Thu, May 04, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Dumping the Yellow Emperor myth

By Chen Ching-chih 陳清池

On April 5, Chinese Memorial Day, there was a grand memorial ceremony at the mausoleum of Huang Di (黃帝) or the "Yellow Emperor," in Huangling, Shaanxi Province.

Tens of thousands of people showed up for the occasion. A major US newspaper reported that leaders from the National People's Congress and top executives from state-owned industries joined "a senior Taiwanese opposition lawmaker and 700 Taiwanese businesspeople to pay their respects to the Yellow Emperor. Taiwanese visitors were given the best view of the ceremony at the recently expanded complex."

What was the significance of the memorial ceremony? Why did Beijing have to involve visitors from Taiwan?

First, according to historian Sima Qian (司馬遷), who chose to begin his Shiji (Records of the Historian) with the Yellow Emperor tale, Huang Di unified tribes along the Yellow River valley nearly 5,000 years ago. For these achievements, he is considered the founder of the Chinese nation and culture. Ever since 200BC, Chinese rulers, imperial and otherwise, have considered it politically convenient to sponsor an annual memorial ceremony in his honor.

"To carry forward traditional Chinese culture and unify the Chinese nation," according to a Chinese report, Beijing established a fund to renovate the Yellow Emperor's mausoleum in late 1992.

The renovation started in 1998 with a planned investment of about US$18 million. At present, in addition to a grand and fancy mausoleum, all worshipers, including Taiwanese visitors such as People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator John Chiang (蔣孝嚴), the grandson of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), cannot but notice two new monuments marking the return of Hong Kong and Macau to China.

That all the fuss over Huang Di is purely politically motivated is also clear when one considers that, while the Beijing government discourages its people from worshiping their ancestors, it is promoting the worship of the Yellow Emperor as the common ancestor of the Chinese.

School textbooks in Taiwan and in China teach that the Chinese are the descendants not only of the Yellow Emperor, but also, going a lot further back in time, Peking Man.

Indeed, for several decades, Chinese paleoanthropologists believed, based on fossil evidence, that the East Asian branch of Homo erectus, which dates back half a million years, evolved independently into Homo sapiens. Which is to say, they rejected the common idea among scientists that the Chinese people descended from Homo sapiens who came out of Africa within the past 100,000 years.

To this day there are still Chinese scientists who argue for an evolutionary model known as "regional continuity," in which East Asian Homo erectus evolved into a local variant of Homo sapiens independently of what was happening in Africa.

Results of recent genetic studies show that there was no inter-breeding between modern human immigrants to East Asia and Homo erectus (there is no genetic evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe either).

In his efforts to put the prehistory of China on a solid footing, population geneticist Li Jin (金力) and his team of colleagues and students fanned out across China and collected cells from about 10,000 males. Having analyzed and compared the Y chromosomes of this group with those of Southeast Asians and Africans, Li found in the late 1990s that of all 10,000 Y chromosomes, not a single unusual one was found.

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