COLUMN: Historical curiosities, Part III -- Empires and colonies, east and west

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
June 16th, 2020


Indigenes and Incomers

What freedom we possess! To live as an individual, with choice to create one’s own singular culture! Where else in the world can people do this? Canada, a land colonized by massive immigration from Europe, is lucky indeed to be one of the few. People like me are unlikely to live anywhere but within the Western civilization.

There may be geographic space to choose alternative lifestyle in the Old World. There may be individuals whose imagination yearns to break out of a traditional culture, religion, economy, and gender roles, in Asia and Africa and South America.

But, is there the material affluence at the base of society, the wide availability of education about other ways, and the cultural permissiveness and latitude, to let young people, or middle-aged ones, move out of the straight path of Tradition?

Modern Western lands have all the possible preconditions and liberties for “reinventing yourself.” Some places like California are legendary for this freedom. BC is our California, I think. My father called BC “lotus land.” He did not approve of it.

But within Western civilization too there are limiting factors, so that in densely-populated old lands like Germany it is harder to be “a new you.” Colonial-settler states have an advantage. Few in the West who can choose as freely as I have are living outside of the colonial, rich nations of the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Israel, the last colonial nation that grew upon the basis of Western global power in the 20th century, is not a place for free development because it is at war constantly, insecure in its hold on the land and threatened from hostile neighbours and by unreconciled people native to the land. Here, aboriginal and settler must find a way to live in peace.

Canada, like Israel, has unreconciled indigenous population, and officially the settler government here wants Reconciliation. But very unlike Israel, the settler population in Canada is a huge majority and has established a nation-state whose sovereignty is under no threat from the indigenes.

Aboriginal people of Canada have rights. They are not universally-known by all concerned, nor understood, despite being enshrined in a few words in our Constitution, and despite Canada signing the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Their rights are in fact constantly debated in our courts, our politics, our economy, and our culture.

Settlers who wannabe Aboriginals

I personally know a lot of people who claim to be allies of the native cause, who love natives’ culture as they think they know it, who revere native relationships to land, ecology, and social norms. Natives will save us from capitalism, is a sentiment I encounter frequently, since natives are inherently anti-capitalist, non-materialist, rejecting consumerism, and naturally more spiritual, than settlers.

My well-educated cousin, an engineer, environmentalist, onetime UN consultant, and friend of the late Jack Layton, recently emailed me with his diagnosis of environmental crises that can be resolved by “re-indigenizing our cultures.” He wants a Green USA. Living all his life in Ontario, ground zero for Canadian anti-Americanism, he is of course ill-disposed to the people who live south of Toronto.

I would love it if we could “re-indigenize” modern culture. As we are immigrants from Europe, not indigenes, we would have to be taught by the original natives on this land, or we could look back to our own cultural/racial indigenous past in Europe at the dawn of late-neolithic agrarian humanity. Readers might have heard arguments about how humans lost our hope of living in harmony with our ecology rather than alter it to our purposes (Yuval Harari, Charles Eisenstein). Agriculture, urbanization, social stratification, and all that, started homo sap on the road to ruin.

Realistically, one may well find the discourse about change wearisome, the constant call for Revolution of some sort. The word has been drained of meaningful content by hyperbole and over-use. Personally, I most enjoy observing incidental human change without intellectual blueprint or scriptural doctrine, the very opposite of Muammar Gaddafi’s planned Revolution for the Arabs with “the Communist Manifesto in one hand and the Koran in the other.” Mysterious change, inexplicable to rational analysis or plan, is change that endures. It seems to just happen, as the Tao has it.

The Tao understands change best by saying least about method. A wise soul who cares for the people does nothing and all is accomplished. But, the author of this classic text is reported in legend to have given up on making human society more in harmony with Tao and exiled himself from his homeland, going west where old dragons go to die. Lao Tzu, a court official, at the end of his teaching life, worn out by the warring state of China, did not put faith in education to change people. “The Tao that can be taught is not The Tao.”

