China’s silk road and the ‘spirit of the times – “丝绸之路”与中国的“时代精神” – English

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The rise of any great power requires an external element of what German Philosopher Hegel calls the ‘Zeitgeist’, or ‘spirit of the times’, and the rise either consciously conforms to that spirit, or is an active effort to shape it. During the great rise of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th century, the spirit of the time was that of free trade; during the great rise of America in the late 19th and 20th century, the spirit of the times is that of free democracy. But what is the spirit of the times for 21st century China? People might say, it is the self-confidence and renaissance of Chinese culture. The Silk Road is a part of Ancient Chinese civilisation, and it could be a way to assist the self-confidence and renaissance of Chinese civilisation on the international stage.

Of course, when people talk about the Silk Road today, they don’t wish for a simple return of the ancient civilisation, and even less do they want to follow the steps of the great British and American empires. Instead, China must transcend its own tradition, and even more, it must make efforts to transcend the earlier models of anglo-american imperialism.

The ‘Zeitgeist’ of the British Empire was based on the principle of free-trade. The reason why this was the ‘spirit of the times is that free trade was in line with the current trends in world economy at the time. Britain developed as a State by relying on free trade, and it developed a global empire based on free trade. However, during the process of setting up the British Empire, behind the free-trade rhetoric, there was open resort to military force. One of the main features of the British expansion was to send the merchant ship first, followed by the gunboat. The East India Company, the Opium Wars, colonialism, etc, are also inherently part of ‘free trade’.

After the decline of the British Empire, the US rose to become the world leading power. In terms of free trade, the US went far beyond England. Britain is the home of economic liberalism, liberal economic ideology is deep rooted, and makes people believe that free-trade is a win win game, so England tended to pursue a proactive and unilateral open door policy. Even if another country did not open up to Britain, it still opened itself to them. But the US imposed other open door policies, and would only open up if the other country open itself to them.

America’s zeitgeist is not free trade but ‘liberal democracy’. Liberal democracy used to give America unlimited appeal, the “American dream” is not just the dream of Americans, it is also the dream of many backward countries. However, as with the great British Empire, behind America’s pursuit of liberal democracy around the world were guns and violence; sanctions against other countries, the use of force to resolve conflict, occupation of other countries, etc, are all part of American ‘liberal democracy’. This still continues today, but also contributes to the relative decline of America.

The rise and fall of the British Empire and the US both illustrate that the ‘Zeitgeist’ can be the basis for the rise of a country, and bring great advantages to that country. However, when this country promotes this spirit to the outward world, if the method they use is not proper, even resorting to force, 造成“己所不欲而加于人”的局面,then the rise is not sustainable, and decline must eventually follow.

promoting a peaceful ‘Zeitgeist’

China wants to look for its ‘Zeitgeist’ from within its own long-standing tradition, while modernising it to fit the needs of the time, while avoiding to follow the paths of British and American expansion, and even more, avoid following the paths of German, Japanese or Soviet expansion.

Chinese civilisation is the only secular civilisation in the world, and its cultural openness and inclusivity cannot be matched by other civilisations formed on an exclusive religious basis. From the unification of the country under the Qin emperor to the times of the Han and Tang dynasty, China was the world’s most open empire. Only under the Ming and Qing dynasty did it start closing itself off. China’s precious tradition of openness needs to be summed up. In its open state, how did China manage its external relations? There were mostly two systems. Relationships between the Chinese empire and other countries fell under the ‘tribute system’; China’s expansion outwards went along ‘the silk road’.

The tributary system has existed for thousands of years, and only faded after invasion of China by Western imperialism. In modern times, the tributary systems has been ‘demonized’ by the Chinese themselves as well as other countries. This system was seen as reflecting Chinese imperialism and Chinese chauvinism. But these views are anachronistic, they use today’s point of view to judge the past, or look at Chinese culture from the point of view of Western culture. The tributary system certainly had elements of inequality, such as the kowtow ceremony: this practice is hard to accept from the point of view of Western equalitarianism. But basically, the tributary system reflects the Chinese culture of ‘reciprocity’.

