The iPhone, not the I Ching

“What exactly is China anyway? Is it a civilisation, as some claim? Or a “civilisation state”, with unique cultural markers but within set borders?”

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Civilisation or “civilisation state”? The fortress at Jiayuguan, the westernmost outpost of the Great Wall of China (©ZHANGZHUGANG (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Over the Chinese New Year, early last month, I was at the westernmost fortress of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, a desert city in China’s north-west that once marked the far boundary of the Chinese empire. Past it, the land stretches out to Xinjiang province and central Asia, marked by a sign that reads “End of Ten Thousand li Great Wall.” Up on the fortress walls, I overheard a child asked her mother why a foreigner would come to China. “Because China has 5,000 years of history,” the mum replied without taking a breath. “The West doesn’t.”

Putting aside the relative history of upstart European culture, neither claims are accurate. The Great Wall is no longer 10,000 li long (one li is half a kilometre, yet only a few hundred kilometres remain intact), and China is not 5,000 years old, with its earliest definite recorded history starting around the 11th century BC. A Chinese acquaintance on social media informed me that both terms were used “adjectivally” — that is, they simply mean “very, very long”.

If it didn’t start 5,000 years ago, and for most of the intervening time wasn’t geographically what we think of as the Chinese nation, then the question becomes: what exactly is China anyway? Is it a civilisation, as some claim? Or a “civilisation state”, with  unique cultural markers but within set borders? It has only sporadically been a nation state, with periods of changing borders and disunity as frequent as the united ones, and only settled on its current outer boundaries within the last century. Claims upon ethnic Chinese abroad might suggest an “ethno-state”, reaching beyond its borders to all Han people — yet the ethnic minorities protectively guarded as Chinese citizens within its borders, some of which ran the whole shop during the Yuan (Mongolian) and Qing (Manchu) dynasties, put a spanner in that.

Whatever way we define it, the mother was right: China has been around a very long time, and that continuity of culture is one of its chief fascinations. In Chinese Thought, sinologist Roel Sterckx maps the contours of classical Chinese philosophy in a newly essential book for any traveller to the land, even if they don’t leave their armchair but are wayfaring in the realm of thought alone. (Together with Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese literature formerly at SOAS, one wonders whether a Scrabble-worthy surname is a sine qua non of sinology tenure). In so doing, he skillfully demonstrates a continuity within the plurality of schools of thought in ancient China, and a relevance to Chinese history and life that extends to today.

This is not a comprehensive survey, but has the greater advantage of being holistic. Rather than codify and separate the different schools, as other volumes have done, Sterckx tackles the nebulous notion of Chinese thought as a whole, applying the teachings of famous thinkers to different spheres of life. Chapter rubrics range from systems of government to the place of the individual in society, from spirit and ancestor worship to nature and the human body, weaving in perspectives from Daoism, Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism and other key schools. By interspersing rather than cordoning off these groupings, the book shows how Chinese thought is inherently pragmatic and not mutually exclusive — as the adage goes, one can wear a Confucian cap, Buddhist robes and Daoist sandals. Or as Sterckx puts it, “Chinese thought is predominantly human-centred and practice-oriented.”

As a non-native religion, Buddhism is notably absent — in any detail — in this study. Yet it is the most popular belief in China today and could have born greater scrutiny to demonstrate China’s longstanding skill at taking a foreign idea and making it their own — as has been proved more recently with Chinese Marxism. There is also a tendency to focus on the philosophy of each thought system, without giving proper dues to the religious applications where it mixed with folk customs. If a visitor to China enters a Daoist temple, for example, their head might be filled from this book with the sage self-help wisdom of Laozi, only to be surprised by murals of people being graphically disembowled by demons in Daoist hell. Sterckx does note the difference between Daoist philosophy (daojiao) and religion (daojia), but by foregrounding the former, we can forget just how powerful a force superstition has been in the history of Chinese thought.

Sterckx is Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science, and Civilisation at Cambridge — a post named after the 20th-century British sinophile who posed the eponymous Needham question of why China, with its ingenuity and advanced culture at the time, did not follow the trajectory of the West in a scientific and industrial revolution from the 16th century on, but instead fell behind. As Sterckx notes, the social rigidity of Confucianism may have shouldered some of the blame. In this respect, understanding China’s past thinkers is a key to opening its present. Yet given that China has squeezed its industrial revolution into the last half-century, a modern turning of the question might now be: given these dramatic reinventions of China as it catches up with the West, how much of what is intrinsically “Chinese” remains?

In the 20th century, classical Chinese thought was assaulted, first by the New Culture and May Fourth Movements of the early Republican era, then briefly restored by Chiang Kai Shek with the New Life Movement, only to be finished off in the Cultural Revolution, when public campaigns to “Criticise Confucius” were the rage. Now the Sage and his ilk are resurgent again, part of China’s soft power, as seen in the Confucius Institutes that were launched in 2004 and number over 500 worldwide. Talk with any average Chinese on the street, though, and these philosophies are paid lip service rather than revered. A line about the Great Wall or a long history is trotted out, but (like the wall) the link to the past is broken — China today follows the iPhone not the I Ching. Sterckx’s book is a masterful work of synthesis and explanation, a must-read for any student of China, but it is one firmly for the history shelf.