Could The Global Problems Of The 21st-Century Have Been Predicted
By The Neo-Confucian Officials Of China's Past?
By C Ikehara
18 June, 2015
... Apart from [mathematics], everything else [Europeans] do is excessive ingenuity. … So often to play around with things is to bring a myriad burdens on oneself. They have investigated to the utmost such cruel things as firearms. (Chinese scholar Cheng Tingzuo [1691-1767)]
- [The Korean king's regent who ruled Korea from 1866 to 1873] viewed Japan's progressive reforms as yet more evidence of how far it had fallen from the way, how little the island people really understood the virtues of [a Chinese] world order. ("Revolution and Its Past..."[2002,Schoppa])
- So often, when financial reward is the main goal, common sense, safety, ethics and decency take flight. (Chris Day)
If government is supposed to be doing anything, don't we feel that it should be doing all it can to promote prosperity for its citizens? When you consider that politicians these days seem to be anxious to promise to make voters' dreams come true, wouldn't an elected official or political hopeful in the West be committing political suicide if he ever gave a speech promising "moderate" prosperity?:
- As capitalism falters, the rich move their money out of the country, violence increases, and politicians promising prosperity are elected. (Robert Kiyosaki)
"Moderate prosperity" is just what the leader of China promised in a recent speech which I feel reflects the thinking of the Neo-Confucian ruling elite from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) onward as to their belief that more important than growth was control. They realized the wisdom of the words of reformer Wang An-Shih of the earlier Song dynasty (960-1279) who said, "The state should take the entire management of commerce, industry and agriculture into its own hands, with a view to succoring the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich."
Although the late 1970's found China finally entering the global market by beginning to modernize itself, it now seems to be turning inward as it tries to prune and give shape to the growth that it has seen in the decades since then.
To those who feel it strange that the leadership of China seems to now be shifting gears, have the ruling elite realized something that we haven't?:
- Civilizations commonly die from the excessive development of certain characteristics which had at first contributed to their success. (Rene Dubos)
- The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards. (Walter Bagehot)
The author of "Science and Civilization in China", Joseph Needham (1900-1995), wondered why China from about the 1500's seemed to have abandoned technological innovation although it had led the world in that area up until then.
I feel that the reason is because the Neo-Confucian ruling elite of that time came to believe that developing and utilizing artificial means (e.g., technology, credit) and depending on them to not only keep things going but also to extend capabilities might result in short-term gains in productivity and efficiency but at the expense of the potential for abuse and loss of control which the officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) felt was a threat to their own authority.
As far as they were concerned, nothing could begin to function properly without a strong central authority. Concerning Barbara Tuchman's observation of our own times that, "We are too unsure of ourselves to assert [standards], to stick by them, or if necessary, in the case of persons who occupy positions of authority, to impose them...It should be the task of leaders to recognize and state the truth as they see it. It is their task not to be afraid of absolutes," they intended to provide standards for society in the way of creating norms which among other things imposed order and stability by defining how people in their varying roles should interact with each other. They would have agreed with Jose Ortega Y Gasset's who said, "Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made" and they wouldn't have needed to have read Hobbes' Leviathan to have been convinced that "... During the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man."
The Neo-Confucian elite would have felt that a sign that our own society is going into decline is the growing frequency with which yet another "new normal" is proclaimed--evidence that citizens see traditional norms less as guideposts and more as bonds to be broken free from with "modern" men now feeling almost compelled to instantly antagonize and attack authority, immediately tear apart and trash traditions, insolently rebel against and reject responsibilities and in a flash discard duties:
- There is nothing new, then, in the defiance of duty by the reformer: every step of progress means a duty repudiated, and a scripture torn up. (George Bernard Shaw)
- What once were vices are manners now. (Seneca)
- The so-called new morality is too often the old immorality condoned. (Lord Shawcross)
- It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. (Jiddu Krishnamurti)
As far as the Neo-Confucian officials were concerned, nothing could be more barbaric than the belief that "the end justifies the means" (actually a mistranslation of Machiavelli's "The Prince") which they would have said adequately describes the way we think and do things in the 21st-century. They would have agreed with what he really said, which was: "In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no impartial arbiter, one must consider the final result."
