Inside a museum in Changsha, Hunan Province in central China, visitors admire a silk painting unearthed from a Warring State Period tomb, on March 28, 2014 (XINHUA)
China and the West today once again find themselves at a crossroads of reciprocal understanding.
The spirit of classical civilization remains deeply embedded in modern-day civilization. America and Europe inherited the genes of the ancient Greek and Roman societies just as other regions have continued the traditions of their own ancestors. The difference in cultural gene pool more often than not guides countries and regions onto distinct paths of development.
Ancient civilizations and their destinies
The political order of modern European and American civilization at its core features a combination of ancient Greek and Roman political essentials, Christian beliefs, and industrial culture, with ancient Greece's society considered the most fundamental source of modern Western civilization. Likewise, the path contemporary China has carved out for itself is deeply rooted in the legacy of ancient Chinese civilization. This type of ancient Chinese society found stability during the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (202 B.C.- A.D. 220) dynasties, but an actual formative evolution had already occurred as early as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.)
China throughout the 5th to 3rd century B.C. faced a historical situation similar to that of ancient Greece. Both fell into times of social chaos and political turmoil caused by internal conflict, before eventually establishing a road to unification. In both countries, the positive force driving the move towards unification was not one with a kingdom at heart, but in fact proved one sprouting from a military power operating on the peripheries of society. Many of their intellectuals, too, committed to the cause of national consolidation and to that end produced numerous philosophical and political propositions.
Nevertheless, the drive for unification resulted in two rather different outcomes for both empires. The empire of Alexander the Great fell apart only seven years after the merging of ancient Greece, and its three successive kingdoms battled each other throughout the following century before being eventually annexed by the Roman Empire. The Qin State unified China by defeating the houses and forces of all surrounding states. Although the Qin Dynasty collapsed 14 years later, another unified empire, the Han Dynasty, emerged in its place. Subsequent rulers adopted and adapted the systems of both Qin and Han, a practice passed down for generations—spanning more than two millennia in time.
Beliefs and doubts
The different results of similar historical conditions can be credited to contrasting roots of civilization.
A general governance trend during ancient China's late Warring State Period combined a pattern of morals and ethics as advocated by Confucianism with punishments advocated by Legalism. "Unity" became the common political pursuit for rulers across all states. Yet with none willing to settle down as a mere local regime, all sought to unify the entire country. There was, in fact, no disagreement on whether the country should be unified, and the players competed against one another as to determine the final unifier. This obsession with "unity" became the most prominent characteristic of Chinese politicians for many a dynasty to come, with the same chain of events influencing ancient Chinese advisers and philosophers alike. Unearthed bamboo and silk documents from the Warring States Period verify the notion that, at that time "various schools of thought integrated with each other." The integration of those philosophical thoughts aimed to construct a "unified order." The Warring States Period became a melting pot of philosophical ideas. In this sense, the Qin State was not responsible for unifying the nation—it merely merged into a unified China.
The unification movement of ancient Greece derived from continuous conflicts between city-states. The produce of classical Greek civilization most cherished by Westerners today, makes up for a minute portion of Greek history, namely the golden age of Athenian culture under the leadership of Pericles (495-429 B.C.), an era that brought about the greatest achievements of ancient Greek democracy. After that golden age, which lasted only several decades, the city-states of Greece fell victim to fierce, self-inflicted, internal strife. The aftermath of those warring city-states days saw Athens and Sparta alternately dominate Greece. Both brutally massacring residents of the other at various occasions.
American historian William Scott Ferguson concluded that "the city-states of Greece could not be integrated." He likened each city-state to "a single-celled organism with a unique internal structure." The only way any could evolve, was by self-replicating. They could force replication onto their peers, but those "cells," albeit old or new, could never come together to forge a strong nation-state.
The foundation of Greek city-state politics wasn't democracy, but autonomy. A city-state could choose to adhere to any political system, and never surrender to any form of external authority. Only permanent residents of the city-state had the right to determine which political system would be adopted. However, "absolute autonomy" meant "absolute regionalism," making unification one impossible feat to accomplish. The Greek city-states opposed not only the creation of territorial states, but also the establishment of a federal state with Macedonia. These city-states did not forge a workable federal system until the day they were conquered by the Roman Empire. City-states considered their own interests superior to those of the Greek community at large.
No matter how harsh their competition and rivalry, the seven powers of the Warring States Period, together with intellectuals from the various schools of thought of that time, all believed in the same unified order and that the stage divided state should quickly come to an end.
The Greek city-states, at that very same point in history, lacked a common ruler, and their different alliances caused infighting. No one believed in a "unified order" of any sort.
The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, one of Greece's historical landmarks, on August 2. Ancient Greek civilization to this day is considered the most fundamental source of modern Western society (XINHUA)
The power of unification
According to the rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), if a vassal state was hit by a plague or famine, other vassal states should offer a helping hand. When a vassal state organized major celebratory activities or funerals, other vassal states should send representatives to express their congratulations or condolences. Such "neighborly" acts strengthened the notion that all vassal states belonged to the same "Chinese world." By stark contrast, the Greek city-states had no such binding responsibilities. Even a newly established city-state had no obligations to its parent city-state, going to great lengths to furthermore highlight its independence. Even during the Greco-Persian Wars, the common identity of the Greeks played only a negligible role in uniting them as one.
The different roots of both vast civilizations eventually led them down two drastically different paths of development.
China has continuously sought to establish unity between regions, ethnic groups, and languages. Despite several periods of internal division caused by factors like dynastical collapse or invasion by nomadic tribes, a sense of unadulterated unity remained mainstream throughout history. This thinking to this day has fostered the collectivism as presented across Chinese civilization.
The West has constantly advocated separation between regions, ethnic groups, and languages. The few attempts to unify the Western world, such as the efforts of the Roman Empire and Roman Catholic Church, have done little to diminish the overall trend of detachment that still dominates Western society, one celebrating individualism and liberalism.
This article was first published in China Pictorial
The author is the first deputy president of the Central Institute of Socialism
(Print Edition Title: Civilizational Evolution)
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