Derek Sheridan, an anthropologist and researcher at Academia Sinica, published a book review of Civilisation Recast by Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands in The News Lens. Sheridan argues that the book has many merits but questions the case for reviving the term “civilization,” suggesting, among other points, that the word civilization is “still too loaded with Eurasian (if not Eurocentric) assumptions.”

The authors of Civilisation Recast, Feuchtwang and Rowlands, have written a response to Sheridan’s book review. Both are anthropologists with long-standing connections to Taiwan. Feuchtwang first came to Taiwan in the 1960s, conducting his ethnographic fieldwork in Shiding in what is today New Taipei City, returning on many occasions for fieldwork and lectures. Rowlands has collaborated with researchers at the National University of Taiwan on the revitalization of Indigenous cultural knowledge. Their response is presented below.

Derek Sheridan is quite correct when he says readers looking for a succinct definition of “civilization” will be disappointed.

He is quite correct because one of the most salient points we make is that civilization is not a concept in the accepted and much-desired sense. It is striking that unlike a category used to describe a number of different properties, like society, class, nation, or state, “civilization” is used to reach for a sense of higher unity beyond the present place and beyond life and death. The word “civilization” designates a reaching up and beyond. This is what the anthropologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss said constituted a moral milieu — but beyond that of a single society. In the terms of Max Weber and Karl Jaspers’s observations on world or axial religions, civilization is transcendence from the mundane.

In our case, we try to recognize by the use of “civilization” a self-questioning. This could be a moment of “What should I do?”, a moment of ordinary fear, or perception of strangeness. It could also refer to an apprehension of the sublime, of dread, or of wonder when something miraculous happens that refers to and derives from a belonging to a collective sense that is not reducible to social groups or a present place.

It occurs in the mundane world and is carried in ordinary activities such as hospitality and travel. This may occur in receiving some exotic gift or through anything from language to myths or scientific knowledge that suggest an encompassing, unifying sense of belonging. We do not define but instead describe this borrowing and reaching for a greater, spiritual unifying sense. Given its metaphysical implications, it is of course deemed to be beyond definition as a sociological concept, hence the unique value of Mauss in using “civilization” to designate a sense of unity that transcends societies, nations, or states. We can see a certain Hegelian theme here in the “unity of the spirit” without endorsing a single universal ideal of unity. Reaching for an ideal is certainly pivotal in people using the term to describe a wished for transcendence that may never be made concrete.


Photo Credit: CNA

A work displayed at an exhibition “The Four Quarters Come to Court” at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, January 2, 2020.

We refer to sets of such ideals and aspirations toward them as “ideology.” Ideals and senses of an encompassing world beyond life and death are elaborated by ritual experts such as diviners and healers and those who learn and conduct liturgical services for rites of passage, deaths, or annual festivals. But that is distinct from political mobilizations of civilized/uncivilized, when “civilized” becomes the property of a state or empire and its expansion.

Sheridan refers to the political use of “civilization” in his last paragraph, “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.” Of course, civilization has been abused when appropriated and harnessed to the expansion of states and empires. But the point is to understand why this idea, so beyond conceptual definition, has the power to be so expansive spatially, historically, and in its elaboration into encompassing worlds.

Great collective personalities

Perhaps part of the answer may lie in how we understand a “bird’s eye disengagement.” Durkheim and Mauss were well aware of the problem for sociology if they abandoned to ethnology what they called “the great collective personalities which have been formed in the course of history.” But that is what happened: myopia is the unfortunate result. Even Sheridan seems to fall into this modernist although pro-African vision. Africa, according to Sheridan, is “a continent with geographically disparate centers, languages, and cultural traditions, none of which can stand for the whole.” Why? Because they are separate nations, or because they are not empires? Pan Africanists would have none of this. There is a transcending idea of African unities, across disparate centers. The problem though is when, in Cheikh Anta Diop’s African civilization or Thabo Mbeke’s African Renaissance or Ghana names itself after an empire, the idea is a replica of the glories of Western civilization.


Wikimedia Commons

A circa 1550 map of Eastern Africa, Asia, and Western Oceania.

