24-meter-high obelisk in 1937. After persistent demands by the Ethiopian Government and people for its return, it was handed back in 2005 and restored to its original place. The Ethiopians' just struggle protected the dignity of obelisks as well as their nation. We have reason to feel glad for them because they washed off a national stigma they had suffered with the return of the obelisk, which marked a cultural triumph in modern society.
In the past, some countries, which labeled themselves the world's cultural centers, looted countless treasures from other parts of the world thanks to their military superiority. They openly used the spoils to equip museums or decorate palaces without feeling guilty. They even went so far as priding themselves on the robbed treasures and capitalizing on them to boost their arrogance.
In recent years, there have been frequent media reports about Greece, Egypt and China urging Western countries to return looted artifacts. However, very few attempts have succeeded like Ethiopia's. A nation should pursue cultural development based on its own efforts, instead of through brutal seizure and plundering. While it is possible to get rich overnight materially, it is impossible to do so culturally. There can be no cultural upstarts. Robbers can take illegal possession of others' wealth, but not others' ideas and thoughts. A country can plunder the world's treasures, but not another country's history and culture.
Today, Ethiopia remains poor economically with many Ethiopians being tortured by hunger. At the same time, however, it is a wealthy nation endowed with invaluable assets such as a profound culture and spiritual richness. As we listened to Ethiopian archeologists talk in a confident tone, we felt the millenniums-old Aksum civilization and the venerable Ethiopian history and culture remain a strong driving force. Like rain and sunshine, they keep the ancient nation energetic and vigorous. They continue to provide impetus and spiritual support for Ethiopia's development and revitalization.
In essence, art comes down to cultural expression of man's views, emotions and inner feelings. Without emotions and spirit, presentations and skills have no artistic value.
Numerous ethnic groups in the world have vastly different etiquettes and customs. Some greet VIPs with flower bouquets, others with tea or wine. The Tanzanians welcome guests with colorful folk dances. I experienced their warm hospitality during my trip to the country. On airport lawns and in government compounds alike, we were deeply touched by spontaneous song and dance performances that immersed us in unique Tanzanian culture. The fact that the Tanzanians pay respect to guests with artistic performances shows the nation gives top priority to art and culture.
Each of Tanzania's 120 ethnic groups has its distinctive songs and dances. Whenever drums beat, energetic performers will burst into dancing with instinctive movements. Passionate dances enable them to release inner feelings in a sincere, simple, natural and unembellished way. They always capture viewers' hearts as they communicate with them through body movements and songs.
Like green and organic food much sought after by consumers nowadays, African dances are a form of "green art," which is pure and free from "pollution".
Several years ago, the China Central Television created an award for "pristine singers" in its young singers' contest, which offered opportunities for amateur singers from rural areas to showcase their talent. Many of them have since been idolized by fans across the country. Shows featuring these singers have also become the most watched TV programs in China. "Pristine performances" have opened a new chapter in the art of singing and dancing. The performances we watched in Tanzania, of course, fall into this category.
Like a river flowing from its source, art also has sources, which are people, life and nature. If it is confined to altars, palaces and a world dominated by the pursuit of fame and profits, art will lose its originality, simplicity and vitality. In other words, without the spontaneous flow of emotions, art will be reduced to flattery, empty and insincere shows, flirtations, absurdity and dullness.
In essence, art comes down to cultural expression of man's views, emotions and inner feelings. Without emotions and spirit, presentations and skills have no artistic value. The quality of art is a much-debated topic. Without sincerity, there is no quality to speak of. Art should be a faith, almost like a religion. The essence and quality of art should be in line with each other.
Some people promote purely technical presentations using cutting-edge audiovisual technology as art. They are ignorant, if not disrespectful, about art. It is acceptable to draw more attention to art with the help of technology and skills, but attempts to equate these things with art will bring a disaster to art. No matter how impressive they are, robots' dances are not art, but merely programmed mechanical movements. Art will grow up like a plant. It takes roots in soil and bears flowers and fruit as it absorbs sunshine and rainwater. It is impossible to help it grow faster by pulling it upward.
