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Personal Perspective: China, Persia, Europe, America, and the "Clash of Civilizations"  

by William McGaughey     

Contacts between China and the West are important in world history. The third epoch of world history was one marked by western colonial ascendancy which reached its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The European nations had achieved hegemony or direct political control of nonwestern societies throughout Asia and Africa. The American continent was occupied by independent nations whose populations were mainly persons of European descent. The West dominated world society through its commercial capacity and technological prowess. Culturally, it was focused upon literary and artistic expressions spread through the print media.

When we consider how this "civilization" began, we find that Chinese inventions played a critical part in Europe's attainment of technological superiority. Historians agree that the technologies of gunpowder, printing, and navigation with the aid of the magnetic compass were instrumental to European military and political domination. All these technologies originated in China; they were brought to Europe in the first half of the second millennium A.D.

Additionally, the single greatest event in world history during this time - Columbus' first voyage to the Americas - was motivated by a desire to reach China and other East Asian societies by sailing west through unknown seas. The fact that Columbus was mistaken in identifying the intermediary lands of the New World does not diminish the historical importance of his "discovery".

Present-day contacts between China and the West are also of great importance. As an American of European ancestry, I feel that I am personally participating in world history by marrying a Chinese woman. She is one who has lived in a time of enormous political and social change. Fifty years ago, this personal relationship would not have been possible. China and America were the in the grips of Cold War animosities that were both nationalistic and ideological.

As I admire my wife's courage in leaving a safe situation to come to the West, I am impressed with the strength of Chinese society as it has absorbed foreign influences while holding on to the core of its heritage. China's openness to new technologies and commercial methods has made it a powerhouse in the global economy.

In a sense, China and the West have exchanged places in world history. Six hundred years ago, the nations of western Europe were economically and culturally weak but were open to influences from other societies. China in the Ming Dynasty was technologically and culturally more advanced than Europe but it developed xenophobic tendencies that led to stagnation.

Today, I would say that, while the western societies are more advanced than China in many aspects, they have succumbed to a sense of arrogant self-satisfaction while the Chinese are willing to change. (I speak mainly of us in the United States reflected in our leaders.) This bodes well for the future of China. It may be that Chinese people are building the foundation of a future which will take their society and the world as a whole well beyond the bounds of today's experience to yet unknown types of civilization.

Today, Chinese society is among those societies which are moving beyond the third, Eurocentric epoch of world history into one based on popular entertainment. Following America's lead, they are moving into the television age. They are developing an electronics-paced culture that drives life in a new direction. We are watching the creation of a new civilization.

My book, Five Epochs of Civilization, asserts that there is, indeed, such a thing as a world civilization - a civilization embracing all the world's people. World history would be the story of that culture as it changes from one period of time to the next. Important events associated with "turning points" mark a boundary line between historical epochs. This is when one civilization ends and another begins. We stand at such a point in the history of humanity.

I am here to make the scandalous suggestion that entertainment is the principal focus of world civilization at the present time. Yes, the pursuit of fun is a serious business. Institutions devoted to this process have become centers of power within society. We are speaking here of journalistic organizations which disseminate "news". We are speaking of organizations which produce music, drama, sports activity, and other types of entertainment. Such enterprises have the power to capture people's attention. That ability is an ingredient in the communicative process that underlies all power.

Because it is so new and creative, the entertainment sector is today one of society's more dynamic institutions. I live in the state of Minnesota in the northern part of the United States. Its recent governor was a man named Jesse Ventura who had become famous as a professional wrestler and radio talk-show host. Professional wrestling is held in low esteem because it is not a real sport but a staged event. Yet, in 1998 the people of Minnesota elected Ventura to hold the top government position in that state. I must say that, while many people considered Ventura's election a joke, he performed competently as Governor.

In my book, I proposed the theory that successful political leaders tend to be persons "in synch" with their times. One hundred years ago, famous poets, novelists, and writers were cultural heroes. We therefore tended to attribute advanced writing skills to our esteemed political leaders. Two U.S. Presidents were considered to be outstanding writers. The third president, Thomas Jefferson, wrote the Declaration of Independence. The sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, wrote the Gettysburg Address.

Today, however, the rise of an entertainment-based culture has made entertainers more popular than writers. Political leaders who have developed entertainment skills tend to be the ones who succeed in this environment. Our most successful president in recent years was Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood film star. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken California politics by storm.

