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Reflecting on ancient Chinese exceptionalism: ANN contributor

The Chinese New Year is time for family and reflection, when Chinese families ponder on the year before and speculate on the next cycle.

The Genzi Year of the Rat, historically associated with disaster – the Opium War (1840), Boxer Rebellion (1900), and famine (1960) – turned up with a calamitous pandemic and global recession. Ironically, the disaster co-existed with outperforming stock returns, thanks to excess liquidity from the new Gods of Wealth, aka central banks.

In the Year of the Metallic Ox, optimists pray for the next Kuaishou winner, which appreciated 161 per cent on its IPO this month. Pessimists worry whether the US-China relations will turn for the worse. Was 2020 the end of American exceptionalism and the rise of Chinese exceptionalism? What is so exceptional about the Chinese worldview?

Cultural generalisations tread on dangerous ground, because modern China was shaped by its tumultuous engagement with the rise of the West since the 17th century. In the first millennium, Buddhism came from India. In the last 300 years, China absorbed Communism and science and technology from the West. Both Buddhism and Communism no longer prevail in their countries of origin.

Nevertheless, the earliest Western sinologists noted how China was different. French historian Jacques Gernet’s “A History of Chinese Civilisation” remarked how “its fundamental traditions – political religious, aesthetic, juridical – are different from those of the Indian world, of Islam, of the Christian world of the West.” For example, Harvard Professor Benjamin Schwartz highlighted “correlative cosmology” (Yin-Yang) as a mode of thinking that runs quite distinct from Western philosophy. This “organic humanism”, in which the Chinese regarded man and nature as one under heaven, was one reason why Cambridge sinologist Joseph Needham (Science and Civilisation in China) thought why China did not develop modern science.

There is little dispute that modern science is a Western invention. Prior to the Renaissance, European thinkers drew eclectically from Greek, Arab and Indian mathematics, philosophy and arts. One of the founders of the Scientific Revolution, Francis Bacon attributed power to English use of gunpowder, compass and printing, without realising that these were Chinese inventions.

The West developed science in the 17th century from their logical or reductionist search for cause and effect in nature. Man and Nature can be separated, just as Mind and Body were treated as distinct entities. As Future Shock author Alvin Toffler remarked in his Preface to the Nobel Laureate systems thinker Ilya Prigogine’s book “Order out of Chaos”: “One of the most highly developed skills in contemporary Western civilisation is dissection: the split-up of problems into their smallest possible components. We are good at it. So good, we often forget to put the pieces back together again.” Chinese thinking rarely went down this reductionist route, because it instinctively thought the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

What is so special about Chinese correlative thinking? It is organic, systemic and indeterminate, recognising chance, contradictions and paradoxes, different time cycles and non-separability between observer and observed. Contrast this with the standard economic analysis that is partial and context free (other things being equal, timeless, random yet predictable, depending on rational man as the agent in a free market). As science historian Stephen Toulmin argued about scientific modernity, the West took off in the 17th century towards theory-based methodology that sought universal, timeless and context free principles about nature, and by extension, also about social science. Science could explain, predict and manage nature. Humanity was split from science into the arts, just as good can differentiated from bad. Determinism required clear concepts that were absolute and objective. Economics copied classical physics in trying to explain the world scientifically in mathematical models that we know today are flawed because they ignored the irrationality of man and markets.

As French sinologist and linguist Marcel Garnet explained: “The Chinese are either superstitious or practical, or rather they are both at once. It is this ‘both at once’ that a Westerner often finds hard to grasp.” (quoted in Fernand Braudel ‘A History of Civilisations’). The Chinese Taoist “correlative cosmology” saw life as systems of interacting opposites – male and female, cold and hot, interacting with each other in constant change and evolution. Life therefore is seen in cycles or feedback loops that are mathematically difficult to predict with exactitude.

In short, ancient Chinese thinking was dialectic in nature, always seeking the contradictions that good events may have bad outcomes, whereas failures can end up with successes. The Chinese revolutionaries took to Communism because of the Marxian dialectic methodology that resonated with Taoist correlative worldview.

Chinese development policy is replete with dialectic maxims, such as opening and closing at the same time. The dual circulation strategy is about the dynamic interplay of relying on domestic consumption and external trade and investments at the same time. If the external environment is unfriendly, develop the domestic business first. If the foreign rivals welcome trade, expand the market and open up more business.

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations is about zero-sum game thinking, in which one civilisation gains at the other’s loss. The Chinese approach searches more for the win-win “Dialogue of Civilisations” in which competitors cooperate even as they compete, like Darwinian co-evolution of competing species.

The Chinese worldview is not the only competitor to the West. Within the next few decades, the Indian worldview will advance as South Asia of more than 1.6 billion population rises. So will the Islamic worldview which has more than a billion followers. Each will identify with their own exceptionalism. These multi-polar networks of power will inevitably challenge the US unipolar paradigm.

During the holidays, if you really want to understand how Chinese inside and outside think in a fast changing world, read TL Tsim’s new novel “Between Two Shores”, the best political whodunnit by a Chinese writer in English that I have read for years.

Enjoy the holidays and Kong Hei Fatt Choy!

The writer comments on global issues from an Asian perspective for the Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.

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