Evolving thoughts

Humans are complicated. What we have done is not simply put down to the evil of pathological leaders we have been ruled by, or the systems they dominate us with, or… Casting blame on villainous Others is so easy, so common, and so useless.

At this late stage of your life, what are your own ideas that seem to you capable of being made real, or as new age types love to say, “manifest” ? As readers know, Eisenstein is a particularly salient voice for me. He has been writing now for two decades. His thought evolves. He began as an historian, in his first massive book, The Ascent of Humanity. He moved to economics in his next book, then to future-imaginings. His book on climate was engagement in political activism with a very different perspective, attempting to go to the root of the words and ideas we use to resist climate change.

He was claimed by the Progressive Movement, of the left, greens, feminists, native-rights etc. But politics and economics, about which he has written extensively, now fades in the content of his expression. I think his thought has taken the inward turn. Outwardly, world systems and structures, power, language, all have informed his writing and speaking. Yet more and more the crux of his teaching seems to go to the inside of an individual human. Soul, heart, wherever is the being of the human. The consciousness of each. Start there, work outward. Let the New Story of the People transform us first in each individual mind. Is this realism?

Anglo-Saxons and Chinese: “never the twain shall meet”?

A great deal is written about the essential and crucial differences between East and West; ever since the West grew powerful and confronted Islam during the Crusades and then sent its navies and merchants overseas to India and China, we Westerners have hypothesized about what made us ascendant on the globe. Kipling wrote a poem about east and west, with the most-quoted line of anything he put to paper; it was immensely popular among the British who ruled their Indian Empire.

Since “Eastern Wisdom” began to penetrate certain sectors of the English and American elites in the late 19th century, with studies of Asian history and culture, the confrontation of the two supposedly-unvarying world-views has been a constant of global journalism. Few educated Westerners haven’t heard of Gautama or Laotzu,  or lack opinions about Buddhism, Christianity, and Zen. Informed opinion is less certain to be encountered. It is effortful to learn history.

I’m reading a new translation of the Tao Te Ching by David Hinton. I am struck by his summary of how West and China diverge:

Here we encounter the sense of exile that drives much of Lao Tzu’s thought, that rupture dividing human being from natural process. While Western civilization set out into the barrens of that exile, China returned and stayed close to its lost homeland… [T]he Way of philosophical Taoism has defined the path of Chinese intellectuals throughout the millennia[;] the Confucian Way has defined the societal realm … The antiquity of [Chinese] cosmology may be reflected in the absence of a central creation myth in historical China. [My note: contrast this with the West’s two great creation-myth cycles in the Hellenic classics and the Semitic Genesis.] …With the political dimension formulated by Confucius, Lao Tzu’s majestic vision became the operant possibility for Chinese secular society.”

Hinton is a much-awarded academic whose judgments are respected by his peers in scholarship, so his conformity with the tradition of West and East in sharp contrast is significant to me. He sees Taoism and Confucianism as categories meaningfully defining China over a vast span of years. No one can point to such a clear category for the West; Christendom itself was too fragmented in pieces, Roman, Greek, Celtic, Orthodox, heretic, Protestant, and so forth, to be a single unified cultural matrix. No one can say with confidence that Plato is our Confucius, Moses our Lao Tzu.

Note that Hinton specifies China, a fraction of ‘the East’, in his contrast. I will do the same, and single out one part of the West in my remarks, the Anglo-Saxon fraction of the West which encompasses the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; some call this the Anglosphere. It is a sphere founded by colonial ventures.

How are Anglo-Saxons and Chinese essentially divided by our histories and cultures? Are the two traditions doomed to mutual incomprehension and conflict?

First, note what many have said before me: China had a series of unifying empires and imperial order, the West had only Alexander and Rome, and then 1600 years of fragmented states in perennial competition and war in Europe. China had its first unification in history by 220 BCE, and single unified empires — ruled by one emperor (of changing dynasties) always with the Mandate of Heaven — was the unvarying pattern in China until 1911. That year, the effect of the new West upon old China was triumphant. The last emperor was dethroned. A republic was set up, with a Constitution and all the paraphernalia prescribed by Western norms then.

