May 16, 2009

Cultural continuity & revolution

I recently read India:  The Definitive History, and am currently reading Neo-Confucianism in History.  When I survey these Eastern societies I am struck by the deep history which marks their current form. For example some of the rites around the Hindu God Shiva are prefigured in representations from the Indus Valley Civilization, 4,000 years ago. The Confucian ideology which has been the central organizing intellectual system of Chinese civilization looks back to a ethos which notionally dates back 3,000 years, to the time of the Duke of Zhou, though aspects of Han culture which remain today are also evident in the Shang era Oracle Bones. Hindu Brahmins and Confucian scholars are heirs to a tradition within their societies which reaches back millennia.

Contrast this with the histories of the civilizations of Western Eurasia.  Modern Egyptians take pride in the antiquity of their nation, but that is dead history, which the fossilized nature of the Coptic language witnesses. It can be argued that ancient Egypt ended with the closure of the pagan temple at Philae in the 6th century. The proud Victorians were learned in the classics…of Greek and Roman literature, not the Beowulf of their tribal ancestors. While the Chinese and Indians have been influenced by foreign ideas, the new and the old have ultimately made peace with each other. In contrast the world of Islam and Christendom were characterized by a spiritual rupture.

Certainly China and India have not stood still and it is trite to say they are “timeless.” But these Eastern societies are defined by evolution, gradual change. They have preserved a reverence for the ancient canon of their civilization, from The Analects to the Upanishads. In contrast the societies of Western Eurasia have been characterized by cultural revolution; within a few centuries of the rise of Islam the Levant and Egypt, which had been home to ancient peoples, had become part of greater Arabia. The Norse mythology is known to us today because of the antiquarian interests of one man, Snorri Sturulson. It is likely that American evangelicals are more familiar with the events in the life of Nebuchadnezzar than the average resident of Basra.

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