Is America Older than China and Europe?

Chinese are fond of saying that they have 5,000 years of history, which makes their country “old.”  To their minds, European countries are also “old,” since most of them have at least 1,000 years of history.  The comparison is also made in terms of “civilizations.”  Western civilization is thought to be comparable to Chinese civilization in age, and even European civilization has at least 1,500 years of history since the fall of Rome.  What, then, of the United States?  The U.S. is of course considered a “young” country, with only 200 years of history.  Chinese rarely see the U.S. as being a more recent, yet fundamentally continuous, incarnation of a comparably ancient Western or European civilization.  Many Europeans are in agreement about America’s youth, and the Americans themselves do nothing to counter this narrative, given how it coheres with their own self-conceptions (and self-deceptions) about a nation founded anew out of the wilderness 200 years ago.  What makes a country old or new?  To what extent is the “age” of a community distinct from its “continuity?”  And what aspects of its continuity really matter to its age?

Picture an ordinary Chinese from today trying to have a conversation with an ordinary Chinese from 200 years ago. The contemporary would likely be somewhat urbanized, while the 19th century Chinese would almost certainly be a peasant (the peasantry accounting for more than 95% of the population).  Could they talk to each other?  Probably not without great difficulty, given that there was as yet no standardized national spoken language.  Could they write to each other?  Again, probably not, given that the vast majority of Chinese peasants back then were illiterate.  If they were from the same region or macro-region (the North), they could probably have a conversation about family, daily life, and other topics.  Yet they could not without difficulty talk about the Chinese “nation,” “society,” or “politics,” since all of these words were later brought into Chinese via Japan (and ultimately the West).  This problem of communication would in some ways be compounded if we imagine a conversation between intellectuals from both eras.  While their lives might be more similar than would our imagined “everymen” (both writing for educated people, etc.), they’d likely experience an even greater degree of frustration, given the very overlap in their larger concerns (politics, government, etc.).  Even if writing in wenyanwen, a skill today’s intellectual is by no means guaranteed to have, how could, say, today’s public intellectual easily and accurately convey his thoughts to, say, a 19th century Confucian official?  There had as yet been no “revolution,” nor idea of the Chinese “nation,” nor even the same word for “China.”  Our contemporary lives in a world of nation-states and is a citizen of China, while his 19th century interlocutor considered himself a subject of an imperial court to which he owed ultimate loyalty.

Now picture a typical American from today talking to an American from 200 years ago.  While the contemporary would likely be urbanized and the 19th century American a farmer, they would have in common the fact that they sell the products of their labor in the free market, since America has never had a peasantry.  They could speak easily with one another, since American English has undergone no radical change in the last 200 years, and writing would be less of a problem than for our imagined dialogue between ordinary Chinese, since a majority of Americans were literate even in the early 19th century.  Most importantly, many of their most important political and intellectual concepts have undergone little change in the last two centuries.  A contemporary American intellectual could easily have a conversation with Thomas Jefferson about “politics,” “revolution,” and the American “nation,” perhaps more easily than ordinary Americans speaking about daily life (especially as that relates to technological changes in how we live).  They speak the same language of politics.  This is because contemporary Americans are the inheritors of a political and intellectual tradition starting from the Enlightenment whose roots go back very far in American history to the founding itself and before.  Today’s Americans continue to be in dialogue with Americans of more than two centuries ago.   Consider, for example, the Tea Party.  This is a contemporary movement for limited government and lower taxes whose animating spirit is in direct dialogue with the spirit of the American Revolution (the Boston Tea Party being a protest against what the colonists saw as unfair taxation).  Few contemporary political movements in any country can claim to take so seriously and be continuous with the political ideas of over 200 years ago.

I do not mean to suggest that America can trace its roots to a source older than China’s, or that the continuity of the American nation matches the length of Chinese civilization.  This is patently false.  Although the civilizational roots of the United States do go back just as far as Europe’s (a seldom appreciated fact), this would be part of a different and entirely uncontroversial debate, about which there is consensus that China represents the oldest civilization in continuous existence today.  What I do mean to suggest is that contemporary America is “older” than China.

