India’s biggest neighbour is rethinking its own identity. In this context, Zhang Weiwei’s path-breaking book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State (World Century, Shanghai 2011) deserves to be discussed in detail and with respect to its China-centric purpose: to give China’s remarkable progress an ideological consistency and justification. Its Indian equivalent is yet to be written. However, here we would like to focus on Zhang’s central concept of the “civilization-state”. Though the states to which it can be applied are hardly numerous, it has universal validity.
China used to be a civilization, culturally relatively united, especially by the elite medium of the written language, transcending the dialect borders; and politically also mostly united, first in a feudal network under Shang and later Zhou overlordship, then in a bureaucratic-centralistic empire since the unification under Qin Shihuang in 221 BCE. “Politically united“ is also relative, in the sense that an ancient emperor, no matter how autocratic, was much less present in his subjects’ daily lives than any modern regime, no matter how democratic. As the Chinese people say: “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.”
It is the growth of the nation-state that changed the rules of the game. In the 19th century, the country with the highest Gross National Product and by far the largest population in the world was no match for the military aggression by the British (Opium War) and the modernized Japanese. In the 20th century, China was forged into a nation-state by the Republic (1911-49) and the People’s Republic (1949-); but it was an unusual one, because its domain practically coincided with the millennial Chinese civilization. At first, China as a civilization found itself unequipped for the modern world, and was humiliated. But now it has adapted itself and come into its own,-- and look at the result. In the process, it has transformed itself into the world’s only civilization-state.
The only one? Perhaps not. The European Union has the civilization-state as its distant goal, uniting the “provinces” of European civilization, but it has never experienced this unity in the past. Easily the most credible contender, however, is India. Indeed, the country’s self-understanding does imply a similar claim as China’s.
Zhang argues specifically that India has always lacked political unity, which China has usually had. He has picked up the usual “secularist” misconception that India was only cobbled together by Queen Victoria. In fact, the ideal of political unification existed already in ancient times, and came fairly close to realization in the Maurya, Gupta, Moghul and Maratha empires. More importantly, even in a condition of political fragmentation, India showed a remarkable civilizational unity. That makes modern India a civilization-state par excellence: it is a state that unites regions with little politics but much civilization in common.
Zhang also argues that China alone has a civilizational continuity stretching back five thousand years. In India, by contrast, you can frequently hear China enumerated among the areas that have lost their civilizational continuity because of foreign interference. Europe and America lost their souls to Christianity, Egypt and Babylon lost theirs to Islam, and likewise, China has seen a thorough overhaul of its way of life under Mao Zedong. Only India enjoys civilizational continuity since at least the Harappan period.
However, Zhang Weiwei argues that Maoism, though brutal and paying lip-service to the Western ideology of Marxism, was but a short intermezzo, without profound civilizational effect, and in some ways even beneficial. Thus, there was no foreign domination (as parts of India suffered from Caliphate Viceroy Mohammed bin Qasim in 712 to British Viceroy Mountbatten in 1947), and once the suppressed Chinese religion revived from the 1980s onwards, it turned out not to have suffered seriously from an erasure of its traditions, which largely survived even the excesses of the Cultural Revolution by lying low. Around 1970 there was an all-out campaign to blacken the nation’s most prominent sage, Confucius, but today the People’s Republic is founding Confucius Institutes everywhere. So, in spite of some dramatic events, China does boast of a civilizational continuity.
Indians should not begrudge the Chinese their continuous civilization. But they should muster the ambition to make the same claim, and outline a similar agenda, for themselves. They have suffered far longer and sometimes worse oppression by hostile forces than the Chinese under the Cultural Revolution, and incurred serious losses in terms of lives, territory and self-esteem, yet they have survived. So here they are, reclaiming what is theirs after centuries of foreign rule and over a half-century of depreciation by the “secularist” elite, Indian in blood but hostile to India in spirit.
Why should a civilization incarnate itself in a common state? After all, it has held out for millennia even when being politically fragmented. But today, the state is far more important than at any time in the past. It can provide security to its constituent regions when these are attacked precisely because of their civilizational identity.
To be sure, the usual suspects are bound to oppose this civilizational viewpoint. With their studied superficiality, the secularists view India as a hodge-podge of “communities”, of which a very recent one, concocted by the “Orientalists”, is Hinduism. Just as I finish this article, my attention is drawn to a French magazine celebrating the appointment of an Indian secularist historian to the Collège de France with an interview. There, he speaks out against the very notion of a Hindu civilization. The whole is not real, only the fragments are. The notion of an over-arching civilizational unity and long-term continuity may be obvious in China, and get applause there, but in India it is “communal!”
Finally, we should add that the concept of civilization-state has the merit of being more true to India’s real status than the concept of “nationalism”. In the days of the Freedom Movement, it made sense to be a nationalist for it meant not being loyal to foreign rulers. Heirs of that period, such as the Congress Party and the RSS “family”, still go on swearing by this concept. But now it is time for a more nuanced and precise understanding of what India is. Nationalism with its connotation of homogenization cannot do justice to India’s profound pluralism and respect for differences. Depending on how you define “nation”, India has known several divisions into what would be rated as “nation” elsewhere. Of course we can fuss over definitions and maintain that even complex and pluriform India is still a nation-state somehow. But it is more economical and more credible to dispense with this terminology altogether and call India a civilization-state.
China has one big and four small stars in its flag to signify that its major nation and a number of minor nations are united in a single state. India has the 24-spoked wheel of the chakravarti or universal ruler in its flag, meaning that within his empire, every tribute-paying vassal state had its own autonomy and traditions. In modern and more egalitarian terms: the Indian federation unites many communities into a single civilization-state.
(published in The Pioneer, Delhi, 17 July 2014)
(published in The Pioneer, Delhi, 17 July 2014)