A new world under one Heaven

2008-07-04Asia Times

Part 1: Change in the face of foreign devils (

BEIJING - Globalization in the West started with the Greeks - with the Anabasis told by Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates. Then, 10,000 Greek mercenaries marched to Persia to aid Cyrus, who enlisted Greek help to try to take the throne from Artaxerxes. This occurred between 401 BC and March 399 BC.

About half a century later, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) followed almost the same route, not to serve the Persians but to battle and defeat them. He wanted to conquer and discover new lands, following the legend of the trials of Hercules. Alexander and his conquests then became the model for great Roman conquerors: Caesar and the emperors following him.

Exploration, conquest and plunder were the trademarks of the Mediterranean world, where the line between commerce and pirating was often blurred. Exploration and conquest were the driving forces pushing Spanish and Portuguese ships across the Atlantic in search of new sea-lanes to the Indies. The Atlantic was an extended version of the Mediterranean [1]. It was a space to conquer and win - seeing it as a limit would be an admission of defeat.

The colonial era and present globalization are modern adaptations of the old principle of expansion. In each era, the idea was that economic welfare could be achieved through goods from new conquered lands, which were obtained through plunder, exploitation or simple commerce. Security was best achieved by attacking enemies first and invading their lands, before they did the same, an action that was also rewarded by the booty of plunder.

In China, though, everything was different. Desert and mountains in the north and the west, jungles in the south, and the ocean in the east were the natural limits of conquest. In 200 BC, the first unification of China defined what is still the reach of Chinese civilization. The first emperor had conquered what is now northern Vietnam and had probably gone as far as present North Korea. The conquest of the wild south proceeded slowly and methodically, in a spirit of systematic incorporation into the empire.

The empire stretched out to fight the warring barbarians and moved several times as far as the Caspian Sea or northern Siberia, but it always withdrew from it. The idea was that the security of the empire would be guaranteed by a belt of buffer vassal states. In return for their "service", these states received from the empire more than what they offered as homage.

The world outside was known and could be explored, as in the famous 15th century Zheng He expeditions, but it was of no major consequence for the empire, which had to produce security and economic welfare from within. Agriculture was fundamental to the growth of necessary industry, but there was no trust in the benefits of bouts of plunder and conquest. This was the way of the northern population or eastern pirates, but both did not make a stable living out of these activities and often survived on the verge of extermination.

It appeared much better for the empire to improve domestic agriculture, industry and trade. Industrial and agricultural surpluses in ceramics and tea drew in furs and horses (the latter necessary for the industry of defense) from the north or gold and silver from the western traders. China could easily ignore the rest of the world, because it was not relevant.

This changed dramatically after the Opium Wars (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860), when Britain tried to sell the only goods China would consume and import - drugs, specifically opium - to make up for a massive trade deficit that was draining Europe of all its American silver and gold. When China restricted the trade of opium on the grounds that presently seem more than reasonable - it was a drugs trade, after all - Britain forced the trade to continue by fighting and winning a short but momentous war.

Over a century later, the lesson China learned is that even defeat in a small-scale war can trigger a deep political crisis, which in turn can topple a government.

Most importantly, the wider lesson is that China cannot ignore commerce and must be part of the global economic cycle, which now is highly industrialized and demands more resources than can be found internally. Therefore, China must go around the world looking for all kinds of resources and energy as well as new markets for its growing industries. In other words, China as a state [2] recognizes the same economic necessities that Western countries have addressed for centuries, if not millennia.

Western states have refined, through centuries of experience and mistakes, the methods and practices for dealing with foreign countries that are used even now. China's methods for dealing with foreign lands are largely useless. It cannot rebuild a belt of vassal states - neighbors would bitterly resent China and turn against it. China then had to go to places where it traditionally had no foreign policy, for instance Africa and Latin America, without knowing well how to handle these people. In other words, the old foreign policy must be rejected, and there is no culture or experience for the new foreign policy.

It is a brave new world for China. And for the world, it is a brave new China.

Chinese theories about globalization
Military thought is an integral part of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Among the ancient classics, "military thinking" is present not only in Sunzi Bingfa's The Art of War, but also in the works of Mozi (470 BC ca - 391 BC), China's first really systematic philosopher and the first to mount opposition to the Confucian school.

