2007/08/24

Nourished by the sap bubbling from our civilizational roots.

It's like a given for all of us that people of different civilizations are and behave very differently. We all inherited stereotypes about "the other" but once we start to better know people from another civilization it seems that those differences are fast melting away. In "the other" we discover a human as ourselves. But is this the real thing happening or is it only a mirage given by the picture of our perception in our heads? In this post I posit that civilizations imprint a subtle code of behavior within societies that reflects upon individual attitudes.
This civilizational code remains largely ignored, for, to decode it you would need to understand the axioms upon which civilizations have been built originally. My plan is to illustrate the working of such a code, in people's daily lives, in China and in Europe (valid also in its geographic extensions). The following expands on my last post Loss of certainty and the purpose of life?".
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1. How daily life compares between Westerners and Chinese.

Food, health and belief are the main fields of the daily life of each of us on this earth. I'll succinctly dwell in each of these fields hoping to illustrate how the axioms of the Chinese and the European civilizations are "determining" the attitudes of the individuals. But ultimately I hope to succeed letting the reader discover how radically different are the views of Chinese and Westerners in all of those fields.


- Food.

We eat because we feel hungry and we are biologically tricked into pleasure when satisfying our hunger. This programming of our physical bodies acts identically anywhere and should I add anywhere for any species. While the pleasure of extinguishing hunger appears as the end motivator for all some attach an aesthetic component to the act of eating. Historically simple local and traditional cuisines for the people developed in parallel with more aesthetically pleasing cuisines reserved for the kings and their aristocracies. The same phenomenon can be observed the world over in association with the social polarization established since early kingdoms and empires.

While over the long time, in Europe, simple popular cuisine developed some local gustatory branches of sophistication the European immigrants in the Americas under duress of survival had to satisfy themselves with extinguishing hunger by filling their stomachs. And the available quantity of food thus developed into the form attribute of pleasure. All this helps us understand why industrial foods found such an easy access to American tables while locally crafted Cheeses, wines, butchery-specialties, breads and fine-pastries keep industrial foods away from French tables...

In the West the top of all aristocratic cuisines is without the shred of a doubt the French which later also developed as the premier Western commercial cuisine. "French cuisine has evolved extensively over the centuries. ...The national cuisine developed primarily in the city of Paris with the chefs to French royalty, but eventually it spread throughout the country and was even exported overseas". 1 In analogy to painting French cuisine is typically an art for art's sake. What I mean by this is that in French cuisine the aesthetic of the palate has taken the driver's seat displacing the original function of extinguishing hunger that eventually was forgotten over time. Food was not rare for the kings and their cohorts of aristocrats and the same aestheticism found in their appreciation of music or painting was thus seen at work at their dining tables.

This art for art's sake that characterizes aristocratic and later commercialized cuisine in the West is so firmly contrasted by Chinese cuisine that our comparison takes the traits of a caricature.

The the axioms of civilization of China are firmly at work in its cuisine as well in the emperor's cuisine as in the people's cuisine. In sum food is considered to impact the health of the body and as a consequence it is considered that food needs to help the body reaching its energetic and mineral balance. Aesthetics are not rejected they serve as gustatory and visual dress-up of a functional role. And in consequence the serving of food at a table has always to satisfy this idea of a functional balancing of the polarities of all unities seen to be active in the body - Yin and Yang, cold and warm, etc... -. Just as an imbalance between yin and yang is considered to produce destructive forces the Chinese also consider it is imperative to keep the 5 elements in balance, for, the deficit or excess of an element can lead to illness.

All this helps us to understand how food is considered the first component of a whole battery of instruments in Chinese Traditional Medicine. Harmony in the culinary sense concerns the balance of what is on the table while in TCM harmony rest in the body of the patient that has primarily to be balanced through the intake of a given food composition.

