China, the Once, Present, and Future Superpower: Why Do Some Civilizations Stand the Test of Time?


{Alternate title} The Roman Legionnaire Next Door:  Debunking the Natural Life Cycle Concept as Applied to Civilizations and Societies


In spite of regular disagreements on other matters, both liberal and conservative commentators generally invoke the facile presupposition of the natural course of civilizations.  This is partly a Spenglerian-influenced vantage point for interpreting historical events (though Spengler himself was far more nuanced and intricate on this topic than often recognized).  Nevertheless, the principal basis for this notion—that there is any such thing as a "natural course" for countries and societies—seems to stem predominantly from a more rudimentary assumption:  It is deceptively easy and misleading to presume that civilizations have a natural birth, life, and death, a rise and fall, just like individual humans, and this assumption becomes a prism through which we view modern societies, a framework that biases many of our interpretations about them at the outset.  Yet groups of any sort differ radically in their behavior from individuals, and are notoriously unpredictable in any way, shape, or form.  This goes doubly so for highly complex, evolving, intelligent networks, and especially for human civilizations, which are fundamentally multi-faceted entities that do not simply live or die like an individual organism; they grow, expand, change, and transform themselves, propagating their essences through legacies of culture and tradition (much like the ancient Roman Republic and Empire) as much as direct political units.  And no two are the same, as the discussion below notes with many specific examples.  While some nations and societies—such as ancient Assyria or the Khwarezm civilization—largely collapsed as intact cultural spheres and/or were generally absorbed into other civilizations, others—such as the Mongol and Persian civilizations—may have lost their imperial splendor, but remain as intact nation-states today (and often geopolitically significant ones, in the case of Persia/Iran.)  Still others—such as the Aztecs and Mayas, the fledgling statelets founded by Alexander the Great, and especially ancient Rome—proved to be far more enduring, with a powerful and permanent cultural legacy that fundamentally permeates and even defines many nations of today, even though they may no longer persist as modern political units themselves.  There are even a very few ancient civilizations that continue today as not only border-crossing cultural spheres, but extant political nation-states themselves—such as many Middle Eastern nations, the Indian subcontinent, Vietnam, Japan, and especially China, a superpower over 2 millennia ago which is re-emerging as a global technological superpower in the 21st century.  Understanding why some civilizations persist so well like this is itself an illuminating exercise in glimpsing history over the long term, which has lessons both subtle and surprising in their ramifications.


            With the infamous red state-blue state divisions splitting the US today, one could be forgiven for thinking that liberal and conservative commentators would probably disagree about everything—from their choices for federal court appointments to paper or plastic at the supermarket.  It can be taxing to find points of accord, but occasionally political commentators make forays into anthropology and the history of human civilization.  They view history through different lenses and so, therefore, they often have different interpretations about events that are essential to whatever they’re writing their op-eds or books about, but in at least one respect they seem to take an assumption for granted:  Civilizations have a natural life cycle, with a birth, a life (often turbulent), and a death, just like human individuals.  This is a facile truism espoused both by liberal and conservative pundits alike.

            Many modern talking heads cite the 20th century German scholar Oswald Spengler, he of Untergang des Westes (The Decline of the West) renown, even though Spengler’s argument was far more subtle than a simple claim that Western Civilization was going down the tubes (certainly not the first time he’s been thoroughly misinterpreted).  No matter—it just seems so natural, so easy, to apply to whole civilizations what we take for granted in individual humans.  And this assumption is of great consequence since it effectively creates a bias from which we view, and frame, our own society; everyone’s on the lookout for signs of the decline and fall of civilization, whether it’s {fill in supposedly immoral and sinful Hollywood film/TV/Internet media here} or {fill in your favorite foreign policy blunder or example of latter-day imperialism here}.  The same kind of simplistic "rise and fall" thinking too often applies to societies outside the US as well.

This line of thinking is fraught with the peril of fallacious conclusions, however, since there’s simply no such thing as a “life cycle for civilizations.”  In fact, the course of any given civilization is wildly unpredictable and far more complex than anything we could offer simple birth and death dates for; the concept, in practical terms, has no meaning.  Nation-states and civilizations are vastly different entities from individual humans, and there is nothing intrinsic to their nature that demands that they rise, fall, or peter out in one way or another.  Some do indeed rise and fall; others muddle along under the radar screen; still others rise, decline, rise again, collapse, then find a way to renew and often gain great prominence yet again.  The situation varies greatly from case to case, and there is no “time in the sun” or “decline and fall” guaranteed to any civilization; their course really is a product of the choices and innovations that they undertake, and the quality of their leadership. 


