The Advance of Civilizations
“Why the Chinese have it wrong.”
Assigned reading: Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom
Welcome to Episode 85 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes I will take on the most ancient civilization on earth today. Most ancient not in the sense that it has been around before all the others – that wouldn’t be true, for it was a rather late comer in the early days. Most ancient only in the sense that of all today’s existing cultures, it can trace itself in time as an uninterrupted cultural legacy farther back than any other modern culture. There were cultures existing before it was formed, but none of them survived for such a long time. Or some modern cultures may look back and imagine that they have something to do with some culture two millennia ago, but in reality, they have nothing in common. (Think modern Egyptians and ancient Egypt, or modern French and the ancient Gauls, etc.) This culture has remained stable for so long that a modern representative of that culture can actually look at a literary artifact of three thousand years ago and read what is written with only a little trouble. How many people can you find in Ireland that can read the Ogham alphabet that was used only 1,400 years ago? Or how many Norwegians or Swedes can read their Runic alphabet that was in use at the time of the Reformation, 500 yeas ago? I don’t even want to mention Cyrillic, the alphabet of my native language, Bulgarian, which was created only about 1,200 years ago; and I even have trouble reading some of the texts written 400 years ago. And this culture we are going to be talking about has an uninterrupted literary tradition that is older that any name of any nation or any geographical toponym in Europe. Even Hellas, the native name of modern Greece, the oldest surviving name in Europe, is younger than than the literary tradition of that culture. So, while there is a dark side to that consistency over the ages – and we will shortly see what it is – it still commands a certain level of respect.
It’s the Chinese culture. We have to hand it to the Chinese; they arethe oldest existing culture today. We can legitimately overlook their other boasting: scientific or technological discoveries, or philosophical systems, or systems of social and military organization, etc. I mean, those are great, if they were true, it’s just they were never developed into large-scale civilizational advances, so we can easily ignore them. (For example, the ancient Greeks invented a steam engine but they used it for religious special effects, not for any useful work. So we say that it was invented by James Watt and others in England in the 18thcentury. He put it to work right away.) But as far as culture is concerned – which means, the overall norms and habits and cultural expectations and especially ethical-judicial principles – a modern Chinese would feel much more at home with the Chinese of 2,000 years ago, than any modern Englishman would with the Angles of 2,000 years ago, or any modern Russian would feel with the Russians of 2,000 years ago. For one, he would be able to read the street signs, right? It surely is impressive, isn’t it? Now, whether it is something to be proud of is a completely different issue, and we will get to it in a few minutes. Anyway, that is the culture I am going to be talking about today; or rather, will be using as an example of an ethical-judicial principle about the advance of civilizations.
It ain’t gonna be easy, though, and here I want to start with a disclaimer. I will be talking partly about the Chinese culture, and about some of its collective psychology. I know there are Chinese folks among our listeners, and there are some among then that grew up in that culture. They know it inside out: all its details, nuances, backgrounds, contexts, biases, prejudices internally and externally, all the things that I can’t know exhaustively simply because I have not grown in it. To be sure, I have always tried to be a sincere and unbiased student of Asia and its cultures and history ever since I got involved in Eastern martial arts and had interest in Eastern religions. (That before I became a Christian.) I even took a basic course in Chinese characters – not to learn them in depth, but to understand the principle behind them. But I am a European who is learning from other Europeans; and, unfortunately, most of the studies of East Asian cultures come from European observers. For some reason, there are very few Chinese, Japanese. Korean, or Vietnamese writers who undertake the task of explaining their cultures to Europeans. In psychological terms, East Asian cultures are rather shy and introvert, and opposed to the extrovertness of the European cultures, not to mention the sometimes crass self-promotion and bragging of the American culture. Thus, I plead guilty from the very beginning: you will certainly find fault with some of my analysis. But I also want you to understand: The truth of the conclusions in this episode is not affected by how detailed my knowledge of China is. I am only using China as an example; but I could use any other culture, and the conclusions will be the same. The reason China is a good example is because it has been the culture that, in the last century, has had a very keen interest in the question of how civilizations advance. But I am getting ahead of myself here.
