The axioms of civilization
Knowledge about that period comes from 2 sources:
The differential observed in archeological excavations between different areas has led many Europeans to conclude that the oldest civilization on earth is located in the Middle-East. Some historians immediately concluded that civilization originated in the Middle-East and was exported from there to other places. Such an ideological conclusion was often accompanied by a value judgment belittling the histories of others, while aggrandizing their own, for descending from this cradle of civilization.
The traditional history of civilization affirmed that it originated in the Fertile Crescent and from there it would have spread out to the rest of the world. Today most historians agree that civilizations arose in several locations independently from one another and these centers of civilization are now generally viewed as originating the history of 'civilized humanity': Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus River Valley, Yellow-Yangtze River valleys, Mesoamerica, Andean South America and Norte Chico in present-day Peru. Notwithstanding all this most Western scholars continue to state that the Fertile Crescent is the cradle of civilization. But since the countries, where other centers of civilization originated, started to allocate research budgets to their universities new discoveries put that Western-centrism in doubt.
2.1. Signals of imperial stabilization
The reproduction of an empire over the generations indicates that it has stabilized and among the signs that an empire has stabilized we find the following non-exhaustive list:
- dynastic rule: after the passing of an emperor the mantel of power is being transmitted, most generally to his nearest descendant. Rome and later Constantinople are somehow an exception to this rule. Some emperors passed the hand to their descendants but most imposed themselves by violent means. They acted as usurpers. This exception to the rule vastly weakened these empires which were constantly suffering from wars of succession. The lack of a clear rule of succession is often cited as one of the causes of the demise of Roman and Byzantine empires.
- a hegemonic worldview: in the Middle-East and Europe religion was imposed as the worldview of the empire while in China the master narrative was associated with pragmatic principles concerning human existence and the working of the universe that had been inherited from animism. Religion in Rome transformed from dealing, in the early day of the empire, with practical matters, like sickness, insecurity, and death, to serving the political integration of the public into a system of political legitimation. By the end of the Roman Empire Christianity had gradually grown as the primary popular belief system and it was co-opted by Constantine as State religion to enhance the falling legitimacy of the empire. Constantine nevertheless displaced his capital to Byzantium in 330 AD which was subsequently renamed Constantinople (present day Istanbul). Christianity copied the institutional model build by Rome and by the time the Western branch of the empire collapsed religion had established its dual rule over religious and secular matters. In China pragmatic principles concerning human existence, inherited from animism, were kept as the primordial substance of the worldview shared by all and that system is still largely intact today.
- the emperor is the earthly representative of the gods or the spirits: the larger they developed the less legitimate political entities appeared and the more evident it became that worldviews were the only factor gluing the people together. It took millena for this reality to sink in the minds of the men of power. Slowly and gradually they strengthened their legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens by working closely with the men of knowledge. The integration in the worldview narratives, of the men of power as the earthly representatives of God or the spirits, was the last phase in that process and it proved to be the key to imperial stabilization. With Christianity established as the official religion of Rome by Emperor Constantine the emperors were presented as God's earthly representatives. The Chinese worldview was pragmatic and a-religious so the emperor was portrayed as the earthly representative of the emperor of the sky or of the heavens. The emperor of heaven was conceived of as a kind of master spirit that was in charge of governing the affairs of spirits. His government was depicted as a carbon copy of the imperial government on earth. Unfortunately that heavenly function was given the name god in early Western translation by the Jesuit priests who had been received by the Chinese as Western men of knowledge from whom they hoped to learn Western skills in mathematics, cartography, astronomy,... Hey the Chinese never quit pragmatism! "In 1601, Ricci was invited by the Emperor to become an adviser to the Imperial court of the Wanli Emperor; the first Westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. This honor was in recognition of Ricci's scientific abilities, chiefly his predictions of solar eclipses, which were significant events in the Chinese world. " (1) The initial translation by the Jesuits of the 'Chinese master spirit of heavens' into god has been sticking in Western discourse since then. There is no doubt that this translation was given with the afterthought to ease proselytizing Christianity among the Chinese. Speaking of Mateo Ricci Wikipedia writes the following "He did not explain the Catholic faith as entirely foreign or new; instead, he said that the Chinese culture and people always believed in God, and that Christianity is simply the completion of their faith. He borrowed an unusual Chinese term, Lord of Heaven (Chinese: 天主; pinyin: Tiānzhǔ) which is based on the theistic Zhou term 'Heaven", to use as the Catholic name for God" (1). Even this recognition in Wikipedia is not going without its own Western centric implication in the words "the theistic Zhou term 'Heaven' ". The term heaven or sky, in Chinese traditional thought, had never a theistic implication at all; it was simply conceived of as one of the polarities of the category universe; its other polarity being the earth. This shows us how difficult it is not being driven by Western centrism and how that intellectual plague continues to poison the understanding between East and West till this very day.
