NEW YORK: How important was China’s role in the growth and spread of civilisation? Clearly massive, as anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at the history of humankind knows. But has China ever been a trendsetter for the world? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Met as everyone here calls it, is housing a splendid exhibition displaying answers to the question.
Since the expansion of the silk trade between China and the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE, Western fashion has craved for Chinese silk. In the 16th century, when sea trade expanded the supply of Chinese goods, this appetite increased sharply to last another couple of centuries. It wasn’t a one way street. Designs and motifs moved between producer and consumer, as trade inevitably encourages. On silk and wallpaper, on paintings and pottery.
In the costume section of the Met’s exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, world-famous modern stylists, from Yves Saint Laurent through Ralph Lauren to a galaxy of other stars in the universe of fashion, have explored how China fuelled fashion’s imagination for centuries. The exhibition halls are overflowing with visitors, many of Chinese origin. Groups of Chinese schoolchildren, apparently from the mainland, listen raptly to their teachers explain intricacies of the art on display. They must feel proud.
So, how did China change from being an active participant in the early phases of globalisation to a more or less isolated civilisation that closed its mind to foreign influences? Historians suggest that the process began some time under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when an emperor, taking the advice of mandarins, called an end to sea voyages. Till then China’s seafaring technology, which included innovations like the magnetic compass unknown yet to European explorers, was superior to that of Europeans. China in many ways was then the world’s leading civilisation.
The Chinese were not alone in shutting themselves off. The Tokugawa dynasty (1603-1867) did the same for Japan, mainly to ward off Christian influences on their culture. In the process they closed the Japanese mind to the world until they were deposed by the Meiji in the mid-19th century.
And India was never a major seafaring power. Hindu texts banned Brahmins and other upper castes from crossing the sea. Although outside the dominant castes and among non-Hindus there was a fair bit of sea travel and trade, most Indian rulers did not care for naval power and disdained ocean voyages for war, trade or exploration. All the while, European powers continued to develop their seafaring capabilities for exploration, trade as well as imperial expansion. The rest is history, from the 15th century to our present era.
China today has once again joined the world. Ever since the reformist Deng Xiaoping led the country away from Maoist insularity to a nation engaged in the economic sense with the rest of the world, China’s rise from the ashes of close-mindedness has been phenomenal. It is once again a leading power and asserts itself globally at every opportunity.
And there lies the rub. Although it is economically and culturally open to the world far more than ever, in this interconnected and technology hooked modern era it remains politically a woolly mammoth trying hard to manage the myriad forces let loose by the forces of that rapidly evolving technological advancement and economic interconnectedness.
Through its Confucius Institutes around the world and by placing opinion pieces by sympathetic intellectuals in global media, China’s leaders doggedly argue that growth based on Confucian social harmony is a superior form of political management than one founded on democratic dissent, chaotic as it so often seems in nations like India and the US. Alas, in an age of spreading challenges to authority and a growing sense of individual independence among the restless young, social harmony imposed by the diktat of a few is unlikely to remain feasible for long.
Openness can’t be partial or selective for long. China’s leaders would do well to read the tea leaves in the cup of their own history. The same goes for today’s Indian leaders, some of whom believe in an unexamined ancient wisdom that still has answers to all of life’s complexities.