1 minute read

Barbarism and Civilization

China's Yin-yang Polarities

A closer look at China validates Toynbee's suspicions. China had ancient words for both "civilization" and "barbarism" that are still in use today. Wenming refers literally to a bright and clear culture that possesses writing, art, and literature. In China's classical world, the most used term for barbarian was hu (beard), which gave rise to expressions such as huche (talk nonsense) (see Wilkinson, p. 724). The Chinese word for barbarian combined both the Roman idea of barbarus ("the bearded one") and the Greek idea of barbar ("talk nonsense"). The Han dynasty expression yiyi gong yi ("use barbarians to attack barbarians") (see Wilkinson, p. 723) is reminiscent of Julius Caesar's deployment of subdued Germanic and Gallic cavalry at Alesia against Vercingetorix's Gallic horsemen (see Caesar, pp. 186, 218, 221).

Although the Greeks, Romans, and Japanese share a centralized view of their own respective civilizations, it is only the Chinese who name theirs as such. In the Wei and Jin periods (220–420 C.E.), Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom) and Huaxia (Cathay) were syncopated into Zhonghua (Central Cultural Florescence) (see Smith, p. 3), making civilization both a geographic and cultural entity for all under heaven. Even today, the term for "middle kingdom" is retained in the name of the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo). As Richard Smith, a renowned historian of China, maintains: "Barbarian conquest affirmed and reinforced this Sinocentric world view rather than shattering it" (p. 3). Like Toynbee, Smith sees every aspect of Chinese civilization, including barbarian intrusion, as following the polarities of yin and yang. He writes: "Yin and yang were, then (1) cosmic forces that produced and animated all natural phenomena; (2) terms used to identify recurrent, cyclical patterns of rise and decline, waxing and waning; (3) comparative categories, describing dualistic relationships that were inherently unequal but almost invariably complementary" (p. 4). Hence, yin and yang are mutually conditioning linked opposites that are co-constitutive of Chinese cosmology. When Smith writes that "the boundaries of China waxed and waned in response to periodic bursts of either Chinese expansion or 'barbarian' invasion" (p. 11), he echoes Toynbee's universal rhythm for civilizations as "the perpetual alternation of a Yin state of quiescence with a Yang burst of activity" (1960, p. 188).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ballistic galvanometer to Big–bang theoryBarbarism and Civilization - Friedrich Engels: Barbarism And Civilization, Herodotus And The Barbarians, Toynbee's Rhythm Of History