Chapter 1. About the formation of human knowledge
1.3.4. The civilization of China = animism+
I have laid out in some detail, in my posts “The axioms of civilizations” 01, 02, 03 and 06, 07, 08 (2) the passage from animism to power societies and how China and the West were made to take radically different civilizational paths. I then went on to describe how their conceptual foundations ended up being pole apart. What follows is a further development of the content of these posts and more particularly the formation of knowledge under the Chinese empire. So it could be useful, but not absolutely necessary, to start reading those posts before engaging any further in the present one.
Continuity over the long haul
We have seen earlier that the specific geographic conditions of China favored continuity of thought:
The stark contrast between the context of China and the context of the Middle-East is an eye-opener. The Middle-East was a narrow strip of land where Europe, Asia and Africa came into contact. This immediately evokes the idea of passage and traffic from one area to the other. Such traffic inevitably forces dialog, discussion, and exchanges between different views. The particular context of China had nothing of the sort and animism was thus never challenged.
In China the competition between shaman to get a favorable ear from the men of power was taking place in:
So the competition between Chinese shaman for the favorable ear of the men of power was thus restricted, in practical terms, to the demonstration of their superior knowledge of the animistic worldview: divination of the future, healing sickness, best agricultural practice, increased societal cohesion and so on.
One of the signals of imperial stabilization is the apparition of a written language. So writing a compendium of the best practices in his field of excellence must have been something that the shaman used to distinguish himself from his pears. This is exactly what the earliest texts are all about. They are texts about the best knowledge of the day as pertaining to a particular field relating to peoples' daily lives:
I concluded book 1 of “From Modernity to After-Modernity” by stating that the worldview of China during the early years of its civilization was a kind of animism+. What I mean by that is that China operated a systematization of the pragmatism at work under animism with gradual add-ons of newly gained knowledge. Add-ons to a worldview are constituted by memes appearing amidst a society's cultural practices that are sticking over time. The reproduction of a cultural meme over the generations is something akin to the natural selection of a genetic mutation which in societal evolution means being integrated into the worldview which is kind of the DNA of a society.
Observing the Chinese civilization through its 5000 years timespan one is struck by how deeply its men of power integrated the notion of “the long history” and how deeply their perception of the long history impacted their decision making. First is the continuity from animism to Chinese power societies and their civilization. Such a continuity remained also the hallmark all along the timespan of their civilization to this day. Two examples spring to mind that illustrate this idea:
Both these authors, as well as the story about alcohol distillation by Suma Chien, illustrate the consistency of the Chinese approach to governance “Continuity over the long haul”. Such a continuity was ensured by unifying the country's practices (standards and legal codes) and the set-up of a professional public service manned by the best educated. The education system was tasked to form scholars who would pass examinations and if successful they would be offered jobs in the bureaucracy. It is this system, the mandarinate, that permitted the Chinese civilization to reproduce even when the country was militarily defeated and governed by the conquerors. Through its practice at the helm of state bureaucracy, for more than 2000 years, the mandarinate accumulated knowledge about the management of a huge bureaucracy often in a context of total chaos. It codified the knowledge it gained and transmitted it in written form from generations to generations. The success of China's economic reforms, that allowed the country to enter into Modernity at such a lightning speed, can not be understood out of the knowledge gained by the mandarinate in the management of such a huge bureaucracy.
Innovation within continuity
As we have just seen the emergence of civilization in China was achieved by adopting animism as the worldview of the empire and the competition between shaman to get the ear of the men of power served as an accelerator of innovation within continuity. Continuity means that the knowledge base of the past is preserved and transmitted from generations to generations while innovation is seen as:
From a Late-Modern Western perspective this approach may seem conservative and may invoke the idea of an individual who is muzzled and whose creativity will be a poor help to science. But this is ignoring the fact that China has been technologically the most advanced country on earth during most of history. This is also ignoring the fact that animism is a knowledge that has been assembled by observation of the rhythms of nature over the very long haul and as such that knowledge is steeped very deeply inside reality. That “realism” of the knowledge that founded the Chinese worldview is its real strength. That knowledge works and people are witnesses of its efficiency in their daily lives. It is indeed in application in all fields of daily life: cuisine, health, education, management, relationships, and more generally it gives the Chinese the abstract intellectual foundation to understand the working of reality without the need to recourse to a god or another narrative.
