Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Decline of the East

The Chinese emperors believed themselves to be ruling "all under heaven", with the entire universe being deemed a barbarian periphery of China. At different periods in history, Chinese political and cultural influence stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to Japan in the east and from Siberia in the north to Indonesia in the south.
From the earliest times, Chinese emperors aspired to extend their dominions to the farthest west. In the late 1st century AD, Chinese general Ban Chao crossed the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains while pursuing the Xiongnu (Huns) and concluded an alliance with Parthian king Pacorus II. The Chinese army established forts within a few days' march from the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. In 116, Chinese border garrisons were within one day's march from an army headed by Roman Emperor Trajan advancing through Parthia. China was now on the doorstep of Europe but the landmark rendezvous between the West and the East never took place.
With Western Europe plunging into the Middle Ages and the Arabs submitting to barbarian fanaticism, in the mid-2nd millennium AD China seemed to be the world's most powerful and technologically advanced country. Beijing was the world's largest city. China could boast the world's biggest canal and the world's largest wall. The Chinese had invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing, hot air balloons, rockets, kites, the blast furnace and the seismometer. They also had armillary spheres, extremely sophisticated clocks, automata (what one might call proto-robots) and the world's most terrible firearms.
In 1405-1433, China ushered in an unprecedented age of discovery and had apparent designs to conquer the world. Admiral Zheng He led a 30-strong fleet of the largest wooden ships ever built in human history in a journey to the Western Ocean and beyond - where the sun set. His gigantic ships, compared to which European caravels were small rafts, awed the entire Indian Ocean's coastline into submission. He even fought a land war in Ceylon and captured the local king. Zheng He paid visits to East Africa, Arabia, India and the Malay Archipelago. There is also a hypothesis (albeit a dubious one) that he discovered Antarctica, Australia and America.
China was truly on top of the world. It seemed it was on the verge of becoming the predominant political, economic and cultural superpower. But…
By 1860, China's political sway was diminished to such an extent that Anglo-French forces entered the Forbidden City, the residence of the emperors of the world, without much ado. Subsequently the country that had once aspired to be the center of the civilized world became a semi-colony. By the mid-20th century, China degraded to a bachanalia of primitive rustics intoxicated with blood and destroying the rare remnants both of their own and Western civilization in what they termed the Cultural Revolution.
The most fundamental reason of such a downfall is the fact that China lacked the two main engines of social progress - philosophy and science. Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and Legalism were not schools of philosophy in the proper sense but rather quasi-religions and political and ethical traditions. They dealt neither with epistemology nor with ontology. Since they did not base their ethics on fundamental philosophic principles, these intellectual traditions can hardly be compared to Greek or even Indian philosophy. On the one hand, these schools leaned towards unsystematized collection of empirical data without a coherent analytic tool to guide them. On the other hand, they needed mysticism as a substitute for such a tool. This demonstrates the ancient false dichotomy of mysticism and radical empiricism (and its most extreme form, skepticism). The closest China got to philosophy were the Mohist school's attempts to formulate a logical theory and the post-Mohist School of Names (Ming Jia), which focused on juggling logical paradoxes and resembled the Greek Sophists. However, a logical system without a comprehensive ontological framework was destined to fail. Subsequently the Chinese became familiar with Indian logic (which was likely to be influenced by Greek logic) as a result of the introduction of Buddhism, but it was too little and too late.
Chinese science, like all science unfamiliar with Greek ideas, was not science in the modern sense. China has managed to amass a gigantic amount of empirical data due to its virtually unbroken civilizational tradition dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. This enabled the Chinese to achieve some notable results in applied science and technology. However, they lacked an Aristotelian metaphysics and its logical corollary, the scientific method (though not known to Aristotle himself, it was pioneered by Hellenistic scientists in the 3rd century BC and revived first during the Arabo-Persian Golden Age and then by Galileo and Newton in the modern era). Chinese scholars had to grope in the dark, having no way to analyze the amorphous body of empirical information they had accumulated. As opposed to technology and applied science, China has achieved almost nothing in fundamental science.
China's failure in philosophy ruined not only its scientific endeavors but also the political realm. Legalists interpreted law as synonymous with a despot's whims and advocated a totalitarian system. Taoists supported the other extreme - complete anarchy. Confucians wanted a compromise between these concepts and called for a society largely based on informal custom and status. None of the three systems has anything to do with the rule of law or negative liberty. Chinese history demonstrates a cycle of "legalist" despotic regimes regularly being overthrown by "Taoist" peasant uprisings and subsequently replaced by governments as despotic as the previous one. As usual, the desposts have flaunted China's illusory greatness by launching Herculean projects that, far from advancing civilization, ran the enthralled private producers and creators into the mud.
The meager intellectual potential that emerged was destroyed and not allowed to develop further after Qin Shihuang united the whole of China for the first time under his despotic rule in 221 BC. His “burning of books and burying of scholars” put an end to the flourishing “Hundred Schools of Thought.” Subsequent emperors were a bit more tolerant but the major schools (Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as elements of legalism) were merged into Neo-Confucianism, which became government-sanctioned orthodoxy. No vigorous intellectual activity remained.
Now, when China’s economic engine is charging ahead and it seems again to be on top of the world, some are claiming that China is set to replace the US as the economic and political superpower and the world will soon be sinicized. This, they assert, proves either the East’s cultural superiority or at least its equality with the West.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. The periods of China’s ascendancy have historically coincided with eras when the West declined. It is only by default that China rose to predominance. Now, when the Occident is in a shambles because it is abandoning the key Western values, the Orient is shamelessly borrowing the remnants of the West’s greatness and falsely claiming the mantle of reason and progress. Ironically, the Chinese communists unleashed the productive forces that had slept for millenia by appropriating Western capitalism and Western technology (though in a very limited form and without any knowledge of their fundamental aspects).
But an ignorant child (yes, despite China’s ancient history, culturally it is still a child who has never been able to mature) who takes the Promethean torch from a senile old man (perhaps soon to be a disintegrated corpse) is unlikely to understand its meaning. Having no knowledge of either philosophy or science, the child is still groping in the dark. This time, he has found a treasure. But it seems that a gigantic village with over a billion peasants led by a grotesque Marxist clique reluctantly yielding to capitalism due to pragmatic considerations is headed for a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

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