On April 5, Chinese Memorial Day, there was a grand memorial ceremony at the mausoleum of Huang Di (
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 (
"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 (
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 (
His conclusion was that modern humans originated in Africa. This result is consistent with the existence of a prior genetic source in Africa and with human genetic research findings of Europeans descending from Homo sapiens coming out of Africa. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a leading academic in population genetics at Stanford University, supports these findings, which fit the theory that modern humans migrated out of East Africa less than 100,000 years ago.
This result is bad news for Chinese researchers looking for evidence of East Asian regional continuity. East Asian mitochondrial DNA gives the same answer: the thousands of samples taken from Chinese women that have been tested all trace their ancestry back to Africa. In short, there is no genetic evidence that Homo erectus made any contribution to the gene pool of modern Chinese.
The genetic evidence also indicates the migration of modern humans in prehistoric Asia. It suggests a gradual prehistoric population movement from south to north. In Asia, levels of genetic variation are greater in the south, which would be expected if modern humans arrived there first. There are also profound genetic differences between the Chinese north and south of the Yangtze River. Genetically, northern Chinese resemble Mongols, Manchurians and Koreans, while southern Chinese are more like Vietnamese, Thais and other Southeast Asians. Even though China has been "unified" for more than 2,000 years, and while there has been internal movement, it has remained genetically divided.
The north and south are two different worlds; although bound by a common written language and political base, they have maintained some of their former divisions.
In addition to Li Jin's studies, other genetic research has helped to bury some myths that have grown up about Chinese genetic origins. For example, it had been widely accepted that there was a massive population expansion of Han Chinese from north to south during the past 2,000 years of imperial rule -- overlaying, displacing and ultimately replacing the bulk of indigenous minorities in the south. Recent historical research has shown, however, that Han identity in the south was, for pragmatic political reasons, adopted or synthesized by southern indigenous peoples only over the past few hundred years.
This suggests that much of the population migration from the north to the south was more perceived than real, and supports the view that regional populations may have been more stable over the past few thousand years than was previously assumed.
To ethnocentric northern Chinese, the idea that they descend from southerners is about as welcome as the news that all Chinese are descended from Africans. In China, the north is the Middle Kingdom, the source of all civilization and culture. For example, most Chinese -- southerners and northerners -- will say they are descended from the Yellow Emperor. However, if Huang Di actually existed, the "out of Africa" theory suggests that the Yellow Emperor was descended from modern humans who worked their way north from southeastern Asia, perhaps several tens of thousands of years earlier.
The recent research voids the theory that Peking Man was the ancestor of the Chinese people and dispels the myth that the Chinese descended from the Yellow Emperor separately from other peoples.
However, even if fully aware of these research findings, China's authoritarian political leaders are unlikely to revise school textbooks to reflect what is becoming accepted theory. After all, the political legitimacy of the Communist government partly rests on its ability to uphold the nation's glorious past, perceived and real. Beijing would be shooting itself in the foot if it discarded the Yellow Emperor myth.
For their part, there is no reason for Taiwanese to retain the Yellow Emperor myth, a fable that the KMT party-state reinforced. After all, like free people elsewhere, Taiwanese need to be educated and not indoctrinated.
Chen Ching-chih is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwanese Studies in Los Angeles.
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