Some scholars said Africa is a "cultural desert." But I think it is an oasis steeped in culture as well as a cultural treasure house. As a matter of fact, we can find African elements in the most avant-garde forms of art today, from the globally popular modern dance to stylish rapping. Many of the scholars who tend to be hypercritical of African culture have not closely examined Africa from a cultural perspective with a down-to-earth attitude. As a result, they are not in a position to make comments. Nobody is more qualified to speak about African culture than the Africans.
Culture transcends borders. The more national characteristics it exhibits, the greater global recognition it enjoys.
As I took a close look at African culture during my trip to Africa, I fell in love with African art. At the same time, I could not help wondering if the Africans like Chinese art.
It happened that while I was in Zimbabwe, an art troupe from China's Zhejiang Province came to Africa as part of a cultural exchange program under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. I watched their premiere show along with African friends in Harare. The show featured traditional Chinese songs and dances, Chinese acrobatics and kung fu. I saw with my own eyes how Chinese art drove the African audience crazy.
The show took place in a newly completed church auditorium with more than 3,000 seats, all of which were packed with viewers. From the beginning to the end, applause, cheers and screams filled the place. The Chinese often describe loud and lively scenes as "boiling." Indeed, the auditorium was like a pot of boiling water. When the show came to an end, enthusiastic viewers were still reluctant to leave. Sensations like this seem to be rare in China. It never occurred to me that an authentic show of Chinese culture and art could make such a big hit in Africa. Recently, there have been a lot of discussions about cultural confidence. In the Harare auditorium, it was only natural for a Chinese to be overwhelmed by pride and confidence. Artists from Zhejiang were apparently shocked by the African audience's enthusiasm. They also had not imagined their art could be so appealing.
As an old saying goes, the more national characteristics a culture exhibits, the more global recognition it enjoys. National characteristics and distinctive appeal are the reasons for both our love of African art and the Africans' fondness of Chinese art.
Being self-complacent about our own culture is harmful. Looking down upon ourselves is even more harmful. It is sad to see some people treat Chinese cultural heritage as rubbish while highly valuing Western culture. At one time, when it became a fashion in the art circle to apply labels to different forms of art, Western art was labeled "elegant art," while indigenous art well liked by the Chinese was disparaged as "popular art" or even "vulgar art." It is understandable that the Europeans advocate Eurocentrism. But I cannot understand why so many people in China are anxious to follow suit by belittling Chinese culture.
Recently, ambitious vows to make Chinese culture global have often been heard in China. The ambitions are laudable because they show the nation's cultural confidence. But we should seriously think about what can be presented to the world. In my view, we should focus on indigenous Chinese culture with distinctive characteristics. To put it bluntly, we should remember our root, assimilate foreign cultures and be oriented toward the future. Of the three points, I think the first one is the most important. National traditions should be the roots of our culture and art. The flowers of art will wither if their roots are removed. The tree of culture can flourish and withstand extreme weather only by taking roots in its native land. Chinese culture can hold a distinguished place among world cultures precisely because it is from China. Attempts to imitate others and follow in other's footsteps will go nowhere. Only by following our own path can we get ahead and acquire a high status.
Before the Spring Festival earlier this year, I visited Yan Liangkun, a famous Chinese musician. When we talked about symphonies, the veteran musician's remarks were thought provoking. He said the Chinese should not make their culture appear identical with Western culture in a bid to integrate it into the world. Instead, they should claim the cultural high ground, which is marked by national characters. We learn from the West with the purpose of developing national art. While learning Western skills, we should always maintain our national identity. Chinese media often tout "good news" that a Chinese symphony orchestra performed in the Golden Hall of Vienna or a Chinese ballet staged shows in one of the world's top theaters. We have reason to feel glad for these pieces of news, because winning the approval of the Europeans with our mastery of European art is, without a doubt, an achievement. But I will be more pleased at news about the Zhejiang art troupe causing a sensation in the Zimbabwean capital. In the manufacturing industry, China has long been processing raw materials supplied by foreign firms and producing goods under foreign brands. We should not adopt the same approach when introducing Chinese culture to the world, should we?
No culture can survive by seeking hegemony, just as no flower, no matter how beautiful, can thrive alone.