Here we have three chapters on feigong (against offensive war), which explain why a state should not conduct offensive wars, but only defensive ones. Furthermore, in Mozi, we have fragments of technical chapters on the preparation of city defense, meaning that these philosophers were not only thinking about war, but preparing for it practically.

However, since the beginning of philosophical thought in China, war was not simply an episodic clash of arms or a parenthesis between the normal unfolding of politics and diplomacy, as Prussian Carl von Clausewitz would put it many centuries later. War was "a matter of life and death for the state", as Sunzi put it. In the military classics, there is an extended concept of war, which includes the overall state of preparation for war.

Shang Jun (Shang Yang) is the philosopher credited with helping to organize the Qin state (the state that eventually unified China in 221 BC) and inspiring Hanfei Zi, one of China's greatest thinkers. In Shang Jun's work, the author presents the organization of the tax system, the tilling of the land, and the military levy as a unified concept: they are all integral parts of state organization and military preparation.

In fact, war is the main function of the state. In Sima Fa, a volume on the philosophy of war compiled in the early Han Dynasty but reflecting previous ideas, the author begins by addressing the matter of the benevolence of the Son of Heaven. That is to say, that a good government or benevolent ruler is the necessary basis for waging a good war. He creates a system that citizens are ultimately willing to defend with their own lives. And a good government guarantees a good life for the families of those who die on the battlefield.

War in total is a concept that comprises what goes before and comes after the actual clash of arms. We can see the same attention to war in modern thinkers like Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in Chaoxian zhan, (War Without Restrictions), or asymmetrical war. Here the two authors explain that war is political thought: strategy that goes beyond the use of weapons and tactics in the battlefield. This reasoning is echoed by Italian author and general Fabio Mini's La Guerra dopo la Guerra ("The war after the war"), in which he explains that one must not wage war without first considering the sort of peace one wants to achieve. These ideas also appear in Mao Zedong's thought, which deals with the issues of social contradictions and guerrilla warfare.

Seen through this lens, war - the conflict and competition of states - is larger than the shooting between soldiers. There is reason to argue that states are always at war. But by the same token, with respect to the Chinese principle of yin and yang, one can also argue that states can be always at peace, that actual clashes and bloodshed can always be avoided or minimized. In other words, if war is constantly being waged in many ways, then one can try to curb the wars in which millions die. Wars can be "waged" in the form of cold or soft wars, as American Joseph Nye would have it in his international relations theory neo-liberalism.

To resolve conflicts without bloodshed, communication is crucial. But even the understanding created by open channels of communication would still require, if not an impossibly unified world view, then a "lingua franca" of ideas.

This is, in a nutshell, the idea put forward by Zhao Tingyang in Tianxia Tixi (The System of All under Heaven): it is necessary for the world to have a common tianxia (all under Heaven) view. Tianxia is not precisely a shared culture so much as a shared sensibility; it is a common understanding that we all live in the same world, and we need to have some kind of tolerance of each other's ideas. It is different from the concept of empire.

Generally speaking, states and statesmen have differing worldviews. For instance, during the Cold War and World War II, states embodied strong ideologies, which compelled their people to fight for them. Or, in the case of World War I, warring states were motivated not by ideologies but by opposing national interests, and in the case of the citizens, by nationalism itself.

What is the situation now? Are we witnessing clashes of ideologies, worldviews and civilizations? Can war be avoided? Here we need not be delusional: war has been with us for millennia and will accompany us into the future. But a common tianxia would help smooth over conflicts and avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that lead to war. It could lead to agreements such as the ones that forbid the bombing of hospitals during wartime, or like the Geneva Conventions.

What would be the content of a tianxia system? We can sketch the minimal requirements: market economies and freedom of enterprise. These elements, though not implying deeply shared values, make it possible for goods to travel form one side of the world to the other every day. Russia has it to a certain extent. Other groups, such as radical Islamic movements or old-fashioned communist movements such as the new Red Brigades in Italy, appear to reject the concept of a common market.

Chinese tradition could ameliorate the present difficulties in the world. In ancient times, China was not "China" for the people living there; it was "all there is under Heaven". The rest, what was not part of the Chinese world, was simply not under heaven and beyond the sphere of this world. The West's encroachment has helped to form a new identity: that of China. This, in turn, has created a new relationship of the "Chinese" people with the rest of world.