And they intended to play the role of the "impartial arbiter" and would have especially restrained those who acted on the belief that the end justified the means, especially when it came to trying to allow the artificial (eg, technology, credit) to subordinate ethics by defying norms.
In addition, if the growing utilization of technology and credit by the masses began changing their way of thinking such that they would become anxious to believe that anything is possible, and then become overanxious to believe that it's never too late to deal with the subsequent problems that would arise due to out-of-control technology and mounting debt, the Neo-Confucian officials probably worried that growing economic, social and political disorder would result.
Rather than acknowledging and accepting boundaries, citizens would start allowing notions of the promise of potential and possibilities not to mention the prospect of profits to preoccupy their minds with creating ever more leeway for themselves and having achieved that would then want to see how far they could go.
In the process, they would lose their fear of transgressing limits and think nothing of deviating from norms, ultimately derailing themselves and society by becoming more careless, reckless, and even destructive:
- When people once begin to deviate they do not know where to stop. (George III)
- Deviation from either truth or duty is a downward path, and none can say where the descent will end. (Tyrone Edwards)
Because the Neo-Confucian officials felt that not acknowledging and accepting limits would bring about adverse effects and even unintended consequences, they felt that, rather than experimenting with the new, they were better off looking to past experience as a guide to solving problems. They would have praised Edward Gibbon who said, "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past."
In contrast, the West wanted to see how far it could take things and was not afraid to enlarge the scale of technological operations and economic activity which the Chinese ruling elite felt would make management more difficult and increase the chances of disorder as things started slipping out of control.
With regard to going down modernity's path with its promise of "progress", the Neo-Confucian officials would probably have agreed with Charlton Ogburn Jr, who said: "I was to learn later in life that … we tend … to meet any situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization." And as Martin Jacques pointed out, "China has existed within very roughly its present borders for over two millenia and for virtually the whole of that period saw itself as a 'civilization state'. It was only when it was too weak to resist the Western powers in the early 20th century that it finally acquiesced in an arrangement that was alien to it."
And they wouldn't have needed to have read Marx's Communist Manifesto to have realized that "[Capitalism] compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the [capitalist] mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become [capitalists] themselves."
When it comes to economic management, the Neo-Confucian officials would have gone along with Adam Smith who said: "Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things" (1776, Wealth of Nations). Unlike Western Europe and later the United States who competed among themselves in the hopes of becoming economic top dog, the leaders of China never deliberately set out to become more prosperous than other countries even though at several times in world history, the largest city in the world was in China.
Although the Ming dynasty was founded in 1368, by the 1400s, the largest city in the world was Nanjing (which was the initial capital of the dynasty); in the 1500s, the largest city in world became Beijing. And the Ming officials probably felt that commerce was like art and religion and would have seen the wisdom of Oliver Madox Hueffer's observation: "... Art is like Religion. As long as you do your best to stamp it out of existence, it flourishes in spite of you, like weeds in a garden. But if you try to cultivate it and it becomes a popular success, it goes to the dogs at once."
And they would also have heeded Marx's warning of the danger of "... subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites" where "Excess and intemperance [would become the] true norm" as well as gone along with Gore Vidal's observation that, "Commercialism is doing well that which should not be done at all.” In our own times, haven't not only the excessive but also the exaggerated and the extreme become almost a way of life?
The Neo-Confucian officials believed that order should be the norm, and the prolonged peace of the Ming dynasty brought about an increase in population. Concerning continual technological innovation, they probably worried that it would put more people out of work, and they would have agreed with Art Linkletter who said: "The four stages of man are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence."
