Forget the West - it's China that shaped this millennium

The Saturday Essay
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The Independent Culture
BY DECREE of the media, 1999 is the year of looking back. The history of the millennium is being gutted for a little information and a lot of entertainment. Long-range retrospection has become a vice of our time - practised ignorantly, promiscuously and in defiance of truth.

A thousand years is too long a period for most people to comprehend. Even pundits who are well informed, by punditry's shabby standards, are ignorant of most of it. Because real knowledge is humbling, genuine experts tend to be too reticent, too thoughtful or too prudent to crush a millennium into the span of a copy deadline. Every historic community is imprisoned in myths that nourish its own identity and self-respect, at the expense of the global view. So most versions of the past that we are getting today - and shall continue to get for most of this year - are partial, twisted, trite or false.

The market demands instant history, infused, like coffee powder, for easy sipping. Geeks are busy scrolling through the last thousand years for the millennium's great hits, big freaks, silly stories and conspicuous trivia. Only the glaringly obvious gets noticed, whereas really world- shaping changes are made by vast, invisible, subterranean forces - or by the intricate influences that wear history into new shapes, like droplets on a stone. The history of the world happens not around the attention- grabbing crowns and capitals, but on little-noticed margins and frontiers: the places where cultures and civilisations, which are the tectonic plates of world history, scrape against each other and generate seismic effects. Yet our conventional histories are all about metropolitan centres and slick city skylines.

The priorities of our time are in the passing moment. In the existential present, memories are an encumbrance. This is the age of the instantaneous. Time shrinks inside a video monitor. Images flicker with the speed of animation. In the civilisation of Disneyland, the only past is mythical. Nearby, in the Nintendo universe, the only permitted history is cannibalised for sci-fi. Even in the real worlds of politics and economics, our scale of reference is short-term. We forget that, by definition, short-term trends are never long sustained. In short-term history, whatever is recent, Western and white gets noticed, while the great themes of the millennium, which are long-standing, and universal or cross-cultural, are forgotten or overlooked.

If we want to understand the past or predict the future, we need a long- term view. Yet our immediate agenda stunts our vision. Promoters, for instance, of that colossal vanity, "the Millennium Experience", in tediously repeated television publicity, have proclaimed the invention of the sandwich as one of the landmark events of the last thousand years. This triumph of the trivial reflects the dome-masters' current dilemma: how to stuff fast-food outlets into the vacuous bubble they are inflating at Greenwich.

Meanwhile, millennium listings have replaced serious enquiry and continuous prose. "Millennium reading-lists" - recommended in the press or selected by book clubs - concentrate on the 20th century because of their compilers' ignorance of what is old. Yet the most influential books of the millennium are likely to include those that have been around for longest, rather than those that are now fashionable or "accessible" to the unadventurous. Lists of "great achievers of the millennium" and "great events" are all weighted towards the last century or two, not because earlier minds were less interesting or earlier lives less important, but because truth gets clogged in the filter of "relevance".

We are deluded by myth when we have no time to learn the facts or think about how to interpret them. Conventional readings of history therefore get exemption from critical scrutiny. Radicals, for instance, in revolt from millennium-worship, think they are abjuring a thousand years of white world-supremacy, whereas Western hegemony has really been just a late, brief and uncharacteristic blip. People who claim that all the big stories of our millennium have happened in the West are allowing the experience of the last two centuries to warp their vision of the whole. For most of the present millennium, Christendom was quiescent or stagnant by comparison with rival cultures elsewhere in the world, and Western civilisation, as Gandhi once observed, "would have been a good idea".

Suppose we could escape into a fresh perspective, from which we could see the millennium whole. How would our past look from the cosmic crow's nest - a vantage point somewhere near the end of time and the edge of the universe, from where we could encompass the entire history of the world without distortion? In my imagination, I know a child who managed this trick.

Clio was an inquisitive and studious little girl, but bad with computers. So it must have been by accident that she did it - a flash of electricity from her pigtails, which were often loaded with static, or a twitch of her fingers, which always seemed itchy with involuntary fiddling. The result was that she hacked through a time-warp, across the ether, into the information system of the Galactic Museum, 10,000 years in the future. Here she saw traces of human history, unearthed by anthropoid archaeologists with queer-shaped heads. They displayed our past with an objectivity which we, who are enmeshed in it, can hardly hope to attain,

Clio saw the future of our past. The millennium now ending looked completely different from the way our conventional histories describe it and from the way our pundits and public perceive it.

She felt a sudden surge of liberation at the discovery that her schoolbooks, teachers, newspapers and even the most hallowed formers and reflectors of opinion, such as the Church and the BBC, had all got it wrong. Eagerly, she keyed her questions to the Galactic Museum-keepers into her computer. Amazingly, the answers flashed back.

Please, what was special about my millennium?

Nothing much. The limits of the period were fixed arbitrarily and had no particular meaning. As millennia go, yours was a pretty ordinary one. Trends of previous millennia were sustained. Ideas of previous millennia survived and remained dominant. Most of the world-shaping forms of earlier millennia continued to be exercised as before.