Three years ago, in March 2016, a Chinese chemist named Sun Weidong delivered a lecture to a diverse audience of professors, students, and just ordinary science enthusiasts at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, a large city (about 8 million population) in Eastern China. But he didn’t talk about chemistry. He talked about history. Not strange, by the way, given that much of his scientific career has been related to radiometric analysis of different historical artifacts. The strange part was the content of the lecture itself.
Sun started his lecture with a passage from one of the most venerated historical texts in Chinese historiography, the Shi Ji, simply, The Historical Record, known to Western historians as Records of the Grand Historianby Si Ma Chien, a palace historian for the Han Dynasty in 2nd century BC. Si Ma was a very interesting and colorful personality himself, and we know a lot about his life, but I will resist the temptation to give details here. Suffice to say, he is considered the father of Chinese historiography, and his Record is considered the “foundational text of the Chinese civilization.” It is truly believed that through it, Si Ma really created the Chinese civilization as a civilization, by giving it intellectual cohesion that would make it survive as a culture for two more millennia, even in the midst of constant civil wars and foreign invasions, and even foreign rule for several centuries. In it, Si Ma put together, from earlier sources, the history of the Chinese civilization, starting from its early mythical origins in the Yellow Emperor (and even the three god-kings before him) before the 3rdmillennium BC, going through all the early dynasties before the Han dynasty, writing down a number of biographies of important historical figures compiled from a multitude of earlier sources, some of them lost to us today. The Record is written in more than half million Chinese characters (that’s separate words, folks), and is longer than the Old Testament, while, unlike the Old Testament, is written by one man only. If you want to delve into ancient Chinese history, the book is free online, in Chinese-English interlinear.
The text that Sun Weidong quoted was from Si Ma’s history of the Xia Dynasty, the first Chinese dynasty that followed directly after the mythical period of the Three God-Kings and the Five Emperors. The Xia Dynasty itself is half-mythical, half-historical. You know how every culture on earth has its own myths and legends about the Great Flood; well, in Si Ma’s history, that flood happened during the Xia Dynasty; clearly wrong, but no doubt he simply recorded it faithfully from older records. The text in question here, however, is not the Great Flood but the geography and topography of the empire of that first Chinese dynasty, considered the mother dynasty of the Chinese nation. Here is the text in question:
“Northwards, the stream is divided and become the Nine Rivers. Reunited, it forms the opposing river and flows into the Sea.”
Sun then asked the question: “There is only one major river in the world that flows northwards. Which one is it?” A member of the audience replied, “The Nile.” Then Sun showed a map of the Nile River and its delta: truly, a stream that flows northward and is divided into nine tributaries, some of which “re-unite” into “opposing” (that is, “on the other side”) rivers.
He then continued with his thesis: according to him, the roots of Chinese culture should be sought not in any natural cultural evolution of the local population, but were planted sometime in the mid-2nd millennium BC by migrants from Egypt. The Xia Dynasty, he believes, was in fact the Hyksos: a Semitic nation that ruled Egypt as “foreign rulers” in the 17ththrough the 16thcenturies BC, declined in power in the mid-16thcentury BC and was expelled by a popular uprising, after which the native rule over Egypt was restored. (Just to mention, he, of course, follows the modern accepted secular chronology of Egypt. I think that chronology is mistaken: the Hyksos’s rule was in the 15th– 13thcenturies BC, and the Hyksos were the Biblical Amalekites. But this discrepancy is not important to my thesis here.) The Hyksos were known to have had advanced bronze weapons before most other cultures, and they are also known to have developed superior seafaring technology. Sun argues that they might have sent expeditions as far as China, and also, that after the fall of their rule in Egypt and after they were expelled from Egypt and much of the Middle East, some of them, or many of them, have ended up on the coast of Eastern China, bringing with them their history and their technologies, which they then laid as the foundation of the later Chinese culture. So the Yellow Emperor and the pantheon of deities and mythical rulers that gave the beginnings to the Chinese nation should be sought not in China but in Egypt.
