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China - More Than Just A Country

China is more than just a country. It is a culture, a civilisation a way of life that has developed through five thousand years of recorded history. Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, is coming to Auckland for the APEC talks. John Howard reports.

China really began when the Han people, forebears of the modern Chinese nation, started their long march to destiny from their ancient homeland near the modern city of Xian.

Even before the fifty chronicled centuries of settled society food, which most Westerner's have come to love, played a vital role in the developing Chinese culture.

In the misty era before the Han tribes coalesced into the beginnings of the Chinese race, the first mythical hero to emerge was Fu Hsi. The main activities of this God-like fabled figure were hunting and fishing, and to him is attributed the invention of the kitchen and cooking.

The next legendary figure in early Chinese mythology was Shen Nung, the Divine Husbandman. To him goes credit for the plough, the hoe and the care of farm animals.

Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, and the patron saint of Taoism, is worshipped still for the conception of planting grain and the invention of the pestle and mortar to crush it to make flour.

The hunter, the husbandman and the farmer; it is no accident that the first three objects of worship of the ancient Chinese should all have to do with food.

New Zealand, being a major food producing country, can empathise with that.

Emperor Yu, the founder of the Xia Dynasty (twenty-first to sixteenth century BC), the first to unify the early Chinese, has been honoured over the centuries not so much for his political role as the earliest emperor but for his development of water control. This worthy step helped to stop the floods which ruined crops and encouraged the use of irrigation to improve yields.

Since the days of the Great Yu, the overwhelming priority of every ruler of China has been to fill the rice bowls of the people. So it remains today.

The fact that the more than a billion people of China enjoy a healthy, satisfying, substantial diet with no rationing of basic foodstuffs is widely regarded as the single most vital achievement of the modern government in Beijing.

Things have not always been so auspicious. Throughout its long and turbulent history, the vast wealth of China, most of it created on the solid base built by the endless toil of field-workers, has been a magnet for plunderers, adventurers and invaders. China, over the centuries, has had to become very protective.

Nature, likewise, has taken a savage toll with drought and flood, earthquake and landslide, tidal wave and typhoon destroying the crops and herds so patiently built up at such cost in sweat and tears. Not for nothing is the Yellow River, once tamed by Huang Ti, referred to as "China's Sorrow."

Its floods over the centuries have left generations homeless, beggared whole provinces, destroyed crops over enormous areas and sentenced untold millions to death by famine.

But Chinese ingenuity, grit, vigour and endless toil have overcome all the obstacles.

And when the time comes to give thanks to their many Gods and beliefs, the people of China do so around the dining table. Family feasts, celebratory banquets, birthdays, the summer and winter equinoxes, wedding anniversaries, celebrations of the birthday of Tin Hau, Goddess of Heaven, or of imported faiths like Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, the conclusion of one successful business deal or the agreement on launching a new one; all these and many more occasions call for glasses to be raised and chopsticks to be wielded.

Any event can and is used as worthy excuse for a feast. It can be as simple as a home-cooked meal for an unexpected visit by friends, or as lavish as an imperial banquet that takes dozens of chefs weeks to prepare. Whatever the reason, the way Chinese traditionally celebrate is by eating.

So food in all its aspects has, since the birth of the Chinese civilisation, been the cornerstone of the national culture. In no other people has the preparation, preservation, cooking, cultivation and serving of food taken such a dominant and pervasive role. China's very history revolves around the table and the kitchen.

The folk heroes of the nation, no matter who rules it, are often in some way or another connected with eating, drinking or making merry.

In China today and in the homes of millions scattered around the world, kitchen God's sit in family shrines staring amiably at the preparation of meals. Twice a year ancestral graves are swept and incense lit to pay homage to departed ancestors. Roast pork, rice wine and fruit are offered to the dead; food in Chinese culture is important even to those who have passed on.

So when President Jiang arrives for the APEC talks he is representing more than just a country - he is representing a civilisation.

ENDS

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