Thursday, April 16, 2020

When My Worlds Collide: The Chinese Aid/Mount Ararat Dispute

Looking like a dork on my visit to Khor Virap in 2017

I was going to write about the way the WHO and China have both been slithering among political figures, begging bowls in hand, asking for statements of support for their handling of the CCP Virus. And I will - tomorrow, perhaps.

Today, something else caught my eye.

This is sort of a collision of my worlds: an American of Armenian heritage, whose ancestors fled Turkey, and who has visited both Turkey and Armenia while living in Taiwan and keeping an eye on China.

With that in mind, about a week ago, a tiny diplomatic snafu went unnoticed by most people. It seems that China sent medical supplies and equipment to Armenia, and this was written on the boxes:

高山之巔,長江之濱May Our Friendship Higher Than Mountain Ararat and Longer than Yangtze River

These are the boxes in question

You'll note that the Chinese and English do not quite match. The actual translation of that phrase is "A High Mountain Peak, The Shores of The Yangtze" which sounds like a Chinese idiom but if so, I'm not familiar with it. (Readers?)

This caused a lot of consternation in Turkey, which demanded an explanation for why a mountain which is technically in Turkey, and called Mount Ağrı (Ara), was printed on aid sent to Armenia. IS CHINA DISRESPECTING THE TERRITORIAL SOVEREIGNTY OF TURKEY??!! what I assume they screamed.

Even on polluted days, you can see the peak of Ararat from Yerevan

China quickly clarified that the packages came from a provincial government in China - Chongqing - and that the Chinese phrasing made no reference to Ararat (which is true). They then said the "English translation was added later", implying that it might have been done by the private company which delivered the aid (which is probably not true, but who knows) - and that China respects Turkey's territorial integrity. As an Armenian, allow me to provide some background, both political and cultural.

Also I will tell you about brandy
Mount Ararat is highly culturally important to Armenia. It's visible from both Yerevan - the capital, and also just a cool, funky city that you absolutely should visit - and much of the Armenian plain (the monastery of Khor Virap is an excellent place to get a closer look at it). Like Olympus in Greek history, pre-Christian Armenian mythology considered Ararat the home of the gods. One might think this mythology is 'lost', but just as Athens is still named for Athena, plenty of Armenian names derive from these pre-Christian mythological names. For example, Mihran (my great-grandfather's name) is from Mihr, the god of smithing. Getting on the Jesus train didn't change this much: believed to be the landing site of Noah's Ark by those inclined to such beliefs, Armenians essentially transferred Ararat's pagan sacredness to Christianity. Since the Armenian genocide, it has also become a symbol of everything Armenians lost when they were exterminated from lands they had inhabited for centuries. Not just the land, but the culture - I could list several examples of eastern Anatolian cultural touchstones that are claimed by Turkey but may in fact be Armenian in origin, but I'll just point out one - carpets. There is evidence to suggest that "Turkish rugs" are culturally Armenian. And yes, Ararat has been a symbol of Armenian irredentist beliefs. I am unable to speak objectively on this so I won't belabor the point, but much of what is now eastern "Turkey" was heavily populated by Armenians until the genocide. The Treaty of Sevrès gave that land to Armenia, and then the USSR, for purely political reasons, turned around and handed it to Turkey - including Ararat.

Not joking about the brandy - Winston Churchill apparently drank it
Ararat is on the coat of arms of Armenia. In Yerevan, the statue of "Mother Armenia" faces it (and is surrounded by military accoutrements). Armenia's most famous brandy is named for it. Pins purchased by pilgrims to the various well-known monasteries across Armenia generally depict it. When I visited Armenia and caught my first sight of Ararat, despite knowing how silly it was to have an emotional attachment to a geographical location I had only a tenuous ancestral connection to - my ancestors having lived along the Mediterranean, not near the mountain - I got misty-eyed anyway. I don't know how else to express how important Ararat is to the Armenian people.
Armenian pilgrimage pins from my personal collection
(not my pilgrimages - I inherited these from my mom, who collected them despite ever going herself)
So, I can tell you that from an Armenian perspective, referencing Ararat in a gesture of friendship really has very little to do with borders. Yeah, Armenia wants that mountain back. Sure. Won't deny it. But even with the borders as they are, without even expressing an overt wish to change those borders, it is entirely culturally appropriate to reference Ararat in an Armenian context. From that perspective, for Turkey to get mad about it feels a bit like China getting butthurt whenever someone calls Taiwan "Taiwan" or expresses support for Hong Kong.

Imagine having a thing on your country's coat of arms, purposely building your museum to the Armenian Genocide within sight of it, naming your brandy after it, and believing in its religious significance several layers and millenia down, and having another country get all pissy for acknowledging it's important to you, because it's within their borders due to some Soviet political maneuvering. Sounds like that'd feel like crap, right? Well, it does.
The view of Ararat from the Armenian Genocide museum
Perhaps Taiwanese can understand this. Although the two situations are not exactly parallel, I can only imagine how it must feel to want to claim some aspect of that part of Taiwanese cultural heritage which does have roots in China, only to be told that doing so makes you Chinese by nationality. So you're stuck with either constantly trying to explain your heart, or distancing yourself from that heritage. (This rock and hard place were both intentionally created by China). Imagine being told that huge segments of your history and cultural heritage are wrong. That this thing and that place are actually Turkish and the things you say happened to your ancestors...didn't. Of course, Taiwanese don't have to imagine.