Sun did not leave it to one piece of evidence only; he had others. He himself started working on the theory back in the 1990s when he was still a young PhD student charged with the task of doing radiometric analysis of bronze artifacts of the late Xia and early Shang Dynasties. As a chemist, he was surprised to find out that the chemical composition of the alloys did not match the radioactivity of any of the metals found in Asia. They instead matched exactly the characteristics of bronze alloys found in Egypt. Which meant that the metal must have come from the same mines, namely, North Africa. At the time, his supervisor did not allow him to publish his data; there was a political reason for it. He was simply transferred to a different task. More than 20 years later, however, Sun is a world-class scientist: In addition to his degrees from the University at Hefei and his professorship at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, he also got a PhD at the Australian National University at Canberra, and is also a Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute at Meinz in Germany, and a Regional Vice President of the Society of Economic Geologists for Asia. So he could publish his thesis without fears that he could be silenced. Of course, to his earlier findings we can add a lot of other evidence that seems to point to Western origins of the Chinese culture; but I will mention this a little bit later.
I know, I know, this is an unusual story but you are all wondering; why am I telling it? What is so important about it in a podcast that aims at bringing covenantal, that is ethical-judicialanalysis. So what is the covenantal part in it?
It was the response of his listeners and in the response of the Chinese public in general. See, in Europe or in the Americas, such hypotheses about historical origins are often presented, but their interested audience is usually limited to a small community of academics and history buffs. There are a number of similar origin theories in Eastern Europe among the different ethnic peoples there, and yet, even there, they are rather ignored by the majority of the population. Really, very few people today care where the Angles and the Saxons came from, or how much Celtic blood do the inhabitants of Spain or Northern Italy have, or whether the modern Polish nation came from the Sarmatians, or whether the ancient homeland of the Bulgars was in the Altai Mountains or in the Western Tian Shan. Such people with such interests are usually either history buffs, or university professors, or marginal groups with nationalist and/or racist leanings who are trying to fabricate some sort of collective identity and sense of superiority for themselves. But in China, Sun Weidong’s hypothesis gained a lot of attention, even among people who wouldn’t normally go out of their way to dig deeper into the mysteries of ancient history.
Sun’s thesis was published online and it immediately drew a lot of comments. A lot, I mean, hundreds of thousands of people. Under the title, The Ancestors of the Chinese People Came from Egypt, it was published on the Chinese travel site Kooniao, and from there, re-posted and republished on dozens of other platforms, like portals, online forums, message boards, etc. Kooniao also setup a separate web page for comments titled “Chinese People Came from Egypt,” which produced thousands of responses. And these responses have not been all one-sided. Some, of course, have been direct denial and even mockery of Sun’s hypothesis. But a marginal majority have been favorable, or at least careful to not dismiss the hypothesis just because it currently sounds ridiculous to the modern Chinese ears. Either way, the response was, well, gigantic, by all measures. You go to any Western website or forum that discusses origins, and you will only find a dozen of die-hard enthusiasts who participate. In China, this issue seems like an issue of life and death to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.
This is the phenomenon I want to examine here, namely, the unusually active, almost obsessive-compulsive interest of Chinese people with the ancient origins of their culture. Truly enough, as a friend of mine mentioned once, the native Chinese mentality is fundamentally racist, so there is that element, but there is an even deeper issue there and, when examined, it supersedes the native racism as a factor in determining the Chinese interest with history. And in fact, while this other factor may still be racial in its presuppositions, it is rather opposite to racism in that it is rather a racial inferiority complex. (Yes, it is possible for a culture to have both racial superiority and racial inferiority complex.) Or, if you don’t like such psychologizing, call it “soul-searching” in the sense of the Chinese culture seeking a way out of quagmire in which it has put itself in the past, and is trying to break free of it. It is like the Chinese people subconsciously believe that their culture has gotten lost somewhere on the way between its ancient origins and today, and they are trying to trace its steps back to the point where they left the right path so that it can step on firm land again. And the sense is growing that the ancient-ness of the culture is not an automatic solution to all the problems; it is the direction that has been taken later that is the issue. And hundreds of millions of Chinese are trying to figure out where things went wrong, and why, and how it all can be fixed.
