The environment we live in today, affects the way we view the past. It burdens us with preconceived ideas and twists our perception of the time being studied. The prudent researcher should first work to gain a more accurate mental perception of the era and subject in question. Clearing the mind of any modern concept is vital – especially for cross cultural studies.
Throughout the period of our research, we have been surprised by how many Chinese concepts/facts have been incorrectly presented to the Western world. Translations have been poorly done, Western religious concepts have been imposed, and personal ideals have been stamped into history. The reasons are many and varied and the results are negative in every way.
Gaining a more accurate picture of the past is vital for historical investigation and research to be successful. When starting a project, we begin by by looking at ‘big picture facts’. For example; what was the population size at the time? What was life expectancy of the time? What were the hardships? By asking these simple questions a clear picture emerges allowing the mind to look for logical, albeit hidden explanations, to the questions we ask.
Example 1: In the year 2 CE, the Han 漢 Empire had a population of 57.6 million people while Japan had only a maximum estimate of about 200 thousand people dispersed throughout the islands. Discovering this fact, cross checking it with a couple of others, makes a clear picture which way culture and technology was moving. That is; from China to Japan.
Example 2: Life expectancy during the Han 漢 Empire was 22 to 34 years old. Grasping this simple fact, allows us to understand the cultural impact, and deep respect, that old people (approx 50 years old and up) were afforded in ancient China. Like most things in Chinese culture this imprint continues on today.
Example 3: Understanding the penal system allowed us to see that the criminal population was largely not ‘criminal’ as compared to today’s terms. They were mostly poor people being severely punished for petty events. That shows that our concept of ‘thieves’ and ‘criminals’ must be non judgemental before we can find the secrets that history has to offer us.
As simple and obvious as this framework may seem, most Western researchers continue to use historical ‘facts’ written by Jesuit missionaries 400 years ago! These ideas and concepts must go, they must be refreshed with a deeper and more considered understanding of Chinese culture and language. That can only come from modern multicultural, multi-lingual, multi-discipline research. We can start by going top down. ‘Big pic’ facts first, then we can expand from there.