Close Enough for PRC Work

In my last post on China, Zenpundit mentioned that a lot of Westerners are confused about what China is and what it is not. That first post was an attempt on my part to try to create a predictive mental model for the future of Chinese politics. I did not, however, manage to cover even half of the terms I’m trying to cram into the thing. One glaring omission that Chinese people would pick up on right away is that I postulated a separate Canton in a putative breakup scenario. The truth is that there has been no strong Cantonese separatist movement since before the Republic, and currently that trend shows no sign of reversing itself. On the other hand, Canton has never in its entire history been as rich as it is now, nor contributed as much to the coffers of the North as it does today. So I weaseled out and finished with the thought that I just don’t have enough information to weight the terms in my model. Which is true.

There are other factors besides the political which will determine the future of China, however, and I listed none of those in the previous post. Living in a Chinese family gives me some sense of what those other factors might be, although the Chinese in America are a self-selected sample.

One of the differences between acculturated Chinese and traditional Chinese that jumped out at me in grad school is that Westernized Chinese are more confrontational. The Overseas Chinese benefit from not having the heavy hand of tradition weigh down on their business activities, and the Chinese scientists who populate our graduate schools benefit from the same absence of supervision. The traditional Chinese emphasis on harmony has been a brake on progress in that country.

China has always seemed to me to be a culture of “good enough”. In nearly 4000 years of recorded history, the Chinese in China have rarely allowed progress to upset the apple cart of social harmony, and in those instances where events have come to such a pass, such as the great seafaring age of Sinbad (鄭和 a Muslim eunuch of the Ming court, born a Hui Muslim under the name Ma Sinbao), the innovators and entrepreneurs have been quickly squashed by conservative political forces. I think that this is a reflection of China having achieved civilization so early in the history of mankind, before a lot of technology was in the hands of the defenders of civilization to make up for the masses of barbarians arrayed against it. Any new idea that might upset the balance of power was suppressed. This is even reflected in their indigenous medical traditions, as noted by a leading historian of Traditional Chinese Medicine:

However, I may point out here already one of the characteristic traits of the history of ideas in Chinese medicine. Whenever antagonistic sub-paradigms emerged within one of the major paradigms, the resulting contradictions appear to have been solved only rarely, if ever, in a manner familiar to the historian of medicine and science in the West. Although we may witness, in the literature, sufficient traces of heated argumentations between schools propagating opposing views, after a while the issue was resolved neither in the dialectical sense in that a more advanced synthesis was created out of thesis and antithesis nor in a (Kuhnian) revolutionary sense in that a more recent paradigm achieved prevalence and dominated a subsequent era of “normal science” until it was replaced by the next paradigm. The unique feature of the Chinese situation – and this should receive more attention form historians and philosophers of science – is the continuous tendency toward a syncretism of all ideas that exist (within accepted limits). Somehow a way was always found in China to reconcile opposing views and to build bridges – fragile as they may appear to the outside observer – permitting thinkers and practitioners to employ liberally all the concepts available, as long as they were not regarded as destructive to society.

Later in the same paragraph (pp. 57 – 58 of the hardcover edition))*, the author goes on to say:

One of the basic difficulties in interpreting traditional Chinese medical terms and concepts today in a Western language results directly from this syncretistic trait of Chinese medical history. Identical terms were often used to denote very different concepts, and at no time was a standardization attempted which might have led to a dominating or stringent interpretation of even the core concepts by a majority of dogmatists and practitioners.

(Medicine in China: A History of Ideas)

The Chinese never developed a scientific method for testing theories due to their avoidance of intellectual conflict. I have great respect for the thousands of years of empirical observation contained in the traditions of Chinese medicine. If a Chinese practitioner says that such-and-such an herb will help with such and such an illness, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and conduct a scientific experiment or two to see if the claim is true. But the theories of Traditional Chinese medicine are clearly bunk, and often at odds not only with modern science, but with each other, and this deficiency is obviously related to the Chinese attitude that social harmony should take priority over material progress, and that arbitrary social forces should be allowed to decide when material or intellectual progress is “good enough”.