When speaking of cultural exchanges between China and the outside world, we naturally think of Zheng He's westbound voyages 600 years ago. Zheng He's fleet embarked upon seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean, which the Chinese called the "Western Ocean," and made several landings on the coast of East Africa. In the National Museum of Tanzania, the curator proudly displayed to us a few porcelain objects from the Ming Dynasty. We were told that they were brought to Africa by Zheng He's fleet. Although no longer intact, they are considered to be some of the museum's greatest treasures. The African people regard Zheng He as an envoy of peace and culture from China, and the porcelain pieces as exemplars of long-standing friendship and cultural exchanges between China and Africa.
Not far from the museum lies the Indian Ocean. A Tanzanian friend, pointing towards a wide strip of coastline, suggested to us seriously that this area might be where Zheng He disembarked. Looking out into the vast ocean from the coast of Dar es Salaam, it seemed that I could see a fleet looming up from afar, with Zheng He, a sturdy and composed figure, standing at the prow of the ship with the appropriate demeanor of an envoy from a major country in the east. Today, few traces can be found of Zheng He's voyages to Africa apart from those broken porcelain pieces. But Zheng sowed the seeds of friendship and culture. African people take great delight in telling Zheng He's stories because they cherish China-Africa friendship and respect the Chinese culture. They know what the Chinese brought to Africa was peace and friendship, along with a culture representing the apex of world civilization at the time. Large numbers of Western colonizers arrived in Africa after Zheng He. They brought to Africa warships and cannons, looting, killing, and slavery, and they imposed their religions and languages on the African people.
We can see from our visit that cultural exchanges should be based on respect and peace. The African people cherish their friendship with China because the Chinese have a culture of peaceful coexistence and tolerance, rather than of arrogance, condescension, and egoism.
The hypothesis of "the clash of civilizations" was created a few years ago, followed by attempts to push "cultural globalization." Some people are deeply obsessed with the dogmatic idea that their culture is superior to others, and that they are under an obligation to rule and "illuminate" the world, and they attempt to consolidate their position as the "cultural center." In my opinion, the coexistence of a broad variety of cultures in the world indicates that cultural diversity should be the common ideal of all mankind. Economic globalization should help promote exchanges among countries and peoples, and create the opportunity for various cultures to display their own strengths, rather than becoming a tool for pushing just one or only a few cultural models, or being a pretext for promoting "universal values."
If there was only one uniform culture, the world would suffer a cultural disaster. Chinese philosophy advocates "harmony in diversity," a sensible and far-sighted idea. I fully agree with the slogan put forward by some cultural workers, "China is a stage for the world and the world a stage for China." It exhibits Chinese culture's inclusiveness and tolerance, as well as expressing the cultural confidence and ideals of its people. The world is too big for any single culture to dominate. A single flower, no matter how pretty it is, cannot thrive alone, neither can a single culture.
Cultural exchange has to be two-way for the purpose of interaction and renewal. Of course there are clashes and even conflicts, but the final goals should be cultural diversity, development, and prosperity. Cultural diversity and cultural exchange are two concurrent trends, involving interaction and fusion. Clashes are inevitable yet necessary for they can give birth to inspiration and cultural innovations.
Ecological Civilization Requires Humans to Be Friends of Nature.
I did not quite understand the term "environment-friendly" when it first appeared in the media a few years ago. Friendliness was considered a people-to-people relationship, then how could one be friendly to the environment? How was man supposed to be friendly to the mountains, rivers, animals, grass, flowers and trees?
It was not until in Africa that I truly understood the meaning of friendship between man and animals. In Zimbabwe, we stayed in a hotel located in the Zambezi National Park close to the Victoria Falls. The National Park is virtually a nature reserve or open zoo with no enclosures. There you can see herds of wild elephants, buffalo, and wart hog, and rare animals including lions and leopards, as well as hippos and crocodiles in the Zambezi River.
Our hospitable African friends invited us to take a boat tour at dusk on the Zambezi to see the sunset. Sailing on the wide river, we enjoyed the cool breeze and magnificent sunset and watched seagulls flying over the water, an enchanting experience indeed. The most impressive aspect of the scene for me, though, was the vision of the people on the upper reaches of the Zambezi living in harmony with the hippos and elephants.