Summary table given in "The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, and Ingredients" by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
Element Yin Yang Feelings Colors Tastes
Wood Liver Gall Bladder Rage Green Sour
Fire Heart Small Intestine Happiness Red Bitter
Earth Spleen Stomach Thought Yellow Sweet
Metal Lungs Large Intestine Sorrow White Spicy
Water Kidneys Bladder Fear Black Salty

This caricature about the different perceptions of food in the West and in China gives us to see how the Chinese culinary culture integrates the axioms of its civilization while in the West the best we can see is some application of art for art's sake.


- Health.

In China food and health are intertwined in the application of this idea that the energetic and mineral components of the body have to be kept in balance. Exercise is then conceived of as the ideal complement of food in order to keep healthy. The cure of sickness is done by treating the underlying causes that provoke the sickness. In other words Traditional Chinese Medicine considers that an initial chemical or energetic imbalance in the body is what causes sickness and so they act to re-establish the chemical and energetic balance of the body.

The following instruments of the Chinese medical orchestra are meant to complement food and exercise:
- pharmacopoeia containing thousands of substances of plant, animal, or mineral origin to complement food.
- Qigong and Tai Chi: as practices to balance the flows of energy in the body. Those are the two most practiced suite of exercises to complement the intake of foods in order to balance the body. Qigong is also a fully fledged component of TCM that is used by Chinese doctors to control the flow of QI (energy) and is implemented in association with other forms of care to treat specific illnesses. Qigong is also used to regulate breathing and in a holistic approach to health is used as a technique for deep meditation.
- acupuncture: is the control of energetic flows by the insertion of needles at given connection points.
- massage: is the control of energetic flows by rubbing muscles.

A healthy state is considered, by the Chinese, to be a good balance of the energetic flows and mineral components in the body. As such health is the source of a permanent attention and medicine is then predominantly a question of prevention wherein food plays a central role.

In contrast the health practice in the West is characterized by the waiting for symptoms of sickness to manifest the existence of a health problem. Even in prevention doctors search for symptoms or pre-symptoms. And when a symptom manifests itself the medical practice consists invariably in its suppression through chemical attack, radiation attack or the attack of the knives. In other words Western doctors focus on trying to cut the symptom. For sure Western medicine has evolved and new technologies are now the order of the day but in its most general application the description given here above is till largely valid.

The defining characteristic that best exemplifies how China diverges from the West in term of health lies again in its integration of the axioms of its civilization at the core of its health practice and that gives Chinese health care its holistic character (vision of the whole). Western medicine also takes its cues from the axioms of its civilization: good versus bad, healthy versus sick, etc... After observing sickness the West applies rationality in solving the problem and thus focuses on the body at its microscopic level trying to understand the mechanism at work behind an organ or a component of the body in order to find possible corrections to the mechanism. As such Western medicine is predominantly intervening to correct or to eliminate symptoms of existing illnesses while largely forgetting about prevention.


- Belief

The observation of the rhythms of nature along the long haul concluded in the Chinese psyche with an abstract system regulating their actions based on the reproduction of the rhythms and patterns detected by their ancestors in all unities at work under the sky. That system continues to help them to surf the waves of incessant transformations in the present. The active principle of that system are the polarities that they observed at work in all unities and they designated those by the abstract symbols of Yin and Yang:
- day and night, visible and invisible colors and absence of colors, white and black and so on in the cycle of days that they understood as the result of the rotation of the moon around the earth.
- women and men, female and male, weak and strong, and so on that allow humanity and other living species to reproduce.
- water and fire, cold and warm, and so on
Basically the interactions between the polarities of any unity generate bursts of energy fueling changes and transformations that are as the seconds on the ticking clock of evolution. The code of that system of action is given in the Yi-Ching the oldest book on earth. Archaeological evident suggest that carvings of Ying and yang and their derivations dating 6000 years BC were discovered near Luoyang in Henan.
The Yi-Ching is like a software modeling the changes that construct reality. Its principles have been put in application in all aspects of life:
- The "Yellow Emperor's book of health" dating back to 3000 BC approximately is still considered today as the way of Medicine and cuisine.
- The "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tze dates 600 BC approximately and is the way of behaving through righteousness and morality. It's content is embedded in Confucianism, Chinese Buddhism, the culture of the mandarins, Chinese music, Xieyi painting and so on.
- The Confucian Classics cover the way to govern the country applying righteousness and morality.
- The classics about strategy, among the most famous Sun Tze's "Art of war", cover the way to win in a competition.