This cultural trait allows the Communists to quash dissent within their ranks in the name of unity to a greater degree than the Russian Communists managed after the death of Brezhnev. The downside to this is that eventually two things happen – the upper class gets fat dumb and happy, and either the peasants boil over or an outside enemy comes in and levels the place. That has been the cyclical history of the rise and fall of central power in China since Chin Shih Huang (秦始皇) united the empire in the first place.

It is very difficult to quantify a social trait such as this one, and place it into a model that predicts human behavior, even on the aggregate scale. However, such traits can’t be ignored either. The interesting activity is, of course, to try to find the boundary conditions: where in the Warlord period did the Warlords lose the desire to conform that their culture tends to impose? What about Yuan’s bid to be Emperor pushed them over the edge, and in what ways did the Taiping contribute to that eroding sense of unity? That is one of the reasons I’d like to see some good psychological portraits form the Warlord era.

* I like a lot of what Unschuld has to say, but day-um does he need an editor who does not hail from the obfuscating and punctuation-challenged halls of Academia.

3 thoughts on “Close Enough for PRC Work”

  1. I think that all pre-enlightenment civilizations felt a keen need to maintain social organization at almost any cost. In an environment in which every society invested 80%-90%+ of its total effort into just growing food, the threat of any disruption poised a serious risk of mass starvation. Disruption during critical planting or harvesting windows could lead to mortality from starvation on a scale we would associate with a minor nuclear war.

    Rice based societies most likely feel this effect more strongly than those based on dry grains. Wet rice cultivation requires a significantly higher degree of organization than any other form of agriculture. It takes more people working together to produce that first grain of rice than it takes to produce that first kernel of grain. Smaller degrees of social discord present a much larger threat in rice as compared to grain based societies.

    We shouldn’t forget that China was the exemplar for human civilization for many centuries. Their emphasis on harmony allowed them organize on a scale that dwarfed any other civilization. Yet to so they had to create a deeply ingrained culture of avoiding social conflict. When a new system emerged in the West, the testing of ideas by non-violent competition, they found themselves unable to adapt quickly. Americans would face the same problem if some other culture developed a new form of organization that did not employ individualism, democracy, rule of law etc.

  2. Shannon,

    I first heard the irrigation / rice explanation from James Burke of Connecitons fame. It made sense at the time. Then I married a Northerner and found out how much wheat (and now potatoes)Northern Chinese cuisine uses. The original inhabitants of the Kingdom of Chin probably ate sorghum and wheat. In the dominant cultural group throughout Chinese history, rice always was an imported food. Therefore, I don’t buy irrigation as the only, or even main explanation, for Chinese conformism, although it is a contributing factor, especially in holding Canton to the Center.

    I don’t forget that China was way ahead of the West for millenia. The thing to consider is that it may be the optimal social environment for certain levels of technology, but won’t support the development of really advanced technology without some fundamental social tinkering. Sort of like they way you need to destroy some of the pattern you’ve built up if you want to take a Rubic’s cube from a two-sided to a six-sided solution.

  3. John Jay,

    I don’t disagree with anything you said. I do think, however, that we would find that the traditional Chinese economy, as whole, was far more interdependent than that found in Europe during the same relative period of development. For example, a far higher percentage of the population of Europe lives in proximity to the sea which provides both food and transport. By contrast, a higher percentage of the population of China lives far inland. People by the sea can live in isolated pockets longer than people inland. If they piss off the neighbors and lose cooperation, the consequences are less dire. People in inland China must have the cooperation of their neighbors in order to receive trade by land or river.

    I would also point out that a lot of socialist and populist thinking in the West closely parallels traditional Chinese thought. Socialist dislike a competitive, innovative environment that produces disruptions and displacements ever bit as much a traditional Chinese. Perhaps our current cultural millieu in the West is just a flash in the pan. After all, you could drop the last 300 years of Western history into that of China without hardly raising a ripple.

    Perhaps we to will return to ethos of “good enough” and “not rocking the boat.”

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