What’s in a Name?

Actually quite a lot, I realised as I was putting together new metatags for my site, one of which is “from Great Britain to Greater China”; an apposite summation of the shifts of the last two hundred years.

Last term I had to write an essay concerning the European (or British, depending on your viewpoint) industrial revolution. More specifically we were asked to comment on a few of the main theses addressing China’s failure to industrialise in the same era.

In the interests of not reproducing the whole essay, suffice to say that there are a few camps suggesting, broadly: a) European/British systemic and cultural superiority provided a unique crucible; b) Chinese ecological constraints skewed the economy in such a way that population and economic pressures trapped society in an agrarian model for far longer (Europe faced similar pressures but bailed itself out through recourse to resources plundered from its imperial conquests); and c) natural cyclicality gave the West a brief moment of glory in a world that had previously been, and will again be, dominated by the East.

I found that everything I read was so tied up in either trying to prove, disprove, or override the cultural superiority argument (Western scholars as prevalent in the latter camp as the former) it was hard to find a definitive conclusion. The answer therefore is no single argument adequately explains all facets.

The whole exercise had one fairly concrete outcome in that it put me off pursuing an academic future. Doubtless not every discipline indulges in the same kind of vitriolic slanging matches, but I would hate for my life’s work to be reduced to a public argument regarding how many skeins of silk equate to how many bushels of rice. I would have to care too much about too little for it to engage me for long.

There is something relevant to all of this in my passage through Europe this Christmas, although I am still grappling with the connections. It seems to come back to the cultural superiority debate. Bizarrely, I got culture shock on the tube into London due to the multitude of languages, shapes, sizes and colours of people around me. True, London is an unusually international city, but after the homogeneity of even Hong Kong, “Asia’s World City”, it struck me quite forcibly.

For all the West is in relative economic decline and some might argue that Britain is now Great in name only, the constant rebirth of London’s cultural identity enabled by mixing old heritage with new immigrant influences is indeed globally exceptional, even when compared with the American “melting pot” (and don’t get me started on segregation issues across the pond). China for its part tries to “Hanify” even their own Chinese ethnic minorities.

My Chinese friends seem baffled when I ask them whether or not a white child born in Beijing to European parents and raised through the Chinese education system speaking Mandarin would be considered Chinese, or allowed a Chinese passport. Perhaps until this ceases to be a strange question China’s culture will not have the open architecture that allows for worldwide embrace. Until then, China may remain merely “Greater” rather than definitively great.