Wednesday, January 7, 2009

This op-ed about China vs. India is about a week old, but I finally got around to reading it and I'm not sure what I think.

It's an interesting topic for sure. I'm just not sure the cultural analysis holds much water. It's this paragraph I have an issue with:

The idea of becoming a military power in the 21st century embarrasses many Indians. This ambivalence goes beyond Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for India’s freedom, or even the Buddha’s message of peace. The skeptical Indian temper goes back to the 3,500-year-old “Nasadiya” verse of the Rig Veda, which meditates on the creation of the universe: “Who knows and who can say, whence it was born and whence came this creation? The gods are later than this world’s creation. Who knows then whence it first came into being?” When you have millions of gods, you cannot afford to be theologically narcissistic. It also makes you suspect power.

I don't know, it just seems too easy. I'm not sure why this should be all about theology. Is China theologically narcissistic? Uh, not so much. I think a stronger argument could be made about India's massive diversity vs. China's more homogeneous society. Don't get me wrong--China is not nearly so homogeneous as we Westerners tend to imagine. But the cultural, regional, and ethnic differences present in China have been handled by government very differently from the ones in India for centuries, and it seems quite reasonable to imagine that China's imperial history could lead to a different set of political values and ideas than India's hugely varied history of colonialism, foreign rule, and diversity as enshrined within the government (Emperor Akbar). The notion of one unified China has been around in the public consciousness much longer than a corresponding notion of one unified India, and that notion has been concieved very differently in China than in India.

This seems more like an issue of different historical experiences and paths taken in government policy and political consciousness than it does of Hinduism vs. Confucianism or whatever the Chinese equivalent would be. If there's an underlying, endemic cultural component, it is very difficult to separate from those historical factors since it would have to have been at least partially shaped by them. For example, it seems backward to posit Ghandhi's pacifist approach as a cause for the attitude discussed here; a more productive question might be to ask how this cultural orientation might have not only produced Ghandhi and his ideas but allowed them to be popular enough to be effective.

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