- social inequality and class-based society: the imposition to all of the authority of a few fostered inequality among people and societies that were generally stratified along the lines of 3 groups: ruling class, free men and slaves, which were each split into further differentiations eventually. Merchants were at the bottom followed by artists, craftsmen, with farmers at the top among free men. What is important to remember here is that, after living as free men for tens of thousands of years in tribal societies, kingdoms and empires institutionalized social inequality and class divisions. This kind of inequality is not a natural phenomenon as many believe today. It was a human creation whose origins are decipherable amidst the emergence of empires.
- public institutions and urban concentrations in cities: the increase of population that followed the emergence of agriculture resulted in larger settlements and the archeological records indicate that thousands of years later the first cities made their appearance. The larger the territorial domain of kingdoms and empires the larger was the need for 'state servants' to manage and supervise the population. Most of the institutions of power were located around the palace of kings or emperors. Their 'civil servants' had to be supplied with all kinds of goods and services and this explains how local assemblages of people reached the size of cities.
- use of writing: the discussion about the emergence of the written language is perhaps the most controversial of all imperial characteristics. The reason is related to what I mentioned here above about the introduction of archeology as a science in universities. Western archeologists started to dig systematically in Middle-Eastern countries during the 2nd part of the 19th century while other countries only started in the seventies or eighties of the 20th century. This gave Western archeologists a century of 'advanced discoveries' that were presented as portending the entire story of civilization. Excavated artifacts with the earliest Sumerian written characters were given as proof that the written language originated in Sumer between 2,500 and 3,000 years BC. This is now contested. "In 1952 University of Chicago Assyriologist Ignace Jay Gelb, considered the first scholar to scientifically analyze writing systems, published his seminal work A Study of Writing. At the Oriental Institute, Gelb developed his theory that writing was invented in Mesopotamia, spread to Egypt, and then spread to China. ... For 30 years Gelb’s view of writing’s origins reigned. Since the 1980s, however, scholars have found evidence suggesting that the four earliest writing systems were born independently of each other. Egyptian and Mesopotamian scripts appeared almost simultaneously (between 3500 and 3200 BC). The Chinese and Mesoamerican systems emerged later..." (2)
Even if archeology is still rather in its infancy in China, Recent discoveries date the origins of Chinese writing to the Yangshao culture, a Neolithic culture between 5000 BC and 3000 BC. But more recent discoveries of rock carvings (petroglyphs) in Damaidi seem to push these dates even further between 35,000 and 7000 years. Those petroglyphs represent "communicating signs", says Chen Zhaofu, an expert of ancient rock art with the Central University of Nationalities. As of today archeologists and historians have located 3,172 petroglyphs featuring 8,453 individual characters. This is now being seized upon by Chinese anthropologists to question the narrative of their Western counterparts.
