The Merging of Cultures
This work is an extraordinary undertaking. One scholar working by himself traces the links between the West and two great Eastern cultures, the Russian and the Chinese, not by following the easily described flow of trade and technology but by sensitive analysis of religious, philosophical, and political ideas of the West and how they led to cultural and political changes in Russia and China. The undertaking called not only for mastery of the Russian and Chinese languages and histories but also for a fine ability to judge ideas and gauge their rationality or irrationality, and a firm grasp of the problems of “Westernization” from which so many of the world’s difficulties are presently stemming.
In each culture, the story is fascinating. Western influences in Russia, as early as the fifteenth century, depended for more than a hundred years on no more than a handful of personalities, mostly priests, who were trained in both Western and Eastern theology, ritual, and languages. Only in the Ukraine there existed for a considerable time something like a body of clergy knowledgeable in Latin, also possessing something that Russian Christianity was conspicuously lacking: philosophical training. These early influences were mild and apt to fuse peacefully with Russian spirituality. The situation changed radically with Peter the Great whose reforms “were not mainly concerned with technique but . . . ultimately with the cultural question: was the Russian tradition to be supplanted as extensively and swiftly as possible by Western importations, or was it to be the basis from which the reform of Russian life was to proceed?” Peter, with all his might, rode hard on the former course. He undertook a “revolution from above,” an autocratic subversion later repeated by Stalin with a suitable addition of more ruthlessness. The result in both cases was an exaltation of executive state power that permitted no trace of liberty as its rival. With Peter also began the shift of Western influence from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism. Unfortunately this happened at a time when two dominant Protestant schools of thought fell into something like perversions of their substance: Lutheran scholasticism mutated into Voltairian rationalism, and Pietism into Rosicrucian self-made mysticism, with Freemasonry of two varieties in a flanking position. By the time these powerful influences had run their courses at the Russian court and among the Russian gentry, the scene was set for their successors, Hegel and Schelling, whose politico-philosophical mysticism culminated in programs of human self-salvation. The door was then wide ajar for the inrushing wave of socialism from Fourier and Proudhon to Marx, with the exiled Russians returning in 1917 as so many missionaries to their native land.
The story of the West in China follows a not dissimilar pattern. It began with the arrival in China of Matteo Ricci, one of the band of great Jesuit missionaries who learned Chinese, wore Chinese dress, greatly respected the people and their culture, made themselves useful and prominent through their scientific prowess, and attracted many leading Chinese to the Christian faith. That period came to an end through the refusal of the Pope to allow the compatibility of the Chinese ancestor rites and veneration of Confucius with Christian worship, and it was not until 1939 that the Roman Church could bring itself to make that concession. After an hiatus of a hundred years, fundamentalist Protestant missionaries without any knowledge of Chinese or respect for the culture tried their best among the lower people, not having access to the literati. In terms of conversions their success was almost nil, but in politics, two of their disciples initiated the T’ai P’ing Rebellion which 110 years ago came close to overthrowing the Manchu Dynasty and setting up a “Christian” sectarian republic with its capital at Nanking. The fundamentalists later were followed by Christian “modernists” in whose eyes Christianity amounted to the social gospel, and from these circles Sun Yat-sen emerged as one of the leaders of the 1911 revolution. Finally, liberalism and Marxist-Leninist socialism made their claims on Chinese minds which by that time were whirling around in the winds of change. The present totalitarian regimes in Russia and China cannot be considered local accidents. They are products of erupting Western ideas that in their abstraction lacked any deep roots and also were totally hostile to whatever had grown in centuries of historical tradition.
The two books are not exactly bedtime reading, even though Treadgold has organized his materials in an exemplary way, briefly outlining the content of each chapter at the outset and then summarizing it more fully at the end. All the same, his pages are crowded with events, movements, and personalities which often are treated so tersely that one’s reading pace is severely slowed. Still, one cannot fault him for this unless one were to demand of him a work three times as voluminous. As it is he has managed, in five hundred pages, to give an intelligible and fully adequate account first, of historical developments in Russia and China, with necessary side-glances at neighboring countries, second, a survey of the emergence and nature of ideas religious and philosophical in the West as they came to influence Russia and China, and thirdly, sufficient if not full portraits of many personalities, Western or Western-influenced who were the bearers of Western notions in Russia and China. These are masses of materials, the balancing of which required the skill of a scholarly master juggler, and Treadgold brings off the feat.
The questions which he raises are, of course, legion. Not being a professional historian, I will not go into the matter of factual accuracy. One would be astonished if on such a tour de force certain mistakes had not crept in. To criticize Treadgold from this point of view, however, would be nitpicking. It obviously was not his intention to write anew history of Russia or China. His emphasis is squarely on the problem of the merging of cultures. On that matter he does not mind letting us know that his sympathy is strongly with those he calls “the syncretizers.” (I wish he had found a more imaginative term.) His model is Matteo Ricci, with his companion-successors Johann Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest, Jesuits all. Their endeavor was to bring Christianity to China while building on all that was valuable in the old culture and leaving intact whatever did not fly in the face of Christianity. In Moscow, during the sixteenth century, men with similar notions were at work. Even in the nineteenth century one could still find a Soloviev in Russia and a Timothy Richard in China. At the opposite end are the ravagers of traditions and men of violent innovations, Peter the Great, Lenin, and foreign and native Communists in China. In Treadgold’s general conclusions there is a section on totalitarianism as a result of the imposition of ideas of semirationality on a soil in which they did not even grow. The developments in Russia and China which Treadgold traces with great sureness of touch, have of course their parallels in Turkey and India where the West has left both marks of accomplishments but also sources of profound disorder.
Donald Treadgold has set a personal example of what thinking men in the West ought to do in order to cope with the situation created by their forebears’ mistakes. He has steeped himself in an Asian language and culture, and that as a mature man, after having gone through a rigorous academic training as an historian and having made a name for himself as a Sovietologist. He quotes Renan’s Caliban: “Why did not Prospero see that I would use the Aryan tongue which he taught me as a means by which to curse him?” Prospero by now has thrown away the mantle of his magic and must live the life of shared humanity with those whom his magic touch has loosened from their roots without handing them the key to order. Those who agree that this is one of the great tasks of our age had also better heed Treadgold’s example in developing the required sensitivities. One will not get far in such efforts without a sensitivity for a people’s spiritual and religious substance, and that other sensitivity for the preciousness of the concrete, as it has grown in history and endures: “the form impressed that living must itself unfold.”
Dr. Gerhart Niemeyer (1907–1997) was at the time of writing professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He was the author, among others, of Between Nothingness and Paradise (Louisiana State University Press, 1971).
Posted: March 13, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.