»  National Review Online

November 8th, 2001

  Dreaming for the Whole World


On my shelf I have a copy of Ch'u Chai's The Story of Chinese Philosophy. It's an excellent little handbook: a concise and informative survey of the field, with cute line drawings of the most important sages. From the point of view of a Western reader, however, it's a very peculiar book indeed.

Dr. Chai* takes us through all the main schools: Confucius, Mencius, Taoists, Legalists. The last philosopher he discusses in detail is Han Feizi, who flourished in the middle of the third century B.C. This chapter finishes on page 223. Turning that page, we find ourselves looking at a chapter titled "Conclusions." This final chapter covers, in ten pages, all the significant developments since Han Feizi.

The reader coming to Chinese culture for the first time might think there is some mistake. Perhaps he mis-read the title: perhaps it is The Story of Ancient Chinese Philosophy? No, the title is as I gave it. Is Dr. Chai playing some subtle oriental joke on us? Did he just get fed up after Han Feizi and stop writing? Or did he perhaps present a 1,200-page manuscript to his publisher, whose marketing department insisted on dropping the last 967 pages? (Don't laugh: this is exactly the kind of thing publishers do.) None of the above. Dr. Chai is an honest man, and the story of Chinese philosophy is just as he has presented it: a starburst of intellectual activity in the fifth, fourth and third centuries b.c., followed by 2,200 years of nothing much at all.

This came to mind while I was reading Peter Watson's piece in the London weekly New Statesman. Watson is an English writer who is about to publish a book titled A Terrible Beauty, advertised as "a history of the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind." New Statesman is the descendant of the great British left-wing opinion-and-literary magazine of that name that was so influential in the 1930s and 1940s. (It had its last flourishing under the editorship of the historian Paul Johnson in 1964-70. Johnson was at that point still a socialist. Until 1957 the paper's official title was The New Statesman and Nation, and it was known around Fleet Street as the "Staggers and Naggers.")

Watson's piece comes with a paper trail that you can follow back if you feel inclined. It was written in response to an article by Edward Said titled The Clash of Ignorance in the October 22nd issue of America's own The Nation (which I have never heard anyone refer to as the "Naggers," though it's not a bad nickname for that peevish periodical). Said's piece in turn is a rebuttal of Samuel Huntington's famous essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, which itself was inspired in part by Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis's penetrating September 1990 Atlantic Monthly article "The Roots of Muslim Rage," in which the phrase "clash of civilizations" first seems to have shown up.

Anyway, Watson, having done enough of a study of modernity to make a book about it, has come to certain conclusions. Here are some of them, lifted from the New Statesman article, which of course you can read in its entirely for yourself to see whether I am quoting out of context. Italics are mine.

The topic here is creativity. Why was China so desperately uncreative for so long? Why is the non-western world such an intellectual, artistic and even military failure in modern times? Why are the arguments of our "multi-culturalist" preceptors — that any culture is just as good as any other — so laughably unconvincing? Why is the west so creative? Go anywhere in the world today and you will see people — black, white, brown and yellow people, speaking a babel of tongues — using gadgets invented in the west, discussing ideas developed in the west, playing sports devised in the west, working in buildings erected on western architectural principles, wearing styles of clothing designed in the west, reading novels and watching movies and listening to pop songs based on western models … How did this come about?

A hundred years ago the most popular explanations were biological. Human beings come in different racial types, our great-grandparents believed, and the white race — most particularly the European portion of it — was genetically superior to the rest of humanity. You can, of course, get locked up for saying things like that nowadays. My own, only mildly scandalous, opinion is that we don't actually know enough about human genetics to rule out biological factors: but if they are present, it is just as factors, thrown in with a lot of other factors. It seems plain at any rate that being white and speaking an Indo-European language does not guarantee you a creative culture. Ask an Albanian, an Iranian ("Iran" and "Aryan" share the same root word), or an Afghan. In fact there have been quite long spells when white Europeans, although highly civilized by most definitions of the word, were perfectly uncreative: think of the later Roman empire. Gibbon said this was the case with the entire Byzantine empire, all one thousand years of it, though I don't know enough about the Byzantines myself to pass an opinion on Gibbon's opinion.

A different set of explanations was pressed on us in the last half of the 20th century. The west basically stole its creativity, we were told by people like Martin Bernal and the aforementioned Edward Said. The non-western peoples were just as creative as us, but we had stolen their creations, then stifled or suppressed information about their true origins, claiming them as our own. This was all part of the "oppression" white westerners had visited on the rest of the world. I used to regularly attend at an office of the New York City municipal government to transact some business with a very pleasant young female African American city employee. On the wall of her office was a poster listing, in quite small print, all the scores of inventions and discoveries that, according to the poster, African or African-descended peoples had made: the alphabet, the magnetic compass, airplanes, X-rays, … It used to make me think of the joke current among intellectuals in the late-Stalinist U.S.S.R., when the authorities were pushing the idea that Russians had invented or discovered absolutely everything: "Russia — home of the elephant!"

If you read a lot of cultural commentary, as I do for a living, you get the feeling that these late-20th-century "oppression" rationales for the non-creativeness of the non-west, though they will no doubt linger on for a few more years in dark corners (elite universities, schools of journalism, National Public Radio, Hollywood, France) are now, so far as most thoughtful people are concerned, fading away like the Cheshire Cat, leaving behind the following single, simple, and daily ever more obvious truth.

We of the west have political liberty. We permit open inquiry into all matters. Before deciding on issues of large national importance, we want to hear different opinions about them from respected members of our communities. We insist that those who govern us must periodically submit themselves to our approval, and, if that approval is not forthcoming, yield their offices peacefully to someone we find more acceptable. We keep clerics and military men at a distance from state decision-making. We let writers and artists create as the spirit moves them, submitting their creations to the general public for freely-given opinions. Our societies have many power centers, not just one. When those centers conflict, we resolve the disagreement peacefully, according to settled laws and conventions.

Because of all these things, because of our freedoms, we are creative, more creative than any civilization has ever been before in human history. We — mainly the U.S.A. — are creating for the whole world, dreaming for the whole world. There is indeed, as Peter Watson says, "a link between intellectual freedom and political freedom," and it explains everything. "The evidence is incontrovertible."

That's the good news. The bad news is that if you survey history on the large scale, our freedom and creativity is an aberration, an anomaly. The natural state of humanity is slumber, under the wise governance of an omniscient Caliph, Son of Heaven, Divine Augustus, Little Father of the People or other demigod. And worse news yet: as tens of millions of fundamentalist Moslems bear witness, huge numbers of human beings — perhaps all of us, to some degree, in some inner recess of our hearts — yearn for that slumber, actually prefer it over the stresses and challenges and insecurities of freedom.

* "Chai" is his last name. Being the obliging sort, Dr. Chai puts his family name last, in the American style, when writing for Americans. Normal Chinese practice is to put it first (so in China he would be "Chai Ch'u"). Some Chinese people switch their names round like this, some don't. The problem is, how are we supposed to know whether or not any particular Chinese person has done this? With one-syllable given names now very much in vogue in China, we find ourselves increasingly confronted with people sporting names like "Zhang Li," without having any clue as to whether this is an obliging person, like Dr. Chai, with family name "Li," or a disobliging (or just ignorant) one with family name "Zhang." Will Chinese people in America please take an obvious American first name, so we can tell? "Robert Zhang" is perfectly unambiguous. There's nothing demeaning about this. When I am in China I use a plain-vanilla Chinese version of my name — "Dai Yuehan" — to make things easy for everyone. Will Chinese people in America please extend the same courtesy to us?