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Marking Time in China and the West — A New Year’s Post

“A spectre is haunting the world: 1914.”  So writes Harold James, a professor of history [who is] certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914.

— Gideon Rachman, “Does the 1914 Parallel Make Sense?” Financial Times blog

Today’s China is no longer [what it was] 120 years ago.

 — Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference December 31, 2013

You can learn a lot about how globalization has changed the world from thinking about how time was reckoned in different places a century or so ago, at the moments of the past flagged in these two quotes, and how it is marked now.  For example, in 1900, as UCLA doctoral student Maura Dykstra and I note in a chapter we’ve just finished for a forthcoming world history volume on the Fin-de-Siècle, few Chinese thought of themselves as living on the cusp of two centuries. Neither the date “1900” nor the concept of a “century” meant much in a setting where years were still generally described in terms of the reigns of emperors and movement through 60-year cycles that involved combinations of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the five elements. Flash forward to the present, and in China, as in nearly all other places, people think of themselves as living in a year called “2014” that belongs to the second decade of the 21st century.

Holidays tell a similar story, in ways that are interesting to ponder this week, with the biggest American celebratory season just completed and the biggest Chinese one about to begin.  Very few people in the China of 100 or 120 years ago thought of December 25 as a day of any special importance or associated January 1 with the start of the year.  Now, however, while lunar New Year celebrations remain most important, images of Santa Claus proliferate in China’s cities in late December, and Chinese friends who email me on January 1 are sure to wish me a Happy New Year.  Things have reached the point where I’m sure it seemed thoroughly unremarkable when the spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry ended the December 31, 2013 press briefing quoted from above by wishing the journalists who had come a “Happy New Year” and telling them that, after a day off for the next day’s holiday, the first 2014 session would be held on January 2.

All this would seem to fit in with a way of thinking about the cultural aspects of globalization that might be categorized in the Friedman Flattening variety. This approach, which I’ve named in honor of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his most famous book, The World is Flat, assumes that the dominant trend has been the smoothing out of differences.  One way to symbolize this is to invoke the interchangeability of the Big Macs served up wherever the Golden Arches soar, from Beirut to Boston and from Bristol to Bangalore.

In addition, while the flattening of the world is often seen as going along with Americanization, flows from East to West can also be worked into this Friedman Flattening vision. After all, circa 1900, very few Americans, except those of Chinese ancestry, paid attention to the lunar New Year or the zodiacal animals associated with it; whereas now many people across the U.S. are aware that the Year of the Horse is about to arrive.  As the image above shows, the tie between the animal and the year is even recognized by the U.S. postal service.

There have always been alternative views of contemporary globalization, including one that, turning again to alliteration and the name of a famous author, might be called Pico Proliferation.  This approach, named for Pico Iyer (someone I happen to know, so I don’t think he’ll mind the familiarity of playing off of his first rather than last name), emphasizes how highly differentiated experiences remain even as fads, fashions, films, and goods move ever more rapidly around the world.  To go back to McDonald’s, contra the Friedman Flattening view that a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac, a Pico Proliferating one stresses that ordering and eating this burger can mean something totally different in Tokyo as opposed to Toledo, Managua as opposed to Munich.

Ever since reading Video Night in Kathmandu — And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Iyer’s seminal 1988 travelogue-cum-analysis of cultural flows in globalizing times, I’ve known that my allegiance in this debate is firmly with Team Pico.  I’ve periodically found ways to illustrate this in my writings, such as a recent memoir-infused commentary on the strange life in global circulation of the song “Hotel California”.  This hit by The Eagles, as I note in my article for BOOM: A Journal of California, is popular in far-flung parts of the world but often understood in distinctive ways.  In Asia, for example, it tends to be thought of as a celebratory rather than cynical take on my home state — in spite of lines likening those residing in the eponymous building to being “prisoners” (who can “check out any time” they like, but “can never leave”) and a menacing reference to a “beast” being stabbed with knives.

Returning to time and holidays, I said above that the information I began with about China circa 1900 and today would seem to fit in with a Friedman Flattening vision, but on closer inspection there are Pico Proliferation dimensions aplenty.  Take Santa Claus, for example: while he is now very well known in China, as journalist Max Fisher and others have noted, the jolly old elf is almost always portrayed there playing a saxophone, for unknown reasons.

There are also differences, as well as convergences, relating to chronology, since in China, while centuries are now noted and seen as significant markers, this has not replaced but rather been added to the idea that 60-year cycles are important.  In 2011, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution was honored, but two years earlier, in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was celebrated with the biggest National Day Parade to date.  More recently still, last year saw events commemorating what would have been Xi Jinping’s father’s 100th birthday and also lavish marking of the passage of 120years (a rough equivalent to a bicentennial, as it meant the completion of two cycles) since Mao Zedong was born.

The continuing significance of 60-year cycles as well as centuries in Chinese timekeeping relates to how geopolitical tensions of the present moment are being put into long-term perspective.  In the United States and Europe, as the first quote used to open this post notes, the final weeks of 2013 and opening weeks of 2014, have seen a rash of ruminations on whether we now stand at a juncture similar to that which sent us over the precipice into the horrors of World War I.

In China, though, as the second quote that begins this post indicates, which finds the government spokesperson stressing that her country is very different now than it was 120 years ago, just as there are two kinds of New Years marked, there are two kinds of then and now analogies in play.  Some refer to how 1914 and 2014 parallels work or are foolish, while others see links and contrasts between 1894 and 2014 as more meaningful.

Just as 1914 is no ordinary year in Western memory, 1894 is no ordinary one in the annals of Chinese history, as a war that began then and ended in 1895 was the first in which Japan defeated China in a military conflict.  The war in question is typically referred to in Chinese as the Jiawu War, in honor of it having taken place in a Jiawu year (the term for a Year of the Horse that matches up with the element of wood in the five elements scheme).  When the official spokesperson made her comment about China now being different than it was 120 years ago, she did so in response to being asked to reflect on the meaning of tensions between China and Japan escalating just as an important anniversary of a major conflict between the two countries was set to arrive.

Two days later, a Beijing newspaper known for its nationalist views, The Global Times, elaborated on the significance of the anniversary and relevance and limits of then-and-now analogies.  “Considering the current confrontation between both countries, Japan becomes the biggest challenge facing China.  This anniversary [the 120th of the late 19th-century war] has already become a daunting memory in the minds of many Chinese people.”  It went on to stress, though, that while Japan bested China on the battlefield 120 years ago, 60 years after that saw a year when Chinese and American armies fought “to a standoff” in Korea, and the country has moved even further forward in the world since then.  Other references to echoes and contrasts between the Wood Horse years of 1894 and 2014 have also been appearing on websites and in blog posts.

Harold James, I think, needs to modify his reference to historical specters.  More than one relating to a famous war year is proving its power to haunt just now.

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