Thursday, August 03, 2006

Old countries and old languages (paca)

I was browsing the posts and comments for a political blog I read (The Moderate Voice - see link on right), and there was one post about the best way to deal with the Chinese government. People espoused various opinions and then there was a comment that it was silly for Americans to give advice to China, since we've only been in the business of government for 300 years, while China's been up to it for 10,000. That comment itself is a silly one for a list of reasons, but I want to focus on only one.*

The problem is that Chinese civilization has existed for that long*, but governments have come and gone. The land area that is modern China has been ruled by dynasties of the Han people, the Manchu people, the Mongol people, among others. There have been extended centuries of warring states and three kingdoms and warlords. And the way that the Chinese government has operated has changed over and over. Also, China for a long time operated much more like Europe. You had kings/emperors who owned various tracks of land, but there was much less a sense of the nation state of China (which is different than a cultural sense). It's not clear that people have for 6,000 years thought of themselves as politically Chinese, as much as they thought of themselves as living under the Tang dynasty or the Ming dynasty. Now, yes of course there are some continuities politically that keep popping up - various versions of Confucian ideals with senses of the roles and responsibilities of government have cropped up a lot. For example, China fell in love with the idea of national examinations to test their youth 2,000 years ago and they still do this (though now it determines your eligibility for education, not for government office, and for all its flaws the idea that merit determines who holds office instead of being determined by who your dad was was very progressive). In short, there have been a host of continuities and discontinuities in the political organization of China for a long time.

Now, the key is that America is the same. The modern American government wasn't formed until 1789, but there were articles of Confederation before that, and state assemblies with colonial governors before that. Moreover, the American governmental system didn't just pop up in Jamestown out of nowhere. It is a continuation of the English political tradition. And the English tradition takes its ideas in the various feudal systems of Europe, which draw from Roman and Greek government, which was inspired by Egyptian, Sumerian, and Hebrew governmental philosophy.

The point? Yes, Chinese government draws on roots going back thousands of years. Confucius' thoughts on the proper role of a governor have a very loose but real connection to the modern Chinese government, but it is equally true that America's concept of the rule of law has a very loose but real connection to Babylonian Law Codes and the Roman idealization of the supremacy of the law above all other principles. Of course Cicero wasn't writing about the governors of Virginia when he spoke on the rule of law, but large swathes of modern day China weren't in anyone's thoughts in the China of the Chou dynasty either.

This all reminds me of the question, "what is the oldest language?" Meaning, what language that is spoken today was spoken a really long time ago? Is it Chinese? Japanese? Pawnee? An Australian language? The answer is "none of them". Or more accurately the question doesn't make sense when you know about language change. Let's take the case of Chinese. Of course, Chinese is actually a host of separate dialects/languages. Let's just go with Mandarin. Confucius spoke Chinese too in the 4th century BC, so Mandarin must be really old, right? Unlike English, which didn't even exist until... I don't know, let's say the Old English of Beowulf in the 9th century or so.

Not really. Modern Chinese would be completely incomprehensible to Confucius, and vice versa. The Chinese language has continually changed throughout history. We call the language of 1000 BC Chinese, but it is no closer to current Chinese than Latin is to modern French. To put it differently, Latin still exists and is spoken all over the world. Of course, it's split into different branchs of French, Spanish, Romanian, etc. But there was never a time when people were speaking Latin and said, "this Latin thing is boring, let's speak French now." In their minds, they just kept on speaking Latin. Maybe some grandparents periodically thought that their grandchildren sure were using some stupid slang or saying a word in the wrong order, but it was just bad Latin to them. But as time went on, one day the Latin the Franks spoke would be incomprehensible to someone who spoke Latin like they did 500 years before. Chinese has progressed in the same way. People kept on speaking Latin and they kept on speaking Chinese. By accidents of history, we just give one set of changes the same name and the other set different names.

So congratulations, you already speak the oldest language in the world** and live in the oldest country in the world, but then so does everyone else.*** Have fun with it.

*The historian in me also can't help but mention the factual errors in the thought. Even if you go back to the legendary Hsia dynasty, that takes you back to about 4,000 BC, or 6,000 years back. Before that, and really including the Hsia, you are talking about prehistoric man more than anything else.

**You might make a case that new languages are created periodically. They are called pidgins, then creoles, then just languages. I can talk about those another time.

*** OK, I am being hyperbolic for the fun of it, but it is largely true. One thing I have glossed over is some languages change a lot more rapidly than others. For some reason the French just went crazy with their version of Latin compared to Spanish or Italian. I am not sure if anyone knows exactly why this happens.

1 comment:

Sammy Jankis said...

K posted a link or mentioned this in another blog somewhere today, but Slate has an article/editorial defending the term "sucks" in modern American English. It's only peripherally related to this post, but there it is.