Cultural Diversity Leads to a Shared Future for the World
General Secretary Xi Jinping once said, “Cultures become diverse through exchange and rich through mutual learning. Intercultural exchange and mutual learning are important impetuses for the progress of human civilization and world peace and development.” Adopting a perspective of cultural evolution, this article will attempt to demonstrate two points. First, diversity is the most essential and important characteristic of human civilization. Second, accompanying the advancement of modernization and globalization since the advent of modern times, diversified cultures have increasingly assumed a common responsibility – building a shared home for all humanity.
Human civilization has been diverse since the very beginning, and diversity embodies the essence of civilization. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions states that cultural diversity forms a common heritage of humanity and should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all; that cultural diversity creates a rich and varied world, which increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values, and therefore is a mainspring for sustainable development for communities, peoples, and nations.
The earliest civilizations were largely river civilizations, as major rivers provided a means of convenient interaction between our ancestors. It was frequent interaction, in the form of exchange, plundering, conquest, and war, as well as intermarriages and alliances that made possible the birth of civilization. In order to survive and to live more comfortably, our ancestors constantly sought to learn new things from far and wide to generate new ideas, which changed their way of life. Civilization was formed through interaction, and without interaction, there would be no civilization. This tells us that civilization, at the moment of its birth, was surely the outcome of clashes between different ideas and states of living, and that diversity is a necessary precondition for the birth of civilization.
Early civilizations demonstrated rich diversity. Generally speaking, the world’s earliest civilization appeared in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, which was a crossroads for the convenient passage and exchange of ancient humans. With a constant flow of people from all directions, it was here that language, religion, social division, and nation building first emerged. In ancient times, it was also here that produced a number of regional hegemons, such as the Akkadian Empire, Babylonia, Assyria, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which were all well-known ancient powers.
Ancient Egypt completed its unification around 3000 BC, and the pharaoh, as son of the sun god, firmly controlled the country by exercising theocratic and monarchic governance. At a time when civilization had yet to emerge in other parts of the world, this system had already lasted nearly 2,000 years in the Nile Basin, with its principles and framework basically unchanged. Such a stable political structure was rare in the ancient world. However, under the governance of ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, the ancient Egyptian civilization gradually fell apart and eventually became a part of the Islamic world.
The case of India was different again. There was once an ancient civilization in the Indus Basin, which was later destroyed by the Aryans, who then introduced the caste system. Under the influence of the caste system, there were many small countries clustered around the South Asian subcontinent for a long period of time, which were quite turbulent politically but were highly stable and rock-solid in terms of social structure. As a result of this system, social strata and the relationships between them almost never changed, and therefore, no matter how politically turbulent things became, social conditions remained unaffected. Political disunity and an extraordinarily stable social structure were the distinctive features of ancient India, a state of affairs that rendered the Indian subcontinent powerless to resist frequent foreign invasions before eventually becoming a British colony.
As the cradle of European civilization, ancient Greece was markedly different from the aforementioned civilizations. First, it originated from the east coast of the Mediterranean, or to put it another way, the origin of Western civilization was actually in the East. Second, ancient Greece was also located near water, but it was an ocean, not a river. This meant that the Greeks had more space for maritime activities, consequently leading to a tradition of colonization. Third, with its political framework based on city-states, ancient Greece was different from the rest of the ancient world. Its land was home to about 200 city-states that clashed and warred with each other constantly, and as a result, the city-state civilization of ancient Greece lasted only a brief moment in history. Another feature of ancient Greece was democracy for citizens of city-states, later claimed by some as a “universal value.” However, the following facts should be noted. To begin with, ancient Greece was a slave society, where nine out of every ten persons were not “citizens” and were certainly not able to live under “democracy.” Secondly, among the hundreds of Greek city-states, Pericles’ Athenian democracy was a special case which only lasted for several decades within the history of Athens. Meanwhile, there were also different political systems that existed in other Greek city-states, such as Sparta. After the Peloponnesian War, it was widely believed that the defeat of Athens was attributable to its system, and Aristotle’s negative comments on Greek city-state democracy influenced the political notions of Europe as a whole. Describing ancient Greece and even Athens as a standard model for the ancient world was in fact a later fabrication.
Ancient China developed a unique civilization, which was mysterious and difficult to understand in the eyes of many. The Yellow River was not the only cradle of Chinese civilization, which had multiple points of origin. More than 5,000 years ago, the vast area spanning from the Loess Plateau to the shore of the East China Sea was home to several converging points of civilization. They gradually became integrated with one another, and eventually developed into a single country. Over 4,000 years ago, the Xia Dynasty was already a huge regional nation; at least 3,500 years ago, the Shang Dynasty was keeping written records; 3,000 years ago, the king of Zhou adopted an enfeoffment system to standardize land allocation and social hierarchy. There was good reason for the emergence of such a system as it facilitated the tiered management of large areas of land, but it eventually led to the serious dissolution of society and caused wars lasting hundreds of years. After this historical period, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty unified China in the 3rd century BC, and from that moment onward, unity became the most precious heritage of ancient Chinese civilization, as it guaranteed the continuation of our civilization and lasting national development. Among all the world’s civilizations, only China’s has been uninterrupted since ancient times, and political unity has been its guarantee.
Beyond political unity, there was a strong theoretical force that bound the country together – the doctrines of Confucius. Confucius lived in an era of severe turmoil and endless war, and longed for the restoration of order and peace. It was for this reason that he created a set of doctrines on order, which dealt with both humans and nature. Building on past achievements to blaze a new trail, the doctrines of Confucius advocated peace, opposed war, upheld public morality, and criticized the pursuit of self-interest. For thousands of years, this remained the main theoretical vessel of Chinese civilization, and, to a great extent, guaranteed the continued progress of Chinese civilization.
