There were two stories this week which caught my eye. The first was the visit of President Lula of Brazil to China, where he discussed, among other things, trade between the two countries, the ending of the primacy of the dollar, and China’s recent peace plan for the war in Ukraine. The second was also peripherally about China. It was the story of the Dalai Lama, who was criticised for asking a young boy to suck his tongue. According to some this was a propaganda exercise by the Chinese government, who promoted the video in order to discredit the Tibetan leader. This is also the line being taken by the Tibetan government-in-exile.
I have nothing to say regarding the propriety of the Dalai Lama asking a child to suck his tongue, strange though it was. Some people say that it was a playful act of innocent affection reflecting Tibetan social norms, others that it could be seen as the act of a sexual predator. I doubt the latter as it was such a public display. The most you can say that it was inappropriate and embarrassing. The Dalai Lama has since apologised.
What’s more interesting to me is the suggestion that the Chinese government might’ve been behind the promulgation of the video. This is usually accompanied by dark hints at what the Chinese are like as a nation. There are suggestions of duplicity and secret plans, hidden agendas and behind the scenes maneuvering, reflecting a nation that’s fundamentally untrustworthy, inscrutable and disingenuous.
I take a different view. Such blanket condemnation of a whole people is racist. I’m something of a Sinophile. I love Chinese history and Chinese culture. Four of my favorite books are Chinese. They’re the I-Ching (possibly as early as the 10th century BC); the Tao Te Ching (around 400 BC); the Zuangzi (from the Warring States period, 476–221 BC); and Journey to the West (16th century) also known as Monkey, best known in English in the translation published in 1942 by Arthur Waley.
I’ve written about the I-Ching before. It’s the foundational text of Chinese culture. It reveals an underlying dynamic in the Universe which is based upon an early form of Chaos mathematics. You read it randomly, by throwing coins. It’s full of mysterious sayings which you have to interpret, much like the oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece. It’s a divination system which, according to some, prefigures modern Chaos theory and DNA.
Despite its immense age, it’s still read and beloved by the Chinese people. This is true of the other books as well. Not only are these books still in circulation in China, and in the Chinese diaspora throughout the world, but they’re read in the original form. This is extraordinary. Take a look at an early English text, such as Beowulf, dating from the 11th century. It’s entirely unreadable to the modern eye. Without studying Old English, no 21st-century reader would be able to comprehend it. This is also true of medieval texts, such as the Canterbury Tales, and even early modern writing, such as the works of Shakespeare, are difficult to grasp.
And yet an archaic text like the I-Ching, with its origins in the Bronze Age, is read in China without the need for translation. It’s because the Chinese writing system is ideogrammatic in nature. It’s based less on the sounds of the words than on the ideas that underlie them, which are represented by simple characters or glyphs. It’s not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs. Chinese culture is as venerable as ancient Egypt, the difference being that the Pharaonic regime has long passed, having been conquered many times, both militarily and culturally, while China is alive, constantly evolving, and about to take over the world.
When the Greeks conquered Egypt, they made it Greek. When the Romans conquered Egypt, they made it Roman. When the Muslims conquered Egypt, they made it Muslim. When the Mongols conquered China, on the other hand, they assimilated to the Chinese way of life and became Chinese.
According to Wikipedia, “Chinese is one of the oldest continually-used writing-systems still in use.” Divinatory inscriptions written on oracle bones dating back to the Shang dynasty (1766 to 1122 BC) are recognizably in Chinese script. Recent archaeological discoveries at Jiahu in Henan province have identified characters, dating back to 6600 BC, that bear a striking resemblance to modern Chinese. The Chinese written language shows a direct link to one of the oldest civilisations on this Earth. Is it too much to suggest that these relics of an archaic age are preserved, not only in the writing system, but in aspects of Chinese thinking too?
It could be argued that all of this refers to historic China, not to the China that exists today, which is an unreconstructed Marxist state. Didn’t the revolution of 1949 represent a total break with historic China? Isn’t the Chinese culture that I’ve described irrelevant now? I don’t think so. Revolution is a periodic occurrence in Chinese history, as it is in all history, and the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover only represents the latest iteration of something that has been going on for the last 3000 years at least: the replacement of one regime by another, with a different set of ideas, but still essentially Chinese.
