In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.
Pierre Ryckmans suggests a people survives in its memory, but Will Durant suggests a people might also survive through a combination of their sheer essence and a responsiveness to change. In Will Durant’s 1935 Our Oriental Heritage, the first of his The Story of Civilization series, he writes on China, among other ancient civilizations. (The Story of Civilization series is praised for its sweeping, glittering approach to history, or “composite history.” Not simply great in fact, but great too in analysis that’s timeless.) In his closing reflections on China, Durant’s keen ability to distill to the essence is evident. He’s writing about China prior to World War II, the rise of Communism, the Cold War, or the globalized economy:
One wonders for a moment whether China can ever be great again, whether she can once more consume her conquerors and live her own creative life. But under the surface, if we care to look, we may see the factors of convalescence and renewal. This soil, so vast in extent and so varied in form, is rich in the minerals that make a country industrially great. …
As industry moves inland it will come upon oars and fuels as unsuspected now as was the mineral and fuel wealth of America was as undreamed of a century ago.
This nation, after 3,000 years of grandeur and decay, of repeated deaths and resurrections, exhibits today all the physical and mental vitality that we find in its most creative periods. There is no people in the world more vigorous or intelligent. No other people so adaptable to circumstance, so resistible to disease, so resilient after disaster and suffering, so trained by history to calm endurance and patient recovery.
Imagination cannot describe the possibilities mingling the physical, labor, and mental resources of such a people with the technological equipment of modern industry. Very probably such wealth will be produced in China as even America has never known, and once again as so often in the past China will lead the world in luxury and the art of life. No victory of arms or tyranny of alien finance can long suppress a nation so rich in resources and vitality. The invader will lose funds or patience before the loins of china will lose virility.
Within a century China will have absorbed and civilized her conquerers and will have learned all the technique of all that transiently bears the name of modern industry. Roads and communications will give her unity and economy, thrift will give her funds and a strong government will give her order and peace.
Every chaos is a transition. In the end disorder cures and balances itself with dictatorship. Old obstacles are roughly cleared away and fresh growth is free. Revolution, like death and style, is the removal of rubbish, the surgery of the superfluous. It comes only when there are many things ready to die.
China has died many times before, and many times she has been reborn.