Civilization has two vessels: the political vessel, which is country, and the theoretical vessel, which is ideology. In comparison with other ancient civilizations, the unique feature of Chinese civilization was that as early as the 2nd century BC, Chinese society had combined the Confucian doctrine (the theoretical vessel) with the imperial structure (the political vessel) to realize perfect integration between theory and country. Throughout the several millennia of Chinese history, social stability and economic prosperity have been directly related: social stability has led to economic prosperity, while social turmoil has caused the people to suffer. The reason why the Confucian doctrine became the core principle of ancient Chinese civilization has profound social and historical roots.
Comparatively speaking, integration between the theoretical and political vessels was not so smooth in other civilizations. For example, the long-term failure of Europe to integrate theory with country had an extremely negative effect on its later development. Looking at the period from 3rd century BC up until 3rd century AD, there were two empires in the world, i.e., the Han and the Roman which respectively dominated the East and the West and thrived as superpowers during that time. However, after the Barbarian invasions, the Roman Empire collapsed, marking the beginning of the feudal period in Western Europe. The most distinctive feature of this period was the separation of state power and ideology, namely to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Medieval Europe lagged behind the rest of the world, leading to a widening gap between the civilizations of the East and the West. The East was home to several glorious and fascinating civilizations, including the Indian, Arab, Ottoman, and even Byzantine empires, yet the Chinese empire outshone them all. According to an estimate by the California School, China’s GDP remained the largest in the world throughout the millennium prior to the 18th century, and for a long period of time the East was “advanced” while the West was “backward.”
Why was the East advanced while the West backward for more than a millennium? The answer is actually very simple: Western Europe’s feudal system meant that its society was highly fragmented, lacking in cohesiveness, and stuck in a state of endless turmoil and wars. More than 1,000 years prior to this, China experienced the same situation, and it was only the country’s unification in the Qin and Han dynasties that changed its destiny. Therefore, for the Western world to escape its medieval backwardness, it had to integrate society and re-establish united nations. This process began in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages.
In the beginning, civilization was like a candle lit against darkness, its lonely glow only able to illuminate the immediate surroundings. If a single candle is lit in a large space, it is easily extinguished by wind or rain. It was only when the lights of early civilizations were successively lit across nearby regions and were able to shine brightly together that those civilizations were able to survive and grow. Therefore, mutual support was a necessary condition for the survival of ancient civilizations, indicating that interaction made the emergence of civilization possible.
Civilizations grew out of small areas that we call the birthplaces of civilization. Through mutual exchange and contact, these areas continued to expand until they became culture circles, and different culture circles began to communicate with one another. This is a historical process of isolation to integration, and it shows us that a sense of a shared future was conceived in the smallest areas before expanding to eventually reach all corners of the world.
It was Chinese historians who introduced the theory that world history developed from isolation to integration in simultaneously temporal and spatial terms. This theory offers a highly condensed summary of the patterns of historical development and change, and adopts a historical perspective to expound on the process in which humanity developed from isolation to integration and eventually connected to form a whole.
From small areas to large areas, large areas to culture circles, and from these circles to the whole world – this is how civilizations grow. Through this process and after several millennia of evolution, the emergence of capitalism was preceded by the existence of several major culture circles. These mainly included those of East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and North Africa, and Europe, as well as the budding civilization of American Indians. Every culture circle contained several sub or sub-sub culture circles, as well as even smaller cultural paradigms. These culture circles, sub culture circles, and sub-sub culture circles shared similarities in some aspects yet also maintained their uniqueness; they were extraordinarily diverse, and together formed a riotously colorful world. At that time, relations between different civilizations were equal. Despite the long distances between civilizations, and their lack of mutual understanding or even prior interaction, all civilizations had their own distinctive features, and there was no one civilization that was considered superior to the rest.
This landscape was altered when capitalism first appeared in Western Europe. In the late Middle Ages, a process of reunification began in Western Europe, during which a fragmented Europe under feudalism was unified based on location, forming “nation-states.” The nation-state was a new form of country, and was different from all “countries” that had previously existed in the world. With the national community as its political support (political vessel) and national identity as its theoretical support (theoretical vessel), the nation-state thus combined the political and theoretical vessels. Supported by these nation-states, the West began its contemporary rise, thereby changing the state of affairs in which the East was advanced and the West backward that had existed for more than a thousand years.
And so it went that from around the year 1500, the world witnessed great changes, and a new civilization emerged in the West. Driven by capital and the market, this civilization expanded across the globe without constraints. A new kind of ideology began to dominate society – capital was the axis around which industry and commerce revolved, worship of God turned into worship of money, and science and technology were the tools of capital. It was around this time that the theory of Western-centrism was introduced, from which the idea of universal values emerged subsequently. The true meaning of universal values is to equate the West with the world, and to make the whole world follow the Western path, which is the death of cultural diversity.
With the discovery of new sea routes, Western countries began to expand and colonize new lands with increasing ferocity. However, after the Industrial Revolution broke out and capital joined hands with industrial forces to sweep across the globe, the world was powerless to resist. After centuries of struggle, by the end of the 19th century the world had been carved apart and Western hegemony had been established. It seemed that the time-honored system of coexistence between different civilizations had reached its end, and from the ashes emerged the theory of cultural superiority, which regarded Western civilization as advanced and other civilizations as backward. According to this theory, Western civilization would one day dominate the whole world, which would be reshaped in line with the Western model. However, history and reality have repeatedly disproved this theory.