Civilization in the West


If you want to see the exposed gears of civilization, come to China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, where the ancient cultures of the silk road mix with the seven countries that still border it today – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan/ India.  Visit the ruins of Jiaohe city, a trade center on a plateau until the water dried up seven centuries ago; visit the vineyards still using the irrigation systems dug in China’s “Death Valley” two-thousand years ago; eat raisins dried on trellises in brick-walled homes.  Time seems to have stood still, told out only by the site of motorcycles, cellphone towers, tour buses, and impeccably paved roads.


It wasn’t much after a 10 am “Beijing time” dawn my fifth day in Xinjiang a few weeks ago that I learned why the roads were so impeccable.  First, our tour bus passed a wind farm, with windmills a good ten stories tall waiting for the next gusts to churn these turbines and pump out energy.  Minutes later, trucks with Sinopec’s sunny logo drove by with compressed tanks of gas.  Then, an image I couldn’t capture fast enough with my camera: three peasants sweeping the new road clean with brooms made of straw, silhouetted against the clucking heads of oil drills covering the grasslands.

sinopec truckIf you come here, you will stand on the seam of civilization too: look out one window at Uighur men still cooking naan outdoors in brick ovens, and out the other to see the belly of heavy industry.  You can’t help but wonder on the long bus ride back over the dusty grasslands and under the crescent moon, what is civilization anyway?  and what makes a good one?

In 7th grade in New York, I learned that “civilization” came from the Latin word for city, and referred to how humans stopped living as nomads when they started growing crops.  In Chinese, though, the word for “civilization” is made up of two words:  wen, meaning culture and language, and ming, meaning either clear and bright, or to understand.  I’m sure anthropologists have a better answer, but I would argue that in broad strokes, the West’s concept of “civilization” is the establishment of systems that produce a predictable outcome, while in Eastern (or at least Chinese) conception, “civilization” means having a clear culture.

My last night in Xinjiang, when I sat down to eat skewered regional lamb and fresh-baked naan, I opened up my half-finished copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  I happened to be in the organic section of the book, where Pollan rails against the industrialized food chain in America and espouses the values of eating local or “off the grid.”  In his view, the established systemic meat-processing plants and chemically-juiced homogenous corn fields produce a predictable outcome, but destroy a clear pastoral culture.  In America, the Western systemized definition of civilization, he might say, has defeated the Eastern cultural one.

Here in China, everyday people give up their wenming for predictable outcomes – like urban salaries in industrial jobs.  In Xinjiang, systematization also entails questions of what language school you send your kids too – whether they go to schools taught in their language (language is another definition for the word wen) – or to Mandarin-language schools where they may have a better chance at an urban job later on.

Early next year China’s rail system will finally connect to a city in western Xinjiang, and the coal locked up in the mountains will finally be exploitable.  One morning, I had breakfast with a local Han Chinese resident at a hotel breakfast buffet, which was so overcrowded with coal-rush businessmen that it had run out of chopsticks.  Currently, the main source of income for that region is raising livestock, and so I asked the local what the impact of the mines would be on these cowboys and their trade.  “If they can make more money mining coal,” he replied in Chinese with a thick Slavic accent, “they will probably mine coal.”

Civilized societies (i.e. large blobs of people living together) tend to overtake uncivilized ones (i.e. less dense and organized collections of people), not because their culture is morally or practically better, necessarily, but because they have more numbers (to roughly paraphrase Jared Diamond’s point in Guns, Germs and Steel).  Whether such an overrun is a good thing or not depends largely on whether that civilization has systems in place (energy, financial, food chain, transportation, sewage, construction, safety, communication, etc.) that anticipate and solve its problems.  How good our lives are – how good our civilization is – depends a lot on whether we can build good systems faster than our problems can become complex.

As our blobs of population grow and become more blob-like due to urbanization, the complexity of the problems grow too, and our systems can’t always keep up.  That gap is filled with wenming – cultural norms that govern our behavior.  Take Chinese food for example.  The cold logistics chain in China isn’t yet well developed enough to ensure that food doesn’t spoil, so Chinese food has developed a culture of cooking all its meat and vegetables all the way through.  The water system isn’t always safe, so Chinese people developed the habit of drinking boiled water.  The banking system isn’t as developed as in the U.S., so I pay my rent in 100 RMB ($14) cash notes, which every Chinese person knows how to count quickly by hand.

Watching the shadows shorten under the late rising sun across the plateau of Jiaohe’s ruins, I wondered about this gap between civilizations, the one based on culture and the one based on systems.  How far ahead did the residents of Jiaohe see the drought coming, these people who had created an ingenious and elaborate irrigation system two thousand years ago, who had learned to live in underground rooms to avoid the heat of the desert?  Had they tried and failed to develop a system against it, so they could preserve their increasingly unsustainable desert culture?

Later that evening I stood in front of the “flaming mountain,” where the Buddhist monkey named Sun Wukong came on his Journey to the West so many hundreds of years ago.  Thanks to the China Mobile tower jutting out of the otherwise immaculate grassland vista, I was talking on my cellphone to a friend in Beijing, who was working over the weekend on an Excel spreadsheet to help finance a greenhouse gas emissions reduction project.  Behind me, Sinopec trucks laden with heavily equipment were tirelessly pumping energy out of the red soil, supporting China’s energy system, while bringing on climate change. In front of me the setting sun threw the Buddhist mountain into a deeper red hue of flame. 

 “Hurry up,” I told her, only half joking, “it’s already getting late.”

 cracked ground