Midsommar Most Heat Moon
China has fascinated me for a long time. Kate, Joseph and I went on an absurdly cheap week long trip to Beijing in 1999. $900, airfare + hotel + several meals, for each of us. It was a promo deal by Dayton’s travel (remember Dayton’s?) and Northwest Airlines (remember Northwest airlines?) for the new Northwest direct flight from Detroit to Beijing.
The tourism was strictly regulated, almost completely planned, but a source of wonder in spite of that. We saw Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Winter Palace, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, a Beijing Opera, a cloisonne factory, a drum tower and hundreds, no thousands of bicycles on the streets.
Over the last year I’ve been paying closer attention to the geopolitical situation among China, Japan, Korea, the South China Sea and Southeast Asia stimulated in part by Joseph’s year long deployment to Osan AFB in South Korea and his marriage to SeoAh.
With Mary and Mark (brother and sister) having lived in Southeast Asia for decades and with the adoption of Joseph from India and his marrying SeoAh from Korea my family has distinct and chosen Asian roots.
While volunteering for twelve years at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, I had the privilege of diving deep into the Asian Art collection, especially China and Japan. That study led me more deeply into Chinese history and into Asian literature, in particular Chinese classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Monkey’s Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber. I also read the Tale of Genji and have more recently begun reading classics of Indian religious literature like the Mahabharata.
Two recent books, one I’ve almost finished, Destined for War: Can China and the U.S. escape Thucydides’ trap? , and a second I’ve just started, Everything Under Heaven: How the past shapes China’s push for power, have given me a much clearer picture into the geopolitical dynamics of this historically unusual moment in world history. The United States of the last century and this one is the most powerful nation-state to have ever existed and, in spite of DJT, is still a great nation and remains the dominant global superpower.
But that’s all changing. China’s rise is not the same as other, similar situations in which a dominant power faced a rising rival though there are many similarities. Destined for War gives several examples of this phenomenon and compares them to the rise of Athens while Sparta was the dominant city-state in what is now Greece. Thucydides wrote his classic, the Peloponnesian Wars, as an attempt to explain how Athens and Sparta tried, but failed, to prevent war in spite of leaders in both city-states who saw the dangers and worked actively to maintain the peace.
China has rightly been called a civilization rather than a nation-state. It’s 3,000 year old history has seen its Han majority wax and wane in power, but never disappear, not even during the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchu dynasty of the Qing’s. Nation-states only came into existence after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-seventeenth century.
This means that we have a unique situation, maybe unprecedented, of a rising ancient civilization that during most of its history saw itself as the Middle Kingdom, the rulers of Everything Under Heaven, in direct competition with the apotheosis of the modern nation-state, the United States of America. One is the heir to 3,000 years (longer, if we move back into prehistory) of self-definition and imperial power, the other heir to the most advanced expressions of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
This conflict will probably play out over the next generation and its conclusion is far from certain. I find the process exhilarating: Western individualism and democracy challenged by the more autocratically inclined and much more group oriented Asian way. It could be a key moment for global evolution of the species. Much, much more to come.