How do we normally evaluate the age of antique furniture?  We say that if the parts of one piece of furniture, say a table, had almost all of its parts switched or redone in the last two hundred years, then it is not as “old” as another piece of furniture, say a chair, whose parts are almost all the untouched originals.  The same goes for architecture.  If some wooden temple in Beijing had burned down and been rebuilt several times over the last few centuries, then it is not as authentically “old” as another structure having undergone only superficial renovation during this time (as Western critics of Chinese preservation like to remind us).  Our comparison of China and America shows China to have been much more empirically discontinuous over the last 200 years, if we take a country to consist of all its people and what’s inside the heads of these people, just as tables and chairs consist of legs and screws.  Such a one-to-one matching of people across time suggests that a “tradition” or “culture” does not consist of its physical artifacts, e.g. all of the ancient buildings in China and Europe, of which the U.S. has absolutely none.  Rather, a tradition or culture can be seen as more continuous to the extent that its constituents (i.e. people, all the people, including ordinary people) are in meaningful community with one another, as measured by the degree to which they are in dialogue about common concerns and could have an easy but meaningful talk.  A community of people over time must be able to communicate if they really are a community, and every person who cannot so communicate, no matter how ordinary, subtracts from that community’s continuity, cohesiveness, and age.  In one sense, this way of measuring the age of a country is empirically non-materialist, in discounting the importance of “physical culture” (an oxymoron), but in another sense it is materialist and democratic in seeing people as equally important “parts.”

Think about what goes on in the head of an ordinary white-collar worker during an ordinary day.  Forget about politics, society, and revolution for now.  Most people don’t care about those things.  During the course of a normal day, that person might drive to work and fight the traffic, or he might hail a cab and be tempted by ads he hears on the radio or sees on other cabs.  He might work in marketing for a large multinational company.  He might take the elevator to the 50th floor and look down on a cityscape full of skyscrapers and cars and people, seemingly all in a rush to the future.  All of these elements of our contemporary lives were in place in America 80 years ago.  The Empire State Building (102 floors) was completed in 1931.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States already had fully-developed industries in mass advertising and communications (radio), U.S. multinationals selling standardized mass consumer products already had offices across the globe (P&G), and of course the streets were already jammed with cars.  Little to none of this existed in China 30 years ago.  Certainly a comparison between China and America of 30 years ago using the above methodology would show America to be the older country.  Very little of this existed in Europe 80 years ago, either.  It was not without reason that European intellectuals came to the U.S. in the early 20th century and saw in America a hideously deformed colossus making the average American a slave to the market (his factory wages spent on the latest gadget or a glimpse of Greta Garbo in a Hollywood movie), or came to New York City and were alternately bewildered, fascinated, and horrified by the rush of cars and subways and this endless expanse of tall, ugly buildings that they feared and knew would come to define their own lives as well.  Modernity, this American vision of modernity, would rush up to meet and overwhelm them, as it did to a very large extent after the Second World War, the irony of course being that for America this future has long since become the past.

It should be obvious by now that our analysis can also be extended to a comparison between America and Europe (with the partial exceptions of England and parts of Northern Europe).  Let’s take our first cut at 250 years.  Which is more continuous?  Again, this would be in terms of the number of “parts” that haven’t changed, i.e. ordinary people as defined by what’s in their heads and their ability to communicate and therefore constitute a community.  Today, Europe has its castles and medieval estates, purported prima facie evidence of its “age,” yet we would be hard-pressed to say that the lords (or peasants) of those estates from 250 years ago and the average Western European of today constitute a common community of values and ordinary ways of approaching the world (e.g. knowing that it’s wrong not to treat everyone politely regardless of who they are, not caring much about offense to the “honor” of one’s “name”).  It is only in the “imagined community” of those intellectuals who invented nationalism that common reference to some mythical past and “spirit of the people” outweighs more ordinary considerations of everyday life.  Today’s European is also vastly more likely to be educated, literate, and able to speak and write with his co-nationals.  As Greenfeld notes, in the mid-18th century the written language of government in France had yet to be standardized so that all provincial governments were writing in the same version of “French,” and the total literate population of Germany amounted to perhaps only 200,000 out of 20 million.  At the same time in colonial America, English was written the same way across the colonies, and Americans were much more literate and probably had a larger literate population than all of Germany (given a total population of about two million and 75% literacy).  Most importantly, Americans were already implacably opposed to the notion of titled nobility, thus possessing the germ of a mindset and worldview that would soon explode in violent opposition to British rule and King George III.