That feeling has been growing on the Chinese people for almost 800 years now. Between Si Ma Chien’s 2ndcentury BC and AD 13thcentury, the valleys of Yangtze and Huang-he were the most populated region of the world, containing between 30 and 40 percent of the wold’s population. The three other high concentrations of population – India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt – were too far away for the Chinese to worry about them; and the surrounding peoples were too small to compare. China could afford to spare some of its work force to build a massive wall on the northern border to keep out the barbarians, and the rest of its history was pretty much internal struggles for power and cultural and economic development without much thought of the outside world. Then, all of a sudden, in the early 13thcentury, this all changed: the demographically miniature tribes of the Mongols poured through the Great Wall and conquered all of China within just a few years, defeating the powerful armies of the Jin dynasty. The Mongols ruled China for over 150 years before they were expelled in 1368 and replaced by native Han rulers – the Ming Dynasty – for about 3 centuries. Then again, another tribe of barbarians that were supposed to be held back by the Great Wall, the Manchus in today’s northeast China, poured south, defeated the already weakened Ming Dynasty, and established another foreign rule over China which lasted for 3 centuries, between 1636 and 1911. So between 1220 and 1911, China was ruled by foreign rulers for 4 and a half centuries out of 7. That’s a bit too much for a nation that has 1/3 of the population of the world, isn’t it? But that wasn’t all. In the 18th century, Europeans started appearing in the Chinese seas and ports, and by the 19thcentury, their merchants and missionaries had almost taken over the coastal cities. To the amazement of the Chinese who had always taken pride in their culture and civilization, these “devils” (gway-low, the original Cantonese word for foreigner, meaning literally “ghost man”) appeared way more civilized than the Chinese themselves. They had superior learning and knowledge about the world, superior education, superior technologies, superior military and industrial organization, and, as a result, superior power. Step by step, they were capable of seizing control of China’s trade, economy, and even politics, defeated China in several wars on her own soil, and by the spreading of Christianity, were turning the minds and hearts of a growing number of people inland than any imperial propaganda has ever been able to. By 1900, the imperial bureaucracy was their hostage in the large cities, and through it, the ruling Qing Dynasty was their hostage.
The 19thcentury, thus, was a century of deep national humiliation for the native Han people of China. Being heirs of the most ancient of all civilizations and being mindful of a glorious cultural past that made all of Asia copy their culture to get out of its barbarism 1,000 years ago, they were now ruled by a foreign, barbarian dynasty, who in turn was so weak that it was hostage to distant foreign rulers, who were not even present but controlled China through their merchants and missionaries. It was even worse. In the 19thcentury racial theories were en vogue among the increasingly secularized Western elite, and the civilizational level and practices of the different cultures were all evaluated in terms of racial characteristics. Since Asians seemed to Europeans to be culturally backwards, the “yellow race” was postulated to be genetically inferior to the “white race.” Chinese were now taking advantage of the open borders that the Western civilization forced on the whole world (Europe had been open borders for 1400 year up to that point) and were trying to pursue happiness in other lands, like America, only to find out that they were now considered second class humans, or even subhumans by some. “Chinamen” were dehumanized in many places, barred from good jobs, and pretty much closed in ghettos (China towns). Oppressed in their own land, dehumanized abroad: that was the story of the Chinese during much of the 19thcentury and the early 20thcentury. No wonder the Boxer Rebellion (Yi He Tuan, the Righteous Unity in Chinese) was so violent and cruel in its aim of exterminating all Westerners in China. The follow-up after the European victory only confirmed to the Chinese that they were not considered more than animals: European soldiers raped tens of thousands of Chinese women and pillaged even towns and villages that never supported the Boxers. If you want to understand modern China and its relationship with the West, you have to go first through the Western treatment of China in the 19thand early 20thcentury. If that treatment was anything close to Christian and Biblical, we would have a different history in the 20thcentury. That treatment left a serious scar on the Chinese cultural mentality; and for the whole 20thcentury, China has been on a quest to recover its civilizational identity in order to restore its civilizational power.
