A unique civilization

Wen Yang’s new book, The Logic of Civilization: The Interaction and Evolution of Chinese and Western Civilization. EVERYDAY CHINA

Book argues that China cannot be judged through the prism of Western standards, writes David Paul Goldman.

According to Professor Wen Yang, the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization cannot be understood by Western standards, nor judged by Western standards. On the contrary, Chinese civilization is a sui generis phenomenon with its own history, logic and self-understanding, he writes in his new book, The Logic of Civilization: The Interaction and Evolution of Chinese and Western Civilization.

The differences between China and the West are so profound that Westerners perceive them with great difficulty. For Westerners, civilization is simply Western civilization, the offspring of Greek philosophy, Roman law and Hebrew revelation. China, the most populous country in the world and until the end of the 18th century by far the richest, is considered an abnormal backwater, the domain of an immutable “Oriental despotism” according to a vision promulgated by Western thinkers. as diverse as Montesquieu, Hegel and John Stuart. Mill.

Twentieth-century America’s vision of China bore the imprint of Christian missionaries who saw China as the world’s greatest pool of souls in need of salvation. The US project to spread American democracy around the world associated with former President Woodrow Wilson found its Chinese expression in the Christian missionaries who dominated US policy-making for East Asia. In secular form, this Protestant perspective on China evolved into a consensus American view that, as China grew more prosperous in the early years of the 21st century, its political system would evolve to resemble that of the United States. United. US disappointment with China’s inability to live up to US expectations is a major source of Sino-US friction today.

One of China’s leading civilization theorists and columnist, Wen offers a diametrically opposed view: civilization is not a Western affair, but primarily a Chinese affair. Chinese civilization lasted 5,000 years; in contrast, Western nation states began to form just over a thousand years ago when barbarian invaders encountered the surviving remnants of the Roman Empire. The legal foundation of the Western nation-state only took shape with the Treaty of Westphalia half a millennium ago. To identify civilizational history with Western history, Wen writes, one ignores the duration and continuity of Chinese civilization over a much longer period.

Westerners will find Wen’s thesis difficult. The West’s own generative principle since it emerged from the ruins of the Roman Empire is universalist, and the idea that radically different modes of civilization exist runs counter to Western self-understanding. In a completely different way, Chinese civilization is also universalist.