With diplomats jetting off for marathon negotiations and editorial writers fulminating about national honor, a recent quarrel between China and South Korea had all the trappings of a modern diplomatic crisis. Except for one thing: The dispute was over a kingdom last heard from in A.D. 668.
Chinese researchers participating in a government-funded project on ancient societies in northern China had concluded that Goguryeo, in its early manifestations at least, was under Chinese dominion. Korean scholars insisted that, from beginning to end, Goguryeo was 100 percent Korean. When the Chinese Foreign Ministry, heeding its own scholars, eliminated the Korean version of history from its official Web site last April, things got serious.
The noisy clash was finally papered over last month in a five-point accord reached in Seoul after protracted discussions between Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei and senior officials in the South Korean Foreign Ministry. Both countries pledged to get along better. But they left the main question unresolved: Was the kingdom, which spanned the current China-North Korea border for about 700 years, Chinese or Korean?
For China, the answer has long been obvious. Their culture, they have been taught, radiated far and wide over the centuries, embracing great historical events ranging from Genghis Khan's empire to the invention of spaghetti and meatballs. According to Chinese history, not only did Goguryeo begin as an ethnic minority in the Chinese fold, but neighboring Japanese civilization got started when 1,000 Chinese boys and girls sailed over in 209 B.C. to colonize the islands in hopes of finding immortality pills.
"Goguryeo was part of the Han Dynasty," said Li Boqian, who runs the Center for the Study of Ancient Civilizations at Beijing University. "But the Han Dynasty later declined, and it split off."
Some analysts have seen a design in China's tendency to place itself at the center of history.
Korean commentators, for instance, warned that the real reason for the Goguryeo spat was a desire by Chinese officials to cast doubt on the present border in case North Korea falls apart suddenly and destabilizes the area. Beijing-based analysts suggested that Chinese officials wanted to make ethnic minorities, such as the restive populations of Tibet and Xingjiang, feel more comfortable with Chinese rule by stressing that they have always been part of the nation.
But anyone living in China quickly understands that, whatever officials may be up to, something deeper than government policy has informed the Chinese people's view of their place in the world. In a culture so old and so rich in history and invention, it seems folklore for centuries has tended to operate on the premise that China originated almost everything and foreigners are lucky if they can grab a little piece of the heritage.
Over the last 150 years, as China suffered from foreign occupation, civil war and extremist ideology, modern advances largely passed the country by. Only in recent years has China begun to regain its role in the world. But for most Chinese, the idea of their culture as a source of past greatness and future strength has never faded.
"There are so many great people who did so many great things," said Wang Zhenhui, 22, a public finance student at Beijing University.
The idea of China's centrality started early. Li, who formerly ran Beijing University's archaeology program, said that 3,000 years ago, the Western Chou Dynasty moved its capital to Luo Yang, south of Beijing in the present-day Henan province, and declared it the center of the Earth. A bronze wine vessel was found nearby in the 1970s, he said, with the inscription "Here Lives the Middle Kingdom," the first known use of what has become China's modern name.
That was just the beginning. Just as every American schoolchild learns that George Washington admitted to cutting down the cherry tree, generations of Chinese schoolchildren have learned that their forebears thought up the Four Great Inventions: gunpowder, the compass, paper and movable type.
But competitors in the recent Asian Cup soccer tournament here were amused to be told by some of their Chinese hosts that this country also invented soccer. Members of some golf clubs, giving a homegrown spin to a sport that is swiftly becoming popular here, have told prospective members that archaeologists uncovered drawings indicating the sport originated sometime during the Tang Dynasty, from A.D. 618 to 907.
It does not stop there. Popular history has extended Chinese inventiveness to include pasta, which, according to legend, was discovered by Marco Polo when he visited China and then taken back to Italy, where it became the national staple.
Italian historians have concluded their version of pasta was first made in Sicily around 1000 when Arabs were in charge there, according to Francesco Sisci of the Italian Cultural Institute of Beijing. But never mind; for most Chinese, Italian pasta is merely transplanted noodles.
Even pizza, it is said here, is nothing more than the Italian pronunciation of China's bing-zi, which, in its current evolution, is a pocket made from wheat dough and stuffed with ground meat or diced vegetables. According to Chinese folklore, Marco Polo or some other Italian traveler took back the idea of bing-zi, which archaeologists believe was made here in one form or another as long as 5,000 years ago on terra cotta grills and enhanced by a Domino's-like list of toppings.
Li noted that cultural evolution often has occurred simultaneously in two places, and there is no reason to suppose Italy did not develop pasta on its own just as China developed noodles on its own. But the popular story has taken hold in the Chinese imagination, which sees noodles traveling to Italy in Marco Polo's luggage.
The Chinese appropriation of Genghis Khan, viewed elsewhere as a Mongolian conqueror who created a vast empire including parts of China, has received a more formal endorsement. The period during which his descendants ruled over much of what is now China has been baptized in most textbooks the Yuan Dynasty, 1279 to 1368, and treated by Chinese historians as another in a long succession of Chinese reigns.
Similarly, most Chinese have been taught that American Indians descended from intrepid Chinese who moved down over the Bering Strait -- a belief held by many non-Chinese historians as well -- and that Buddhism, although imported from India, was spread around Asia by Chinese travelers.
In particular, the story goes, the Chinese monk Jian Zhen sailed to Japan in 753 and, at the invitation of the Japanese royal family, spread knowledge about Buddhism, medical science and sculpture to a population thirsty for knowledge.
That, of course, was long after the 500 boys and 500 girls dispatched by Emperor Qin Shihuan had started families and multiplied. Their gesture has been commemorated several times in recent years by people who gather at the Ancestral Temple of a Thousand Children, on the site where Qin had his capital in what is now Hebei province, just south of Beijing.