In the 20thcentury, China tried two of the main European ideologies dominant in the world at the time. The leaders of the anti-imperial revolution of 1911 and the founders of the Chinese Republic were all Christians but they were all trained in secular colleges, so their real ideology was secular humanism and nationalism. In their clash with the other European ideology that captured the minds and hearts of many Chinese – Marxism – Marxism eventually won, being able to give better hope to the majority of the people. Marxism, however, proved to be incapable of building a great civilization, so in the 1980s, the Chinese Communists slowly but surely started turning to another Western ideology: secular technocratic statism. None of them seem to work, though.
So the hope is placed on something else: in some direct physical lineage to civilizations even older than China. There must be something in the very inner nature of Chinese people, something that goes back beyond the failed civilization of today and its predecessors. Some inner nature that would give a promise, a prophecy, a predestination that the Chinese culture will rise again from the ashes and will indeed become again the real Zhongguo, the “Central Kingdom” of the world. The hope is that once the Chinese discover that inner genetics that made them great in the past, they will recover the impetus of becoming great again in the future, and will become great again. The current period of being considered the world’s barbarians and savages will then be considered only a deviation, once the Chinese culture discovers its true identity and rises again from the ashes. They just need to find that identity.
And Sun Weidong’s theory played to that desire. That’s why so many people responded to it.
This is not the first time this has happened. The quest for Chinese roots in the West was prominent in the 19thcentury, especially among the growing middle-class intelligentsia in China that was becoming increasingly anti-imperial and pro-Western. In 1892, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, a French historian and linguistics scholar, published a book titled The Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilizationin which he claimed that the Chinese civilization was brought to China by Babylonian migrants, and the Yellow Emperor – the likely mythical ancestor of the Chinese race – was actually a Mesopotamian tribal leader. The theory was faulty and earned a lot of refutations in Europe within just a few years after its publication, but it appealed strongly to the native Han people in their resentment against the Manchu ruling dynasty which was considered Barbarian. The book was translated into Chinese and widely circulated in China, and Lacouperie’s theory of Sino-Babylonianism was even taught for a time in Chinese schools and universities, until it was replaced by nativist nationalism in the 1920s. Faulty or not, Chinese intellectuals needed something to restore their confidence in their own culture against both the Manchus and the Europeans, and an ancient connection to the oldest recorded civilization in history was a very convenient tool. Almost as if that discovery was to turn a magic golden key to the civilizational advance of the Chinese nation. If we find out we are directly related to the Babylonians, we will surely become great again. No, wait, if we find out that we are directly related to the Egyptian civilization, we will surely become great again. Since we come from those great civilizations, we are surely capable of catching up with America and the West.
And, of course, the opposite opinion, which is essentially the same, really, with just an opposite sign: No, our culture is our own, native culture, and if we just dig deep enough in it and find that magic stuff that we Chinese are made of, we will become great again. It’s not the Egyptians or the Babylonians or the West, it is something that we have and only we have. And therefore we can catch up with the West without looking to the West for support. This line of thought was behind the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project that the Chinese government started in 1996, hiring 200 specialists to determine with greater accuracy the dating of the earliest Chinese dynasties. It spent $1.5 million on it, a significant sum given the average income and price levels in China at the time; the project, however, had no other practical purpose than to propagandize the greatness of the ancients to create an impetus for action among the moderns. Just another attempt to discover the magical DNA in the Chinese people that would ensure their catching up with the West.
Is there anything wrong with such attempts, from a covenantal perspective?
