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Understanding Four Civilizations: China, Japan, Europe, and the Anglo-Sphere

ALAN MACFARLANE | 2022-09-01 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

I’m talking about understanding four civilizations: China, Japan, Europe, and the Anglo-sphere. What I want to talk about centers around one of the major events of the 21st century, which is the global shift of power from the West to the East. Now, that has huge implications, obviously. It’s leading to stresses and strains and it’s similar in many ways to what happened when the British Empire was overtaken by the American Empire, and so on. And various people have claimed that this may well lead to a third world war and other things. It’s with that background that I want to talk further because I believe it’s absolutely essential to avoid catastrophe that we understand each other. This has been my role as an anthropologist. 
Four civilizations 
Now, I mainly want to talk about a book [China, Japan, Europe and the Anglo-Sphere: A Comparative Analysis] on four civilizations which is trying to set up the principles for four of the great civilizations that dominate the globe. The cover of the Chinese version which has just come out in China is as follows. You can see a map of the world which describes civilizations as it seems to dominate our globe. It’s based to a certain extent on a book by Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. He actually had nine different civilizations in his book and I’ve simplified them down to just four. So I’ve got the light blue which is the Anglosphere, English speaking-derived areas, with the red orange which is the Sinosphere, China. Japanese, you can hardly see, is another one. The blue, or the purplish, one is the Eurosphere.
What are these entities which seem to dominate our world? Civilization is an area which shares a common culture, often a common language, though not necessarily a common government but a social system and a way of approaching the world which unites people across from South America to Portugal, or from Britain to Australia. We are separate countries but we are part of a sphere of influence or sphere of common culture which I call a civilization.
The idea of the book is to explain to those who are interested what the main units in the world are and how they work, because many people are totally ignorant. They know about their own country. Maybe they know about their own sphere. They know that the British are like the Americans or whatever. But if you ask them: how does Japan work? China work? What’s the difference between Britain and Europe? They have no idea. They have never thought about it or gone into it in any depth. By explaining the differences, I hoped that it would be possible for these different civilizations to coexist, not to become one world civilization based on the Anglosphere or the Chinese Sinosphere, but to continue their trajectories on the basis of neutral understanding.
So I use the various metaphors in this book and elsewhere to try and create a harmony of civilization. It is not a clash. And among the metaphors I use are music. So the world can be seen as an orchestra in which the Anglosphere is a piano, the Sinosphere is a violin, and the Eurosphere is a cello, and so on. They remain cellos, violins, and pianos distinctive, with their own contribution, but they play together, and don’t try and dominate or force each other. Another metaphor would be trees. I describe the character of each of these as if it was an oak or an ash or a bamboo or whatever the tree was and in a mixed, deciduous, as we call it, forest. You have all kinds of trees coexisting. Some push a bit against others, but on the whole, they manage to exist together and that is a good metaphor.
Understanding each other
So, the way I approached trying to understand each civilization was to start with the point of origin where each civilization started because as Tocqueville—who used this method— pointed out, we are largely determined by the seed, to use the metaphor of a plant, the original form. So in each case, if you look at, for example, the Anglosphere, it’s Anglo-Saxon goes back 1,500 years ago and the legal, political, and social system of the Anglo-Saxons. In the case of China, it’s far deeper in history, and it goes back to various characteristics of the early civilizations of China, later evolving through Confucianism and Buddhism, but it’s based on Daoism and a certain family system, which is very ancient. Likewise, in Europe, it’s interesting because it’s based on two contending civilizations in tension, the Roman and Greek civilization that dominated Europe until the 4th or 5th century, and then the Anglo Saxons. That explains a lot of the tension and backwards and forwards in Europe.
Japan has a very ancient shamanic civilization brought down from China and which still exists. They are in many ways continuous with that and they have certain characteristics which I try to describe. The idea of continuity with change is central to all this, because the Japanese philosopher [Masao] Maruyama had the idea of a deep note of a culture, basso ostinato, as he called it, which goes on. And the higher notes change all the time but at a basic level rather like a language. The language, or the written script of China, evolves but it remains in principle the same. So the deep grammar remains the same, and many things change very quickly on the top. England is still the land of Beowulf and Chaucer in some ways. So the book for me was a shift in my thinking up till I wrote this book and one or two more recent works. I concentrated on the level of first of all a community as an anthropologist, a particular village in the Himalayas or whatever, or a particular county or village in England where I did my first work.  
But in the last 20 years as the world has become more and more integrated, it became obvious that one should think more in terms of something at a higher-level civilization. This is what is determining our world, not particularly nations. The nation state is still fighting away, sadly, but the action is either multinational companies or Sinospheres, Anglo Spheres and so on. It’s that which we need to understand. It appears to be terribly difficult, but I found that using methods of certain great social science theorists like Max Weber, Karl Jaspers, Tocqueville, or others, it is possible to grasp a civilization’s essence, and its five or six characteristics.
I don’t think it is at all necessary that civilizations will clash or destroy each other. There will be some competition and the West is very competitive. But, if we are prepared to be understanding, more tolerant, show some empathy and sympathy, we can build a better world based on analysis of how we are similar, very similar to each other as human beings, despite having inherited long cultural and social differences.  
Alan Macfarlane is a Professor Emeritus of anthropological science at the University of Cambridge. This article was edited from his video speech submitted to the forum.