However, the ancient sense of history lingers, creating new challenges as China is driven to become the largest economy in the world or to expand the scope of "all under Heaven".

During China's imperial past, order (zhi) was easy to understand.

It entailed the concept of peace, with all things in their appointed places. Disorder (luan) was chaos, disaster and death. Merchants and other businessmen began, over time, to cause luan. The price of their goods would change with time and place. Businessmen could become richer than the local mandarin and jeopardize the order of a society in which the official was supposed to be the richest and most powerful. But businessmen were a small necessary evil - containable, but impossible to eradicate - like secret societies or small-scale peasant uprisings.

But business is different in modern society and in modern China. If business itself becomes an integral part of peace, encouraged as the driving force of development, and military might leads to greater stability for China in the international arena, then how can order and peace be said to exist at all? What kind of order and peace can be expected in a place of constant and growing business? How can we square this situation with the Chinese historical preference of zhi over luan?

In a world in which wars are minimized and pushed to the periphery, war becomes a form of large-scale policing. This new perception radically changes the idea of war. In conflicts such as World War I, the lines between peace and war were clearly demarcated. If war becomes a matter of policing rogues and criminals, then one is always at war, because there will always be criminals. For these matters, a different international framework is needed. The traditional United Nations will simply not work, as it is not working now. Yet, it is not clear what new structure should be established.

Similarly, if luan is an integral part of a new order that includes international business, we need a new political structure to manage this society, a structure that is different from the imperial past. Here things are somewhat easier: experience in the West has proven that democracy has been effective in preserving a large degree of order and stability while still encouraging economic growth. In China, there are many students of Karl Marx, who fervently believe that economics and politics go hand-in-hand.

Simply stated, if China wants to manage the turbo-capitalism it has ignited, it will need a major political change. What the future will be is certainly not clear, but some form of democratization might be unavoidable.

Culture reorganized
All of these changes clearly mean that China's whole cultural universe is being shaken up and reorganized. This started at the end of the 19th century with the massive arrival and translation of Western knowledge from the original languages or from Japanese translations [3].

At that point, the traditional organization and categorization of knowledge - dating to Sima Qian (ca 145-90 BC) and his first historic account in the Shiji ("historic records") of philosophers and literature before the Han empire - fell apart. That is, 2,000 years of tradition had to be reshuffled and re-systematized.

The study, for instance, of what were previously considered the "classics" (jing), "masters" (zi), and "historical records" (shi) had to be relabeled under the new code words coming from the Japanese: "philosophy" (zhexue), "historiography" (shixue and "literature" (wenxue). What's more, as Ge Zhaoguang put it:

It was as if what the past, which could not just simply be called the study of classics, masters, or historical records, could not longer hold the old grand unity. The study of the words and language of the classics became an independent subject, and it was granted the honorific title of "science" [another new, imported word] and other contents of the written legacy started going into historiography, philosophy, or literature, as if the wholly body of the classics was ripped apart in the execution by five horses tearing the limbs of a cadaver. The study of the masters followed the same destiny ripped apart into philosophy, ethics, logic, and even physics or chemistry. [4]

It is hard to fathom the depth of the change and the seismic waves that rippled through society and individual psychology. The colorful and passionate language used by Ge (born in Shanghai 1950, over one century after the first Opium War) reveals that this change still touches the very soul of the Chinese people, even now when libraries, mass media and education from primary schools have been following the new Western classification for about a century.

When reading the classics, the scholar still feels the holistic soul of the ancient Chinese world seeping through the pages. This vision, for instance, of the Yijing (The Classic of the Changes, also found transliterated as yi king or written as "I Ching") is almost impossible to ignore, whether or not one believes in the prophetic powers of the book.

Its language and way of thinking have pervaded centuries of cultural tradition and still pop up in proverbs. Its way of approaching problems, handling situations and considering issues resonates with truth in the soul of the Chinese reader. This truth is impossible to dismiss, as it would be for us to dismiss the Greek and Roman tradition. Even Christianity had to digest Greek and Roman culture to conquer the souls of that world, and Islam did so with Greek culture when it stretched into the then Hellenistic lands of Asia Minor or North Africa.

