The continuity of a people

From a comment below [edited]:

The Chinese and Egyptians are an interesting case in this because they had one of the earliest written scripts (or rather tradition across generations to impart and carry information) and it was spread over long surviving/thriving timelines.

But then Egyptians lost the linguistic capability and lost their history even though they had archaeological structures all around them.

Language IS Culture. Literally.

There is only so much oral tradition can do. Even if it survives the population scale that carrier it becomes smaller and smaller and the cultural pressures from the majority overwhelm or dilutes the narrative 1000 years later. This happened in India. People forgot/evolved their ancestry even if there were a gross minority of class who remembered their class’s origin myths in a certain way.

From a purely reductive and spare understanding of human flourishing, this is irrelevant trivia.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was no great loss. They were stone. Carved by man. That might be a Benthamite view. It would be a Salafi view.

But most people don’t think this way.

One of the themes of Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is that the temple institutions persisted over thousands of years. Even as dynasties turned over, the temples maintained a link to the past. Though many of their cultural characteristics were disappearing by the time of Ptolemies the Egyptians of this period still exhibited continuity with their ancestors. The hieroglyphic system actually was used down to 400 AD. The last inscription is dated to 394 at the temple of Philae. Philae continued in operation down to the 6th century, before it was closed by Justinian.

Other documents indicate knowledge of the hieroglyphic system into the 5th century AD. But the destruction of the old temples, the old customary religion, was the death of the old history and identity.

The Chinese continuity is striking because it is true that down the last years of Imperial China in the early 20th century the literati could access the entire corpus of Chinese though back 2,000 years. Dynasties fell, but unlike the West, there was no rupture with antiquity.

The case of India is interesting because I would argue Hindu Indians have maintained continuity with the civilization of India as it had matured in the centuries around the invasion of Alexander the Great. The Brahmins have maintained Vedic texts and the Sanskrit language. Those from the Abrahamic traditions sometimes contemptuously refer to Hinduism as “pagan,” but there is some truth in this, insofar as the religion grew and accrued itself organically from the native cultural traditions.

Today China is promoting “Confucius Institutes” as part of its “soft power.” Chinese who lived in the late 1960s would find this very strange, as they had abolished Confucius and were overturned the culture, the civilization, of China. But such tumult is not sustainable. I wonder if we are going through the same thing in the West. If so, perhaps we too will be promoting Plato institutes a generation from now?

17 thoughts on “The continuity of a people

  1. ” If so, perhaps we too will be promoting Plato institutes a generation from now?”

    That is a very optimistic take. I think my great grandchildren will not know how to read or write, unless they are members of the priestly class that controls everything and sacrifices the peasants babies to Gaia.

  2. The Egypt China comparison is a very interesting one. A huge difference between them is political.

    Egypt has been conquered by foreigners repeatedly. In the past three millennia, it has seldom been ruled by a native group. Even when the rulers were born and raised in Egypt they have belonged to foreign ethnoi that strongly maintained non Egyptian cultures: The Greek speaking, Hellenistic, Ptolemys; The Arabic speaking, Muslim, Umayyads; followed by other foreign Muslim groups until the English in the late 19th century.

    China had foreign conquers also. But, most of them were barbarians who thought Chinese culture to be prestigious. It may also be that the sheer size and complexity of China compelled the foreigners to keep the Confucian Mandarin bureaucracy in place. The bureaucracy then assimilated its rulers.

  3. “I wonder if we are going through the same thing in the West. If so, perhaps we too will be promoting Plato institutes a generation from now?”

    If the demographics of the west remain as constant as they have in India and China, sure.

  4. “priestly class”
    I hate your pessimism Walter, because it’s what I secretly worry is coming too.
    That’s why the Ctrl-left frightens me far more than the Alt-right nowadays; they are the clerisy, and have the power to enact their utopian ideals.

  5. “Those from the Abrahamic traditions sometimes contemptuously refer to Hinduism as “pagan,” but there is some truth in this, insofar as the religion grew and accrued itself organically from the native cultural traditions.”

    I think “idolatrous” rather than “pagan” might be closer to the mark, but I’m just guessing. Ditto with sub-Saharan Africa.

  6. >Today China is promoting “Confucius Institutes” as part of its “soft power.” Chinese who lived in the late 1960s would find this very strange, as they had abolished Confucius and were overturned the culture, the civilization, of China. But such tumult is not sustainable. I wonder if we are going through the same thing in the West. If so, perhaps we too will be promoting Plato institutes a generation from now?

    I wonder if any part of the West will change to speaking Chinese.

  7. *”Language IS Culture. Literally.”

    Interesting comment. I wonder how many cultures have an unbroken linguistic chain extending back to 500 BC? China and India.Israel. Greece (Homer and Hesiod take us back to the 8th century BC). Who else?Iran? My understanding is that the ability to read Avestan in the original was lost in the first few centuries AD and was not recovered until comparatively recently, which would seem to rule them out.

    *Section got lopped off.

  8. The Egyptian history saw many foreign conquerors imposing their rules, and even the first Kingdom is thought by many to be ruled by foreigners. Ramesses II didn’t know who build the Great Pyramids and why. The Egyptian people didn’t know very much about their own past, even in their mythology.