The political system, while centralized and not being a Western democracy, is nevertheless offering the Chinese citizens a big room for maneuver that they have, over the centuries, put to good use developing their individuality. Having lived in China some thirty years now I can attest that the Chinese are the most individualist of any nation and I'm not alone being of that opinion. Dr. Sun Yat-sen who was elected the first president of the republic of China in 1911 when speaking about the Chinese nation referred to it as “a pile of sand that slips through the fingers”. The analogy is spot on. The dominating trait of the Chinese is indeed their individualism, or better their opportunism, and their uncontrollability. Driving a car in China is the best way to learn the deep meaning of those words. There is a code of the road but nobody gives a damn about it. There are lanes marked on the road but nobody cares about them and any free spot is occupied. But, having said that, you still can't possibly imagine how the traffic moves around and how there are not many more people killed on the road. You have to see it to believe it. I like it the way it is; you come indeed to appreciate that it is real fun. But Chinese individualism can't be equated with Western individualism. In China individualism is indeed tempered by respect for the other. Driving, for example, is like finding holes in the mass of cars where you can insert yourself and so go forward. The first who engages in the open spot will be respected by the others. That means that pragmatism is at work. When you see that someone is further engaged than you in that spot you don't try to push him out of it. That means you gracefully respect his advantage.
Furthermore the distillation by the Chinese of their observations about nature, over such a long haul, concluded in abstractions that appear highly operational in term of their daily practicality for all citizens. That's how Chinese wisdom is often presented as being fundamentally pragmatic in opposition to what can only be termed as Western ideological a priori. Now if the basic abstractions reached by the Chinese are pragmatic we should perhaps ask ourselves if their pragmatism, in the end, could be verified by scientific experimentation. A case in point is their civilizational axiom of the polarities. The yin-yang polarity principle looks suspiciously similar to the electric polarities or the vibrating particles in string theory; they act in the same manner by generating energy through the interaction between their polarities. The interactions between the yin-yang polarities generates bursts of energy that power change and such a change is understood as the ultimate reality.
What I'm suggesting here is that the animistic long haul observation of nature should perhaps be considered as a parallel path to the scientific method that is as valid as science itself. For at least 100,000 years humans have been observing nature all around the world and the conclusions they reached are very similar indeed from one place to another. Is this, in itself, not confirmation of the validity of those observations?
Let's see what distinguishes these two methods:
From this I conclude that the wisdom of science is being generated, within a short term timespan, at the individual level while the animistic wisdom is being generated, within the long haul, at the societal level.
This sheds a new light on the Late-Modern predicament of the numerous side-effects of Modernity and we come to understand why humanity could soon be forced to recognize that Modernity was nothing else than an adolescent's irrational enthusiasm. This is the thesis that runs throughout “From Modernity to After-Modernity” and my conclusion is that we will soon discover that the scientific method while working miracles can nevertheless not be left on its own in the hands of scientists. We'll soon enough come to recognize the necessity that what is confirmed by the scientific method must also be verified as being workable ultimately within the larger framework of preserving the existence of the human specie. The animistic method, for example, could integrate the scientific method or some other similar systemic vision. In other words what I mean to say here is that the long haul trumps the here and now in terms of validating ideas.
We have to come to our senses and accept that the ultimate truth is inaccessible to the human mind. The best we can hope for is that the ideas and beliefs that we share in the present will allow for the best approximation of the truth about what reality is all about. The scientific method is a test of the reproducibility of an hypothesis in the present. But this does not guarantee that this hypothesis will remain valid over the long haul. We are indeed not living in a closed system. The system we live in is but one sub-system of a larger system that itself is no more than a sub-system of a larger system and so on and on. The understanding of this systemic nature of reality obliges us to accept the fact that cycles of stability within the sub-system we inhabit can come to a halt: or by our own doing because we fail to account for the longer term impact of our actions or through disruptions caused by sister sub-systems or parent systems from our own sub-system. In that sense if humanity wants to ensure its survival and reproduction over the long haul it will have to come to the conclusion that:
Chinese animism+ should be considered as an opportunity for humanity to have a peak on things from far further than the tip of our noses. But there is no guarantee that, as a species, we will size that chance and there is also no guarantee that there is an escape, for humanity, from the actions already undertaken under the fire of our irrational adolescent enthusiasm. But this should not stop us from searching for answers to our present predicament. On the contrary it should be a wake up call to the necessity of excellence in our judgments and actions.