Europe saw the end of Roman imperial law and order by about 400 CE, and stayed broken into pieces ever since. The Han Chinese gene pool was the constant basic population matrix, while Europe was much shattered by invasions into smaller Indo-European population-gene pools of Teutonics, Nordics, Greeks, Slavs, Latins. To these were added Asian intrusions such as Huns, Avars, Tatars, Khazars, Turks, Magyars, and Bulgars, odd pieces like Basques, Jews, Gypsies (Rom), and Finns, and the northern aboriginal folk who preceded the Roman Empire, the Celts, Picts, and Neolithic aboriginal populations without name.

This vast diversity of Europeans meant no single type could absorb the others culturally, while the Han Chinese “sinicized” the Huns, Mongols, Manchus, Koreans, and various peoples who might at times achieve military success over the Emperor but became Chinese over time. China was rent by wars, but unity was the norm.

The Anglosphere is a phenomenon of very recent times, a global linguistic and cultural hegemony with a remarkable history stretching back to the Dark Ages.

Saxons were not a big population pool when they appear in history; a rather small nation of tribes with chiefs in a tiny region at the base of the Danish peninsula. The Angles were another tiny people in Angeln, and the Jutes from Jutland a third party of Teutonic folk who colonized the former Roman Britannia from 400 CE onward. It took the Anglo-Saxon-Jutes four centuries to become the Aenglisc under King Alfred, near three centuries to become Christian, four centuries to push the Celtic Britons far to the west, to Wales, or north to the highlands of Scotland. They were a weaker folk than Franks, Goths, Vandals, Suebi. But they grew, and grew, and grew in number. By 1066, England existed; the Norman Conquest drew the Saxons closer to Roman papal Christendom, Frankish civilization, and political-economic renewal.

Ireland remained a Celtic holdout nation who, with Welsh and Gaelic Scots, the people the Saxons could not anglicize. China sinicized its conquerors and clients, but the English never could succeed in making their “British Isles” an anglicized realm. The diversity served the Isles well when they ruled a world empire.

Only long after the long medieval period, when China lived a cultural zenith with Sui, Tang, and Sung dynasties, had the English begun to make a mark in world history by naval and commercial exploits in the New World/western hemisphere. Victories against the world empire of Spain, then against the Dutch commercial hegemony, then against the French royal and imperial power, plus their successes in novel capitalism, made the English a global force by 1700; even more so after 1800. In 1850, their empire was peerless in the world. Britannia ruled.

China had sent large naval armadas to Africa, India and Arabia in the 15th century, but then the Ming emperors chose to end those explorations, when China was still the world’s greatest civilization. The Middle Kingdom, the blessed realm “under Heaven,” required no overseas expansion, the ruling elites of China believed, and went on believing in its supremacy until the West forced itself upon the empire.

No outside culture forced itself upon Europe, the West, after Rome fell. No armies or navies invaded and conquered Europe in its core, despite catastrophes of lost battle against Huns, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks in the eastern and southern periphery. China suffered humiliation and indignity to its civilization consequent upon defeat by Western powers, and by Japan (a westernized power), after 1840. The humiliation continued through WWII, but when Mao won the civil war in 1949, China was liberated from the West, particularly American capitalist-imperial reach. The USA was wracked for awhile by the political uproar when Americans asked their leaders, “who lost China?” American Christian missionaries felt that China was their Providential opportunity for evangelism. Strange religious delusions abound.

The 1949 Revolution, the establishment of Red China, was not entirely a Chinese victory over the West. The West had infected China with a Western philosophy and world view, Marxism-Leninism. The USSR    a quasi-Western Marxian empire — was for awhile an overbearing communist ally of China, but that brief client status of Beijing to Moscow was over by 1962. Mao’s China was no-one’s chess piece on the board, no weight to be thrown by the USSR into global balance-of-power struggles.