就其实质来说,朝贡体系是一种贸易体系,贸易是实的一面,朝贡只是形式。朝贡国定期地送“礼物”给天朝,向中国皇帝叩几个头。但通过朝贡这一形式,朝贡国不仅从中国皇帝那里得到了比其送的礼物要大得多的礼物,而且更是取得了和中国的通商贸易的权利。这是一种低成本的自由贸易模式。西方国家要依靠大炮武力来打开中国的贸易大门,但朝贡国则需要叩几个头就可以和中国通商了。当然,这不是说,中国今天还需要这个传统,而是说,这种仪式在当时是无可非议的,是符合当时的做法的,为所有朝贡国所接受,是中国和朝贡国之间的外交均衡,否则很难解释为什么这个体制能够生存数千年。唯一可以加以质疑的就是,在西方强权来到中国之后,中国还是守旧,跟不上“时代精神”罢了。

和朝贡体系相比较,人们对丝绸之路并没有什么大的异议。今天中国提出陆地和海上丝绸之路,但实际上,中国的丝绸之路从来就是由陆地丝绸之路和海上丝绸之路组成的。陆地丝绸之路就是中国向西,通过中亚、中东的广大地区和欧洲连接起来。提到海上丝绸之路,大多数人能够想起的就是明朝郑和下西洋。但实际上则不然。中国从秦汉开始就进行海上贸易,尤其是和东南亚国家的贸易,并且这种贸易从来就没有中断过。秦汉、唐宋开放时期,海上贸易是合法的。尤其在宋朝,中国和东南亚国家的贸易非常兴盛。反而在郑和下西洋中断之后,明朝实行海禁,海上贸易变成了民间的贸易,并且是非法的。

The charm of an open and inclusive culture

这里要强调的一点就是,通过朝贡体系和丝绸之路,中国形成了一个自然的区域国际秩序。中国是大国,这是一个事实,不管人们喜欢与否。如何组织区域国际关系?这里体现了中国的和平文化精神。中国只有在北方少数民族征服中国,并且自己变成这些少数民族的“殖民地”之后,才出现扩张政策。应当强调的是,这些殖民者最终被中国文化所“殖民”,不仅接受了中华文化,而且成为中华文化的内在一部分,这是中国开放和包容型文化的魅力所在。

这里所说的自然区域国际关系秩序,区别于人为的、通过国家力量尤其是武力来组织的国际关系秩序。无论是帝国时代的国际关系,还是帝国解体之后所形成的基于民族国家之上的近现代国际关系,都是基于暴力之上的。大英帝国、苏联、美国在确立以自身为中心的区域国际关系时,往往用武力开路,武力也是这个秩序的基础。中国所确立的这个自然区域国家秩序体系,是在西方基于民族国家之上的国际体系产生之后才解体的。

作为大国的中国,历史上并没有像西方国家那样,有计划地去打造以自己为中心的国际关系。中国的国际关系的形成,是中国和周边国家根据互相需要而打交道、互动过程中形成的自然秩序。中国所考量的只是如何治理这个自然形成的秩序。从这个角度来说,中国可以说始终是“韬光养晦”,外交的核心始终是贸易,很少用得上国家武力和征服。朝贡体系的核心是贸易,丝绸之路的核心也是贸易;或者说,中国国际关系的核心是经济贸易。而经济贸易,用今天的话说,是一种双赢和互惠的关系。

今天中国所面临的问题,是如何延续传统的丝绸之路精神,来建设现代化版本的丝绸之路。这里既要考虑到理想,更需要现实主义精神。在今天建设丝绸之路过程中,中国面临较之先人更严峻的挑战。传统上,中国是亚洲强国,因此没有必要通过国家和政府的努力来建设丝绸之路,而是可以通过自下而上的贸易行为来进行。但今天中国所面临的地缘政治环境已经大不相同。近代以来西方强国一直主宰世界,也主宰着中国的周边国家。自近代衰落之后,中国没有能力保护自己的地缘政治利益,今天人们所看到的诸多问题,都是西方强权牺牲中国地缘政治利益的结局。

在改革开放之后30多年的今天,中国逐渐成为强国。中国今天所面临的地缘政治和国际形势,既要求中国“走出去”,在国际舞台上追求国家利益,同时也要求中国必须承担起作为大国的国际责任。无论是“走出去”和承担国际责任,都不是简单的事情,中国面临无穷的挑战。要实现丝绸之路的精神,就需要分析中国周边所面临的挑战,要理解建设现代丝绸之路的重要性、建设丝绸之路要做些什么、怎么做等等问题。对中国来说,应当放弃大国地位从天而降的幻想,应当意识到大国地位需要数代人的努力和打拼。丝绸之路或许可以成为中国全面走向世界的开端,也是中国通往大国之路必须通过的一个重要“考试”。

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Source : 21ccom

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org