Individual vs. Group Entities


            This common confusion about “the natural course of civilizations” stems from the equally common—and understandable—failure to distinguish between individual survival, and the similar-sounding yet radically different concept of group survival.  In any society, people tend to gather and interact within and among groups of one stripe or another.  City councils, PTA organizations, small or large companies, ethnic groups, Rotary Clubs, sports teams—all of these represent just a tiny few of the innumerable groups in which people within any given community will affiliate.  Yet despite this ubiquitous group presence, there’s no such thing as an easily definable “group experience.”  A substantial body of recent scholarship, such as James Surowiecki's always-intriguing study in The Wisdom of Crowds, indicates that collections of independently thinking individuals engender a sort of "collective mind" that is more than the sum of its parts, and capable of ideas and contemplation far beyond what individual people can achieve. 

Nevertheless, we ourselves do not experience our surroundings as a “collective mind” of the groups in which we affiliate—we experience them only as individuals, as parts within the whole, from the subjective vantage points of our minds.  We can only infer, with an inevitable margin of error, the experiences and overall goings-on of the group itself.  In line with Surowiecki's book, many sociologists have written treatises on the intriguing notion of “collective intelligence” which can be discerned from a sampling of opinions among the individuals of a group, yet each member, naturally, experiences that group and offers an opinion only as an individual.  A Fortune 500 company or a top-flight hospital can do amazing things and amass an extraordinary record of accomplishments, yet any single individual within that organization will know, experience, and achieve only a tiny fraction of the knowledge and deeds that emerge from the organization; no single person can ever attest fully to the experience and successes of the group. 

            Among individuals, one of the most familiar and easily understood concepts is the life cycle, from birth to death with (sometimes) kids and grandkids somewhere in between, something that is roughly predictable for different individuals (though decreasingly so with the advent of modern medicine and the gap between industrial and developing countries).  As with many other things, it is tempting to simply extrapolate this concept from the individual to the group, and this is precisely what Pat Buchanan, James Carroll, and many others have done with their Decline of the West/Decline of Civilization elegies:  If individuals have a so-called natural life cycle, one that is easily described and understood, then by extension we could apply the same concept to civilizations, right?  Well, no.

            As everyone from field biologists to sociologists and historians can tell you, groups of almost any sort—species, nations, social clubs—are incredibly complicated entities for which the mileposts of our individual experience (the easy-to-understand life cycle among them) are grossly inadequate.  In fact, the experience and course of events for a group is highly unpredictable and extremely divergent among different groups.  A group—defined loosely here as an assemblage of distinct members (or information components), propagating themselves collectively across generations—has no such thing as a natural life cycle, and in principle a group is eternal.  Furthermore, one cannot even apply terms like life and death to a group in a very meaningful sense, since one of the essences of any group (in interaction with other groups) is evolution, change, and transformation. 

            Among distinct plant and animal species, for example, there is a blurring of the boundaries among different groups since, over very long periods, different subgroups within any given group splinter off and speciate.  Provided that it possesses a stable and efficient system of reproduction, no species can ever die a natural death in the way that we envisage the concept for individuals—described roughly, it either dies violently or it does not die at all, and thus the histories of species in previous geological eras and in our current one differ radically from each other in their behaviors, niches, and interactions with other species.  People like to sound off on how the dinosaurs became extinct, but in a very real sense they never actually did—they merely evolved into birds.  Thus while we fortunately need not worry about dodging a T. Rex on the way to work in the morning, we are in essence gazing at a form of dinosaur every time we toss a bread crumb to a pigeon in a public square. 