The stories of the Bible give the axiomatic roots of Western civilization. It all starts with a " first mover" that puts reality in motion (what Aristotle calls the "final cause" in a process of causality that powers change. After giving god as the starter of reality it is only logical that reality was given an ending point being the reunion in eternal happiness of "good men" in the kingdom of god. Such a system of causality with a beginning and an end gives life as the expression of the will of god and humans have then no other choice but to follow the rules. The religions of the word, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are thus canons of rules that humans have to follow if they don't want to end up burning in permanent suffering in hell.
Those canons were selected among many others by the men of power because, for given reasons, they appeared as opportunities in their quest to control their populations. They were thus imposed as the law of their kingdom or empire. To give maximum traction to those canons of laws all vestiges of past belief systems had to be eradicated and thus the disappearance of the body of knowledge that their people had accumulated over the haul of many tens of thousands of years.
And so all practical knowledge related to daily life was lost where the religions of the word (law) triumphed.

The axioms of their civilization give the Chinese a more pragmatic outlook on life than Westerners who see everything through the lens of the values of their system of belief. The axiomatic inscriptions in what happens in their daily lives, food and health for example, gives the Chinese a direct framework of reference for action while the belief system of Westerners seems to distract them from taking action on the realities that shape their daily life.


2. The impact of people's worldviews on their daily life.

The sharing of a worldview:
- supplies the individuals with peace of mind. ( Kauffman, meaning of life
- supplies societies with the psychic glue to bond the individuals which, in the last instance, assures their reproduction. ( rationality versus religion, rationality without soul, worldviews and visual arts, art answering "What is reality", Atomization, sick art )
Those general principles have been in application in any society as far as our eyes can see along the path of our history.

But this is one of the aspects that are the least well known in history. Societies are like living organisms and the worldviews shared by the individuals are an essential parameter of their state of health or sickness.

Let's say we want to understand the huge educational differences between the West and Confucian Asia (China, Korea, Japan). What springs immediately to the eye is that the enormously high financial inputs in the West are failing to generate the level of success reached in Confucian Asia with far less money. And the only way to start to understand the formation of such disparities in term of output is to look at how the differences in the worldviews of each side are impacting on their educational results.
Confucian Asia has a high respect for older age, for authority and education while in atomizing Western nations the individuals consider that the only thing that matters is their own satisfaction and their own beliefs. In such a contrasted environment knowledge takes forcibly a different dimension if you are in the West or in the Confucian world. In the West the road of the men of knowledge was separated from that of the men of power and as a consequence the men of knowledge had to compete on the level playing field of the market for ideas with all kinds of charlatans and the eruption of the web in our houses only de-multiplied the number of such charlatans. The result of this downgrading of knowledge to the level of a commodity has weakened it significantly by taking away from it the eyeballs of the citizens. In contrast knowledge is still a very much respected value in Confucian lands where the knowledge of the men of knowledge is still being "imposed" by the men of power on all of society. You'll eventually think that these are only words but I would like to dispel that idea by focusing on simple attitudes in daily life.
In the West teachers are poorly paid and as soon as they can get a better job in the private sector they leave the education system. This has led to a lowered social status for the teaching profession that was followed by a shrinking respectability for the teachers that irremediably weakened their authority over the kids they try to educate.
Contrast that with Confucian nations where teachers are well paid, receive high social respectability and are attributed a high level of authority on the kids they educate. If you think that these are still no more than words then check the results of different international competitions: PISA, IMO. Most countries placing at the top of the list are Confucian nations. And the few egalitarian Western European small countries placing equally at the top share a high social standing for their teachers that procures them the respect of parents and students alike.

