III. Change & Continuity

~ The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí

The universe is change[1]. Nothing in the entire universe ever perishes but things vary and adopt new forms[2]. Everything moves[3] and everything changes. Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow[4]. By the time your foot reaches the riverbed, the waters in the river would have changed many times. Though things may pass into that, and that into this, yet the sum of things remains unchanged.

China stands out as an anomaly in the history of human civilization. While other civilizations have risen and fallen, China has a continuing experience of civilization that has gone through the ages since the time of ancient Egypt. Chinese cultural refinement in the form of literature, philosophy, calligraphy, painting, music, tea drinking, and mannerism have been exported to countries all over the world and remain to this very day a hallmark of the Chinese civilization. More remarkable than its cultural heritage is the fact that for about 2500 years there has been a Chinese nation using a Chinese language[5]. Such continuity cannot be seen in other civilizations and cultures; many of which can no longer decipher the hieroglyphs, cuneiforms and other methods of writings that their ancient ancestors use.

The social cohesion and identity of the Chinese as a race that has withstood the test of time. The reason being that China possesses a great capacity to assimilate alien influence. While foreign powers like the Mongols and the Manchus have conquered China in ages pass, these barbarians were gradually swallowed up by Chinese society, while losing their own identity and becoming just another kind of Chinese. The unique ability of the Chinese civilization to adapt to change seemed to be unparalleled. This brings us to wonder why the Chinese as a civilization have succeeded in achieving continuity when other civilizations have failed.

The greatest challenge that a civilization faces is change. No matter how hard a civilization intends to retain its culture and tradition, change is inevitable. Schopenhauer once stated that ‘change alone is eternal, perpetual and immortal[6]’. We see it all around us. The four seasons make way for each other in turn[7]. We see it in the waxing and waning of the moon. Even empires rise and fall. The changes that we face can be divided into two distinctive aspects. A civilization like an individual faces internal and external changes. Internal changes are, for example, power struggles and succession rivalry. External changes on the other hand, may come in the form of invading armies to natural disasters. In history, such changes constantly occur. They are unpredictable and strike in the most unforeseeable manner.

The change that we see, however, is not one that is born out of chaos but out of order. Water in its natural course runs away from high places and hasten downwards[8]. The day can come only after the night. Everything involves its own negation. When the cold goes, the warmth comes, when the warmth comes, the cold goes. There is a natural order[9] of things within the flux of existence. What the unlearned man sees as chaos, the learned man sees as order. And this understanding is the secret of the Chinese civilization.

One of the earliest teachings of the Chinese concentrates on the philosophy of Yin and Yang. The movement of Yin and Yang can be explained by the saying that nature abhors a vacuum[10]. Yang represents the power of creation while Yin represents the power of destruction. Yang forever grows into Yin while Yin forever eats into Yang. The vacuum that Yin creates from destruction would be replace by the growth of Yang’s creation while the movement of Yin would slowly decay other parts of Yang. Both movements cause the orderly cycle of things and one attuned to these changes around him can see patterns within the transformation of things and act accordingly.

Just as all rivers are bound to the sea, these patterns are conceptually repetitive in nature and those with a firm understanding of the past may take a glimpse into events that have yet to unfold. It is said that the further backward you look, the further forward you can see[11]. What has been, may be; for coming events have cast their shadows before[12]. History repeats itself[13] and the more things change, the more they remain the same. Hence, today is but the scholar of yesterday[14] and things present are judged by things past. It is with these thoughts in mind that the Chinese preserve accurate written annals and old records from very early times. Their aim is to create a body of examples and data that would serve to guide future generations while making it easier to maintain traditional ways and values.

The Chinese are indeed very deeply infatuated with the past. They revere their links with their ancestors. They value the continuity of the family and their indebtedness to their ancestors for life. This emphasis of respect for their ancestors can be seen as many families can still trace back their ancestral line to the emperors of old. In philosophy, the Chinese still talk about Confucius and Lao Tzu as if they were contemporary philosophers that lived in the same era as themselves. Their teachings in concept continue to remain as relevant today as they were in the past.

For the Chinese, the past is not to be forgotten as they contain an abundant wealth of information and indirect experience that will help future generations to face old challenges that recur. And the challenges of old will indeed recur. The common problem of an aging population faced by many countries today is similar to the problem of an aging population during the decline of the Roman Empire. Paraphrasing Peter Drucker, sometimes only the terms are different; everything else; the arguments, the logic, the predictions, the rhetoric, are practically the same. The past is not just something to be thrown away but experimental results for the benefit of future decision-making.

The secret of continuity of the Chinese civilization lies not solely in its reflection of the past but also in its ability to speculate into the future. Since as early as the Han Dynasty, the Chinese civilization has appointed government officials through an examination system. The principle of competition ensured that the search for talent would not only be confined to the wealthier families. In this manner, the Chinese civilization encouraged a meritocratic way of living in which learning would always provided social mobility upwards.

To the Chinese, knowledge is a virtue and learning is a moral obligation. ‘The Great Learning’, a text of the Confucian school, states that all affairs have their beginning and their end. The cultivation of the individual is the root of everything. When the root is neglected, what should spring from it cannot be well ordered. To manage the state, one must first manage their families; to manage their families, one must first manage himself; to manage himself, one must cultivate the individual. And the cultivation of the individual involves the perfecting of knowledge and to allow no self-deception. An ideal life according to the Confucians is a life of continuous learning and improvement.

The example of the Chinese method to achieve continuity is clear. Preserve the old but know the new[15]. He that would know what shall be must consider what has been. Just as a man stands firmly on two legs, so much the learned man reflect on the past and speculate into the future. If continuity and survival be your ultimate aim, then remember that it is not the strongest of the species who survive, not the most intelligent, but those who are the most adaptive to change[16]. And the one that is most adaptive to change is the one that learns from the mistakes of old.

[1] A saying attributed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

[2] Adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

[3] Panta rhei. The philosophy of Heraclitus.

[4] Attributed to the philosophy of Heraclitus.

[5] See The New Penguin History of The World by J.M. Roberts.

[6] Attributed to Schopenhauer

[7] Adapted from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

[8] Adapted from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

[9] The natural order refers to the Chinese Tao or the Greek Logos.

[10] Attributed to Aristotelian physics.

[11] A quotation from Winston Churchill.

[12] A quotation from Thomas Campbell’s ballad “Lochiel’s Warning” (1803).

[13] An idea attributed by Karl Marx to Hegel (1770-1831).

[14] Adapted from an ancient Roman saying implying that we must continuously learn from the past.

[15] A Chinese proverb.

[16] A quotation from Charles Darwin.


One Response to “III. Change & Continuity”
  1. vamanan says:

    your article reads beautifully….thanks

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