Do China and Africa Allow Us to Bring Back the Idea of Civilization?

Do China and Africa Allow Us to Bring Back the Idea of Civilization?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / TPG Images

What you need to know

There is much at stake in defining what a civilization is, who is included, who is excluded, and who can claim to speak for one.

At a time when the United States and China appear to be turning Samuel Huntington's much-derided “Clash of Civilizations” into a self-fulfilling prophecy, it may be an inauspicious time for a book to announce that, “the time has come for ‘civilization’ to be reintroduced.” For anthropologists Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands in their book Civilisation Recast, however, what “reintroducing” means is bringing back serious engagement with long-term cultural continuity and change. 

While acknowledging that “civilization” is a loaded term, suggesting a hierarchy of civilized and uncivilized peoples, they nonetheless argue that the concept can be repurposed, democratized, and made more inclusive as a way of talking about “regional heritages.” They reject the focus on “ancient civilizations” — defined by great cities and literary traditions — and instead ask us to think of civilization as being made up of the ordinary practices of daily life: methods of food preparation, rituals, and oral traditions. Against the notion that only a select few civilizations developed advanced religious and moral systems, they draw on a long anthropological literature demonstrating that all ritual speaks of a rich cosmological and ethical universe. Finally, rather than identifying discrete, unified, civilizational “units,” the authors talk of local traditions being integrated into civilizational “spreads.” 

Readers looking for a succinct definition of “civilization” will be disappointed. Rather, the book’s definition emerges, organically, through a series of discussions across numerous topics. The closest they get to a concrete definition is that civilization involves “a transmission of ideals through mundane habits...made from several centres... [and involving] aspirations to ideals and norms of habitual conduct.” Elsewhere, civilization is “self-fashioning by restraint and with reference to an encompassing sense of the world.” 

清明上河圖  首度到故宮南院展出
Photo Credit: CNA
Up the River During Qingming, by Song Dynasty painter Zhang Zeduan, is held in the National Palace Palace Museum collection.

This concept of “self-restraint” channels the German sociologist Norbert Elias’s idea of the “civilizing process,” but democratizes it as something found everywhere. To have “an encompassing sense of the world” means having “higher categories of being,” whether divine or referring to an ideal order. In keeping with this effort to democratize civilization, they also point out that civilization is not unique to hierarchical societies. Some of the features often thought to be exclusive to such societies, such as the existence of abstract “higher categories” and “sources of vitality” are also found in egalitarian societies.

The authors understand “civilization” to be something which everyone has, much as anthropologists argue “culture” is something everyone has. Ironically, the construction of “uncivilized” “others” is common to all civilizations. It is the result of civilizations’ tendency to make distinctions between ordered insides and chaotic outsides. What distinguishes civilizations is not the existence of such distinctions, but how the distinctions are made. 

Following several chapters which map out their understanding of civilization, the book’s remaining chapters are more eclectic. One chapter, for instance, argues for the long term effects of early regional differences in food preparation (i.e., boiling versus grinding/roasting), on not just regional taste, but also sensory perceptions of ritual substances, and the relation between the living and the dead. Another two chapters discuss the creation of ancestral rites and the development of encompassing hierarchies. They then end the book with a chapter on the ideology and “government of civilization” in a modern state.

These chapters are loosely organized as a series of comparisons between “Africa” and “China,” the primary field sites of the book’s two authors, Michael Rowlands and Stephan Feuchtwang respectively. For example, the authors explore similarities and divergences in ancestral rites, including the divergent styles of managing dangerous invisible forces. The challenge of comparison, however, is that whereas “Africa” is a continent with geographically disparate centers, languages, and cultural traditions, none of which can stand for the whole, “China” is a state which, while also diverse, nonetheless claims a relatively hegemonic ideology of unity based on an imperial center and ritual hierarchy, along with a common written language and corpus. This mismatch affects the kinds of data presented in each comparison. 

While civilization in Africa is presented as a series of ethnographic examples with limited use of historical narrative, civilization in China is presented more in depth with a historical narrative tracing long-term transformations over thousands of years. What would the book have looked like if Africa was compared with East Asia more broadly, including examples from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam? What would the book have looked like if the final discussion of “civilization” in modern China was compared with the rise of Pan-Africanism in modern Africa?

In seeking to provide a more inclusive concept of civilization, the authors unwittingly reimpose the concept’s baggage on Africa. They are critical of accounts of African civilization which privilege ancient African examples of cities, empires, and writing, arguing these reproduce Eurocentric definitions of civilization and leave many peoples excluded. Instead, the book promotes a more inclusive concept of civilization. For example, challenging archaeological theories of an ancient “Eurasian miracle” that distinguished “Bronze Age” societies (including ancient China) from a Neolithic world to the south, the authors describe Africa’s early integration into a global maritime based “Neolithic civilization” with shared food culture, medicinal practices, and understandings of ritual substance which Eurasian states also depended on. Nonetheless, by calling it “civilization,” we might ask if the concept still retains hierarchical assumptions; it is an idea originally rooted in Eurasian cases being democratized to include Africa rather than an idea rooted in African cases being democratized to include Eurasia. 

The question of modernity is also one that the book never fully comes to grips with. Civilization in Africa and China are described as having been irreversibly transformed by “modern civilization,” which is characterized in the book as initially external to the Africa-Asia world. The final chapter rejects that contemporary state and society in China reflect a continuous civilizational heritage, that the People’s Republic of China is just another dynasty.

Instead, Feuchtwang and Rowlands argue that this older civilization no longer exists, and that what currently gets glossed as “Chinese civilization” is in fact a mixture of older ideas with newer goals. It involves both top-down and bottom-up efforts to “reconstitute the social” after the dislocations of modernity. But does modernization for the authors mean a new “encompassing sense of the world,” hovering above even capitalism, or nothing more than global-capitalism itself imposing upon civilizations, or, perhaps “encompassing” new varieties of “civilization”?

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Li Nan, a South Africa's Chinese Embassy representative, left, elbow bumps with Zweli Mkhize, South African Minister of Health, during the handing over for the emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Finally, why “civilization”? Why now? However the authors define it, we should still ask if the category itself is still too loaded with Eurasian (if not Eurocentric) assumptions, and too complicit with “ideological passions,” nationalism, and geopolitics to effectively work as a welcoming intellectual category. There is much at stake in defining what a civilization is, who is included,  who is excluded, and who can claim to speak for one. Chinese and African elites frame their relationship with each other, for example, in terms of a“civilizational” encounter unmediated by the West, but it is one embedded in the same global capitalism.

Between China and its peripheries, defining civilization means struggles over sovereignty, language rights, and political systems. Readers invested in how the ideology of “civilization” is used and abused in immediate struggles may feel unsatisfied with the book’s bird’s eye disengagement. These considerations aside, the book will be of interest to readers concerned with long-term cultural change and comparative thinking.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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