Rereading China: A History

Rereading John Keay’s China: A History which is even more mind blowing—I suppose illuminating is the bigger word for it, but same thing—than when I read it a decade ago. It’s longish, half a thousand pages and some—but almost breezily written, full of vivid details from the astonishingly complete record that Chinese written history has left us, going back almost continuously for three thousand years. I’ve never read Tolkien but I suspect that the feeling of being immersed in an alternative world packed with drama and personalities and vivid detail in a continuous narrative is the same, without the vast gaps that plague so many parts of the world where people never got around to writing anything down (as Dark Age Europe, say, or India, where they invented the science of language among so many other extraordinary things but never really got round to history.) In any case it’s the Tang Empire now halfway through the book, when China was unparalleled by anybody anywhere, a sophistication at the time (about 650 A.D. by our watches) that is almost impossible for a westerner to understand. Such is the advantage of an arc of civilization unbroken by the conquest or immersion or annihilation that befalls most civilizations, a status that lasted in China for thousands of years. And in China they wrote everything down going way, way back and in a language and writing system that didn’t become indecipherable. You don’t forget how to do things when you’ve written everything down and even if you do forget after a lapse of a couple centuries—these things can happen in the best of civilizations—you can look it up again. Technologies were not forgotten the way so much was forgotten after the Roman or Persian or Khmer or Incan empires fell (among many myriad examples.) The downside of this continuation, though, is that eventually you get hung up in your own traditions, hidebound and crotchety and unwilling to try anything new. That’s still coming up in the book, though, centuries after the Mongols invaded and killed 20 million people and wrecked everything. I’m a hundred pages and half a millennium away from that mess. Happier times ahead for now. Then collapse, reemergence, virtual annihilation, reemergence, collapse again, another invasion….eventually we get to the latest Revolution (there is a long history of such revolutions in China, nothing there is never really new) and the latest emergence. The US will probably be long gone in a thousand years, but China in some stage of its interminable gyres will still be China.

Anyway, gotta run, this new Tang emperor is getting down.

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Decline and Fall

This is end times, someone wrote. Yeah, a friend wrote back, it’s like the fall of the Roman Empire. You hear that a lot, how we are declining like Rome. As if Roman history as Edward Gibbon described it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were a template that all afterward must follow. But the United States has existed only 250 years. 250 years seems like a long time, a quarter of a millennium, ten generations, four lifetimes. Someone born, say, in 1766–old enough to remember the Declaration of Independence, the twenty gun salutes, the parades and the war–could die at 1826. His grandkids born in 1816–old enough to remember grandpa, could live till, say 1876. His ten year old great grandson, born in 1866 (and imagine how dramatically different the county was, and suddenly, in 1866) could live easily till 1926. 1936 even. His great-great grandson, born in 1926, could have had a son born in 1957 (making him the great-great-great grandson) and a grandson (the great-great-great-great grandson) born in 1986. That’s a lot of great-greats. But not so many that you can’t imagine the continuum of relationships between them. It’s not that far back to your great grandfather and then to his great grandfather, the one who witnessed the American Revolution. The extent of American history can be expressed in a just a few relatives, a brief string of grandfathers.

That seems a long time. But Rome lasted ten times as long. The kingdom of Rome lasted a couple hundred years, and then the Roman Republic lasted from about 500 BC to 27 BC, and the Western Empire till 476, and the Eastern empire till 1453, you’re talking twenty two, maybe twenty three centuries of continuous existence. That is grandfathers out to the nth degree. And it’s there, for me, that the decline of the Roman Empire template doesn’t work for the U.S. We have not been here long enough to have any sort of decline on a Roman scale. Comparisons between the U.S. and the Rome are just trite exposition devices, clichés. Very few states and/or civilizations have had the sort of longevity that Rome had. Egypt was one, ending as an independent kingdom after maybe three thousand years, lasting as a distinct civilization another thousand years, and as a culture since. China remains another, endless cycles of concentrated imperial power and chaos and a civilization that remains distinctly Chinese for four thousand years. As does Iran–something few people outside Iran realize is that Persian civilization has stood in a continuous arc now for 2700 years (though if you include the Elamites it goes back twice that). To Iranians we Americans are just the latest in an endless line of enemies, all of whom they have thus far outlasted. They feel sure they will outlive us too. From our perspective now it seems utterly absurd to think that they will long survive us. But if the historical record is any guide, they probably will. They will be here, and so will China. Then again, we might be here too. Just because we got such a late start doesn’t mean we may not be here two or three thousand years hence. It’s just that very few civilizations have managed to last intact that long. Something generally happens and they fade away or dissolve or vanish completely in a bloody instant. Half-lifes remain, echoes, in a language, religion, mythology, even cuisine. And sometimes nothing remains at all but ruins. I wonder if anything at all remains of the ways of the people who lived in many of those ruins in Mesopotamia, memes we don’t even recognize as memes. If so, memes must litter the Fertile Crescent like shards of glass. People doing things because people did those things five thousand years ago, in long dead languages. A half dozen of this, a dozen of that we think, babylonically.

Gleaning my well thumbed copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall again to see into our own future is a futile exercise, of course, turning history into science fiction. I’ve done the same with Thucydides. I get no answers, just vague suppositions. Who knows what the fate of American civilization will eventually be. Maybe something entirely new. Perhaps we’ll be hacked into non-existence, control-alt-delete and zap.

An earlier border wall.

An earlier border wall.