December 13, 2006

The Cosmopolitans of Medieval China

Rightly there is a good post over here which points out that China has always been a cosmopolitan and open place- many of the links on the Asian history carnival I posted yesterday would back that up. The author at Granite Studio provides some good evidence of Chinese openness and the way that would indicate that China has never been this hermetically sealed place that people imagine it to be- the interesting thing is how more and more historical research posits that we have more in common than we have as differences. As we discover more about the ancient and medieval world, we discover more links binding civilisations together.

We can use civilisations to explain each other. That the Fall of Rome which I referred to in my last post was not inevitable is proved by the fact that a similar empire survived similar pressures in the East- China maybe was more lucky than Rome was but its example proves that Rome might have survived. Equally China has for years as in Erik Ringmar's work on giraffes- see the Asian Carnival below- formed an interesting comparitor for European development. Recent studies of Chinese modernisation have argued convincingly that Chinese intellectuals as far back as the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) looked to Europe. European intellectuals in the eighteenth century also looked to China and more and more will in the future look to China.

The world of Samuel Huntington with the inevitable conflict of civilisations was described by Bernard Henri-Levy on Radio 4 as really rather stupid and actually rather disgusting recently- seldom has a judgement been more appropriately true than Henri-Levy's on Huntington and the Granite Journal makes that clear in his post on Chinese openness.


Ellee said...

I take my hat off to your eruditeness. How many other Cambridge scholars are blogging, btw? I am sure they would love to join in the conversation if they knew about your site.

花崗齋之愚公 said...

One of the more interesting aspects of Sino-European contact during the Qing is the way the "idea" of China shifted in the minds of Europeans. Voltaire and other European humanists at first loved the idea of China: the rational, secular, empire. As more and more Europeans went to China (and as European demands for trade and diplomatic contact on European terms grew) this optimistic view of China faded. In its place arose a new vision of China in the 19th century as a decadent and decayed empire.

A parallel shift occurred in the minds of Americans in the 20th century, from "our ally against Japan" to lamentations over "who lost China?" in 1949 (Was it ever ours to lose?) to becoming part of the Communist 'monolith' of the 1950s. (Yeesh!)

I like your example with Rome. It's a little counter-historical, but I often ask my students to ponder why both the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire "fell" under similar circumstances (internal dynamics, new foreign religion, the rise of 'barbarian' tribes) but unlike Europe, China eventually reformed under the Tang. The situations were far from parallel, but the similarities make it an interesting undergraduate seminar (or graduate students in the pub) question.

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree with you about the Chinese and the eighteenth century- it always strikes me that there are two strands of that if you like one the industrialisation in Europe which obviously changed relations and two the attitude of missionaries to China, personally I wonder about the change in focus from missionaries. If you look at the early missionaries to China they aimed at the court whereas later missions aimed at the common people- and hence met with more robust resistance. I wonder though I don't know if images of "Chinese atrocities" against missionaries helped erode a positive image of China- I don't know I'm just wildly speculating.

Personally I love the comparison to Rome- though you're right its completely ahistorical and there are all sorts of reasons for saying its wrong but there is something there- my old now sadly dead tutor at Oxford Patrick Wormald once inviting us to see that Rome's decline wasn't inevitable said to us that the other major ancient empire at the other end of the Eurasian land mass had survived to the present day.

The simularities are fascinating. Though the differences are as well- the geographic fact that Rome was an empire basically over the hinterland of the meditereanean coast whereas China's empire was land and river based- which you would expect makes China more difficult to govern though I don't really know.

Thanks for the response really interesting.

Ellee thanks for the compliment- no I don't know any Cambridge people blogging- I had mates last year who I knew blogged but not since then- if any are passing through I'd love the links- I often wonder why the university doesn't set up links to all its staff that blog, afterall its another set of "intellectual production", basically public engagement but I think academia has yet to catch on to the way that this is publishing and in a sense the way its an engagement which allows you to be much more responsive than say Starkey or Schama on their programs- you've set me off though, and I may well write about that. But if you know of any direct them to me- and I hope to come across people, I do know academics Erik Ringmar is one, the previous commenter another who blog so there are people out there.


CityUnslicker said...

I think a fundamental change has occured in China thought which has ended its years of cultural dominance.

China today is apes the West and western culture as superior to its own. Some of my travels there have led me to this conclusion. I have no doubt that the ways of the west will be bent and altered in future and perhaps re-exported one day in new forms. however, the europeanisation of the country started in the 19th century has resulted in a paradigm shift.

That the government seeks to control this, rather than resist, provides good evidence. Communism itself was a European reaction to a European cultural and economic invasion.

Excellent post though, thanks.

Gracchi said...

Cityunslicker- you push to me to dangerous ground. There is some historical work, unfortunately not directly at my hands at the moment, that argues that what China went through was the attempt to apply some 'western' solutions to problems visible all along. One problem that for instance confronted all modern Chinese government was the interrelation between teh government in Beijing and the peasant and the difficulty of middlemen and tax farmers and the rest- met in part by collectivisation. So I agree with you in part but I think lots of these reforms had a chinese face to them. I say that tentatively because I want to know more before asserting it.

I agree with you about the re-export and even export of Chinese culture to the West- the fact that I attempt to cook Chinese dishes every so often (and fail) shows that that is a process which continues.

花崗齋之愚公 said...


I doubt too that China will 'dominate' the world per se, but I don't think it unlikely that it will reemerge as 'pole' in a multi-polar global order.

As for "aping the West," I think the extent to which the Chinese are 'europeanized' (and I'm not sure what this even means) may be a bit overstated. Remember that Mao and other early 20th century CCP members pretty much had reinvent Marxism (if not in fact stand old Marx on his head) for it to fit in China. Marx had no time for peasants, it was the workers who were to be the revolutionaries.

That said, there is a theory that one of the attractions of Marxism in the first place was that it was a scientific/modern theoretical explanation for China's problems that was NOT European. Russia, from which most CCP members came to know Marxism, has always occupied an interesting place in the Chinese worldview as not Asian but not Western either.

To follow on my earlier question, what is the definition of "europeanized?"

Gracchi said...

Its interesting because also I wonder how much the structures of the West were sinified if you like. The fact that for example the British civil service looked to China as a model for disinterested bureacrats working in a career civil service based on merit is interesting. I always wonder how much a region, any region or country for that matter, owns an idea- it seems to me that one of the ways that historiography has evolved has been to argue that all ideas are mongrel- they owe their formation to many different sources. My own view is that Europeanisation isn't a good way of describing what's happening- rather mongrelisation makes more sense and I think that process has been going on in both directions for many years.