Everything. Everything is wrong with such projects. They will never work, and they will only additionally confuse and disorient the Chinese people, making them look for hope in idols that offer no hope, while ignoring the true hope before them. Both parties are wrong: Weidong and the West-leaning intellectuals, and the government’s nativists and nationalists. Neither party knows what really causes the advance of a civilization. And thus, neither party is on the right track.
For those of our listeners who have heard my old sermon of some time ago, “What Is Man?”, you will recognize the antithesis here. The antithesis is between a metaphysical (static) view and definition of man and an ethical (dynamic) definition and view of man. Paganism views man and defines man based on a view of man’s “inner nature”: something inside man that makes him what he is. Whatever that nature is, man cannot escape it, whether by his own effort or by the effort of anyone else, be it another man or god; that nature will always define man and will predestine and ordain his actions. Man’s moral imperative in life, therefore, is not to pursue a purpose or a destiny but to “discover his true self,” that is, to discover who he is and comprehend it with his mind. That true self may be found most probably in what he was handed down from his ancestors in terms of physical heritage (mainly genetics), which is the basis for all the cults to the ancestors, including modern racial theories. But it could be many more things. It could be the line up of the heavenly bodies at the time of his birth which would magically affect the inner make-up of a man and pre-ordain him for life. It could be his economic status, as in Marxism. It could be the climate conditions in which he has grown up, or the form of his skull, or the subconscious memories that conditioned him from his childhood. In a more primitive form, such metaphysical beliefs about man are present in the totemistic beliefs of primitive tribes: like the belief that a tribe comes from a wolf or from a bear or from another animal, and, based on that, define the nature of the men in the tribe as following from the nature of their totem animal.
When this metaphysical view of man is expanded to man’s society, it creates a sociology that is very characteristic to all paganism: a metaphysical view of society, namely, that a society is supposed to be built upon the shared “nature” characteristics of a group of people, and people who do not share such “nature” characteristics would be an “impurity” to that society. Once you have people with shared nature, however, an elite of rulers is expected to discover that inner nature of all these people – just like an individual is supposed to discover his true nature – and then organize the society accordingly. It goes without saying that an individual who has some “nature” traits that are different, would be, er, a deviation, and may face some consequences: like, for example, special attention from the IRS or police or the NSA all the way to re-education camp. Either way, we should expect that a sociology based on the metaphysical view of man would be obsessed with some impersonal factor that gives the magical key to the advance of civilizations. So what is that impersonal factor? Where can we find it? And when I say “magical,” I am not using it metaphorically. Even the most “rational” pagan ideologies eventually resort to the magical, believe it or not. Nazi Germany sent several expeditions to Tibet – the alleged homeland of the Aryan peoples – to try to study the conditions that created the superior race; and thousands of young Nazis were send to learn from the lamas in Tibet. Communist regimes encouraged the proliferation of the so called “extrasense experts” and even put them on government pay with the purpose of getting an insight into the psychology of man. Against the backdrop of such institutionalized insanity, the Chinese obsession with the ancestors seems rather trivial. But it is still the same metaphysical religion.
And it never produces results. Why? Because man is never defined metaphysically but always ethically. And therefore his civilization is not the product of man’s metaphysical nature but of his ethics.
If you have been immersed in rationalistic philosophies and religions, there is one thing that bugs you every time you read the Bible: The Bible is never interested in defining man as he is. (As a matter of fact, there is really no definition of the world in general as it is.) We have a description of how man was created. We have no description whathe is made of, or whathe is, really. We have no mention of some metaphysical element that makes man different from the rest of the creation; in fact, if anything, the Bible says that man was made out of dust – that is, he is metaphysically no different from the nature around him. (The woman was different, however: unlike man and the animals, she was not made out of dust.) And yet, the Bible places an enormous emphasis on the uniqueness of man as a creature – to the point that the author of Hebrews makes the angels serving spirits to that creature made out of dust (Heb. 1:14). Man is elevated above all the creation, but we are not told what exactly is put in him that makes his so special: true, God breathed the breath of life in his nostrils and this is how the dust became man, but we are not told anything about what that breath of life may be. In the first chapter, we are told that God made man after His own image, but what is that image? What metaphysical characteristic of man defines God’s image? Is it his mind? Couldn’t be, otherwise people of lesser intellectual qualities would have less of the image of God, and we know that can’t be true. Is it his emotions? Well, then, people of more emotions would be more godly than those who are calmer, right? What is it that defines man as the image of God? We don’t have that answer.
