What was history about? Look at the Histomap

By Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

John B. Sparks made a histomap in 1931—updated in 2010 (Metro Books) – a long, vertical chart covering “peoples and nations for 4,000 years”.

Time, history, is on the vertical axis, listing when of events and where in the space of peoples and nations. The chart starts with the Chinese, the Indians, Amorites (Babylon), Aegeans (Minoans and Mycenaeans), Hittites (Anatolia), Iranians and Greeks, goes on to the Romans, the British, the Huns (Mongols) and ends with Latin America, Europeans West and East (the EU is absent), the Middle East, sub-Sahara Africa, Russians and Americans, Asia as India, China and Japan; each part proportionate to their significance at the time. Debatable.

But let us focus on something crucial: the shape of the “peoples-nations” bubbles in world history, from a beginning to an end?

By and large exactly like that: a birth somewhere in this Einsteinian timespace, and a death. Two points, and between them: growth-maturity/flourishing-decline and fall. Expansion to a maximum, and contraction to a minimum. The law of anything organic? Given that they often thought they were forever, gifted with eternal life, history is about great expectations, glories–and great traumas.

A little point marks the beginning of the Roman Empire; fat in the middle and two points as endings of the Western and Eastern empires. But it stretches a long way down, more than half the chart.

One senses a choreographer, a magister ludens somewhere, saying, “Your time is up; leave space for others to unfold”. Rather than eternal they were episodes, including the West, rapidly expanding from 1492 and five centuries later rapidly contracting in world influence.

But the chart shows two exceptions to this rule, exactly the major countries now expanding: China and India. How come, what is their secret? – knowing of course, that they may also, adding a millennium or two, contract to two small points in the chart.

Let us try an explanation based on empire and dynasty; empires expanding and contracting in space, dynasties in time. Both are based on contradictions, forces and counter-forces, dialectics; but in the empires the dialectic is external, in the dynasties internal.

Empires expand by one people-nation conquering others militarily, economically, culturally, politically (or all four, fully fledged imperialism), contracting, then decline and fall, when the resistance of the conquered overcomes the (will to) power of the conquerors.

Dynasties expand and contract when new forces – peoples-nations, classes – bring new visions into or out of power. Like for empires some stand to gain, some to lose. Hypothesis: the more united the gainers against the losers, the more long-lasting the empire-dynasty.

Of course, any people-nation has external dialectic with others and internal dialectic inside. But how is the balance between them?

There are many possibilities.

Conquered peoples-nations may not like it and fight for years, decades, centuries (Serbs against Turks five centuries, Arabs against Turks four centuries and against the West one century); exhausting the conquerors (Israel right now, and others are not siding with losers).

But conquerors may also be wise enough to learn from conquered peoples and make them feel at home. The West learned almost nothing for five centuries and is now paying the bitter price of decline. The Turks were not much better. Instead of being invigorated by internal dialectic with the conquered, they were simply beaten.

But conquered peoples may also absorb and add to their culture. One might question the continuity of the Indian long-lasting bubble given the many times they were conquered; by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Umayyad Caliphate with Islam and the Delhi Sultanate, Mongol invasions and the Mughal empire, yielding to the British Empire, till independence on 15 August 1947 with a devastating partition.

Is this a people, a nation? Yes, that is India, with a cultural discourse rich enough to accommodate conquerors sedimented on each other, learning and rejecting, in favor of ever richer conglomerates.

And China? Just the opposite: imperial yes, but only inside the “Chinese pocket” defined by the Himalayas, the Gobi desert, the Tundra and into the China Sea.

Small peoples, too easily handled. The rest is dynasty, one after the other, with break-downs, the Shang and the Zhou, warring states, the unifying (-221) Qin from which China derives its name and the enormously innovative Han (“Han-Chinese”), break-down, the Sui and the golden age Tang dynasty (618-907), break-down and the big humiliation even if short-lived; the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) with Kublai Khan (and, possibly, a visit by Marco Polo). And then the powerful Ming dynasty followed in 1644 by the faltering Qing dynasty.

End of the Emperors, then a Republic with Nationalist and Communist dynasties; a Western dialectic transferred to China but, indeed with Chinese characteristics. And that is where we are today.

Of course there are empire and dynasty in all three. But basically the West was imperialized during the Roman and missionary Christian dynasties (the USA and Israel still do, with a divine mandate, awaiting Enlightenment), then turning to internal warfare over “ideas” during the present Enlightenment dynasties. Basically India was imperialized, but with dynasties (Mauryan Gupta, Nehru-Gandhi),

And basically China was and is dynastic.

Morale of the (hi)story: if imperialized, then learn and enrich. But better: neither conquer nor be conquered; cooperate, learn, try to steer wisely your inner dialectic-and you may live long in the world.

The worst that could happen to China would be to fall for the temptation to conquer. Or a devastating inner speculation dialectic. And the best would be to learn from the world and from own dynasties–from Confucius but also Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and many, many others.

First published by Transcend Media Service here.

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