One of the oddities of the Chinese way of thinking is that there’s no conception of a transcendent God. The country is, and always has been, fundamentally atheist. There are four philosophies that have been influential in China, two indigenous, two imported. None depend upon the notion of a divine creator. The first is Confucianism, which emphasizes filial piety and worship of the ancestors. The next is Daoism, which focuses upon nature and the ebb and flow of the mysterious Dao, a process rather than a being. The next is Buddhism which, despite the trappings of religion, rejects the notion of a creator god. Finally, there’s Marxism, which fits into the Chinese mind-set, being dialectical, like Daoism, socially-orientated like Confucianism, and atheistic like Buddhism.
We’re entering the new Chinese age. The Chinese are about to conquer the world, not by military means, but by trade. China’s taking its place, once more, as the world’s pre-eminent trading nation, a place it held until around the 16th century and the rise of the Western powers. Goods flowed into and out of the country along the Silk Road for thousands of years. At the same time it was the also an advanced country, leading the way in almost every technology, as Marco Polo observed when he travelled there in the 13th century.
A new Silk Road is being built. It’s the Belt and Road Initiative, which, according to the Council of Foreign Relations “is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived.” Originally devised to link East Asia with Europe through physical infrastructure, it has since expanded to include Africa, Oceania and Latin America.
Pundits in the West complain about China’s authoritarian and anti-democratic structure. This is true; but it always has been. The Chinese system of governance is based around the principle of the Mandate of Heaven. Governments rule absolutely, and the people are expected to be loyal and obedient. However, if a government becomes corrupt the mandate is withdrawn, and the people may rise up and overthrow them, as Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communist Party did in 1949. This is such a tradition in China that it’s the underlying story on which the whole of the I-Ching is based: the overthrow of the Shang dynasty by the Zhou. The I-Ching includes a hexagram called Revolution, and there are a number of hexagrams which refer to this foundational event.
One of the ironies of hearing Western commentators complaining about the lack of democracy in China is that our own democracies are non-existent. They’re nominal, not real. Our Western system of governance isn’t democratic, it’s oligarchic. We’re not ruled by the vote, but by money. We know this. Even the commentators know this, but they’re paid to keep their mouths shut and ignore the corruption.
The Chinese regime has no need of democracy. It’s not corrupt. It has lifted its own people out of poverty. Over the past 40 years the number of people in the world living in absolute poverty has fallen from 40 percent to 10 percent. Most of this has happened in China. China’s contributed nearly three-quarters to the global reduction in extreme poverty. What’s more, they’re spreading this new-found wealth around the globe, building infrastructure, modernizing, investing for the long-term: upgrading power systems, water systems, information systems, bringing the entire world into the modern age. No wonder Lula wants to go to China. No wonder the rest of the world is looking to China for the future. No wonder the American Empire fears China as its only rival.
A film I recommend is The Coming War on China (available on YouTube) made by the veteran journalist John Pilger. It shows the ways in which the United States has been threatening China globally. There’s a fascinating interview about 57 minutes in, with an American-educated Shanghai entrepreneur named Eric Li. He describes how the United States’ and Chinese systems differ:
In America you can change political parties, but you can’t change policies. In China you cannot change the party, but you can change policies. China is a market economy, but it is not a capitalist country. There’s no way a group of billionaires could control the politburo as billionaires control American policy making. In China you have a vibrant market economy, but Capital does not rise above political authority. Capital does not have enshrined rights. In America, the interests of Capital, and Capital itself, has risen above the American nation. The political authority cannot check the power of Capital. That’s why America is a Capitalist country, but China is not.
Recently the Chinese government brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, bringing an end to a historic dispute which has lasted several decades. Now they’ve put forward a twelve point peace plan for the war in Ukraine. The Americans and the British have rejected the plan and are pouring arms into that beleaguered nation, ensuring that the war will continue. The West wants war. The Chinese want trade. I know which side I’m on.
—Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone