The civilisation state

The Chinese do not think of themselves in terms of nation but civilisation; it is the latter that gives them their sense of identity.

Martin Jacques wrote in the Times a while ago about the lesser-discussed consequences of China’s rise to world prominence (he has written a new book on the subject). Particularly interesting¬† is how he describes China as not a nation-state but a civilisation-state. It struck me immediately that the terminology could be transposed elsewhere without as much difficulty as he appears to believe.

Although we tend to think of China in somewhat homogeneous terms, it is a continent that contains great diversity; and to govern a continent requires a plurality of systems that a nation state would never tolerate.

Replace “China” with “India” or “Europe” in the above paragraph and consider for a moment. He also writes:

Or take the tributary state system, which organised interstate relations in East Asia for thousands of years. It was a loose and flexible system of states that was organised around the dominance of China, the acceptance of the latter’s cultural superiority, and a symbolic tribute that was paid in return for the protection of the Chinese emperor.

What single word other than “tributary” so succinctly describes Norway’s current stance of paying money into the EU in return for favour? Finally, consider:

or its highly distinctive position on race, where about 92 per cent of the population believe that they are of one race

I think a similar percentage of the population of Europe would describe themselves as “white”. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking of the EU in terms of a “civilisation”…

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2 thoughts on “The civilisation state

  1. I think the idea of civilisation state is rather vague. Is it a collective of people believing in Confucianism? What about Muslims, Buddhists residing in the country?

    You mentioned the EU – however that is not a country but a group of countries with different laws. I think the author meant to compare one country against another -in that sense China vs EU is like comparing apples and oranges, sure both are fruits but not really comparable.

  2. It’s not about religion, although religion certainly plays a large part. “Civilisation” is no more vague than “nation” – both are well-defined in the dictionary sense, but hard to pinpoint in practice.

    The defining feature of a nation is usually language – most modern nation-states are mono-linguistic, although there are several notable exceptions. The equivalent feature for a civilisation is literature.

    For example, no matter what European language one speaks, the stories of the Brothers Grimm or Homer are instantly recognisable. These, together with other common memes such as the Bible (yes, religion does have a role to play) and familiarity with certain historical events form a shared pool of idioms (“writing on the wall”, “Trojan horse”, “crossing the Rubicon”) that translate easily between languages so long as one is familiar with the cultural context. Contrast this with a Chinese idiom such as (say) “crouching tiger, hidden dragon”, which appears meaningless to the average European even after translation. The very concept is alien, not just the words.

    Of course the EU is not a “country”, but that term is largely useless. Consider the UK – is it one country or four? On the other hand, Europe (not just the EU) bears more than a passing resemblance in terms of culture and society to the giant states of India and China, which themselves bear little relation to the traditional idea of the nation-state. The question is, what is the appropriate comparison?

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