Or, rather, we have it, but it is not in the form of a metaphysical or ontological definition. It is something else. The image of God in man is defined as a task. That is, man is defined not statically, as a “nature,” but dynamically, as a task. Or, if you want a pun, here it is: man is defined not as a “being” but as a “doing”: it is not what he is that defines the image of God, but what he is created to do. Here’s the text in Genesis 1:
Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them have dominion. . . .
The next chapter continues by describing man entirely in terms of his task. In fact, the whole Bible continues by describing man entirely in terms of his task. We are told nothing of man as nature; the only time when God asks the question, “What is man?”, He asks it to ridicule those who think man is something without God and without the task God has given him. But man is entirely described in relation to his task of dominion. (As a side note, we have the same about God: We are told nothing about the inner nature of God. But we know God through His works.)
And since the task given to man is ethical – it is only defined in terms of good vs. evil, obedience vs. disobedience, righteousness vs. wickedness – the Biblical definition of man is entirely ethical: man is a creature made to worship God and to obey God’s Dominion Mandate for him on earth. It is that simple. We will never know our “true nature.” We are never given that “true nature” in the Bible. But we will always have our task, which defines our true ethical nature before God. And what we are before God will be defined by how faithfully we go about obeying His covenant.
What does that look like when translated into sociology? Pay attention now, here is the Biblical verse for you:
See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORDmy God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. “So keep and do them,for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORDour God whenever we call on Him? “Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? (Deut. 4:5-8).
A culture is only as great as is the socially dominant ethics of its people and its institutions. Not greater than that. How people view good and evil and do righteousness, and how they set up their institutions to do justice is the only thing that determines the future course of a civilization. All other civilizational factors depend on it: economics, business, art, literature, science, technology, financial power, education, psychology and mental health, the life of the local communities and social cohesion, etc., etc., etc. Since man is entirely defined by his ethical standing, his whole civilization is entirely defined by its ethical standing.
But what is often missed by non-Christians – and sometimes by Christians alike – is that ethical commitment is not part of man’s inner nature. Or, to be precise, the right ethical commitment, the one that makes man righteous and just and his culture great, is not something he is born with nor does he inherit it in his genes. Man is born with an ethical commitment he has inherited covenantally from Adam, and it is the wrong ethical commitment. But to acquire the right ethical commitment, man must make the right ethical choice, and he must make it self-consciously, againsthis own nature. Digging deeper to discover his true nature won’t help man become great; it will only drive him to despair, if he is honest. So in order to make his culture great, man must forsake his inner nature and everything it involves: heritage, conditioning by his environment or his family, the subconscious, the lures of his economic status. That’s what the Bible means by “crucifying the flesh”: Not that the literary biological flesh should be mortified, but that the metaphysical nature of man must be denied any say in what a man believes and thinks and desires, and only his ethical will speaks and rules. And that ethical will needs to be radically changed – newborn – in order for man to achieve that. Admittedly, man can be passed down some training in righteousness from his parents, if they were righteous; but in the final account, the decision must be on individual level first, and must be re-committed to with every generation, for a civilization to prosper. The greatness of a civilization is a matter of self-conscious ethical choice of the millions of individuals who constitute that civilization.
