It is very rare that a culture is able to change history more than once. Generally, after a period of intellectual, inventive, military, scientific and cultural greatness, civilisations face declines of one form or another, either through internal lethargy, foreign conquest or political amalgamation into an erstwhile external sovereign. The Classical Hellenic societies changed the world and much of the modern world owes much to ancient Hellenic triumphs. However, Greece today, for all its charms, is not the conquering behemoth of Alexander the Great, the intellectual capital of Socrates or the fertile ground of polymaths the likes of Pythagoras.
Likewise, the Arab world today is under constant siege from foreign enemies provoking local conflicts, when during the Islamic Golden age, the Arab world was able to create monumental innovations in architecture, mathematics, astronomy and law.
While societies like the Hellenic or the Arab world may indeed come back to greatness, history has proved such things to be rare. This is one of the many reasons why anyone who values resilience, invention, capacity for greatness and capacity for imagination within the human spirit, should gaze at modern China with both a sense of awe and humility.
Successive ancient and early modern Chinese cultures pioneered great innovations from the invention of paper, printing and movable type to gunpowder, tuned metallic musical instruments and the compass, to foodstuffs that later filled tables the world over. Additionally, ancient and early modern Chinese philosophy remains a guiding force for people throughout Asia and the wider world, while China’s silk-roads pioneered the concept of world trade thousands of years before the words car, train or aeroplane meant anything to anyone.
The late modern period saw China succumbing to foreign manipulation which led to cultural and political stagnation. While China was able to win its battle against Japanese imperialism in the 1940s, many people in the 20th century, wrote China off as a civilisation that was but could never be again.
Today, when people from throughout the world, including the developed world gaze at China’s great cities, they are not merely looking at prosperity – they are looking at the future. The China of today is not just a great producer, moderniser and educator, but it is also a great innovator.
China’s guiding modern political philosophy, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, looks set to progress the revolution of imagination that will grip China in the coming years. Modern China, like many great civilisations before, has proved that a prosperous society is an optimistic society and that an optimistic society is an imaginative and inventive society. Economists and theorists in the west are not looking for the new Beethoven, Tesla, Jobs, Wozniak, Todd or Zappa, they are more interested in economic damage control. While there are innovators in all countries, when it comes to a civilisation that is uniquely propelled by innovation in the 21st century, this is China. Many still haven’t adjusted themselves to an era where it is not China looking to the US for inspiration, but that it is now a wider world that is looking to China in order to find out ‘what happens next’.
There are many examples of this. One of the most evocative involves a cultural monument in the United States, rather than a monument to science, medicine or philosophy per se. In 1927, the American entrepreneur Sidney Patrick Grauman opened his Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. The architectural marvel was designed to emulate the architectural grandeur of ancient China at a time when few thought China would ever again be able to produce its own modern greatness. After changing hands multiple times in recent decades, the Chinese electronics company TCL purchased the Chinese Theatre in Los Angles and proceeded to conduct the biggest ever renovation of the building. While some feared that it would lose its charm for the sake of progress, in the true win-win spirit, TCL not only retained and restored all of the original architectural features, but did so while installing a new large screen and state of the art projection and sound systems.
In the scheme of Chinese achievements, this is a relatively small one, but it is illustrative of a process of coming full circle in more ways than one. China’s ancient status as a great global trader and innovator was not only restored, but it took an actual Chinese company, led by Chinese innovators to revive an American monument to a glorious Chinese past that was supposed to be a relic but ended up being the future, thanks to an injections of genuine Chinese innovation and hard work.
The United States has a habit of selling itself as a nation based on the concept of the American Dream, but as Donald Trump himself remarked in 2016, “the American Dream is dead”. While Trump wants to bring it back, just as Greece, the Arab world and other civilisations seek to restore their erstwhile history making greatness, right here and now, those who dare to dream are dreaming of China.
Today it is China that is optimistic, it is China that feels like a young nation in spite of its ancient roots, while in the United States, one of the politically youngest nations of the western countries, things feel as though they are ageing and losing the capabilities of the past.
This is not to say that win-win situations for countries like the US, Syria, Greece, Iraq, India, Germany and others are not possible – nothing is impossible until it has been proved so. But the reality is that it is China that is leading humankind to new heights and for this, a common humanity ought to transcend any and all political prejudices so that the world can look to China in a moment of inspiration and awe that is entirely deserved.