Then, we have a series of massive cultural problems. The Chinese have reclassified their cultural world according to Western criteria and are still digesting the problems and trying to find way to reconcile the old with the new - a process that will take centuries. Buddhism took half a millennium to be completely assimilated, and back then the pre-existing Chinese culture was not as complex as the culture now embracing the Western world. [5]

Now, it is clear to all Chinese that Western culture is the root of wealth, success, development and political survival - it is the essence of modernity. When China embraced Western culture, as it has been doing since Deng Xiaoping's times (de facto leader from 1978 to the early 1990s), it began growing; when it had closed down, as it had under Mao in the decades after 1949, China sank into defeat, utter poverty and political collapse.

So, there is only one road to modernity and success - Westernification. And the shorthand for Westernification is America. For this reason, over 200 million Chinese people are studying English (the results are often poor, but that is a different issue), and English is now being taught in primary schools. Meanwhile, their souls are torn between East and West, between old and new, and uncertain to which they should pledge allegiance. They are hoping that there is a way to have them both.

In the end the result will be that, as Chinese residents in the many Chinatowns of the world are showing, they will have both, one way or another. This is apparent also in the cultural language, which still uses old sayings like "ming zheng yan shun" ("when names are right speech is consequential"), drawn from the Analects of Confucius but also from "Pandora Box", a Greek myth.

This will create another problem, this one for us as Westerners. Since the Romans assimilated Greek culture in the 3rd century BC, the Western world has never met a massive cultural challenge. Even in colonial times, other cultures were dismissively branded as inferior and were never the object of wholesale incorporation, as the Romans did with the Greeks.

There has been piecemeal curiosity and interest, such as being incorporated into the conferences of geographic societies, carried out with great erudition and the careful "scientific" dissection of foreign texts - as if they were insects. But that was it.

However, China's economic and political growth is leading the growth of all of Asia, and there could be a time in the not too distant future when the economic and political might of Asia - or even just that of China - could be as great or even greater than that of the entire West. The West will then have to try to come to grips with the newly Westernized Chinese culture. This will shake Western culture to its roots and its soul, perhaps as it has shaken the Chinese culture.

We might remember that we were already Sinicized at one point in the 17th and 18th centuries, when China appeared to the West as a model for development. Europe was coming out of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, and hyper-Catholic Jesuits provided inspiration to both camps with translations of Chinese classics and accounts of Chinese culture. Their work stirred massive changes in the West, in fields ranging from mathematics (German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz - 1646 to 1716 - invented the binary numbers inspired by the diagrams of the Yijing) to politics, the civil service and the idea of officials being promoted on grounds of merit, not birth). It's possible that even the idea of the abolition of monarchy through a popular revolution was inspired by Chinese ideas.

It might be helpful to remind the Chinese that the West they are conversing with was already Sinicized, in a way - some of the modern concepts they are adopting are remodeled versions of Chinese ideas. Conversely, the West, which could face a massive "Sinification", should remember that it was already Sinicized in the past, and that the present and future China is largely Westernized.

This Westernification is not just in the heads of a handful of pundits, it is also in everyday life, as those who have been to China have seen. The changes hit the sentiments and the basic feelings of the people. There are several examples.

Language changes
In the past century, China saw dramatic changes in the language, which is the one element that more than any other "made" and unified China. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of language in the making of Chinese civilization. Western civilization recognizes itself through a body of "literary lore" that has been translated from language to language, moving from Greek to Latin to national European languages. At each passage, the lore may be slightly adapted.

However, there are remaining monuments that hold present Westerners "accountable" to their past. These monuments, scattered all over Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, prove the continuity of the past into the present and impose architectural canons that can be reproduced in modern cities. The works give modern Westerners established ways to organize cities, their lives and even space or the concrete relationship between humans and nature.

In other words, even without the same language, even forgetting the body of classic literature, the columns and the domes of Washington DC's buildings make known to the passerby the uninterrupted continuity between the United States and the SPQR (Senatus Populus Que Romanus - The Senate and the People of Rome).

But China's evolution was different. Each dynasty made a point of tearing down all the buildings of the former masters to erect new ones. This was possible because of the greater wealth in China compared to Europe after the demise of the Roman Empire. Even in rich renaissance Rome, the popes extracted the marble for their palaces from ancient Roman relics - it was cheaper to dig stone from the Coliseum than from mountains in Carrara.