Let’s take another cut at 200 years.  In Europe, the French had already given birth to their revolution, and had already spread (and were to soon further spread) ideas of republicanism and egalitarianism across Europe, in the lands they would conquer or influence.  Europe was engaged in what was arguably its first ideological war, pitting supporters of monarchy against the spirit of revolution and opposition to all forms of inherited and aristocratic privilege (a struggle so world-historical that Hegel would write that history had “ended” in 1806).  As Greenfeld argues, however, other than Britain and the newly-formed French nation, Europe had no other (major) nations in the sense that we understand them today, consisting of citizens of all classes and status-backgrounds who identified foremost with their nations and considered themselves fully-integral constituents of the national collectivity.  Germany and Italy would not unify and become nations for another half-century, and therefore had not yet fully undergone the process of linguistic standardization the French had just completed, nor molded disparate regional identities into the German or Italian “nations,” thus making it easier for contemporary Germans and Italians to talk to their predecessors.  Again, it is largely through an “imagined community” propagated through textbooks and national education systems that we are apt to read into the past a greater degree of national identification and homogeneity than did in fact exist.  At the same time in the United States, the post-revolutionary society of which Tocqueville would write in only two decades had already taken shape.  The revolution of 1776 had influenced the thinking of ordinary people such that this political revolution had by then molded the characteristics of a “nation,” and culminated in a social revolution, making Americans ardently egalitarian, instinctively democratic, and opposed to status distinctions as no people had been before, with huge implications for how they dealt with one another in everyday life, and of course how today’s American would deal with Americans of 200 years ago.  Indeed, Tocqueville wrote of America explicitly as a warning to his fellow French that the social egalitarianism he saw in America would come to France, and that France should try to embrace what would inevitably (and did in fact) come to pass.

Let’s take our final cut at 100 years.  Two hundred fifty and 200 years ago, the United States was ahead of (most of) Europe in certain ways having to do with social egalitarianism (a fundamental aspect of how we deal with others in the modern world), political development (not only the “existence” of the regime but the “nation” that the regime helps “create”), and how aspects of these worldviews could in fact be communicated over time by ordinary people via literacy, a common language, and a common understanding as fellow citizens.  In both of these timeframes, what would come to define Europe’s future was already part of America’s present or recent past, thus implying that the American “parts” have changed much less than for Europe, as in our example of 80 years ago.  The same goes for the Europe and America of 100 years ago, if we look at standards of living, educational attainment, or much of our contemporary lifestyles (as discussed above).  On the eve of the First World War, however, one important part of Europe’s future would never become part of America’s present or past.  The First and Second World Wars resulted not only in a scale of devastation of which the United States has no experience, but also in the repudiation of war, nationalism, and great power politics by the majority of today’s Europeans (e.g. as revealed in greater acceptance of China’s coming dominance).  One hundred years ago, the British Empire covered 1/6 of the world, and the French, German, and British empires competed for spoils in colonial Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.  Yet it seems that very few British today feel any sense of collective identification with their empire of only 100 years ago (let alone the French or Germans, who of course have much less reason to) — i.e. not in the sense that they can at least understand and sympathize with, if not agree with, the imperialistic feelings and values that animated their co-nationals.  The First and Second World Wars largely ended popular or chauvinistic European nationalism, and 1945 marks a radical discontinuity in the European mind in a way that it does not for the Americans, who can still readily identify with the nationalism of 100 years ago (which has, for good or ill, continued largely unabated since that time).  Whereas for Americans history “starts” in 1776, for Europeans history seems to have “reset” in 1945.  In this sense, the “parts” have indeed changed a great deal for Europe since 1945, as they have over our entire 250 year time-span, whereas for America, they remain largely the same, the “furniture” of the American mind in fact much older and worn.

