China as the overbearing, patronizing big brother figure is pretty much an essential component of his character. But what happens when you take all of that away? After all, even the most overbearing and most patronizing of blockheads have to start from somewhere.
The thing is, respect for elders is huge in Chinese culture. Particularly filial respect. Confucianism is absolutely drenched in it. What I'm envisioning is a young China during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, about twelve-ish in physical age, surrounded by more elders than juniors. A character study with a dash of history, if you will. It won't be very long. I'm planning four (very short) chapters with copious amounts of over-enthusiastic footnotes.
It's also kind of a personal exploration, because out of all the Allies and major supporting characters, I feel like China is the one I understand the least.
Oh, and some quick notes on names before we begin:
Middle Kingdom: China
Further notes at the end, if you're interested. Enjoy!
482 BC: push and pull
It was good to be back in Lu. The days were long and calm, and by the second year Kongzi had settled into a quiet, easy routine.
At noon, men young and old would seek shade at the pavilion by the pond. They would cluster around stone benches in long hemp robes and straw shoes, prompting in their wake the dismayed evacuation of shrill-voiced birds who had similarly sought shelter from the midday sun. The men would laugh and argue amongst themselves, and then, once everyone had settled, the questions would begin.
And Kongzi would talk.
But never too much. He had grown sharp and wise over the long years, and he knew when to push, and when to pull back. Kongzi was a teacher, not a lecturer, and there were some things in life that a man had to discover for himself for them to hold any meaning at all.
Sometimes, when the angle of the sun was just right, he'd glimpse an unnatural stain of shadow against the sheets of bamboo that curtained the pavilion. The sun would move, and the shadow would fall away, but the presence always lingered.
It stayed even when night fell and the stars touched the sky, and his disciples had thanked him and departed to their homes of sloping canopies and square windows. Kongzi always waited but never spoke, because he knew when to push and when to pull back.
Nineteen times he didn't speak, and nineteen times the presence stole away under the cover of night.
On the twentieth—
"What did you mean, Master?"
The voice was soft, hesitant. It came from the half-silhouette outlined in bamboo.
"What did I mean about what?" Kongzi said mildly, with no indication of surprise.
"When you spoke of li," said the bamboo, gaining confidence. "And the Five Relations."
Kongzi turned. "And why," he said, with a hint of humor, "would a bamboo spirit care for the matters of humans?"
There was an explosive sound of indignation at his words, and Kongzi had to hide his smile.
"I am not a bamboo spirit!"
"Then a spirit of the pond, perhaps? Or a ghost of the pavilion?"
"I'm not either," the bamboo grumbled. "I will have you know I'm just as human as—"
The voice in the bamboo abruptly fell silent, and Kongzi felt his mirth dissolving into concern. When the voice finally spoke again, it had returned to its original subdued timbre.
"You are…correct. I have no right to learn. I am sorry for giving you trouble, Master Kong."
Before he could say anything, there was a soft rustling and a small, shadowy figure was hurriedly rushing away.
Kongzi thought, ruefully, that he might have pushed a bit too far in his teasing. Clearly he was not as sharp or as wise as he had believed, if he failed to recognize something so simple as when to pull back.
His faceless visitor did not return for many days.
Nonetheless, Kongzi kept a steady eye on the bamboo pillars that bordered the pavilion. When at last he spied the half-silhouette among the striped foliage, he was so delighted that he quite lost his train of thought.
After a length of silence, the serious-faced Zeng Shen asked if anything was the matter.
Kongzi thought for a moment before saying, very loudly, that education did not discriminate between age, class, or wealth. He said, even more loudly, that he was happy to teach anyone, be they the poor farmers, or young nobles, or even little imps that haunted bamboo groves.
Zeng Shen, ever serious, nodded vigorously. The other disciples stared at Kongzi as if he'd grown an additional head in a particularly inappropriate location.
He did not mind their looks. When night fell and the pavilion had emptied, the voice in the bamboo was shyly calling out once more. The visitor did not reveal itself, and Kongzi did not push.
They talked about li and the Five Relations, and were content.