China does not seem to have had this problem and has many times chopped down entire forests to construct splendid residences for its princes. Continuity was guaranteed by a rich body of literary works. Those works were passed down through a strict education system geared to producing the best administrators for the state. The hope of social advancement or preservation pushed all Chinese to try their lot with education. Therefore, even if they failed the harsh exams, everyone deeply absorbed the tradition and language. There was no advantage in illiteracy: government acts were written down all the way to the emperor who had to read and vet them.

Language did not play the same role in the West, where the tradition since Alexander and Caesar was for great political leaders to be great generals earning their power with the sword. True, the West recognized that the pen was mightier than the sword (calamus gladio fortiori), but there were many illiterate kings in the Middle Ages who were assisted in matters of state by learned clerics. The Roman Empire was defeated by barbarians, highly literary Greece was won by semi-barbaric Macedonians, and less-developed Romans conquered sophisticated Hellenic kingdoms.

Chinese kings were masters of conspiracy and political plotting. They were devisers of strategies; they read extensively and were imbued with the Chinese literary tradition - but they were not fighting generals. Even Mao, famous for his interest in military strategy, left the actual command of operations to Zhu De and others.

Ideal generals were thinkers: bookworms willing to lend their literary talents to the battlefield. They were people like 14th century Luo Guanzhong's character Zhuge Liang in Romance of Three Kingdoms, a wise and knowledgeable schemer. Zhuge had read all the Chinese books and thus could assess the psychology of his enemy (born out of the same cultural tradition) and devise a strategy fit to defeat him. In this tradition, the continuity of physical monuments was not important; what counted was the language.

In the West, language was not unity. The Roman Empire was bilingual, with Latin and Greek. The division carried on in the Middle Ages, when the kingdoms were also bilingual, using Latin for their official business and local languages for everyday life. Unity in the political body was created by the idea of blood contiguity among one "people: - the bond of belonging to the same "ethnos" - at least among the top echelons. This was true of the people of the Akropolis, of the Senate, or of the Germanic aristocratic warriors of the Holy Roman Empire.

In China, unity came through the use of the same language, which carried a tradition and a system of education. Whoever could master the language and education was part of the "Chinese" polity, irrespective of ethnic origin. Thus, language was far more important than in the West. Furthermore, the largely ideographic written language was a fantastic instrument for keeping unity among people speaking very different natural languages.

Chinese characters, largely indifferent to pronunciation, could be used in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, southern China and northern China. People could keep their dialects and still understand each other. Written languages reflecting pronunciation, like Latin, faced considerable problems in adapting the written form once the oral form changed, as occurred in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Chinese language, conversely, could move along the centuries with only minimal change. And so did it, until the 19th century.

Early on, in the first centuries AD, a difference developed between literary Chinese (wen yan) and "colloquial language" (bai hua). The differences between the two, though quite important, are minimal compared with changes that occurred in the 19th century. Facing the massive inflow of foreign texts and the resulting adaptations in thinking, China changed its language. It introduced Western-style punctuation, including the previously unknown practice of dividing text into paragraphs. Syntax, trying to mirror convoluted Western thinking, became more complicated, a change that was possible thanks to a new system of punctuation, which made clear the structure of the sentence.

Other major changes soon followed. The binding of many books and magazines abolished the old order of writing first from top to bottom and then from right to left. China began to adopt the Western style, writing first from left to right and then from top to bottom. Furthermore, matching Western attempts to create standardized pronunciation, China developed various systems of sound transliteration for the characters. (This also meant having to teach adults Chinese from scratch.)

There are, for instance, the Bopomofo method (adapted from the Japanese hiragana and still used in Taiwan) and the pinyin system (which uses the Latin alphabet and has been adopted in the mainland). These systems froze the official pronunciation, preferring one elocution over another for the first time. It also officially divided the country into different dialects and accents. Before the standardization of pronunciation, it was perfectly legitimate for scholars to express themselves in dialect.

Even Mao, who promoted the standardization of pronunciation, spoke unashamedly with a very heavy Hunan accent. Radio and television have since contributed to unifying Chinese pronunciation, but important differences persist without much attention. In contrast, in many Western countries, proper diction is very important, and people speaking with a vulgar, base accent are reviled.

