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Barriers and warriors

A new column explores cultural differences between nations and people. This article looks at how boundaries came to be drawn and protected

When I leaf through the Atlas I often wonder about the political boundaries that divide the world into countries and people into nationalities. While new borders are `marked’ out; some old ones are `erased’, leaving behind historical sagas of partition and unison.

We have come a long, long way from Gondwanaland; when the earth was one single mass of land and water.  Various geological activities over millions of years have given the earth its present shape and features. Sea level changes in the past few thousands of years being the latest to have contributed to the geography of land distribution on this globe. Most of the present small islands were once connected to a larger landmass when  sea levels were low. With a rise in sea levels these became isolated islands separated from the mainland by a shallow sea.

In ancient days boundaries were demarcated by natural barriers like mountains, rivers, seas, and deserts.  The more impenetrable the natural barriers like hot or cold deserts or high mountain ranges, the more marked the difference in the cultures of adjoining regions. On the other hand you also have common traditions which flow through states and sometimes even nations on opposite banks of the same river.

But when settlements and communities grew, the need to protect their boundaries became very important. Not just for the safety of its people, but mostly to safeguard the available natural resources in the region. As villages grew into empires, a well-barricaded boundary became very important to sustain control and power over its territory. 

This need to defend territories has led to the construction of amazing historical monuments. Some manmade barriers of monumental proportions are fascinating. Like the Great Wall of China.  As you perhaps know, the 6,700 km long Great Wall of China is a fortification wall. The construction of this wall began from the 7th century BC, ie nearly 2,700 years ago, by the ruling kingdoms of the region, to protect their borders. Subsequently larger empires unified the smaller states and gradually the walls were merged to form the wonderful World Heritage Site it is today! At its peak the Wall was guarded by one million soldiers. Some 3 million people are estimated to have died in this centuries-long building project!

It was Quin Shi Huang who unified all the feudal states in China in 221 BC and founded the Quin Dynasty. Subsequent dynasties repaired and extended the Great Wall. Much later in the 15th century, the Ming dynasty not only strengthened the wall but also extended it further in Northern China along the southern border of the Ordos deserts, a region ruled by the invading Mongols. When Mongolia was annexed and became part of the Chinese empire, the importance of the Wall as a barricade declined, and further constructions and repairs were discontinued.

A similar need to protect property in Japan gave rise to an entire class of warriors! The Samurais, that is. Japan took its present shape as a string of islands about 20,000 years ago. These were once linked in the south to the Korean peninsula and to China, and in the north to Siberia, leaving the Japan Sea as a huge lake! With the rise in sea levels, the land bridge in the south and north disappeared. But human habitation of the island continued, giving rise to small settlements which grew into powerful kingdoms within the different regions of the island. But be it an island or a mainland kingdom or nation, the need to protect its boundaries becomes very important to sustain control and power over its territory.

The warrior clan of Samurais began with wealthy and powerful landowners and feudal lords employing strong and able men to guard and protect their property.  Gradually their influence and importance grew. And some 1,500 years ago, the Samurais became a class of military warriors employed by emperors and nobility.  They became a class of extremely disciplined warriors, wherein each warrior followed the ethical code of bushido or the `way of the warrior’. This code stressed on aspects like loyalty to one’s master, and self-discipline. Like most warrior classes and clans, the Samurais too preferred ritual suicide rather than surrender. Over time they gathered enough resources, and political backing, so as to form alliances among the various Samurai groups and territories. In fact, during the Edo Period (1603-1868) the social hierarchy in Japan held the Samurais as the most superior, followed by farmers, artisans and merchants. The peace time that prevailed during this period caused a decline in the importance of martial skills and the Samurais slowly took to other professions.

Today geology and geography have very little to do with determining national territories. But the need to protect one’s nation and borders is of prime importance even today and millions are spent in the effort.

-- Bina Thomas
(Bina Thomas is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2008 


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