Our Human Journey Mandarin Gate, Chapter Twelve

(Inspector Shan encounters a secret meeting of professors who have been transported to his remote town in Tibet because they had persisted in teaching about Chinese imperial history and Western literature. The leader of the group explains its purpose:)


            “We call ourselves the Vermilion Society after the color of the ink reserved for the old imperial courts. Keeping old ways alive. Professor Wu,” he said, indicating the bald man, “prints up Sung poems and leaves them on doorsteps. Professor Chou,” he said, with a gesture to the woman, “organized a production of an old play from the Ming dynasty. We’d sweep old graves if there were any here. We try to remember things from old China and record them. There’s so few good history books left, and it’s been decades since a true history of China was written. There are wonderful things from the dynasties, things that need to be remembered.”

            “The truest history,” interjected Professor Wu, “is that built on a thousand tales of the common man.”


Over thirty thousand years ago, flowers were laid at the grave of a Neanderthal man buried in a cave in what we now call Kurdistan. We know this because archaeologists have found the pollen of hollyhock, hyacinth and other flowers concentrated beside the bones. Ancient people were mourning at this grave, and leaving a token of affection. I would never dismiss them with a label of “cave men.” Rather they were early explorers in the human journey. They didn’t go extinct, they became us, as proven by the fact that each of us have about two percent Neanderthal DNA in our genome. It is wonderful that these early ancestors lingered over flowers and shared their beauty, but a touching tale of Neanderthal affection also lingers behind these ancient flowers. The bonds within family and community may be the most ancient of human values and have anchored families and societies throughout history –and, as we have now learned, prehistory.

Our post-modern world seems to steadily diminish such bonds, but those values remain intrinsically strong in most of us. The traditional Chinese world these professors speak of, and in which Inspector Shan was nurtured, was imbued with Confucian and Taoist wisdom and built around robust extended families. Despite the prolonged, deliberate efforts of Beijing to replace family with government as the foundation of personal life, those bonds persist and drive many of the “wonderful things” that need to be remembered. Even though he has no surviving family, their values, and their traditions, remain the source of Shan’s strength. In a society that has essentially banished uncles, aunts, and cousins through its repressive childbearing policies, Shan remembers those prior generations and their wisdom. In a crisis it is those time-tested values that lead him to justice, not the teachings, or laws, of his government. These are the experiences that drive our true histories.

As the old professors reflect in the above exchange, our history books are woefully inadequate. Even when they have not been hijacked by an author’s ideology, they still just provide sterile statistics and signposts from our passage. They report to us on politics and war but do little to convey the long, much more interesting trek of human experience. As Professor We suggests, that tale is a mosaic of life stories spanning millennia. History books begin with long-dead kings and ancient battlefields. The human tale begins with fossilized flowers.

Eliot Pattison