You may think that such ideas are too frivolous to gain respectful attention in places like China which does, after all, have a long tradition of serious scholarship and art. Only the crazy Americans would take entertainment seriously. I beg to disagree.

China's opening to the West in the early 1970s was an event of epochal importance - perhaps not as important as Columbus' discovery of America, but certainly one of world history's pivotal diplomatic events. China had recovered its sovereignty after decades of wars and social upheaval but was becoming politically estranged from its ideological patron, the Soviet Union.

As tensions with the Soviet Union increased, Chairman Mao decided it was time to seek better relations with the United States. How did he go about signaling that policy change? The Chinese government invited the U.S. table-tennis team to tour China during an international tournament in Japan. So began the process known as "ping-pong diplomacy."

Mao's strategy succeeded brilliantly. The U.S. table-tennis team's visit to China was followed by a visit from President Nixon and then from many other western political and business leaders. All this could have been done quietly through diplomatic channels, of course, but Chairman Mao did it with flair by utilizing the metaphor of sports. There would be peaceful competition between China and the West, not an exchange of nuclear bombs. This was international diplomacy in synch with the times, using the symbolism of the sports world to advance serious purposes.

A friend of mine, Charlie Disney, was a member of the U.S. table-tennis delegation at that historic tournament in Nagano, Japan, in February, 1971. His last name is the same as that of Walt Disney, the cartoonist, although the two are not related. Charlie Disney did not travel to China in 1971. Yet, Disney was one of the principal members of the U.S. table-tennis team, prominent both as a player and promoter of the sport.

At the time of ping-pong diplomacy, Charlie Disney operated America's most successful table-tennis club, Disney's Table Tennis Center, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He became president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association in 1974 and 1975. Disney was the person who relayed the word from the floor that the American team had been invited to visit China. He was standing in the delivery room, so to speak, as better relations between China and the United States were born. This was a success story in history.


Now let me say a few things about Iran. President Bush has called that nation part of "the axis of evil". But Iran (Persia) has always been "evil" in western eyes. There has been a cultural cleavage between Persia and Europe running back as far as the 6th century B.C.

When the Asian Greek colonies of Persia rebelled against the empire in 499 B.C., the Persian king crushed that rebellion and later attacked the European Greek city-states which had stood with their Asian brothers. The European Greeks, led by Athens, defeated the Persians both on land and at sea. This led to the period of Greek cultural achievement associated with the birth of European civilization.

In the fourth century B.C., the European Greeks turned the tables on Persia. The Macedonian king known as Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king, Darius III, at the battle of Isis in 333 B.C. In the following decade, Alexander conquered Persia and its outlying possessions establishing his own empire. European Greek culture was spread over a wide territory.

Parni nomads from Turkmenistan invaded the eastern part of the Greek Seleucid empire. Around 250 A.D., they freed themselves from Seleucid rule and established the Parthian empire. The East-West division was reestablished. The Parthians based in Iraq were antagonistic to the Seleucid Greeks and to the Romans who succeeded them. One recalls that Marcus Crassus, Julius Caesar's partner in the first triumvirate, was killed while attempting to invade Parthia. The Parthian empire lasted until 224 A.D. when its Persian vassal, Ardeshir I, overthrew the last emperor. Ardeshir established the Sasanian (Second) Persian empire.

In the next phase, we have the Sasanian empire engaged in a mortal struggle with Rome. After the city of Rome fell, the struggle continued with the eastern part of the Roman empire headquartered in Constantinople. The Sasanian and Roman empires were engaged in a political and religious contest lasting almost four centuries. Christianity, the state religion of Rome, was opposed to the Sasanian state religion of Zoroastrianism. Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity, offshoots of the other two religions, also entered into the equation.

This situation came to an abrupt halt with the rise of Islam. Arab armies, who had fought on both sides of the Romano-Persian wars, now united under the banner of a new Arab religion. The Sasanian empire fell after Islamic armies attacked it in 633 A.D. The East Roman empire survived. This residual western empire withstood repeated assaults from Islamic powers for another nine hundred years.

So we have the same cultural fault line as before: Persia vs. Europe, Islam vs. Christianity. Baghdad was the seat of the Caliphate after the Abbasid insurrection of 747-750 A.D. Constantinople, capital of the East Roman empire, was the seat of Orthodox Christianity.