"Many, but by no means all, Western scholars hold that oracle-bone inscriptions are the earliest form of Chinese writing,and that the latter began with little incubation during the Shang period in the middle–lower Yellow River Valley area. In contrast, for many (but not all) Chinese scholars Early Bronze Age inscriptions and Neolithic signs are evidence of the gradual development of Chinese writing over an extended period of time and from a variety of earlier graphic systems. These diverging opinions and their subsets have generated a contentious debate on the origins of writing in China. ... Ultimately, the question is not whether the Dawenkou, Liangzhu, Shijiahe signs are ‘writing’ (this depend on the inclusiveness of the definition), but whether or not they constitute the beginning of a thread that led to Chinese writing. Since they appear to be closely linked to the mature writing of the Shang period, I believe they do." (3)
The story of the emergence of the written language illustrate how powerful ideological or ethnocentric bias really are. To conclude on that point I believe it is still early on the clock of archeology to proclaim a definitive statement on the matter. Archeologists are bound to make many more discoveries in the future that could eventually draw a completely different picture than the one we can observe today. We should thus avoid rushing to judgments. In any case what language came first makes no difference at all.
- specialized occupational groups: We have seen earlier that military men were the first group to specialize in a single activity. With the advent of empires they were followed by 'artists' and other craftsmen who offered their services in urban administrative areas and as a result technology spiked: ceramics, metals, and so on. It is interesting to observe that the men of knowledge of empires tasked professional image makers to 'illustrate' their worldview. With the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of State such images adorned the walls and ceilings of churches and cathedrals that had been built massive and high so as to impress the idea, in the mind of visitors, that they were insignificant in comparison to the majesty and power of the church. Those visual signs were thus instantly sacralized in the eyes of the believers who were the citizens of the empire.
- diverted surpluses finance monumental works: The Roman road system comes immediately to mind that connected the entirety of the imperial territory and in China the great wall.
- imposition of standards: the unification of empires was vastly strengthened by the adoption of standards: a common money, length and volume measurement standards, and so on.
2.2. The essential role of a codified worldview in imperial stabilization
Historical studies are poor at explaining why and how some rare tribal concentrations succeeded to expand into kingdoms and even rarer into empires. To my knowledge the only historian who advances working hypotheses that resist scrutiny is Arnold Toynbee. But his area of expertise is limited to the eastern Mediterranean and his hypotheses are thus restricted to the binding power of religious worldviews.
Successful chiefs and kings were those who understood that brute warrior force was insufficient to warrant power reproduction. They understood that the solution to warrant their power lay in gluing the minds of their subjects through the sharing of a common worldview. This had been practiced earlier over tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years by tribal societies the world over. But apparently that knowledge was disconnected from power after agriculture emerged and early kingdoms displaced tribal models of societal organization (lost in the Eastern Mediterranean it goes but not in the far East). Toynbee dwells at lengths, over thousands of pages, on the role of religious worldviews and their evolution along a string of successive middle-Eastern kingdoms. Those religious worldviews were imposed to Middle-Eastern populations, starting some 4 to 5,000 years ago, in a cultural environment that had first been burnt to the ground.
What I mean to say is that the religious worldview, in the Middle-East, was imposed after total eradication, or partial recuperation, of all signs and practices of the prior belief. Animism was thus eradicated from the collective memory and the knowledge acquired along its tens of thousands of years of incremental advances through observation was irremediably lost. This is to be contrasted with what happened further East. In China animism has never been eradicated. Early Chiefs and Kings used it as their societal worldview to keep their subjects glued in belief. Shaman continued to officiate in their traditional role only to be called Wise-men or Sages later on.
This distinction in practice between the Middle-East and China in terms of the worldview of early kingdoms is of fundamental importance. It is indeed what explains the different nature of their civilizations.
The religious worldviews of the Middle-East that transformed into the 'religions of the word' are fictional foundational stories totally detached from any daily practicality other than allegories reflecting on moral principles that acted as the foundational glue of their societies. In China, on the contrary, the animistic worldview that endures to this very day is grounded in organizing daily life. The Chinese animistic worldview is primarily a compendium of pragmatic life strategies. Its philosophy describes life as resulting from the emergence of order out of the original chaos in heaven (sky) which led to the emergence of the 'ten thousand things' on earth. Since their emergence the 'ten thousand things' are in a constant flux of changes cycling from 'Yin to Yang' and back to 'Yang to Yin' and so forth. From that simple philosophic principle, that reflects some of the tenets attained by modern science, Chinese animism developed a broad array of practices concerning daily life: food (Chinese cuisine), health (Traditional Chinese Medicine), relationships in the family (respect of the wisdom of elders), knowledge (the mandarins), societal organization (Confucianism), divination (the I-Ching) and so on.