The population increase also put additional pressure on natural resources, and they would have gone along with Justice William O Douglas who in 1970 said: "... We must subject the machine-technology to control and cease despoiling the earth and filling people with goodies merely to make money":
- To conquer nature is, in effect, to remove all natural barriers and human norms and to substitute artificial, fabricated equivalents for natural processes. (Alex Campbell)
Concerning our "end-justifies-means" times where every decision now seems to have become just another "business" decision, if the Ming dynasty officials could somehow see how we live today, they would hardly want to trade places with us in spite of our relatively easy access to credit not to mention all the comforts and conveniences that modern technology has provided us. They would feel that the lack of a strong global central authority in the 21st-century to solve large-scale problems (e.g., environmental, terrorism) and resolve disagreements (e.g., territorial disputes) is causing things to slip out of control in a world which could hardly be described as being on an even keel:
- You look at the large problems that we face--that would be overpopulation, water shortages, global warming and AIDS, I suppose--all of that needs international cooperation to be solved. (Molly Ivins,d.2007)
The only doubt that they would have about us is whether we are barely treading water and have lost our compass and aren't even aware of it, or if we are simply living rudderless lives because we just don't know any better:
- O wretched man, wretched not just because of what you are, but also because you do not know how wretched you are! (Cicero)
Even though we seem to be on the verge of drowning in debt or may finally be overwhelmed by the next tsunami of technological innovation (e.g., artificial intelligence), they would probably be amazed that we have somehow managed to stay afloat and are seemingly resigned to trying to navigate with one hand the self-created rough waves and choppy seas of growing economic and political uncertainty, turmoil and chaos, while grasping at technological straws with the other hand:
- We have perhaps a natural fear of ends. We would rather be always on the way than arrive. Given the means, we hang on to them and often forget the ends. (Eric Hoffer)
And when it comes to reacting to change, doesn't this describe how we have come to feel about that?:
- ...It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Applying this theoretical concept to us as individuals, we can state that the civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself. (Leon C. Megginson)
Rather than automatically adjusting to change, the Chinese ruling elite of the past felt that change should first be evaluated in terms of whether it deviated from the norms they had created to promote order which provided them a clearer view of reality:
- The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. (R.D. Laing)
- Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they should be. (Hazlitt)
In the 1430's, the termination brought about by the Ming dynasty officials of a series of large-scale imperial naval expeditions is today perceived by many as the folly of follies, considering that Europeans would soon launch of their own Age of Exploration, which would not only surpass the optimal state that China had achieved but begin to dramatically change the future of the entire world - one where a mentality solely obsessed with maximizing profits would begin to lose sight of the optimum and push aside all former rational approaches to preserving and maintaining it. They would have praised Emerson who said,"For me, commerce is of trivial import; love, faith, truth of character, the aspiration of man, these are sacred; nor can I detach one duty, like you, from all other duties, and concentrate my forces mechanically on the payment of moneys."
According to the 1992 book "China: A New History" by John King Fairbank:
- [The] disparaging judgment [that Ming China almost purposely missed the boat of modern technological and economic development] comes out of the context of the late twentieth-century, when technology and growth have created innumerable disorders in all aspects of life all over the world without disclosing as yet the principles of order that may postpone the destruction of human civilization. In time the self-contained growth of Ming China with its comparable peace and well-being may be admired by historians, who may see a sort of success where today we see failure.
Getting back to Cheng Tingzuo's comment about firearms at the beginning of this article, it's ironic that it was the Chinese who invented gunpowder and were using gunpowder-powered projectiles as weapons of war before the West began using cannons in the late 1300's and handguns soon after.
Is excessive ingenuity turning out to be less about increasing efficiency and more about hastening our self-destruction by fanning the flames of our desire to see just how far we can go with whatever we've learned or discovered? Will we soon be paying the price of being too smart for our own good?:
- The mind is ever ingenious in making its own distress. (Oliver Goldsmith)
- The human race's prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves. (Arnold J Toynbee)
C. Ikehara is a freelance writer
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