What I mean to show here is how a radical difference, between East and West in term of the sharing of a common worldview by the individuals, is bringing about quite contrasted daily behaviors. In Western countries there is no longer a common worldview being shared by all and as a result societies have atomized into so many beliefs and ways of doing that somehow erased all that was a given in earlier times. In the East the individuals continue to share, most often unconscientiously, the axiomatic roots of their common understanding of reality and this, in the end of the day, is what homogenizes their behaviors in daily life.


3. Modernity and civilizational axioms.

We live with the assumption that once economic modernity has injected the rationality, that is inherent to the ways of doing and behaving proper to the logic of capital, all humans will behave in very similar ways. But is this a fact or is it no more than a rationalist reduction of all things of life to the logic of capital? In other words does modernity erase the historical particularities of daily life by homogenizing us all as actors on the level-playing-field of the market or is there, eventually, a civilizational substract that resists market homogenization?

I wrote here above "In the East the individuals continue to share, most often unconscientiously, the axiomatic roots of their common understanding of reality". This unconscious is, I think, the keyword from where we should start in order to understand what is going on under modernity.

Basically East and West diverged radically at the point of emergence of agriculture and power that followed the decline of plucking and hunting. The changes that were occurring were economic in nature. Women who had plucked fruits and collected seeds for tens of thousands of years had observed how seeds germinate in spring and this lead them gradually to help mother nature by throwing seeds in specific areas of their chosing. This learning process which spread over the long haul eventually resulted in fields that could sustain the population of the tribe and in consequence more children were surviving increasing gradually the population of tribes. All this weakened the absolute necessity to garner meat from hunting and the aggressive skills of men had to find an exit. They found it in wrestling the control of the tribe from the women and having eaten the fruit of power they wanted more of it which led to the desire to control more tribes. So the economic process of change toward agriculture was followed by a political revolution. But this political revolution that had been realized through the exercise of brute force found its limits with territorial expansion. It appeared indeed that, while force allowed to control the people where force was used, it was of no help where force was absent. And the more the territory was growing the weaker force became at sustaining its control. That's how emerged, in the minds of the men of power, the necessity for a control of the minds. It's at that point that East and West diverged.

In the East the men of power cultivated relations with the shaman who received, through oral transmission, the body of knowledge accumulated by their ancestors over tens of thousands of years. That's how the men of power used the shaman, the men of knowledge, as actors in their quest to preserve their power. The knowledge of reality under animism would thus become the glue that would glue the tribesmen into the unity of their tribes and the evolution of knowledge under Eastern civilizations would then be constituted by cultural and scientific add-ons to the body of knowledge arrived at with animism.

The story in the West took another turn. Tribes in the Middle-East rejected the body of knowledge accumulated by their ancestors and developed new, simple, foundational stories to supersede animism. Western civilizations and knowledge then developed through cultural and scientific add-ons to the body of knowledge contained in the initial foundational stories. The mechanism of the passage in the West from animism to simple foundational stories is not very well understood and I know of no historian who specialized in such study. The best I encountered is Arnold Toynbee but the subject of his studies concerns what follows the passage from animism to simple foundational stories. In other words Toynbee narrates the power struggles between tribes and early kingdoms after they had adopted their foundational stories. If you encountered something more specific about the passage from animism to simple foundational stories in the Middle-East your comment on the subject is most welcome.

With this advent of the men of knowledge being used by the men of power to preserve their power the world has witnessed a forking into civilizations rooted into animism versus civilizations rooted in the word of simple foundational stories.