I therefore mean to suggest that America is not only “older” than China, but also “older” than Europe.  Recall that for our purposes, a country is “old” in the way we say most things are old, e.g. antique furniture or ancient temples, i.e. if the “parts” of which they are composed have largely stayed the same — these “parts” of a country being ordinary people as defined by what’s in their heads and their ability to communicate and therefore constitute a community. Proponents of an “imagined community” trace their national histories to the mists of time by privileging certain parts of the community, most crucially a cultural elite that ensures (and has in fact ensured) the continuity of European or Chinese civilization for centuries or millennia, regardless of whether that cultural elite identified with the same community of today, had the same values, or could even communicate about these values with someone from today.  While it cannot be denied that these threads of continuity do exist, this does not mean that one country is older than another, just because one small part is much older than the rest, if the rest is in fact much newer.

America is arguably the oldest modern country today, the structure of its society and the values of its people having changed much less than those of any other major power today (with the partial exception of the U.K.).  In many ways, this makes America not just “first to modernity” but simply “old.”  While the above argument is intentionally meant to be a kind of thought experiment bringing into greater relief what we mean by “age” and highlighting the ways in which crucial features of the United States really are older than those of China and Europe, misconceptions and prejudices about America’s “youth” do have real consequences for America on the world stage.  In particular, our discussion is salient for how “ancient” countries like China and its purported civilizational counterparts around the world in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, present themselves to one another and misunderstand themselves. At certain “high-level international dialogues,” the Chinese and the French, Iranians, or Indians can easily establish a baseline of mutual respect and admiration for their “ancient cultures,” especially their physical remnants, e.g. the Great Wall, the Reims Cathedral, etc.  This can easily elide into talk of an emerging multi-polar global system, held up by each of these ancient civilizations, like legs of a table, implicitly casting the U.S.-led system as abhorrent and unnatural.  Professional diplomats and other representatives of these ancient civilizations sneer at the U.S. as too “young” and therefore lacking the qualifications to lead, since it lacks the accumulated wisdom of many hundreds or thousands of years, presumably crystallized in its original form in the minds of these “civilizational representatives” today.  Condescension toward the youth of the United States and its qualifications for great power status has been no less a stranger to the European mind than it is to the mind of the Chinese today (especially before the First World War).  Such talk would involve a great deal less self-deception, however, and arrive at a much less sentimental and more clear-eyed understanding of any country’s qualifications for leadership, if China and other countries more closely examined their own recent histories.  The Chinese would find that much of the “furniture” of their minds has changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years, their very script and language having experienced radical change, to say nothing of the ideological and anti-imperialistic “tables” and “chairs” that make up their worldviews.  The Europeans would find that their societies have also changed beyond recognition during this time, the simplest gauge of which may be that the religion of “Western Christendom,” i.e. that which once defined European civilization, has vanishingly few adherents today.  As these “ancient” societies have writhed, suffered, and transmogrified through upheaval, revolution, and war, the United States of America remains largely the same country it has been since its founding, the “first new nation” and revolutionary child of the Enlightenment, and architect not only of the current world political order, but also of the socioeconomic and technological structures that define modernity as it is lived by most ordinary people today.  Much as on a job interview, experience should count for something.

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2 Responses to Is America Older than China and Europe?

  1. Genesis Chen says:

    Eloquent while provocative.
    Frank is a neglected genius trapped in the Babylonian city of human conditions. He penetrates into the cores of realities and awakens people in self-deception, yet at the same time is tortured by his own fallen soul!
    Oh, Lord, have mercy on him, Dona eis requiem.

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