            The same principle applies to nations, societies, and civilizations, with an even more complex and multilayered set of foundations.  No society or civilization ever undergoes a natural birth or death.  Civilizations sprout spontaneously, erratically, and unpredictably from groups of people who decide to organize their interactions in a manner that incorporates law, traditions, and common beliefs, however crude.  What happens to those civilizations over the centuries can be surmised in only the most imprecise and uncertain manner.  Some unfortunate civilizations rose to a degree of prominence and literacy, only to be crushed and absorbed by a powerful foreign conqueror—as was the case, for example, of many fledgling civilizations in East and Central Asia who found themselves in the devastating path of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes in the 1200s, the Carthaginians who were overcome by Rome in the Punic Wars, or an alphabet soup of Biblical civilizations in the Near East (the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians) who were successively crushed or otherwise overtaken by more powerful neighbors or successors.  Some civilizations, while militarily successful, were largely absorbed and assimilated by neighbors with a perceived “higher culture”—the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Huns of the first few centuries A.D., and later the Mongols themselves, furnishing a convenient example. 


Rome Still Thrives Among Us


            Many other civilizations of yore, however, continue to exist in some way today, albeit in a transmogrified form from their original incarnations.  Everybody’s favorite fallen civilization is, of course, the Roman Empire, so fascinating in its ancient grandeur that the British historian Edward Gibbon himself gained renown by writing a book about the decline and fall of it.  A superficial observer might indeed glance at the Roman Empire and identify, in its history, a direct and simple analogy to the human life cycle—a birth in the 5th or 6th century B.C. or so, a sprawling adolescence in the days of the Republic and the Punic Wars (3rd century B.C.), an adulthood with the rise of the Empire under Augustus, a midlife crisis following the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius and the fracturing of the empire, a decline following the imperial division by Diocletian and Constantine, and a death following the conquest of Rome in 476 A.D. by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer.  In the sense of a unified political unit, the Roman Empire (in the west at least) did indeed disintegrate in the 5th century A.D., with the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire (itself basically a product of the Hellenistic world that sprang from Alexander the Great's conquests) continuing as the Byzantine Empire, until the Ottoman Turkish victory at Constantinople in 1453. 

            Nevertheless, the Roman Empire has lived on to the present day, if in a modified form.  When the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and extended tolerance to the new faith—in many ways identifying the Empire itself with that creed—the Church, in turn, came to integrate itself with Rome’s political apparatus and to follow Roman hierarchical and liturgical norms.  Latin—Rome’s language—became the official tongue of the Church, and following the fall of Roman central authority itself, political as well as religious authority devolved, in many ways, upon the Pope and the Papacy in Rome.  Even the Protestant denominations that arose in the wake of the Reformation in the 1500s and 1600s still carried much of the legacy that Rome had imparted upon the early Christian faith, in the early Church councils and in the cultural milieu that was incorporated into the young religion—a legacy that is very much still flourishing today in the 21st century.  For its part, the Eastern Roman (and later Byzantine) Empire showed a parallel influence on Eastern Europe and Russia, with the Greek Orthodox faith and the Greek-derived Cyrillic alphabet defining the cultural character of much of the region.  In fact, as the Ottoman armies of Sultan Mehmed II rolled into Constantinople in 1453, the nobles of the fledgling Russian state declared themselves to be the leaders of "New Rome," a political and cultural sphere that consciously traced its ancestry to the foundations laid by Constantine, Augustus, and Alexander the Great himself.

Another of Rome's very modern and international legacies is, of course, language.  Latin is a "dead language" only in the most rigid, technical concept that ancient Rome's Latin is no longer uttered in modern offices and streets (and even then, Vatican City brings this notion into question).  More accurately—ancient Latin merely differentiated into what has become a variety of "modern Latins," the Romance languages.  The spoken version of the Latin Roman language (called Vulgar Latin, the dialectical variety spoken by soldiers and administrators) split along regional lines and evolved directly into French, Italian, Castilian Spanish, and Romanian.  Latin is not confined to its direct linguistic descendants, however; a significant body of Latin also diffused into other Western languages outside the Romance language family itself.  Germanic languages (German, English, Dutch, Danish, Swedish) and Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech) became so heavily influenced by Roman culture that their vocabularies contain high percentages of Latin-derived words themselves.  Furthermore, Roman art, architecture, engineering, and commercial and administrative practices survive and thrive in the present day throughout Europe, and Roman physical structures—roads, bridges, aqueducts, buildings, spas—remain in use 2,000 years later.  The Roman cultural ideal, and the sheer modern fascination in the history of the Republic and Empire, also constitute latter-day manifestations of a still-thriving Roman civilization; Hollywood films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and Gladiator sell out precisely because the ancient Roman legacy is still so much with us today.  Rome has survived in a very concrete sense, even if it does so in a form that was probably not envisioned by the emperors of the 2nd century A.D. 