“May you live in interesting times”

Still, China had been westernizing while modernizing its economy and political order. After Mao, capitalism was invited into China under strict Party controls. Individualism is a part of capitalist culture, and the Party has had to allow some.

“Enrich yourself” and “It is glorious to be wealthy!” are slogans the Party propagated to kick-start capital accumulation in China by ambitious, aggressive individualists who created corporations like Hua Wei under the Party’s mastery. Collectivism of, by and for “the People”, so important to Mao, is at odds with capitalist ideas of the Self.

To be modern means to adapt to and adopt many Western cultural norms. Karl Marx and Lenin overthrew Confucius and Laotzu. China’s rulers constantly watch over how ancient-traditional and modern-westernist ingredients are combined in their realm. It seems pretty clear from events in Hong Kong that the penetration of western influence among Chinese students and liberal citizens is not tolerated; Beijing will not allow this former British colonial city to continue on a path divergent from Party dictate, no matter what a treaty says. China will not be a player in the global international order established by the Anglo powers in the U.N. The U.N. is a tool China might use, but the power of America within that institution renders its edicts and norms suspect to Beijing. The U.N. is not everyone’s idea of fairness.

China now has a very complicated cultural relationship to the Anglosphere. The British Empire, then briefly Japan, then America, have been dominant in China, and the war which forced Japan out of China was a victory of the Anglo-Saxons, not Chinese. Australia and New Zealand are clearly Anglo states of first-world capitalist, consumerist affluence, of democracy in the Western mode, and lands allied with the one world superpower, the USA. These facts are not welcome to Chinese self-esteem.

How did China fail to keep up with the West in modern development, in science, in economy? How fail to colonize those Australian and New Zealand territories, so much closer to China than to Europe, with Chinese settlers ruled by a Chinese colonial empire? These are embarrassing facts of history for a people who live in the Middle Kingdom, the greatest civilization of world history for so long. Overcoming the ‘shame’ is a key element of Xi Jinpeng and his Communist Party’s program for the nation, with its imperial outreach along the “new silk road” and the “civil-military fusion” aimed at creating a people united for power.

For certain, the world will not be less interesting in the geopolitical order unfolding after the pandemic. The fall of the communist Soviet Russian empire, the brief hegemony of the USA as unipolar hegemon, did not start a new era of world peace. As overpopulation of the earth by humans raises philosophical/spiritual questions for minds like Eisenstein’s, old materialist contests for power grind on. I am with Eisenstein in his evolving thought, but I am realist enough to know a very great deal of the human condition is not being transformed by a New Narrative.


In the May edition of Arc, I had much to say about how I see my role as an historian, journalist and educator. I tried to relate my passion for the past to the present situation; I tried to make a case for making my contribution to the public interest in the pandemic while doing what I do, provide facts and discuss ideas in public, particularly offer opinions informed by historical grounding.

I acknowledge humbly that information and discussion is offered many places, and readers will see how much I owe to other writers, newspapers, online sources, and CBC. Today I wear only the hat of the historian, not a teacher nor journalist, not a chronicler of the present and the pandemic event.

My mind turns often to questions of power, culture,  and human habit, and if yours does too, you might have stayed with this column, reading for your own curiosity. I’ve put forward a few random thoughts that have been rising to the surface of my consciousness as I spend even more time alone and in quiet, contemplating, reading, theorizing. Looking for clues to the mystery of the human condition.

As I say in the introduction to all the episodes of my KCR radio program, The History Hour,History is the observation of the experience of the human species. What humans have done in our past, and what was recorded, is one grand uncontrolled experiment. What we can learn from this experiment, about our species, is the purpose of this program.”

I might as well put in a plug for my show: please listen Fridays at noon by tuning in 93.5  FM in Nelson, 107.5 in New Denver area, and 101.5 west of Nelson beyond south Slocan, or stream it online at www.kootenaycoopradio.com

If you like what you read here, you may like what you hear there.

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