A search for another kind of unity, we argue, can be based on an independent long-term history of Africa quite different from the ancient models’ version of civilization based on Mesopotamia, Egypt, or the Inca or the great religions, found in coffee table books. What we might identify as forms of social cooperation, hospitality, attitudes to strangers, caring for others, large scale migrations and movements of goods and people: these are the ways of being that with considerable archaeological accuracy can be identified and given long time perspective and great regional scale, though not necessarily the whole of Africa, and going beyond African regions. One of these forms is the subject of our chapter on “neolithicities,” which links Africa to South Asia not as an eclectic bunch of fragments but as a long-term form of shared interaction and exchange that creates a distinctive world of the “south.”

For another instance, the publications of Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz describe the sheer richness and complexity of what he calls graphic writing in sign systems in Africa that convey forms of embodied knowledge originating in preliterate times, conveyed and enlarged over thousands of years that are now part of the aesthetic regimes of central Africa and Cuba and beyond.

Another chapter in our book contrasts different food systems in West and East Asia. It is not as Sheridan describes simply about “regional tastes.” Rather it is about how the living pulse of civilization can be found in what at first glance seems small, domestic, and mundane. The boiling and steaming of foods and substances originating in the Palaeolithic in East Asia, through the Austronesian expansion unifies worlds extending from the borders of Tibet to Western Polynesia.

故宮院藏品找「她」 宋代妝容淡雅元朝畫一字眉

Photo Credit: CNA

From “On Women and Their Art in Chinese History,” at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, October 2020.
The history of humanity is one of migration

Sheridan points to the understanding of “civilization” as an idea originally rooted in Eurasian cases, which in our book is democratized to include Africa. Sheridan argues that we should instead have started from an idea rooted in African cases to include Eurasia. What we have already said here should show how far he has missed our argument. The archaeology of human remains and material artifacts has become increasingly able to date them and to show their origins. They demonstrate that the history of humanity is one of migration, several times from and out of Africa across the planet, and subsequently slow migrations and of exchanges over huge scales.

Exchanges of food products and manufactured products, such as cloth, glass, and iron, to sites very distant from their places of origin speak of many millennia of mutual influence because these dietary and manufactured goods changed their recipients. Not only were these everyday goods; they also included highly valued goods used in death and curing rituals, as well as prestigious ornament. Such long-term processes of continuity and change, of exchange and of change, are a starting point for our reconsideration of the idea of civilization and its anthropological use, taking as our exemplars “the south” or the Austronesian expansion.

Many centers

Every society or culture is centrifugal, since some of its people and their products spread outwards through all modes of transport, from reindeer to outrigger sailing canoes. And every society is centripetal since it draws in people and things from elsewhere. We endorse in our book what Mauss said in his equally universalizing and un-Eurocentric essay on civilization: “the history of civilization, from the point of view that concerns us, is the history of the circulation between societies of the various goods and achievements of each… societies live by borrowing from each other, but they define themselves rather by the refusal of borrowing than by its acceptance.”


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

A visitor looks at a section from the artwork “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” by Huang Gongwang from China’s Yuan Dynasty at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, June 1, 2011.

For Mauss and for us, civilizations are regions of self-differentiating societies with similar cultures, such as northwest-American or Australian Indigenous peoples, who define themselves while borrowing but are also definable by a similar manner of differentiating themselves from each other. Note that neither of these two examples, nor the African examples we give in our book, have any single center. They are our starting position, from which we except the more politically centered civilizations of city and literacy such as those in the Near East and the two ends of Eurasia. We could not ignore these exceptions, but we do show that they are unusual. They are not the norm for us.

We do exactly what Sheridan says we do not do. Perhaps he expected us to show that there was a centralized African civilization to demonstrate that we were not using a Eurocentric concept of civilization. In fact, we argue that to do so was precisely the way African leaders, including those of Pan-Africanism, claimed civilization for themselves on European terms. Our reconceptualization of civilization rejects this Eurocentrism. It is that a civilization is a linkage and region of similarities and one of many centers, including many political centers. Even when a single political center becomes hegemonic, many centers under its influence have equal and possibly rival claims to be the authentic center.

