|China Bronzes in Shanghai Museum|
The cultural homogeneity of ancient China as revealed by the archeological record contrasts remarkably with the multiplicity and diversity of people, states, and cultures in the ancient Middle East. Beginning about 3000BC, Egyptians, Sumerians, Semites, Akkadians, Amorites (ruled by Hammurabi of Babylon), Assyrians, Phoenicians, Hittites, Medes, Persians, and others jostled one another in a bewildering flux of Middle Eastern warfare and politics. The record is one of pluralism with a vengeance.... The contrast with ancient China could not have been greater. (pp. 40-41)
The bronzes in the Shanghai Museum bring all this to mind. It is very likely that Chinese bronze technique was transmitted to China from Central Asia via the Middle East, but in slow increments, not as part of some vast and sudden infusion that threatened Chinese homogeneity.
The relative homogeneity of China from its earliest days is of vital importance in understanding the China of today. China's vastness, its barely fathomable immenseness, could only be manageable if it were, in fact, homogeneous.
The Chinese have a curse: May you be born in interesting times. These are interesting times. Let me take a stab at why. Societies since the beginning of history have been conducting a kind of unsupervised social experiment. On the one hand there is the West with its diversity, its small nations, relatively speaking, its smaller population, relatively speaking, its plethora of religions. On the other hand we have China with its enormous population, its enormous landmass, its marginalization of religion, and, relatively speaking, its enormous homogeneity.
|Europe and Asia: 001AD. Notice the great number of tribes in|
Western Europe as compared with their absence in China.
(Click on map for a larger view.)
Over the centuries these societies have been slave-owning, feudal, socialist, communist and capitalist. The 21st century has emerged, with the fall of Russia and the rise of China, as the apotheosis of capitalism. For better or worse that is the path both the East and the West have settled on.
Now the question is this: Given a capitalist world, which societal organization is best suited to it? Those who say that the 21st century will be the century of the Chinese are predicting the outcome of this experiment. They are saying that a homogeneous population under the rule of a single political party, a population unriven by religious differences because religion has essentially been marginalized, is better positioned for world dominance than a diverse population governed by a multitude of political parties and segmented into a crayon box of religions. It may well be. But as Chou en Lai, the First Premier of the People’s Republic of China, is reputed to have said when Nixon asked him what he thought of the French Revolution—they were walking in the walled gardens of the Forbidden City at the time—“It is too early to tell.”