The Chinese continuity, in sharing animism as the worldview of their “civilization-nation-state” from their tribal origins to empire and civilization, means that the memory of the knowledge accumulated by the men of knowledge from their observation of natural phenomena over the past long haul is transmitted to the present and thus being kept alive. If I was asked what I think is the biggest difference between East and West I would have to say that the impact of the loss by Europe of the knowledge accumulated under animism is what most profoundly distinguishes the attitudes of Europeans from the attitudes of the Chinese. Now for Westerners who did not dig into the origins of China that loss of their animistic knowledge means just nothing. For them it is a perfect example of an unknown unknown.
The animistic knowledge was first and foremost pragmatic. It offered the citizens of the empire the practical means to handle daily life occurrences and such it is a knowledge that formats the behavior of the Chinese in all fields. The preservation of health and the treatment of ailments is one of those fields and it illustrates the pragmatism of the Chinese worldview. To Western minds that knowledge will appear alien for the only reason of the rupture their civilization operated with its animist past. The Chinese worldview in term of health can be summarized as follows:
1. health is perceived as being the result of one's behavior. Chinese wisdom informs that extremes are to be avoided because they are seen as originating future imbalances in the body or in the mind. The advice of Chinese sages is thus to strive for a balance towards the middle ground: eat but not eat too little nor too much, sleep but not sleep too little nor too much, drink but not drink too little nor too much, and so on and on. This idea of the necessity to keep a balanced state is not limited to health; it can be seen in application in all fields of life from agriculture to politics, to diplomacy, to morality, to justice, and so on and on.
2. Health relates to the body and the mind. The body is perceived as a complex bio-chemical system that is powered by energy and the same goes for the mind:
- the idea of balance implies the necessity to strive maintaining one's bio-chemistry in a state of balance. Concerning the body this is done by paying attention to what we eat. Concerning the mind this is done by paying attention to what we think. As a practical matter Chinese are attentive to the signs emanating from their body and from their minds and they generally know how to answer these signs by eating various different foods. All Chinese, to this very day, respect this general principle of caution or prevention and try to apply it in their daily lives. This principle of caution is also observed internationally in their foreign relations policies. When prevention fails, in treating matters of health, they recourse to natural remedies to treat the observed ailment with a selection of foods and the intake of herbs in the form of tea or other preparations. If this is not sufficient they consult a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) who acts like a modern day shaman.
- the idea, that a flow of energy (Qi) is circulating through the body which is animating the bio-chemistry of body and mind, is widely accepted in China to this very day. This idea is ingrained in the axioms of their civilization as well as in the abstract principles and the philosophy that shape their worldview and their daily culture. The yin-yang principle of the polarities at play in all entities is understood as a kind of dance of the polarities; their positions on the line of polarities moves by following the changes appearing in their contextual environment or in the thinking of the individual. This permanent repositioning of the here and now on the line of all possibilities between the polarities, each one of them being one extremity or pole on that line, is what explains reality which the Chinese understand as being change or perpetual transformation. What this means is that the reality of the moment, the here and now relating to a specific question (health, love or whatever else), is being understood as the particular position one finds her-himself at that given moment on the line representing the polarities of that specific entity or question. To better visualize how this works let's imagine that we speak about the entity colors. The polarities (extremities) on the line of colors are black and white. Black is the total absence of colors and white is the simultaneous presence of all colors at once. Between black and white are an infinity of shades of grey whose color pigmentation becomes stronger and stronger the more the here and now approaches white. That dance of the polarities is understood as being powered by energy which is called “Qi”. Coming back to health this means that the body and the mind are understood to be animated by the Qi that circulates through a system of channels running through the entirety of the body. When a channel ,or a connection point in the system of channels, is blocked this provokes an imbalance somewhere in the body that expresses itself in the form of an extreme yin or yang condition (cold or warm). Such an imbalance has to be treated by unlocking the blockage of the circulation of energy. TCM has different approaches to unlock such blockages: acupuncture, Qigong, meditation and taoist exercises, massage, ingestion of specific foods or natural supplements.