The moment our craft left the pier, the boatman pointed forward, telling us that we were very lucky and the hippos were waiting to welcome us. Not far ahead, we saw five or six hippos – two cubs in the middle playing while several grownups watched over them. As our boat drew closer, the hippos lined up, heads raised and mouths open, like guards of honor saluting in the river, as if having received some sort of an order. To be honest, I was initially rather nervous about getting close to the lumbering behemoths. After all, wild animals have wild natures. But what I saw were animals who, despite their huge size, were placid and gentle.
It was already dark when we came back to the pier. Our African friends on the boat suddenly spotted a herd of 20-30 elephants crossing the river from south to north. They were like a big black ship moving in the water. The elephants have a strong sense of team work. Although crowded closely together, they did not cramp each other; on the contrary, they were as orderly as a flock of geese in flight. We heard a continuous trumpeting from the herd, which appeared to be the leading elephant's commands.
The Zambezi lies on the boundary separating Zambia and Zimbabwe. So the elephants living near the river are called cross-border citizens. Our boatman joked that the elephants had double nationalities. As season and weather change, they need to move between the two sides of the river, just like cattle and sheep on the prairies. No matter where they live, the elephants are always watched over by the local people. Our African friends told us that it is a rare and auspicious sign to see elephants crossing the river.
To avoid disturbing the elephants, many boats on the river shut down their engines and floated on the current. Passengers stood and watched the elephants quietly. While the observers were very excited at such a rare sight, nobody shouted or made any loud noise. We could only hear the splashing sound of dozens of elephants swimming. After about half an hour, the herd disappeared out of sight.
Although the Zambezi boat tour was short, we had a chance to appreciate the placidity of the hippos and the orderly behavior of the elephants, thereby gaining a true understanding of the beautiful harmony between man and animals. The harmony between man and animals can bring about as much pleasure, warmth, and happiness as harmonious human relationships can offer.
On our planet Earth, man and animals should share friendship, always recognizing that humans are stronger than animals. However ferocious an animal, it can be a king among animals at best, while man can be the king of all species in the world. Humans must not act recklessly or satisfy their unbridled desires by intruding on animal habitats or taking their lives.
The diverse animal population of the African continent has already suffered relentless capture and slaughter by the self-proclaimed civilized colonizers from Europe. Such mindless acts have led to the sharp decline of many animal species and near-extinction of quite a few rare species. Humans have created culture and civilization. However, if their achievements are not used to serve a civilized purpose but to commit barbarian atrocities, they run counter to the dictates of civilization and culture.
Many African countries have now set up national parks to create a peaceful home for animals. Man has asked for too much from the animals, intruded too far upon their domains, and caused them too much harm. It is time to change. Civilized humans would not attempt to take the entire planet for their own. Should that happen, mankind will lose everything.
A local friend of Chinese origin told me that the year before, a Chinese tourist staying at our hotel had forgotten to close his windows, and as a result he had all his fruit, beverages, desserts and even his luggage "looted" by monkeys from the park. He made a complaint to the hotel management, hoping something could be done to prevent such animals from interfering with the tourists. The hotel manager, however, told him that it was humans who were disturbing the animals by taking up part of their home and that humans should therefore be humble and courteous towards them.
In general, ecological civilization requires humans to respect animals and nature as a whole. Culture is a hot topic today. But not all people are conscious that culture includes not only human relationships but also those between man and nature. Man needs to understand, make use of and adapt nature as well as to protect, respect and live in harmony with it. All of this should be integral to our culture.
As a matter of fact, our Chinese ancestors first put forward the concept of "the unity of man and nature" thousands of years ago. In Chinese classics, when the concept of humanity first appeared, it was defined along with that of "way of heaven," or the natural law: "The mix of yin and yang is the way of heaven; within the boundary of civilization is humanity. Observing the way of heaven helps to gauge the changes of times; observing the progress of humanity helps to improve society." We realize the need to respect animals and nature as a whole and to live in harmony with the environment. I regard it as a kind of cultural consciousness. Nowadays, governments and citizens are advocating and calling for ecological civilization, and this development represents a leap forward for individual nations and all mankind.