It comes thus as no surprise that the simple foundational stories that sprouted in the Middle-East would eventually be displaced by the rationality that emerged out of the application of the logic of capital. In other words the stories of the religions of the word have gradually been undressed by rationality and appearing naked to the eye they lost their appeal for most of the people. For sure things are different for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Modernity has swallowed Judaism and Christianity but Judaism is well alive while Christianity can't resist the push of rationality in advanced nations. Things are different for Islam. Modernity has only touched the surface of Muslim societies, at the point, where opportunistic men of power and their cohorts convert the result of plundering their citizens into Western commodities. But, all in all, Muslim societies are resisting modernity to the chagrin of Western rationality and capital holders.
Whatever the particular circumstances of the countries that emerged within the realm of civilizations built on the words of simple stories, their people still believing their foundational stories or being converted to rationality, the fact is that the axioms built in their simple stories are guiding the daily actions of all their people. The same dualism is well alive in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Good versus bad remains the story of the day for believer as for rationalists. The good guys have to annihilate the bad guys, the bad sickness has to be extirpated, the good market has to displace any bad non-market exchanges, and so on and so on. While giving the general directions of Western actions dualism and other axioms of the simple foundational stories of the word are very poor in useful knowledge to be applied in people's daily lives. And this is perhaps the most striking and significant difference between the West and the East.

Being derived from the body of knowledge arrived at under animism the evolution of knowledge in Eastern civilizations could only be pragmatic and applied to people's daily lives. Such pragmatic knowledge can't be eradicated from people's ways. The end of history is thus not really in our sight.

Observing the enormous economic changes that have been wrought upon the Chinese population over the last 30 years one senses how deeply its traditional societal organization has been disrupted. But what impresses me most is the complete liquefaction of the foundational story that kept the Chinese in togetherness. What remains of Communism is only a word that has been emptied of its significance and the Chinese traditional philosophies, Taoism and Confucianism, have been broken by force under the vengeance of a ten years span of cultural revolution. One can understand that facing a ruthless Western power engine third world leaders fell they had no choice, their countries had no choice. It was either the demise of their countries, their nations, or the adoption of Western capitalistic ways toward the build-up of national power. But this engulfed their people under a cultural tsunami. Certainties became less certain and people began to doubt and then started to search for the comfort of foundational stories. Some fifteen years ago Falun Gong erupted in Chinese minds but it has been ruthlessly crushed under the hammer of communist power. Today there is a wide revival of religions of all kinds. Christianity is one of those religions gaining many adherents. But belief in China is not acting in the way it does in the West. The knowledge derived from the axioms of their civilization is indeed always firmly at play in the shaping of their daily lives and religious belief in China is thus more than anything else an opportunistic way of handling momentary uncertainties in the comfort found in belonging to a closely knit community. But such belief is bound to vanish as soon as traditional philosophies bloom again. And a revival of Chinese spiritual traditions is well under way. Sensing the direction the wind is blowing China's central authorities are moving to try to glue the Chinese population behind their traditional values. Their goal is to bring their population to accept the present changes being inflicted so ruthlessly on it by an elite that has an elaborate strategic vision of the role the Chinese nation should play in the future. It all starts with the idea of societal conservation. I mean that the Chinese leaders understand the social and political risks of destabilization that their push for China's entry into modernity entails. They think rightly that if the entry of the country into modernity should conclude with the dissolution of the Chinese nation the experiment would not have been worth the exercise. So the recourse to the Chinese spiritual traditions is meant to glue the individuals in a common worldview to assure the preservation and reproduction of the Chinese nation and society. If the Chinese nation is successfully preserved through its long march towards modernity then unmistakably it will soon be playing a leading economic role in the affairs of the world. Nobody contests that point. But what is most often forgotten is that economic might has always been followed by cultural hegemony. So the recourse to the Chinese spiritual traditions is also meant to offer the world a typically Chinese worldview that could successfully compete with the Christian worldview for gaining acceptance around the world.

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