Any other aspect of daily life is handled along the same lines that I indicated here for health. Since we are concerned here with the formation of knowledge let's see how the Chinese approach works in that field.
Knowledge formation and power
We have seen earlier how the formation of knowledge operated under tribes:
The application of the tribal model of knowledge formation continued unabated in China during the whole transition to empire and further down the road till Confucius proposed his model of education. In Confucius' model:
After further study the scholar eventually passed exams at the next administrative level and when successful he was proposed a job at that level of the administration system. Successful at that level the scholar could study further and try his chance at the next administrative level. The highest level was the top of the pyramid when the scholar was interviewed by the emperor himself which could result in the proposition of a job in the central imperial administration. History shows that some candidates became prime minister immediately after their interview with the emperor.
Passing an exam and being offered a job at that administrative level did not mean that the scholar was obliged to accept the job. Many scholars, who inherited family fortunes, did indeed not work but were spending their time writing poetry, playing music, debating philosophy, painting and writing calligraphy, and enjoying life. Others less fortunate, but whose “artistic skills” were appreciated by someone richer could be sponsored avoiding thus the need to work and being given the chance to spend their lives practicing their art and entertaining other scholar friends. Chinese knowledge formation over the last 2500 years was steeped in the idea of ensuring continuity and consisted in:
Scholars were the men of knowledge and they were offered to act as the men of power. Knowledge and power have always been closely intertwined in China. Power societies kept that principle alive and this resulted in a growing knowledge base that was specialized:
Scholars, also called mandarins, were thus in essence the drivers of the vast machinery of state bureaucracy. This explains how, when invaded by outsiders, the Han mandarins ensured the continuity of state bureaucracy which in turn made it possible for China to be governed by a foreign dynasty without losing its existence. “...during the 2131 years of Chinese dynastic rule (221 B.C.E - 1911 C.E.), there have been 951 years (45%) when all or part of China was ruled by non-Chinese from Central or North-East Asia:
386-581: Northern dynaties (chiefly Xianbei and Xiongnu or Hun peoples)
907-1125 Liao (Khitan people)
1115-1234 Jin1 (Jurchen people)
1206-1368 Yuan (Mongol people)
1616-1911 Qing (Manchu people)” (5).
By governing China while Han mandarins exercised the management of the state bureaucracy, not only did these foreign dynasties integrate their own territories within the Chinese empire, they also sinisized their own nation (6). This does not mean that their culture and worldview vanished. It simply means that they integrated some decisive elements of the Chinese worldview inside their own and this is what gives them a seat at the table of the Chinese civilization. It's a shame that this aspect of Chinese history is unfortunately nearly totally unknown in the West. This ignorance is what explains how Western historians specializing in Chinese history are missing the reality of China's territorial growth through conquest ...by foreigners of their own country and the central role that scholars played in this process. Without the traditional Chinese worldview and the mandarinate to animate it through time it is most probable that the Chinese nation and civilization would have been forgotten about since a long time.
China and Modernity
How does the Chinese compact “civilization, worldview and culture”, cope under the assault of Modernity? It is still early for a definitive answer to that question. But all signs are pointing to a very strong revival of Chinese traditions that are being called upon to provide guidance along the passage to the bank of Modernity that the Chinese nation races against the clock to reach.
But reaching that bank of the river of societal evolution is not only depending on their own actions. A detached observation shows that the West is reacting to China's growth and putting in place all kinds of obstacles on its path through the different phases of Modernity (trade, internal market). But if the Chinese economy becomes so radically important for the rest of the world it is not as if China wanted to dominate the world. With 20% of the world population it is simply that China's weight is higher than most other countries. But unfortunately seen though the lens of Western dualism those realities are occulted and, in Western minds, how the West would behave in the same circumstances is being projected as what the Chinese are trying to achieve. In Western dualism the other acting differently is proof that he is being mischievous. First that dualism posits that in such a particular situation there is only one way to act and that is the Western way. Looking back at history we don't need a drawing to understand that, if China were to act as the West has always been acting than, the West would indeed have to fear China's successful path through Modernity. So being blinded by its own dualism the West ends up being ignorant and then it concludes that the only path forward for itself is to contain China or eventually to destroy it if containment proved impossible to achieve. But the reality of Chinese thinking has nothing to do with this kind of Western Manichean for which history can be nothing else than an endless struggle between Good and Evil.