Defining modern civilization

On another point of Sheridan’s criticism, we admit the danger of our presentation of “modern civilization” being merged with industrialized capitalism, and are grateful for this opportunity to clarify what is a quite complex argument. There are three strands to it. First in line is that steam-powered imperialism and its industrially produced armaments, its sciences, its school curricula, and its new disciplines of military training and organization founded colonies and semi-colonies, insisting on territorial privileges if not sovereign rule. It sought and enforced markets for its products, as well as sources for their raw materials. It transported European settlers to and slave or indentured labor from its colonies to ensure the production of raw materials its industries processed.


Photo Credit: CNA

Works on display at the Hualien International Stone Sculpture Festival, Taiwan, October 7, 2020.

Second in line is that it brought with it and into those colonies and their extensions European languages, religions, and European self-centered civilization and nationalist histories. Third in line is that to various degrees the regional civilizations, into which these incursions were forced and to whose territories its products were transferred, absorbed some of these civilizational elements and their values. They included aspirational hierarchies of achievement in foreign clothing, food, speech, and writing, and the taking of lessons from translations of key writings in these foreign, European languages as well as from European experts in the local language.

This was, in short, yet another instance of civilizational mixing and enforced spread. Our emphasis is not on Euro-North American imperialism and its growing extent, which has been decried or glorified. It is on the new hybrid mixes of civilization, in Africa and in China, that are our key examples. Pan-Africanism is one.

The coexistence of ancient and modern

In China, the late nineteenth-century elite’s self-strengthening movement of learning from the West in order to combat the West and save a China now conceived as a race and a nation in danger of elimination exemplifies the hybridity of the new mixture. Following the introduction of these new terms race and nation into the Chinese language have been the Chinese translations of the European words “culture” and “civilization” by which traditions of ritual, divination, and aspiration to high literacy have been re-seen by those at the top of civilizational status hierarchies.


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Students of Beijing Normal University pictured at their return to campus on May 7, 1918, after being detained during the May Fourth Movement.

In place of politically and cosmologically centered civilization understood as universal, with several rival centers and alternative hierarchies of aspiration, we now have a civilizational state competing with others on a global stage. The former alternative hierarchies of aspiration to immortality, with their accompanying modes of self-cultivation and ethics, through the continuation of a paternal ancestral line, through disciplines of abstinence, Daoist or Buddhist, or through heroic and demonic military righteousness in territorial protection and the traditions of the bandit heroes of the rivers and lakes, still exist. But they now co-exist with their reinterpretation as tradition and history and in a hierarchy of “culture” and “civilization” as the qualities of a managed population in the People’s Republic of China and as cultural policy and politics in Taiwan as well.

Why civilization? Why now?

Finally, Sheridan questions why we bring up “civilization” now when it is so often an abused term of rival sovereignties. Our main motive and achievement is to place in the hands of academic appraisal an idea of civilization free of the various political uses of the term. It can be used as a critical means of analyzing those uses, as we have in the case of China.

Part of our objective is to move the focus from seeing traditions and transmissions of custom and ritual from “national” containers such as ethnic descent that find their substitutes in the more sociological or anthropological and popular terms of communities, societies, and cultures. We have moved attention to regions of spread and mixtures of centered transmissions and traditions whose centralizing depends on denying how similar they are and how much they have borrowed from outside.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

The famed Sahasrabhuja-Avalokites'vara on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, June 30, 2010.

One such region of variation, absorption, and mixture is that of the civilizations of China. They extend well beyond the political territories of even its greatest political expansion, into present-day Myanmar, neighboring countries in central Asia and of course into Korea and Vietnam, even Japan, in all of which the mix is brought into other centralizations, just as it is in Taiwan, Tibet and Mongolia, or in the first millennium BCE into what the Chinese written records called the Yue kingdoms, from present-day Zhejiang to Vietnam.

A further reason is that “civilization” prompts questions of long-term and spatially large processes of continuity and change, of transformations that are structural but traceable. Lastly our recasting has, as Sheridan rightly and usefully points out, democratized civilization and its hierarchies. There is no culture that is not a part and a variant of a civilization, and hierarchies, be they of spiritual beings above egalitarian societies or both social and spiritual, have to be known from their lower reaches as well as from the upper.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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