The rise of western Europe after the Renaissance brought old rivalries to a new phase. European technological supremacy allowed the nations of Europe to dominate nonwestern peoples, including the Persians. In this case, Russia and England cast imperial eyes upon Iran, a source of oil wealth. Seeing himself as a reviver of the first Persian dynasty, the Shah of Iran cast his lot with the West, thus arousing the ire of Islamic loyalists. Islamic forces led by the Ayatollah Khomeini then launched a religious and political revolution which set the stage for the present conflict with the West.

So the story of Persia is historically interesting to European peoples. The political dynasties and religions may have changed but the regional differences persist. There is a continuing "clash of civilizations", if you would. Persia is on one side; western society, on the other.


Civilizations also clashed when the Spaniards of Europe conquered the indigenous peoples of north and south America. The conflict between European conquerors and the pre-Columbian indigenous people is still felt in the cultures of Mexico and other Latin American countries. It is felt in the social rift between European immigrants and the slave populations brought from Africa to the Americans, and between European Americans and the native peoples of north America. It is felt whenever a so-called "advanced civilization" defeats a technologically inferior people.

The question is whether these civilized people are "morally superior" to the people they have defeated. Except for the ones who defeat themselves with alcohol and such things, it seems to me that the so-called uncivilized peoples are the equal of the civilized ones in regards to honesty, dignity, and social stability. One should withhold judgment in characterizing peoples in moralistic terms.

Let me return to the subject of world history. As I said, I am a bearer of the scandalous view that popular entertainment can sway history. Entertainment is in the vanguard of culture in the United States of America and, increasingly, in the rest of the world. Therefore, if we want to have a true picture of world history, we must not neglect the history of entertainment.

The phrase "clash of civilizations" is most often used to denote conflict between the Islamic world and the United States. Some see this as a religious conflict because a majority of Americans are Christian. Islamic fundamentalists sometimes refer to Americans as "crusaders" - that is, a modern-day examples of Christian warriors out to destroy Islam.

I believe that those views are incorrect. Islamic societies are not under attack from persons advocating Christianity but from western "modernity". It is the values of consumerism and of the entertainment culture which are assaulting Islamic culture. Islamic sensibilities are offended when films show women in an advanced degree of nakedness, not when someone speaks of Jesus. The consumer culture, placing a great value upon advancement in a career and the acquisition of money, threatens Islamic civilization more than Christian missionaries seeking to convert Muslims to a rival religion. Consumerism is a threat to all traditional religions.

Regarding the "clash of civilizations", one can say that Islamic society, an example of the second civilization (in my book), is experiencing stress from commercial influence and Americanized popular culture. In other words, the "clash" is not with another second-civilization culture but with those of the third and the fourth civilizations.

This is also a generational conflict as the old generation, brought up on book learning, discovers that their children are hooked on the entertainment world. Persons teaching academic subjects must deal with students who would rather be listening to recorded music or playing video games. These young people, even their own children, are in a sense members of an alien civilization.


We know that communities in all parts of the world were once organized in small tribes, clans, or extended families. With the rise of city-states, the institution of monarchical government took charge of society and developed systems of warfare and political administration that have continued to our day. We also know that, at later points in time, certain intellectuals who were philosophers or religious prophets developed a moral critique of society or of human existence itself. Their legacy has been preserved in religious institutions.

We know that commercial enterprises have lately become important to society. The story of industries, occupations, social classes, and other elements of economic life must also be included in world history. Entertainment and popular culture have also become important in modern life. All this would be woven into a unified world history whose theme would be: how our world came to be.

Instead of starting with the separate histories of China, England, the United States of America, or other political entities and then trying to create a single narrative from them, I would propose that world history begin with the histories of society's separate functional areas.

There would be a history of the development of government, which I would call a history of the first civilization. There would also be a history of religion, a history of the second civilization; a history of commerce and education (the third civilization); and a history of popular entertainment (the fourth civilization). Some day there will be a history of the fifth civilization, spawned by computers, but I cannot say now what that will be.

My book proposes a way to combine these separate stories in a unified world history. The formulation of history is an ongoing process which involves seeking new information and new insights and working everything into a coherent and meaningful narrative. History, like science, can be a discipline based on hypothetical knowledge continually tested by new facts.

I do not know what the ultimate theory of history will be. What I do know is that the creation of world history belongs to historians around the world, not just those in a particular place. World historians in all nations need to reach out to each other and seek guidance and accept correction from persons with a differing historical perspective.

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HOME PAGE | What are 5 civilizations? | communication technology | about religion | entertainment | DIAGRAM
PREDICT THE FUTURE | history of cultural technology | teach history | summarize this theory | Christmas | BOOK