In his drive for reforms, Mao went even further, going to the very heart of his culture, the Chinese characters. After playing with the idea of using Latin script for Chinese, he gave the green light to a widespread simplification of the Chinese script. The break was so significant that for decades Chinese intellectuals outside of China pointed at simplified characters as evidence of Mao's total betrayal of Chinese tradition.

Even old texts are being reprinted with modern punctuation and paragraphs that, for many reasons, are not totally faithfully to the originals but are a partial "translation", Expanding on Ge Zhaoguang's feelings, we can say that this change to the language was like putting the parts of an executed body in a meat grinder.

The result is a totally different world. Yet, many things persist. In recent years, China has seen a surge in long TV series that have a narrative process similar to classic novels like Shuihu zhuan ("Outlaws of the Marsh," written in the 14th century by Shi Nai'an). Here, the story advances without a plot that leads to a cathartic moment of solution [6], a definitive end, as you find in Western novels, Greek tragedies and products of the modern film industry. These TV series can spawn new episodes forever without an ending, but always projecting into an open future, like human history.

It is a storytelling structure resembling Shuihu zhuan, with chapters that end while opening to the next development, and not like American TV programs, in which each episode is self-contained and self-concluded. It is as if the thing coming out of the meat grinder still remembers the original body. But what is this thing?

Tall belvederes and towers for the observation of enemies, hunting or religious purposes (like Buddhist stupas) have an ancient tradition in China. Yet, houses and living quarters were flat, rising two or three stores at most and ideally protected by surrounding walls. No house could be higher than that of the local mandarin or the residence of the emperor. Since ancient times, tall towers were considered extravagant and therefore restricted. The prohibition against buildings taller than those of officials reinforced this idea.

Even as late as the early 1990s, Chinese cities were flat. Beijing was an endless sprawl of houses, with the tips of a few old Song-dynasty stupas spiking the horizon here and there, as if only Buddha and his holy men could reach for the sky. A decade later, the skyline of Beijing - and of every Chinese city and even villages - has dramatically changed. Everyone is allowed to put up his own stupa or hunting tower. Skyscrapers have rapidly become a common feature in China, as if anybody can be higher than the officials or the emperor, anybody can be a Buddha, a holy man!

The philosopher Liezi in the 3rd century BC wrote:

The towers and belvederes built upon their heights were all made of gold and jade, the birds and beasts living there were all spotlessly white. Trees of pearl and coral bore thick masses of flowers; their fruit was delicious to the taste, and those who are thereof knew neither old age nor death. The inhabitants all belonged to the race of demi-gods and immortals, and in countless numbers they would fly across to meet one another within the space of a single day or night. [7]

In this case, the Western model played a strange trick with the backdrop of Chinese traditional culture. The West opened the floodgates of ambitions and desires stifled for thousands of years: reaching for the sky, something formerly possible only to immortals.

Now, literally, golden towers made of Italian marble, crowded with imposing "roman pillars" and guarded by monumental stone beasts - lions larger than mythical dragons - dot every city. Anybody can have an apartment in these immortals' abodes, if he can afford it. And even if he cannot afford it, he can still live in a more modest apartment block that stretches quite a few meters above the ground.

The psychological change is immense.

In the West, tall buildings were traditionally for poor people. In ancient Rome, there was a prohibition against building what we now call apartment blocks that were higher than seven stories. There were many cases of tall buildings that caved in or collapsed. In buildings, plebeians would lead crowded lives, while patrician senators and generals enjoyed the luxury of one-story villas with gardens.

The pattern was followed in future centuries in the West: the poor had small badly built homes where families would live dangerously on top of each other, and the rich had large estates. The issue was resolved with the invention of steel and concrete technology, allowing the safe construction of towers hundreds of meters high. This made it possible for people with lower incomes to have good, although cheap, houses. It also made it attractive for rich people to live in apartments, which could be as luxurious as villas. Essentially, this created a real sense of middle class with people living in the same neighborhood, maybe in the same apartment block, in apartments not too different from one another, despite large differences in income.

In other words, towers in the West had a leveling effect, cutting extreme differences and making everybody normal. In China, towers made everybody special and everybody immortal. One could say that in the end the result is the same: everybody is equal. But actually, it is not an identical result - it is very different.

In the West, towers humble the ambitions of everyone. In China, they stir up aspirations. In a way, towers in China are similar to suburban houses in the West. The houses may remind the inhabitants of the old villas, and it is like everybody has a villa, so everybody is well-off.

