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’.
The charm of an open and inclusive culture
- 20 July, 2016 @ 9:24 [Current Revision] by julien.leyre
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Source : 21ccom