When Europe excelled as a culture, it was not because Europeans had anything superior in their nature or in their past to look up to. To the contrary, Celts and Germans and Greeks and Latins and Slavs have always been primitive Barbarians with a past that held nothing to be proud of. But the rise of the Western civilization came when a religion hit the West, a religion that was capable of changing minds and hearts like nothing before, and it was that religion that turned the Barbarians into civilized people’s. The pace of civilizing Europe for 2,000 years depended on how closely Europeans stuck to that religion. When they deviated from it, they became more Barbarian, when they recovered it and grew in it, they became more civilized. When in the 20thcentury they abandoned that religion and returned to the superstitions of their barbaric forefathers, they turned into the same barbarians they had been 2,000 years before. The greatness of the European civilization has never been about nature. It has always been about ethical choice.
If the Chinese want to know where the greatness of their own civilization was in the past, it was in the same thing. Thousands of years ago, they were closer to the original source of that same religion: Noah. The Chinese culture may have inherited something from Noah that they were capable of keeping for more generations than anyone else. The Exodus of Israel from Egypt must have also had quite a ripple effect around the world; after all, the largest and most powerful empire of the ancient world fell under the wrath of God; so the giving of the law on the Mount Sinai must have been a news that reached all over the world. Also, given the accepted chronology of the Xia and the Shang dynasties, they must have existed around the times of Solomon; and we know that Solomon’s glory and fame was known throughout the world to all the kings, and all the kings were seeking the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom (2 Chr. 9:23). The Xia and the Shang Dynasties must have been affected by those events, and must have adopted, at least partially, the ethics and the justice of God’s Law, as God predicted. I have mentioned before that Eusebius, the church historian of the 4thcentury, claims that the whole world knew of the Law of Moses and that Law was the foundation for all civilized cultures. And we know from the Bible itself that the Magi who visited the newborn King came from the East (Matt. 2:1). How far east, we are not told. It could have been Persia, but we know from ancient Chinese sources that Persian Zoroastrianism had deep influence on the Chinese culture.
So, the combined influence of the inherited memory from Noah and his sons, the world sensation of the destruction of Egypt and the thundering of the Law from the mountain, and the fame and glory of Solomon’s wisdom were the real root factors for the greatness of the Chinese culture and civilization. China grew in population and influence and power not because it had superior genetics or superior magic qualities. It grew because it managed to maintain the ethics and justice of the Law of God for a long time. The Shang Dynasty – the second official on the list of Chinese Dynasties and the first that is proven to have existed historically – did have an official religion that believed in one Supreme God Creator (Shang Di) – although that official religion was mixed with pagan practices like divination and sacrifices to idols. However, for all we know today of that dynasty, it was the real root of the modern Chinese culture. And it was also the longest ruling Chinese dynasty, covering a period of 554 years, longer than any other dynasty in the written history of mankind.
In short, China was great because it followed a great God. It followed Him imperfectly, as much as a pagan nation can in the centuries before Christ, but it still allowed a lot of His influence to rule its society. And, just like the European civilization, the moment that influence was lost, China deteriorated to the same barbarism it despised in the surrounding cultures. And eventually, got conquered by them and humiliated by them, and viewed as the world’s barbarians by nations who just appeared on the map a couple of hundred years ago. God is not mocked. And He is still not mocked.
So the Chinese have it wrong. Civilizations do not advance because of some magical quality of their people. Genetics, climate, ancestry, ancient-ness, origin mean nothing. The only thing that makes a people great is faith in the God of the Bible and obedience to His Covenant. Sun Weidong’s theory may be right or may be wrong. It doesn’t matter. China’s future of greatness is not in its history. It is where the greatness of Europe and the West was: In the history of another nation, the ancient Hebrews and the faith that came out of it, Christianity. And that’s where the Chinese need to be looking at for answers.
The book I will assign for reading this week is The Formation of Christendom, by Judith Herrin. It is an amazing historical study; you will be surprised how much the early missionaries were aware that they were building a civilization, not just planting churches. And it is a book that should be read by all the Chinese who are concerned about their culture. That is what needs to be replicated in China. And, of course, you still need to read R.J. Rushdoony’s The Foundations of Social Order– but you knew that already.
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