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 its architecture because this is a visible part of the culture which requires no 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 these 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-see is the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a UNESCO world hheritage site. The place was once the capital city of the Monomotapa Empire, in whose history the Zimbabwean people take great pride, it being the oldest historical site in southern Africa. Great Zimbabwe is 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 remains is ruins or desolate and broken walls. The only well preserved element is a stone fortress that once was the palace for the emperor's wives - from this one can imagine the past magnificence of the whole. It is said that the palace, looking like a Roman coliseum or amphitheater, used to be the home for the empress and concubines. The palace was built of grey granite. 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 plump bamboo shoot, with a tapering spire rising up to the sky. Its elegance and long history, and the legends that surround it have made it a symbol of Zimbabwe. The local people call it the Zimbabwe Tower, and it can be found on the country's banknotes and stamps, and all sorts of promotional objects or souvenirs.
All arts are created by the people. In a valley near the Ruins of Zimbabwe lies an ordinary village, with dozens of circular thatched cottages like a cluster of brown-grey mushrooms, uniform in style and color. Though superficially shabby, the cottages impress the viewers with a prehistoric charm. With a closer look, the visitor discovers that they are just like the Zimbabwe Tower in the stone palace, the former being miniatures of the latter. It is quite conceivable that the cottages were the source of inspiration for the architect of the Tower, or in other words that the Tower is a larger copy of the cottages.
The thatched cottages remind me of the yurts of my homeland, Inner Mongolia. The conical houses of the Ewenki and Oroqen huntsmen in the Great Xing'an Mountains all feature this circular shape. From the perspective of cultural diversity, the thatched cottages of the African aboriginals, the yurts of the Asian herdsmen, and the tree-bark houses of the Great Xing'an Mountains huntsmen would all appear to be unrelated, and it is hard to tell which came about first.
But why did all these peoples build their shelters in circular forms? This reminds me of an aesthetics book I came upon a few years ago by Mr. Zhao Xinshan, who is a writer from Shanghai. The book talks about why mankind prefers circular shapes when building shelters. He believes that human beings were imitating nature, and I think this surmise is reasonable. In Africa or Asia, whether living on a plateau or in a forest, the first thing one sees when born into this world is the circular blue sky, the sun or the moon. Our existence determines our consciousness and common existence makes for common awareness.
A well-known line in a poem goes, "The sky is like a dome covering the fields". However, it would be better expressed as the dome looking like the sky, as the sky was there before the dome existed. The thatched cottages of the African aboriginals, the yurts of the Asian herdsmen and the tree-bark houses of the Great Xing'an Mountains huntsmen must all have used the sky as their reference. That is why nature is mankind's teacher. The development of culture and the progress of civilization are all based on the existence of nature. All our thoughts, ideas and consciousness are determined by our being. Mankind's wisdom, intelligence, and material or spiritual wealth are all bestowed by nature.
A few years ago, there was a controversy about the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing and the focus of the debate was around whether an ultra-modern egg-like glass architecture in the heart of the ancient capital would undermine the character of the city. Nonetheless, since its completion, the building has won ever greater admiration. A growing number of people praise its circular shape in particular. Many visitors, Chinese or foreign, are keen to take pictures at the Performing Arts Center when in Beijing. This highly fashionable architecture has become one of Beijing's modern landmarks.
I think form should not be the only criterion to judge whether architecture is modern or not. Circular structures like the Performing Arts Center have existed in ancient, recent, and current eras. When one looks at a selection of renowned works of architecture around the world, one sees numerous landmark buildings with circular elements in their shapes, like the Pantheon in Rome, the Maria Church in Florence, the New Church in Paris, the Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul, the Vasile Assumption Cathedral in Moscow, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Capitol in the United States. Is not the Temple of the Heaven in China a circular structure? It seems that the circle is the most beautiful of architectural idioms, primitive and yet modern.
All peoples pursue a common desire for beauty, as we find similar criteria everywhere in determining what is beautiful. Be they ancient or modern, be they peoples of the East or West, all bow down before beauty.