But there were two big new events. First, human cultures, previously sundered by oceans, or barely in touch across vast distances to landward, began to interact with increasing intensity, Your contemporaries thought that this would lead to globalisation - encroaching uniformity, the suppression of cultural diversity. In fact the result was the opposite: people reached for the comfort of ancient, small-scale identities. Superstates started to fragment. Micro-cultures revived, colonisation and counter-colonisation produced multi-cultural societies. Historic communities resumed or continued their ancient hatreds and conflicts.

Secondly, and more importantly, there were reversals in evolution. You humans, who once dominated your planet, liked to study yourselves in isolation from the eco-systems around you; really, however, you were always part of them. Until about half-way through your millennium, evolution was on a divergent course: life forms separated by oceans grew ever more distinct. But when shipping began to shift biota across the oceans, evolution became convergent. Some species spread over the planet, especially food plants favoured by human beings, and micro-organisms that used human carriers. Towards the end of the millennium you discovered how to arrest another foot of evolution; previously, all species had adapted at random or according to the demands of nature. Now, by genetic manipulation you could breed according to priorities of your own choosing. In the end, of course, this contributed to your destruction. Evolution was avenged when the speed of the mutations of deadly microbes outstripped your capacity to respond...

Sorry to interrupt, but I only want to know about my own millennium. I've got this competition to go in for, you see: "Pick the Best of the Millennium and Win a Day at the Dome". So, please, what were the great books of my millennium?

By the standards of the Galactic Museum's library, there were no great books. The texts that exercised most influence, and which informed the way most people thought and behaved, were all more than a thousand years old before your millennium began: the works of Confucius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Plato and Aristotle, the Upanishads, the ancient Jewish scriptures. The last of these were modified a bit in the millennium immediately before yours by the followers of Christ and Mohammed respectively.

Your millennium produced plenty of books claimed as revolutionary in their day. Some, such as the works of Marx and Darwin, were in an ancient tradition of progressive fallacies. Others, like those of Abelard, Luther and Descartes, were misrepresented as novel because their authors forgot or ignored the precedents. But they all turned out to be wrong or unoriginal. No one, in the entire millennium, until it was almost over, succeeded in formulating a serious problem that had been unknown to writers thousands of years before. As for creative literature, your millennium excelled others only in prose fiction: the tradition started right at the beginning of the millennium with Tale of Genji by Murusaki Shikibu and for most of the millennium the best writers in this form were Japanese.

Who were the winners and losers of my millennium?

Contrary to what you thought at the millennium's end, the long-term winner was China. This was where the great world-shaping initiatives came from - especially in the aspect of life that you most over-valued: technology. Forget nuclear power and micro-chips. Horsepower and long-range sailpower were the distinctive resources that marked out your millennium from others. Chinese inventions - the rudder, the compass and the efficient harness, all of which spread across the world - made their exploitation possible.

Late in your millennium, steam power took over briefly; again, a Chinese invention, the blast-furnace, initiated the chain of developments. Paper, which transformed politics and economics, was a Chinese device. So was printing, which accelerated the circulation of ideas. Until the millennium was almost over, only two world-shaping inventions travelled from west to east: the mechanical clock and the lens. For the last two or three of your centuries, scientific initiatives came from western Europe. But by the end of the period, Western scientists had rediscovered a world view similar to that of ancient Chinese science. Niels Bohr, the quantum "pope", chose the symbol of Tao for his personal badge.

In politics, Westerners congratulated themselves on the maritime empires some of them built up in the second half of the millennium. By the millennium's end, however, all of them had vanished. Meanwhile, Chinese expansion created the world's most populous and cohesive state and the most impregnable and enduring empire. Chinese overseas colonisation was discouraged by home government but it carried on regardless. The Chinese were easily the most prolific colonisers of the millennium. Outposts of Chinese culture spread over the world, with as wide a range as those of any Westerners - and, as the history of subsequent millennia showed, much greater tenacity.

For the last two centuries of your millennium, China was badly governed and unable to fulfil her normal world-leading role; but eventually she stirred from her giant's slumber and seemed about to resume her leading place. In the Galactic Museum, we see Chinese domination as simply the normal state of your world - occasionally interrupted but never permanently reversed.

Excuse me... but you were going to identify the losers for me. It's another competition...

The losers were the peoples who called themselves "Western civilisation". Western Europe was the sump of world history, into which drained all the refuse and refugees of the great world-shaping movements that had unfolded from east to west across Eurasia in previous millennia. Surprisingly, it was the source of an unpredictable, world-ranging energy between the 16th and 19th centuries; and it spawned a colony in America, which became the world's only superpower. But by the end of the century, European expansion had retreated and American supremacy looked shaky...

Clio's fingers fidgeted over the keyboard. Suddenly she lost her connection in an explosion of error-messages. For a moment, the screen went blank. Then a new connection clicked into place. The log-in message filled the monitor: Welcome to Your Chance to Vote for the Millennium's Greatest Jokes. Enter Your Password Below. You Can Win a Day at the Dome.