Friday, 6 January 2012

Kongzi's Crystal Balls

It is a tradition of sorts for seers to commit themselves to prophesy at this time of year. A New Year is a new start  – an ideal vantage point from which to gaze in to the future and make sweeping predictions about what on Earth happens next.

The picture is of the secular Chinese prophet Kongzi – better known to us in the West as Confucius. While the warring states of China were tearing themselves apart, It was Kongzi’s habit to roam round the various kings and courts, about 500 years before the birth of Christ, advising them on how best to run their affairs.

Amongst his most famous sayings are: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,”, “The only constant is change….” And “Study the past as if you would define the future”.

The last one that strikes me as the most pertinent for this New Year.

Firstly because Confucius was Chinese. If I had to make any predication at all about the future I would have no hesitation betting that China will continue its charge to become the most powerful nation on Earth. In many ways, China already has this status. However hard we try NOT to remind ourselves, the vast majority of products we will have purchased for our loved ones this Christmas will have been made in China. What does this simple reality tell us about our past, present and future?

It tells us that today in England we are no longer willing or able to manufacture items considered essential for economic growth and wellbeing at a price that consumers are willing to pay.
I often fantasize about challenging someone to stand naked in Piccadilly Circus with £250 to spend ONLY on clothes they can find that are actually made in England. I wonder: how long would it take them, and how far would thy have to go, to get themselves fully clothed? And here – in Blake’s land of Satanic Mills that gave birth to the industrial revolution! Oh how things have changed!

Ever since China attached itself to the World Trade system, from the late 1970s onwards, wealth has been gradually shifting from West to East as the momentum behind the manufacturing monster that is now China has grown inexorably greater. And, since our thirst for consumerism is fueled by cheap products (a condition Karl Marx cutely called commodity fetishism), so our addiction to cheap Chinese labour has grown ever greater.

In order to prevent its new found wealth leaking back westwards, communist China has exercised its supreme state control to maintain barriers to free trade and has consistently massaged its exchange rate to maintain its status as the world’s cheapest source of labour. China is now easily the world’s biggest one-stop-shop mass producer.

As a result, prophesies about the future seem to point one of two ways. Either the West continues to go bust and China becomes all powerful – initially economically but gradually militarily, too. Or, globalisation breaks apart and there is a return to protectionism in which each nation-state is pitched in a battle of survival where eventually self-sufficiency will become all the rage and we will start growing vegetables again in the moat surrounding the Tower of London.

On a global level either outcome could be construed as good news.

A liberally inclined God may look down on such a world and see some long overdue justice in the swing of economic might Eastwards after nearly 1,000 years in which the tide has been generally pulling West.

And if economic globalisation collapses, the idea of reuniting production with consumption can only be good for the Earth itself – after-all we can’t sustain making things on one side of the world and shipping them to the other forever without causing even more gross, irreparable ecological harm.
From a British perspective, I am convinced there’s a lot to learn from the past to help us through either eventuality – but not much from the study of British history. Rather it is the story of China that has most relevance today.

In a world where China is the biggest global power, a better understanding of the past as seen by them would be a smart start to forging a new, more constructive understanding and dialogue between our cultures. How about an apology for the many atrocities we have committed there (e.g. the Opium Wars) coupled with a little less bleating on our behalf about human rights? That would be a start….

In the event that globalisation breaks down, there are few better examples I can think of about how to build an effective self-sufficient society than those of the Far East before seventeenth century western powers began to mangle them up. Late medieval and early modern Korea, Japan and China contain many fine lessons about how to build successful, self-sufficient societies.

That’s why I believe Kongzi’s dictum “Study the past as if you would define the future” has particular relevance just now. So, my New Year’s message for our dear Education Secretary Michael Gove, is simply this:
If history is to be a compulsory subject in the national curriculum (which I believe it should be) then if we want to be a relevant, strong and successful society in the future then please, please, please make Chinese history, beginning with the study of Kongzi himself, at least as central to the subject as the Normans, Tudors, Victorians and World War II…

Read weekly postings by Christopher Lloyd on the What on Earth website. 

Christopher Lloyd is the founder of What on Earth Publishing Ltd, the company behind the What on Earth? Wallbook. His books include: What on Earth Happened? and What on Earth Evolved? Christopher divides his time between writing books, journalism, and lecturing mostly in schools, museums and literary festivals.


  1. Two comments: 1)I absolutely do not agree that all the things made in China we bought for our loved ones are things which are really necessary - thus it is not so much the question of sustainable manufacturing, as the question of the consumers (us, basically) trying to be sustainable and judge healthily what do they really need to BUY to be HAPPY on this planet; 2)And I don't think it is correct to say "that [in England] we are no longer willing or able to manufacture items considered essential for economic growth and wellbeing at a price that consumers are willing to pay" - what does it mean "no longer" - when the majority of our society was able to afford those things, those fine and expensive (in relation to their wages) things made in England? I don't suppose there has ever been such time. Whereas now, almost everybody can afford to buy something from China. And yes, majority of people used to use and own less things. They had one dress and one pair of shoes, and yes, those were of better quality in general. But the time has become so condensed and everything changes and ages so fast, that those cheap, almost "disposable" products from China is the only solution - for many because they are weak and do not have the intelligence not to follow the crowds, but for others - because that is truly the only thing they are able to afford. Even for Christmas.

  2. your post is still an ignorant one. you could say the notion of 'britain' as distinct from 'china' is equally problematic if you're analysing a global bad. you're worried about local prosperity in an already overpopulated planet. it's gone beyond that. the problem began with the creation of superpowers such as britain, and the creation of borders with other nations. this caps the freedom of movement. if you go back far enough humans would have moved to new plains as their feeding grounds dried up or flooded. now they are stuck within their less favourable circumstances. there is 925 million such people, 21,000 of which die each day. we are an overpopulated collectively destructive race. the best thing for the planet you can do is not slate China, but concentrate on your own locality. grow your own food, stop having children, let your ego die. if there's something wrong with how 'China' and 'Britain' do things they will anyway fail. we all know that taking production away from your own doorstep means the clearing of a huge forest somewhere to make way for mass violent production of food and furniture. we all love reading about global problems, but the question is what are the local solutions?? no point annoying our nanny states till we've fully worked them out in a brutally honest fashion.