I’m still reading Christopher Beckwith’s book.
The guy is still as nuts as I remembered him. Just a little example: back in Ancient China, around 300 BC there was a foreign people living in the Tarim Basin, which the Chinese called 月氏. There are good reasons to think those people were the Tocharians, an Indo-European offshoot. These characters are pronounced in MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) as Yuezhi (sort of /yoo-eh-jrr/ in American English).
Of course the modern pronunciation has nothing to do with the ancient one. As of now we are fairly confident of how Chinese sounded around 700 AD, the Tang Dynasty days, and those characters were pronounced as /ngwat ji/. Well of course there are 1000 years of difference between 700 AD and 300 BC. But Mr. Beckwith insists that the first character, /ngwat/, was pronounced /Tokwar/. Well, 1000 years is a lot of time, but phonetic change does follow some rules, and it’s seldom, not to say never, that radical. Not to say it’s purely impossible. But then Beckwith comes up with another theory of his. Any student of European history knows of Attila and his Huns, called Hunni (singular Hunnus, probably pronunced as Hunno at the time). Well it happens that in Ancient China, more or less at the same time frame as the Yuezhi, there was a tribe of steppe dwellers on the northern frontier called the 匈奴. These characters are pronounced in MSM as Xiongnu, which doesn’t ring a bell. But in 700 AD Chinese they were pronounced as Hiongno. Hiongno/Huns, steppe dwellers, good fighters… hey maybe they’re the same people! Makes sense, right? Nah, says Beckwith. Not a chance. So the Ngwatji are the Tokwar, but the Hiongno aren’t the Hunno. Right.
Note that the Chinese name has no need at all to sound like the name we know. The Helenes were called Graeci by the Romans. The Chinese call themselves Han, or Hua. But Beckwith has a theory and he wants you to know it.
That’s not to say that the book isn’t interesting. It is, very much so. And it makes a lot of sense in general, leaving Beckwith’s pet theories aside. One of the most interesting themes of the book is the idea that the steppe civilizations run the Silk Road as a worldwide trade network since antiquity, meaning that to some extent the world’s, or at least Eurasia’s economy was pretty much connected during most of history. Which means that technologies, ideologies, and economic cycles were also transmitted worldwide since much earlier than we use to think. He talks of the worldwide transmission of chariot warfare, of the comitatus military system, of the Axial Age, of universalist religions, all of which became popular worldwide at more or less the same time.
This idea of early globalization has a lot of common with S.A.M. Adshead’s approach on World History. Adshead has also written on Central Asian history, but Beckwith doesn’t refer to him so perhaps he’s not aware of his work. I was thinking on the implications of this theory, when I opened my daily feed and found this op-ed by the Chinese Gobal Times.
Populism has been gaining momentum in Chinese public opinion following several public events. Though an unconsolidated trend of thought, it is easily stimulated and could flare up in the future.
It is generally held that populism can be traced back to mid-19th century Russia, but it is ubiquitous in modern and contemporary times. With its enormous anti-elite sentiment and insufficient tolerance for different opinions, it seeks for absolute equality for all the people in a country. Though an important driving force for social justice and fairness, the concept, full of ideals and passion, lacks rationality. Populism can hardly find a footing in a Western society that often adopts an indifferent attitude toward it, which faces restraint there.
Populism has limited influence upon China but shows overwhelming power on the Internet. Certain members of the web elite take advantage of populism to advocate liberalism and some liberalist lawyers attempt to expand their personal influence. This leads to the awful consequence that inconceivable values and political groups are shaped in China.
A society is unable to campaign against populism even with huge effort because the idea takes on different variations and always appears with specific ideologies or political targets. Therefore, what a mature society should do is to get a lucid picture of the reality and nature of its objective existence, strive to prevent political forces in support of the thought from breaching laws and regulations as well as make its pursuit a disgrace in mainstream society.
If not maliciously utilized, populism is supposed to be “innocent” in itself since it only expresses some people’s sentiments accumulated in a natural way during the unbalanced development of society with no destructive power.
But such an assumption is all too idealistic, so mainstream society and in particular the government must identify targets in order not to fall into direct conflict with populism and get mired in a passive position in public opinion when cracking down on political extremism.
Given its clear-cut political direction, Internet populism has become politicized populism instead of pure sentiment or thought. Therefore, the general public needs to hold politics back from penetrating into this.
It must be noted that society’s call for order will prevail over people’s desire for catharsis with the gradual expansion of the middle class in China. Furthermore, those manipulating populism arbitrarily shall be given corresponding punishments in accordance with relevant laws.
Although populism should in no means be encouraged, the government must be prudent in tackling it to avoid defining such a trend as a complete opposition force. In a society with open public opinion, authorities have to remain resilient to a certain extent regarding populism, which constitutes a complicated topic in the realm of social governance.
Mostly unrelated to this, Hong Kong has already its own Occupy movement, which is growing increasingly important.
Any careful watchers of the US are seeing the trend is towards the death of the middle class, and a new social order where property is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small elite, and government outsources most of its functions to private contractors, while strengthens the surveillance and inquisition apparatus to quell dissent before it reaches critical mass. China has made a great effort to isolate itself from global ideological trends, but the overwhelming power of World History just can’t be fought. We truly are the mimetic ape.