Quote of the Day, by Perry Anderson

Enthusiasm, however well-meaning, is no substitute for discrimination. Chinese antiquity stretches back to 1500 BCE or beyond. But this no more makes today’s People’s Republic a special genus of ‘civilisation-state’ than comparable claims for la civilisation française make one of the Third or Fourth Republic.

Talk of ‘civilisations’ is notoriously self-serving, and delimitations of them arbitrary: Samuel Huntington arrived, rather desperately, at eight or nine – including an African, Latin American and Eastern Orthodox civilisation.

Nothing is gained by affixing this embellishment to the PRC. Like France in the 1930s or 1950s, contemporary China is an integrist nation-state, cast in an imperial mould, if with a much longer past and on a much larger scale. Nor are inflated claims for the age-old economic centrality or social wisdom of pre-modern China much help in understanding the present or future of the country.


Nor are idyllic images of sage concern for the welfare of the masses much closer to the realities of rule by successive dynasties, which in the words of one of China’s finest historians, He Bingdi, were always ‘ornamentally Confucian and functionally Legalist’ – repression wrapped in moralising rhetoric.

London Review of Books Vol. 32 No. 2 · 28 January 2010

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