            The same can be said of other ancient civilizations (Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, Sumerian, Babylonian) that continue to manifest their legacies in some form in the modern world.  The 60-second minute, the 60-minute hour, and the 7-day week are arbitrary yet ubiquitous measurements of time advancement, which do not correspond in any way to an obvious natural "clock" (such as the length of the day, month, and year, which are based solidly on regular intervals in the orbits of the moon, earth, and sun about each other).  The "sexagesimal number system," which gives us the 60-second minute and 60-minute hour, is a legacy of ancient Babylonian civilization, disseminated throughout the Eurasian landmass by the armies of Alexander the Great (one of Alexander's most fundamental, though lesser-understood, imprints on the modern world).  The phonetic Roman alphabet—used for most European languages (and computer keyboards) across the world—was a legacy of the ancient Phoenicians of modern-day Lebanon, the canny traders who established outposts throughout the Mediterranean, including Carthage and ancient Spain.  The modern system of metal coinage for money dates all the way back to the civilization of the Lydians (modern Turkey), famous for their fabulously wealthy ancient king Croesus. 

            Though these ancient civilizations lack modern nation-states of their own, they have persisted to the modern day in their cultural legacies, and a few (such as Rome and the Hellenistic civilization that sprang from Alexander the Great's domains) fundamentally define the very identity of modern nations across the world.  At the time of their ascendancy, the Germanic and Slavic civilizations of northern and eastern Europe, and the Arabs of western Asia—the loci of modern nation-states and still-powerful civilizations—were considered relatively poor and backward.  Yet these societies assumed many of the cultural features of the Greek, Roman, and near-Eastern Mediterranean high cultures, engrafting them upon their own systems of law, government, language, religion, and administration to produce the rich hybrid cultures we recognize today in Europe, the Americas, and the Islamic Middle East.  The Arabs of the Middle Ages preserved and expanded upon much of the Latin and Greek learning of the ancients, subsequently passing on that brilliance to Europe and igniting the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  Thus ancient Greece and Rome (and their own predecessors in Egypt and western Asia) thrive today in the traditions and customs which they imparted to modern European and Arab nations. 


The Stalwarts: Ancient Civilizations that Remain Intact and Influential Today


            In a few cases, ancient nations stretching back thousands of years flourish today in a much more direct form, either as fully constituted nation-states or as definable ethnic groups with a fiercely independent identity (or both).  The ancient Hebrews, who congealed as a distinct nation under Moses nearly 3,000 years ago, continue to exist and to thrive even today as a sovereign nation with a strong sense of separate identity—both in the formal Israeli state itself, and in the dispersed yet remarkably cohesive Jewish communities that are present in host countries throughout the world, and in which these communities have resisted assimilation and loss of identity to the dominant culture.  The civilizations of South and East Asia have proven themselves to be remarkably consistent across the ages.  India was a succession of empires in ancient times, reaching its height under the remarkably gifted and tolerant Emperor Ashoka.  The Gupta and other ancient states on the Subcontinent had fragmented by the early first millennium A.D.—which ultimately left the region vulnerable to conquest by a series of foreign invaders.  However, the Vedic culture and literary tradition, along with the Sanskrit language (which, like Latin in the West, gave rise to a variety of important modern tongues, such as Hindi), provided a unifying glue that underpinned the region and continues today, both as a geographically-designed nation-state and a cultural force that crosses many national borders.

China provides an especially remarkable example of the persistence of nations, since it indeed has remained an essentially unified nation-state and culture for over 2,000 years, and re-emerged on multiple occasions (most recently… well, right about now at the start of the 21st century) as a regional and even global superpower.  The country effectively provides us with a glimpse of what Europe would roughly appear like, had the Roman Empire been able to weather the crises of the 4th and 5th centuries and remained a unified nation today.  China was first unified as a sovereign nation-state—with a centralized bureaucratic civil service and legal authority, common written language and code of laws, administrative divisions, and standardized coinage and commercial practices—by the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C., under the tough but undoubtedly brilliant conqueror, Qin Shi Huangdi.  The Qin Emperor, effectively the founder of China as a political nation-state, is probably history's most influential political leader (perhaps aside from such figures as Muhammad, St. Paul, and Confucius himself, whose influence was predominantly in their foundational religious and/or philosophical innovations, often in the context of their administrative and political endeavors).  The product of his efforts has endured, essentially intact, for over 2,000 years into the present day—a political-historical phenomenon with no modern parallel. 