The problem, of course, isn't with emotional attachments to geographical locations. It's with the rabid anger and perpetual glass-hearted offense created by nationalism, abetted by national borders.

Mother Armenia ain't playin' games
If you've ever wondered why I came to care so much about Taiwan after moving here, despite having no Taiwanese ancestry, it's this: what my ancestors went through and what the ancestors of my Taiwanese friends went through were different, but surely you can see how these conflicts are, in great part, variations on the same old themes of dominance, marginalization and nationalism? And I'm as sick as they are of being told that my heritage isn't allowed to be what I know it is?
Really not joking about that brandy

I've long thought of Turkish political views as running on a parallel discourse with Chinese perspectives. Both are countries I have enjoyed visiting, meeting absolutely wonderful people and seeing some truly spectacular places. But politically, in Turkey they've convinced themselves that Armenia is the 'bad guy' and the Armenian genocide never happened (false), which is not that different from Chinese views that Taiwanese are the 'splittist' aggressors and Taiwan is their sovereign territory (again, false). I have lamented that these views are baked into the education that Turks and Chinese receive, and acknowledge that it is very difficult to overcome the failings of one's political upbringing.
Now, imagine that there a place which is key to your identity, perhaps even sacred in a quasi-religious sense. It occupies a central place in your cultural consciousness. Imagine being told by another country that not only is it theirs, not yours, but that it's not even particularly important to them. Taiwan, as a part of China, would be...just another province. Geostrategically important, perhaps, but honestly, I could see many Chinese viewing it as just a backwater, a nowhere. That's what it was under the Qing, after all. By Chinese standards, Taipei isn't even that big. I suspect most Taiwanese know this in their bones: Taiwan is everything to them. It's central to their history, identity and culture. To China, it's just hicksville. Yet they dare to pitch a fit whenever Taiwan points out that it's better off on its own. That's Ararat to Turkey. They don't care about it. It's so far east that I suspect Turks generally don't think about it much. It's a nowhere, a backwater. It is not central to their nation or identity the way it is to Armenians. And yet they have the temerity to throw a tantrum when any other nation references that cultural significance to Armenia. If you've gotten this far, you're probably shaking your head thinking "is Lao Ren Cha really saying that China did nothing wrong here?"
Another view of Ararat from Yerevan
You'll be shocked to hear that Istanbullus don't care much about this mountain, but Yerevanis do. 
Well, I suppose...yes. But even when China is right, of course it's also wrong. Bullying Turkey out of supporting the Uighurs is wrong. And Armenia has quietly become a key node in China's Belt and Road Initiative, which sort of mimics its status as a border state between "east" and "west" (which the Romans and Persians would interfere with in order to snipe at each other from time to time) and stop on the Silk Road. But the BRI is no Silk Road - instead of bandits, there are debt traps. Even if the countries involved don't end up as serfs to China, they'll find themselves at the other end of threats to cut off this or that source of funds - closing a highway, cutting off international students, re-routing shipping, tourism, whatever - if they become to dependent on China. Again, variations on the same old themes.
I really can't emphasize enough about the brandy


B said...

Hi Jenna,

This is B from Turkey. I am also living in Taiwan just like you and believe it or not I came across to your blog while searching for a good dentist to get my wisdom teeth removed :D

You are right about the insignificance of Mount Agri to Turkish People. To be honest as a person who grew up in Istanbul it was just a statistical fact being the highest mountain of Turkey, nothing more for me and most of my generation.

I'd love to talk more about the alleged 'genocide' with you but I guess there is no way for us to be objective.

I am just curious about your opinions on
Do you think there is clear cut between victims and killers?
Do you think a nation cannot both suffer atrocities and perpetuate them against others in an even more systematic form

How about villages massacred by Russian forces or families burned out of their homes by Armenian guerrillas?

Or a very recent Khojaly Massacre?

I really just want to know how does an Armenian person look at these issues?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Honestly, I'm going to say that I can't respond to this. The Armenian genocide is not "alleged", historical documentation is pretty clear and irrefutable. If you're going to start from a position where the truth of the genocide must first be established (when I suspect from your comment that you're more interested in ensuring that it is not established through debate, not actually discussing it), but you take "Armenian guerrillas burning people out of their homes" as fact, not "alleged" (even though my great grandfather was an Armenian resistance fighter and he was quite clear that while surely one can't account for every deed of every person, those resisting the massacre generally sought military, not civilian targets whereas the genocide itself was perpetrated by the government against civilians).

That's not an acceptable place to start, so I am afraid I cannot start.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I am not going to publish your comment because "I invite you to open your mind" is snide. You are not actually interested in learning about the preponderance of evidence proving that the genocide was real. If you were, you would have looked for that information yourself rather than trying to waste my time getting me to do your homework for you, or you would have sincerely asked for help with resources without being douchey about it.

No thanks. Real differences of opinion exist and I'll publish comments I disagree with, but there is ample proof of the truth of the Armenian Genocide. It's not a matter of opinion, so it's not up for debate. I'm sorry your education taught you persistent historical lies, but learning about what really happened is entirely within your power.