Saturday, 31 July 2010

The turning of the wheel

Some years ago I was involved in a two-day multi-cultural workshop, an introduction on things Chinese for an executive and his wife about to move to Shanghai. My job was to do a brief overview of Chinese history. This was something I particularly enjoyed because I knew practically no Chinese history from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, and none at all from earlier. So it became a splendid illustration of the Alexander Pope principle that a little learning is an immensely useful thing (I may have got that quotation wrong).

It turned out that you really can do a class by being one book ahead of your students.

What struck me most about the extremely superficial knowledge I gained of Chinese history was that it is profoundly cyclical. Again and again China would rise to peaks of peace and prosperity that were literally unrivalled: at different times, Nanjing or Beijing would be the world’s biggest city and China would be the world’s most populous nation. It achieved technological advance far beyond any other nation. Canal locks. The chest harness allowing horses to be used for far heavier work than in the West, where they were harnessed by the neck. Paper allowing learning to be spread throughout the nation. Printing, which would revolutionise our societies when it reached us, or gunpowder whose impact was even more dramatic.

And then China would be plunged back down the slippery slope. By the end of the Song dynasty, for instance, China had a population of 120 million when Britain had not reached three. Then the Mongols arrived and the invasions reduced the population to 60 million. This isn't decline, it's catastrophe.

Things went well for a while after that, with the Ming dynasty giving the country another age of power and prosperity. Sadly when decline came again, it coincided with Europe’s surprising irruption on the world scene as a great power economically and, since the things go together, militarily. The Europeans, though perfectly happy to stab each other in the back whenever possible, managed to work smoothly together to make China’s life pretty miserable throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth. Today, though, the country is clearly on another cyclical upswing and likely to overtake not just Europe but the continent’s upstart cousins across the Atlantic within a generation.

European history could hardly offer a starker contrast. Since the Renaissance, these nations have known almost constant progress in wealth and power. Yes, there have been setbacks. The thirty years War springs to mind, alongside various natural disasters and epidemics, to say nothing of convulsions such as the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. Since the twentieth century however, progress has been pretty steady, if we set aside annoying interruptions such as a particularly ugly world war. And, OK, yes, there was a second one a bit later. But apart from those jarring incidents, it’s been peace and prosperity all round, especially since we learned the American trick of fighting our wars in other people’s countries, which keeps our casualties down and our infrastructure intact.

All this has conspired to give Europeans a shared sense of sustained progress. Things have got better and better for so long that we see no reason for them not to go on getting better and better for a lot longer still.

Perhaps it’s time, though, that we learned to look at history the Chinese way a bit more. Nothing guarantees our continued progress for ever and ever. Right now, the nations of Europe seem far more intent on proclaiming their independence from each other than in making of the continent as a whole a force to reckon with in the world. As for the Americans, they seem to have fooled no-one more than themselves with their constantly repeated claim to be the ‘greatest nation on Earth’. This may have caused them to lose sight of the fact that it wasn’t always so and needn’t always be so in the future.

Maybe a cycle can be broken. If so, I think we need to set about being a lot more positive about doing it than we have so far. Perhaps use a little less energy. Perhaps wage a little less war. Perhaps ignore poverty a little less in the midst of obscene wealth.

Otherwise I think the wheel is turning and, while China rises, we may be forced to find out that cycles have troughs as well as peaks. The hard way.


Anonymous said...

Having watched Shanghai Tales on TV last month and seen the new capitalists at work (and play) I cab imagine how the trough will occur.

Anonymous said...

of course i didn't mean cab