While the Qin Emperor's Legalistic rule became quite harsh for the country (with his dynastic successor overthrown a few years into his reign by the founders of the Han Dynasty), his skill as an administrator exceeded even that of his closest Western counterpart, Augustus Caesar, and his administrative foundation was adapted wholesale by succeeding dynasties.  Shi Huangdi not only distinguished himself as a remarkably adept military leader, a sort of Far Eastern Alexander the Great—extending his domains throughout the agricultural basins in the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys as well as into Hunnish and Turkic tribal regions nearby—but he did what very few military geniuses in history have succeeded in doing: stitching together his disparate domains into the foundations of a unified nation-state.  He replaced the feudalistic system with a centralized bureaucracy of 36 administrative divisions (something that would take many centuries in most other lands), a district-by-district and provincial arrangement that remains in its essentials even today.  He also introduced a common coinage, legal code, writing system, weights and measures, and other standards (even to the point of specific axle lengths for traveling vehicles), along with a massive public-works effort to construct roads and bridges, which knitted his vast domains together. 

Astonishingly, China has effectively true to those Qin foundations even as it has emerged into a modern technological advanced nation-state, and the original nucleus of that state has expanded territorially in all directions; even shocks like the temporary fragmentation of the central government (around the time of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse in the West), the Mongol and Manchu invasions, and the Chinese Civil War and Maoist dictatorship did little to alter the fundamental underpinnings of the Chinese state established in the 3rd century B.C.  The ancient Chinese spoken and written language is essentially still in use today (as if ancient Latin were still employed for official documents).  Furthermore, unlike the powerful modern German and North American nations—whose cultures were heavily shaped from the ancient high cultures of the Greeks and Romans—ancient China was the model civilization of the region with ancient Mandarin Chinese as the region's prestige tongue, so modern Chinese civilization demonstrates a remarkable continuity with its own antecedents.  Vietnam, Korea, and Japan also possess ancient underpinnings which have persisted into the modern day as both thriving, independent cultures and sovereign political nation-states. 

            Thus civilizations in general possess no playbook, no script, no set of prior instructions that guide their unfolding, development, and advancement.  There is no natural life cycle for societies of interacting people, and no guarantee of long-term success or failure.  For us in the US, our own civilization’s future depends on us today.  We reside in a time and place when our technologies can work wonders in medicine and agriculture, or slaughter countless millions in foolish wars; this article has been written with the USA still mired in bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, our debt spiraling and our legacy and prospects increasingly uncertain.  Our expertise and high civilization can make the desert bloom and open habitat for the world’s diversity of flora and fauna, or callously and lethargically ruin the ecosystems on which we ourselves depend.  We can power our machines and transportation devices with clean fuel sources that renew themselves every day, or we can continue to rely on inefficient and unreliable fossil fuels that pollute our own lungs and compel us into interminably bloody resource wars to maintain dwindling oil supplies. 

            Like our ancient Roman forebears to whom we like to compare ourselves, we Americans currently sit astride much of the world and enjoy a rich, vibrant culture and political colossus that can breed creativity and vigor on the one hand, or ennui and destructive neglect on the other.  The civilization of the Romans never died, but it did peter out in the 4th and 5th centuries, as its leaders and effete aristocrats failed to respond vigorously and creatively to the economic and social challenges that led the Roman political entity to crumble from within.  As Americans today, we have a duty to act responsibly, rationally, compassionate, and creatively as a power to whom the world looks, even amid the turmoil of today, as a beacon of modernity and an aggressive and relentless problem-solver.  Yet just like the ancient Romans, we can also succumb to a culture of greed and an obsessive devotion to an ineffectual status quo, to grasping individuals willing to set aside the public good for their own selfish ends.  Our democracy provides us with no automatic immunity against this peril.  The choice is in our hands.


© 2004 J. Wes Ulm   All Rights Reserved   Please cite using either alternate title above, by J. Wes Ulm, Harvard University Personal Website, at



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