Li. Principle, morality, ritual propriety. Through li one masters ren, compassion. Through li the basic human relationships are formed.
Ruler and subject. Parent and child. Husband and wife. Elder sibling and younger sibling. Friend and friend. These are the Five Relations…
The visitor emerged from its bamboo haven one evening, and suddenly the voice had a face.
Kongzi stared. It was dark, but the moon was plump, and he had a terribly good memory. He knew that face.
It was the face of a young boy, barely old enough to be considered adolescent. The same face that stared out at him at the court of Chengzhou, alongside King Jing and the rest of the royal family. But that was well over a decade ago, when Kongzi was still clumsily attempting politics.
"What's this?" he murmured. "How curious…but I know you, don't I?"
The boy averted his eyes, hiding his face in too-long sleeves. "I'm sorry, Master, I didn't mean to startle you—I wasn't sure you'd remember…"
"You are the boy from Chengzhou," said Kongzi, and the child hesitantly nodded. "What are you doing in Lu?"
"Oh," said the boy, blinking. He did not seem to expect that question. "Well, I wanted to listen to you, Master."
"You followed me?"
"Yes—no." The boy looked panicked. "Of course not! I wouldn't, didn't. I just, I was just—"
He hid his face deeper within his sleeves as he struggled to express himself. Kongzi waited.
"I feel lost, Master," the child admitted at last. "These years have been…strange. I feel torn to pieces, and some days I wake up and I don't know what…who I am anymore. But you—" The boy regarded him with shining eyes. "You make things make sense! When you say that everyone has a place in the world, when you speak of li and ren, of respect and virtue and self-cultivation…I feel like I know myself."
"And who is that?"
The boy looked at him, ancient eyes in a child's face. "I am the Middle Kingdom."
1] The Middle Kingdom: China. From "Zhong guo," which literally means "Middle Kingdom." Traditionally, the story goes that China's name comes from "Qin" as in "Qin Dynasty." In reality, no one really knows where the heck the name comes from (though there are speculations of a Persian or Indian origin, as in Cīna). In any case, it makes little sense to use "China" here, because 1) even if the Qin story were true, the Zhou Dynasty predates it anyway, and 2) it would be extremely weird for a young China to refer to himself by an exonym that hadn't even been invented yet.
2] Confucius: Most Chinese know him as Kongzi, or Kong Fuzi if you're feeling fancy. Both literally mean "Master Kong." For the purposes of this story, Kongzi is used because it's still two thousand years too early for the latinized version.
3] Bamboo spirit: So, about China and animism. Confucius was like the ancient Chinese equivalent of agnostic—he didn't disbelieve in spirits, but he didn't really give a crap, either. When he teases China about being a bamboo spirit, he's basically dishing out the ancient Chinese equivalent of sarcasm.
4] Zeng Shen: A very, very, serious fellow. Earnest to a fault. Confucius considered him his second most senior student, and (fondly?) called him "dull." Zeng Shen is actually his birth name, and I probably should have used his courtesy name...which brings me to the next footnote.
5] Courtesy names: These were the zi, the names bestowed upon adulthood. I would have used courtesy names, but I didn't want any confusion since Zeng Shen's courtesy name, Ziyu, happens to be a homonym for another disciple's courtesy name.
6] Chengzhou and Lu: Lu was Confucius' home-state. Chengzhou was the capital of Zhou…at least for a little while. See, Zhou Dynasty is split into two periods, Western and Eastern, both of which have different capitals because the rulers freaked out halfway through the dynasty and fled from Zongzhou to Chengzhou (modern-day Luoyang). Chinese rulers would continue to frolic to and from Luoyang for the next several dynasties or so.
7] King Jing: Yes, you read that right. King, not Emperor. Zhou Dynasty had kings (wang), and it wasn't until the Qin that the first Emperor came along.
8] Civil war: We're currently nestled right in that awkward period during the Partition of Jin, when four major clans (Zhao, Zhi, Han, and Wei) fought for supremacy. The ongoing civil war is why poor China feels so lousy. This is some intense pre-Warring States Period stuff, folks.