Being immortal is about being well-off, but it is more - it is also about being beyond any control, satisfied, happy and unrestrained. But the apartments are modern and imported from the West with the philosophy of the middle class still stuck to it.

Will the Chinese living in modern apartment blocks become more like suburban Americans, people living in Manhattan apartments, or the immortals of their ancestors' dreams?

Meanwhile, the traditional culture of flat houses has been bulldozed away. Most ancient cities, dating to early Qing times, have been demolished to make room for new towers. Curiously, the Chinese have preserved former colonial Western buildings - the houses of the British, French, Americans and even Italians - but not the houses of the Chinese. It looks as if, despite the official anti-colonial rhetoric, to modern China, the Chinese legacy is less important than Western contacts.

Dresses and Chineseness
In India, a country that was under the foreign thumb for three centuries and an outright colony of the British, men and women pride themselves on their own dresses and clothes. Men sometimes wear a suit and tie, but not all the time.

In Africa, a continent partitioned by European invaders, men and women wear their traditional clothes, and even when they don't, they often have suits with bright colors reminiscent of their original taste for vivid tints. Even in Japan, a place that chose to modernize and Westernize to avoid colonization, although men have rigidly taken on the standard European three-piece suit, women still wear the traditional kimono for important occasions.

In China, a country that was never a colony, traditional dresses have just disappeared. Before Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, men used to wear a Western-style military uniform, and women would put on Western dresses or gowns inspired by the traditional Manchu women's dress, the qipao. But after World War II, even those women's dresses were forfeited. In China, women were encouraged to dress like men, with slacks and jackets covering their femininity, while men stuck to "Lenin suits".

With the reforms, men started wearing ties and suits, and women regained access to gowns and dresses. But traditional dress had disappeared. In the late 1990s, Hong Kong fashion designer David Tang invented a new line of products that adapted traditional Chinese designs to modern circumstances. But it has never become a fashion trend, because both Chinese and foreigners feel awkward wearing clothes that make them stand out in a crowd.

Conversely, peasants coming to work in cities proudly buy new suits and wear them to the construction site - without even taking the tag off the sleeve. Qipao, meanwhile, are just a curiosity found attractive mostly by Caucasian women.

Dresses are not superficial. They are complex statements that affirm identity, aspiration and integration into a group. No 1960s rebel would go to an antiwar demonstration in a suit, a tie, short hair and a bowler hat. Now, sporting long hair and jeans in a high-tech company means freedom and innovation, a look that is contrary to the suits and ties of Wall Street traders. Meanwhile, the orderly suits on Wall Street signify reliability.

Just looking at appearances, we see that Chinese people have forsaken their past and do not feel at ease going back to it. They want to become Westerners even more than the Japanese because they do not have a mother or a wife in a kimono reminding them of their origin from the mythical goddess Amataratsu, mother of the nation.

It is a superficial statement, but the Chinese believe that everything is on the surface. Everything about our characters and destinies is written on our faces. According to traditional shouxiang (reading of the face), a crease on the cheek or around the eyes reveals an aspiration and fate. But all that is unintentional. The intentional choice of dress is even more important and revealing because it is done to achieve a goal: to appear in a certain way for the purpose of looking Western and modern.

This abandonment of old "Chineseness" can be very Chinese. The concept and word for nation and nationalism (minzu zhuyi) came from the West. This is strong evidence that we are facing a very different concept of "nation" when we speak to Chinese people.

Even the names Chinese use for themselves are not consistent. They call themselves huaren, an old term meaning "civilized people". The term implies that those who can speak "Chinese" and behave "Chinese" are "Chinese". That is, they are "civilized people" (huaren), regardless of blood origin. The only other example we can find of this concept and attitude is in America, with its policy of integration of all immigrants.

However, that was an old concept, and it different from that of Zhongguo ren, the people of Zhongguo (the "Middle Kingdom"). This term is geographical, implying all people who in live in China, including Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols.

In China, the idea of an unparalleled civilization was so strong that it divided the world in civilized (hua) and uncivilized (yi). This vision came to an end with the maps of Italian Jusuit priest Matteo Ricci ( 1552-1610), which showed for the first time that China was not the whole world, that it was not even a great part of the world (tianxia), and that it was not the only civilization in the world.