Worldviews given by societies to their individual atoms can be no more than fictional foundational stories for the good reason that we are physically unable to comprehend 'the whole' in which we are such tiny particles. The ultimate conclusion we should draw from this is that truth is not in the human realm. Animism is such a worldview as are religions and philosophies. Modernity is its last incarnation. But what is the difference between them all?
Animism has been practiced over tens of thousands of years the world over as the belief system resulting from the patient accumulation of observations of what happens inside the individuals and what happens in their environment. That knowledge was passed down mostly orally from generation to generation through apprenticeship. In the conditions of its time animism was meant to be a pragmatic interpretation of reality that would help the group and its individuals foresee what was coming their way in order to take the necessary actions to ensure the preservation of the group and or of the individuals.
Animism was clearly not a religion, it was nearer to the description of a philosophy, and it is not helpful to classify it as a pre-religion as some have done in a rare display of paternalism, for, it had none of the attributes of a religion. Let’s recourse to some definitions to make that point clear.
Religion finds its origins in the Latin words “religio” (scrupulous attention, veneration), religere (bringing together) and religare (binding). In other words a religion is a system of belief and rituals based on the acceptance of a superior originating power upon which depends our destiny.
Philosophy comes from the Greek “philosophia” or knowledge by reason. In other words a philosophy is the rational study of the first causes and the general principles explaining the functioning of the whole in which humanity is living.
Religions, philosophies and animism have this in common in that they are in search of a coherent interpretation of the ultimate reality. While religions bring their believers close to fatalism; animism and philosophy leave the door open to further observation or rational reasoning. The essential difference between religions on one side and animism and philosophy on the other is that religions are closed systems, that experience huge difficulties to integrate newer cultural forms and because of this their followers are prone to fatalism, while animism and philosophy appear to leave their systems open to further observation and or reasoning.
2.3. Why such a stark differentiation between East and West?
Stark differentiations between East Asia and West Asia (fertile Crescent) manifested themselves in term of their territorial milieu and the particularities in the life conditions of their populations. What I mean to say is that we can observe some real physical differences between Western Asia and Eastern Asia that will, without any doubt, have an impact on the way they'll write the narrative of their 'axioms of civilization'.
Western Asia plus North-East Africa is often called the cradle of civilization based on resources available in the Fertile Crescent. In "A History of the Early World" archaeologist James Henry Breasted concisely outlines the main character of East Asia as follows: "The westernmost extension of Asia is an irregular region roughly included within the circuit of waters marked out by then Caspian and Black seas on the north, by the Mediterranean and Red seas on the west, and by the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf on the south and east. It is a region consisting chiefly of mountains in the north and desert in the south. The earliest home of men in this great arena of Western Asia is a borderland between the desert and the mountains, a kind of cultivable fringe of the desert, a fertile crescent having the mountains on one side and the desert on the other. ... The history of Western Asia may be described as an age-long struggle between the mountain peoples of the north and the desert wanderers of these grasslands—a struggle which is still going on—for the possession of the Fertile Crescent, the shores of the desert-bay." (4)
The most significant characteristics of West Asia are the following:
In contrast China appears as a continental land mass irrigated by the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers:
In conclusion the life milieus of East and West Asia were starkly different and as a result they have fashioned the contours of vastly different views about the world and more generally about reality. In the next post I'll try to lay out what constitute the most important axiomatic differences between China and the civilizations derived from the religions of the word.
1. Matteo Ricci
2. The origins of writing. By Ruth E. Kott. Univ. of Chicago
3. The Origins of Chinese Writing: the Neolithic Evidence. By Paola Demattè. Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 2010
4. "Ancient times, a history of the early world; an introduction to the study of ancient history and the career of early man" by James Henry Breasted. Ginn & Company 1916. Free pdf.
5. Mongol Empire
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