    The same for the Chinese people. They knew some legends written centuries earlier, but even their wisemen got those legends as merely tales. Even the Japanese knew almost nothing about their wandering past and being sons of the Gods who created those islands sounded good enough.

  9. “The Egyptian people didn’t know very much about their own past, even in their mythology.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manetho

    The knowledge they had was held by the priesthoods of their traditional religion. Christian, and later Islamic, rulers suppressed the priesthoods, and thereby the knowledge.

  10. yeah. that comment seems like it was bullshit. but i let it through…. perhaps the commenter is just stupid?

    (the shang dynasty were a ‘myth’ before they were discovered)

  11. yeah. that comment seems like it was bullshit. but i let it through…. perhaps the commenter is just stupid?

    Wow. I expected a thunderbolt on him. I applaud your recent gentleness, sir! 🙂

  12. “Language is Culture”; “dilutes the narrative 1000 years later. This happened in India. People forgot/evolved their ancestry even if there were a gross minority of class who remembered their class’s origin myths in a certain way.”

    These do not precisely apply in India, and I do not know why they were stated.

    In India, the languages that have stayed the longest are not Sanskrit, but Dravidian. Tamil is possibly (Tulu is disappearing so it is unclear) the longest extant language in India, even older than Sanskrit. I can even now read and understand (not everything) what was written 2250 years ago. In contrast, Hindusthani is a 150 year old language and heavily descendant from Urdu, Persian and Turkish. However, culture transmission is similar in the North and the South, and even in language families no more than 1000 years old (Looking at You Bengalis), it cannot be argued that culture transmission is better under one language than other, and a language age-culture transmission correlation cannot be easily determined.

    Regarding “People forgot their history/ancestory” I do not know what this implies. I conjecture that the comment means that they became muslims/Christians and forgot them. This is a horrible statement. What is the Indian culture to a SC, ST and OBC person? Why would I not run away? In parallel, the Christian and Muslim culture in India is unique to India. Catholics in the south have marriage cultures which are often replicas of Hindu traditions. If a Saudi were to arrive in South India and see the worship futures, he will excommunicate them rapidly. Everything in India is Indian, and Indian does not represent Vedic-Brahminic. If Vedic is assumed to represent Indian culture, then I donot know what to say.

  13. Razib, renewed focus on Aryan invasion of India has reminded me of how much more urban and sophisticated the Harappans were. This is a delicate subject and the Dravidian culture throws the argument out (have to tread carefully here but few believe the Harappans were Dravidians so put them aside) but the Harappans had *toilets*, internal bathrooms, and sophisticated drainage. The Aryans may have been pretty nomadic at that stage so bush-hygiene understandable – but they enforced anti-toilet rules in their Laws incl Manu, for long after they had settled in India (to recent times). Images of Harappan women resemble those of modern India, but everything else – the sophistication of the Harappans – was lost (except water tank systems too), and if the Aryans didn’t destroy it they certainly made it unrecoverable with their extreme purity rules. So India has certainly forgotten its past of almost modern hygiene and sewerage (at least comparable to the Romans, and Europe’s masses lost their Roman toilets for centuries too!).

  14. I can respond with a detail, Vijay. BTW you can also call me ‘Vishal’. On a recent stay in Tamil Nadu I examined a megalithic structure on a hill (currently being used as village toilet unfortunately!) which was coffin-sized and shaped as for a human burial. Made without metal by cleverly separating natural layers of stone and building wall and a roof. Here are other examples (but the one I examined was better – not broken and in very sound shape):
    http://lingnnasouthindianprehistory.blogspot.com.au/2018/03/megalithic-tombs-in-halekeri-hanagal.html

    In the side wall of this roofed ‘tomb’ was a round hole, drilled probably with hard stone. As if to allow a ‘soul’ or spirit of the dead to enter or leave. Obviously religious significance but which religion? Jainism was prominent in the South and they believe in an immortal ‘Jiva’ soul, but this seemed to predate anything ‘Aryan’. Was it Dravidian? Or pre- or outside Dravidian? But these structures are found all over the South, part of some important ancient culture. I perused the old Tamil books in translation for clues, not sure. Have we forgotten the builders of the megalith tombs Vijay? Maybe you know something which will help. But otherwise it sounds like an example of what you baulk at, if I may say so.

  15. To answer my own question, I just found this which does give some possible references in old Tamil literature for which I’m grateful:
    https://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/ah8MlN3mwHQjIpmBZBhcXJ/Exploring-Indias-megalithic-culture-a-riddle-set-in-stone.html

    But note that these old customs do seem to have been ‘forgotten’ still:
    ‘called muniyaras by locals, who probably thought it was a meditation chamber for munis’
    and possible Jain influence is tantalising (‘Muni’ is a Jain term I believe, and Jain legends have Tirthankaras leaving their bodies streched on hills if I recall). Still there is much from this lost age we do not know and much work to do in recovering it, just in this one instance. How much more is there? For example Harappans built with bricks, what happened to that thousand years of brick technology? (Now I recall that ancient/medieval *Bengali* temples were built with bricks!)

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