Cultural diversity in ancient China

Dear Dr Ong,

I refer to your comments in parliament as reported by Straits Times on 13 Mar 2010.

You pointed out the cosmopolitan atmosphere in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang An and the foreignness of one of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai to illustrate the importance of an open-door policy and of tolerance to a nation’s prosperity and the flourishing of its culture and economic development.

However, as cosmopolitan as Chang An was, it is doubtful that one third of its inhabitants was foreign like in the case of Singapore. So quoting the example of Chang An doesn’t justify the situation in Singapore where the percentage of foreigners is amazingly high. Also, while Li Bai’s place of birth lies in modern day Kyrgyzstan (rather than Kazakhstan), it was actually found within Chinese territory during the Tang dynasty. What’s more, Li Bai’s family originated from even closer within China. So quoting Li Bai’s place of birth also doesn’t justify a pro-foreigner stance since Li Bai wasn’t foreign born as far as the Tang dynasty is concerned.

While the Silk Road is a good example of the need to remain open to trade, it is not a good example to justify mass immigrations since the Silk Road was essentially a trade route, not a mass migration route.

You also pointed out the examples of the Ming and the Qing dynasties which ended up poorer for shutting up their doors. But those are examples that point to the danger of rejecting trade that has little if anything to do with cultural diversity or renaissance.

The most powerful example of how mass immigration changed a nation’s destiny is probably that of the Roman Empire which was subjected to mass immigrations towards the end of its five century dominion. The great numbers of Goth immigrants proved too great for the Romans to handle and when they finally rebelled, it marked the end of the once mighty Roman Empire.

We don’t have to look far back into history to understand how important immigrants are to a nation’s success. Modern day examples abound such as those of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Western Europe which show that prosperity and cultural efflorescence can take place without mass immigrations.


4 Responses to “Cultural diversity in ancient China”

  1. JEFF GOH Says:


    Thank you for the numerous sensible articles you have written and posted. I am a regular visitor to your blog.

    May I also suggest that you provide a link to the articles that you have refered to.

    Thank You

  2. a2ed Says:

    The reason why the chinese, in general, aren’t as intelligent as the Indians or the British is for their lack of cosmopolitanism and egalitarian multiculturalism. However, this does not apply as much to the Chinese in HK or Taiwan given that the former was under the perspectivally-advanced British for just over a 100 years, and the latter had to redefine itself to justify its separate existence from the fatherland.

    I wonder if your argument is purposed for maintaining the traditional chinese closed-door/mind policy in the face of migrants and difference and attempting to see how far one can go given such a fascist/racist approach toward reality. Have you ever wondered why India is producing IT professionals whilst China isn’t? One’s logical skills are much advanced in the face of non-ignorable difference as one isn’t afforded the luxury of couching oneself in the familiar and traditional. When it comes to logic, philosophy, wit, the speed of solution-generation, multiangular thinking, etc, do you actually think that China or Confucian states can touch the egalitarian multiculturals. Absolutely not. It is not a race thing, but a perspectival one, and the latter of which is honed by a truly egalitarian multicultural experience. By the way, if India is not doing as well as China economically, it is not because of their multiculturalism, but the ongoing effort to balance the interests of the masses and that of the elite. In China, as in Confucian states, it is only the elite that matters, and hence, the trickled-down effects post-foreign investment, etc, comes quicker, but at the price of popular intellectual individualism and humanity.

    As for your Roman example, the migration of the Goths is a bad example given the context here. The Goths were not advanced in terms of civilsation. That is not really the case with India which has had much interactions with persians, greeks, romans, etc, and had learnt much from these interactions as opposed to China whose main foreign influx included the Mongols and Manchus whom weren’t as advanced. Hence, China lost quite a bit by not pursuing foreign interactions to compensate for its not coming into contact with advanced civilisations who could have given them another view of reality. The centralised education system and the production of ‘scholars’ whom were most adept at regurgitating the pronouncements of the scholars of old didn’t help either.

    Opening doors to foreigners is a good thing, one, for the difference of those whom come in, and two, especially when they are from advanced civilisations. But in the case of singapore, the government is inundating the state with China nationals, not for its cultural vibrancy or popular intellectual individualism, but for their being trained to kow tow in the face of authority and working hard as a consequence – which gives meaning to the Confucian idea of ‘pragmatism’.

    This is just a continuation of past pro-chinese policies, and an effort to get around the negative effects of privileging the local chinese in the face of other ethnic groups which made them quite complacent – as the malays in the malaysia – and docile as everything became ‘same-same’ and relieved themselves of the ability to think critically, consider differing perspectives. Over time, they were thus trained to discount all difference and counterposition – which inevitably exacerbates all of the above. Just as such a milieu would be detrimental to the perspectival and intellectual advance of a child if it was to applied within the family, so it is within the state.

    • trulysingapore Says:

      I politely disagree. There is no basis to say why the Chinese aren’t as intelligent as the Indians or the British. It is hard to imagine how the Chinese can be less intelligent than the Indians and still beat them hands down on the road to economic prosperity. The Chinese today is much closer to their HK and Taiwan counterparts than you would admit. The Chinese was hampered by communism rather than HK and Taiwan being aided by colonisation. Because if you look at many other colonies including India, the result of colonisation is not something to shout about.

      The closed door / closed mind policy is no longer applicable in the China today given the voracity of the Chinese internet community at interacting, learning and finding out from the world. Ever greater numbers of Chinese are going overseas to work and to study. The charge of closed door is not a valid one.

      India has more IT professionals because of English. As simple as that. But the Chinese are picking up English real quickly.

      Do not be fooled, the grossness of the wealth of the Indian elite doesn’t pale in comparison to those of the Chinese elite. Going by the Gini index, Indian society is not that egalitarian compared to many European nations. Also, Indian’s lower Gini index compared to that of China’s could simply be that the former is not growing as fast as the latter rather than due to any conscious effort at being egalitarian.

      The Goth example is a valid one. They may not be as advanced as the Romans but over centuries of living together, they imbibed Roman ways and became as good as them. The fact remains that they are the ones who sacked Rome. The fact remains that all the top Western nations today are descendents of the Goths.

      The idea that India in ancient times learnt more from being conquered by numerous other civilisations as compared to China which only interacted with the Mongols is irrelevant. If India really learnt a lot then, why did the industrial revolution occur in Europe and not India? Why did all the scientific discoveries occur in the West and not India? It is irrelevant because globalisation allows all the cumulative scientific discoveries made by the West throughout the ages to be transferred to any society, any country, allowing them to make a great leap forward.

      Our Chinese majority cannot be the reason for any charge of lack of critical thinking or lack of perspectives. Because when you look at homogenous societies like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, there is no lack of critical thinking, there is no lack of perspectives. So if there is a reason for our lack of critical thinking or pespectives, it is something else other than us having a Chinese majority. It is our PAP dominance. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong are examples to show that once single party dominace is gotten rid of, critical thinking and perspectives start flowing effortlessly.

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