The Chinese, as all other people, want to live and to live as best as possible. This is not a fault of the Chinese this is in the nature of the principle of life. But the Chinese are keen observers and what they see is what the West has being doing along the last few hundred years and continues to do today. They came basically to the following conclusions:
Forty years after having started to think about such a strategy of national self-defense China has reached far more than the initiators of that strategy thought would ever be possible. The country has reached the top spot, among all nations, in term of their National Gross Product calculated in terms of Power Purchase Parity which is the only significant method of calculation since it erases all monetary and internal statistical gimmicks that hide the true state of economies.
Let's think about that for a second. As we saw earlier China's worldview had traditionally recommended moderation and a middle of the road path that justified its refusal to follow the path of Europe's rapid technological and financial change. But when observing the danger to its nation of being annihilated by the push of Western big capital to expand its reach to the whole world China came up with a last minute strategy that was pole apart from the traditional prescriptions of its worldview. This can only be interpreted as follows:
The “Schadenfreude” that daily transpires from Western discourse and passes for news easily blinds us to the fact that the Chinese know what they are doing. They know damn well, and they knew before starting this reform process, that such a fast and deep re-organization of daily life would be accompanied by numerous side-effects that would need to be answered before they could destabilize the whole path to rejuvenation they had set their nation on.
The country is finding itself in the middle of a maelstrom of changes that engulfs its society in utter chaos but it is nevertheless able to observe what are the deep ills that need treatment and is also able to act swiftly to correct them. Many such ills, that are starting to be addressed, come to mind: environmental pollution, climate change, peak resources, shock of Modernity on traditions, resistance of its policies by the West plus all the social and cultural rebalancing mechanisms that have to be addressed due to fast evolving new economic realities. The list is inexhaustible but what is being observed is that the Chinese state is able to navigate the maelstrom and able to impulse answers to those problems. Those answers are not optimum answers for sure but in most cases they are sufficient to erode the ills' of the most destructive side-effects. Pollution has started to be tackled and the initial results indicate that the tide has turned. Investments in New forms of energy are surpassing anything that the West is doing. Coal, that is seen as one of the biggest culprits in releasing the gazes that provoke climate change is deliberatively being targeted, its use reduced and where it remains in use clean-up technologies are being implemented. In other words we observe a voluntarism in China at the decision making level that is seen nowhere else around the world. I want to repeat that in the Chinese scheme of things, I mean speed wise and size wise, nothing can possibly be perfect. But this does not excuse the permanent negative tone in Western discourse. Were China, to have emulated the level of efficiency that the US demonstrated to the whole world in its handling of Hurricane Katrina or in its handling of Super-storm Sandy or were it to emulate the European so touted efficiency in handling Greece or Ukraine, that country would have collapsed a long time ago. But the fact is it stays strong.
1 & 2. “From Modernity to After-Modernity” Part 1.
I wrote this series of 20 posts during the 2014-2015 winter. They form book 1 of a broader approach about the transition from the historical era of Modernity to what comes after Modernity. That first book totals approximately 120,000 words. I'll rework the text and prepare the illustrated lay-out of an e-book that I'll also publish as a very short run art edition, within the next following… years.
3. China: A New History. John King Fairbank. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992
4. in "The answer to the Needham Question" by C. Ikehara in Asia Times
5. non-Chinese dynasties
6. Discussion of this question on Quora
Articles of interest I read this last week
- "Robert Crumb Hates You. The world's greatest cartoonist in a sprawling, exclusive, lurid interview about misogyny, America, art and tushes that look like 'two giant basketballs' " by Jacques Hyzagi, 10/14/15, in The Observer
-"An Introduction to Post-Insurrectionary Revengism: Politics in Light of Near Term Human Extinction" by Tim Buchanan,2015-10-20 , in Nature Bats Last