The people who drew those maps belonged to a world that could justifiably claim to be a civilization on China's level On those maps, the Jesuits called the land, which was only one part of the whole world (tianxia), "Zhongguo".

The term was recovered from 2,000 years before, a move that significantly indicated that the states in the central plain hold the most ancient and truest form of civilization vis-a-vis the newcomers. Qin, Chu, Qi and other states sat on the rim of the central plains. Ricci also reshaped the Western world map, putting "Zhongguo" in the middle to make up for the downsizing of its dimension, a change that had hit at the country's pride and vision of itself in the world.

Curiously, this massive cultural shock for the elite, as Ge Zhaoguang points out, coincided with the Manchu invasion. The invasion also marked the arrival of a foreign domination that tried to adapt to Chinese customs and made extensive use of Chinese officials, but that also kept its own distinctive characteristics.

It is important to consider that, according to Chinese tradition, the Manchu Qing Dynasty came to power without usurping the existing power but by filling the void left from the failings of the previous Ming Dynasty. It was an ideological campaign of legitimization, which was as important for holding on to power as was the military conquest. It came at a time in the 17th century when the political-military power of kings in Europe was reshaping their relationship with the religious-ideological power of the church. Military and ideology, conversely, would remain the two levers of political power in China, a country in which, although the military remains the power of last resort, ideology commands military, and not vice versa.

There are also the Chinese abroad, who call their Chinatowns tangren jie, the streets of the Tang (another dynasty) people. This is a curious phenomenon, since the Tang ruled China from the 7th century AD, and they were partly foreigners - their aristocracy was of Turkic origin, from the Tujue people living in Central Asia.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the idea of han ren, the people of Han (a weird idea - a nation named after a dynasty, as if the British were to call themselves the Windsors, or the Americans the Washingtons, or the Italians the Caesars). This nationalist notion was invented and used before World War II to stress the idea of a national war against foreigners, be it the Manchu Dynasty, the invading Japanese, or Western colonialists.

Countering the idea of a grand Han nationalism and of other people living in the "Zhongguo", the communists adopted the Soviet strategy of recognizing ethnic minorities and granting them special status. This has created strange minorities like the "Hui", who are no different from the Han, except in their religious beliefs - they are Muslim. Should Christians and Catholics be granted the same status? Or should the idea of the Hui and the system of ethnic minorities be abolished? What would then happen to restive minorities who are uncomfortable with Han dominance, such as the Tibetans or the Uyghurs?

There cannot be just a piecemeal approach for China. China needs a broader set of values with which to think of itself and the world. These new values are currently non-existent. The Chinese economy has developed so far not because of a particular model, but because Chinese individuals are good at doing business and the government has not hindered this trend.

But management of the new wealth, the new world and the new developments needs a new set of values. Ethics must go beyond the popular salutation gonxi facai ("wish you strike rich") offered at Chinese New Year celebrations. Laws, though important, are the minimal level of social contract - normal personal and social intercourse must find a course well above the minimal legal restriction, rather than just bordering illegality.

China is now in the middle of a lot of things and can go many ways. The issue for the next 20 years or so should be how to "groom" them - living with us Westerners and us living with them. This, more than anything, will determine our common fate.


1. For an extensive treatment of the issue, see the first chapters of Feng Youlan's History of Chinese Philosophy (rev ed, 1952?53).
2. For centuries there were Chinese traders in Southeast Asia, or migrants to America, but their activities were of no concern to the Chinese state.
3. The following argument is largely drawn from Ge Zhaoguang's Zhongguo sixiang shi ("History of Chinese thought"). Shanghai, 2001, Vol 2, pp. 466-476.
4. Ge Zhaoguang, op cit, p 476.
5. One could argue that present advanced communications tools, including mass media and the Internet, can make contact easier and more widespread, thus shortening the time of assimilation. But challenging assimilation, there is the huge difference between Chinese and Western culture, a gap wider than the one that in Buddhist times divided Chinese and Indian tradition.
6. For these concepts, I am indebted to discussions with Dr Andrew Lo of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
7. Translation by Lionel Giles, A Gallery of Chinese Immortals (
8. For a detailed discussion of the subject, see Ge Zhaoguang's Zhongguo sixiang shi ("History of Chinese thought"). Shanghai, 2001, Vol 2, pp 360-412. (2008-07-04 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary