Preface Why This Book? And Introduction


China has always believed in history. Since antiquity, since the times of Confucius and Mozi, since the Zhou dynasty compiled the Record of Rites, the Li Ji, one of the most important cultural elements, if not the most important, has been history and its recording rather than holy religious scriptures, be they something like the Bible or the Quran. Then comparing states and civilizations is to compare history and to look into other people’s histories to know them. Every dynasty considered its top ideological priority to set the record straight on the past dynasty or period. Writing history was the ultimate instrument of ideological justification and legitimacy of power.

For over a century now, China is going through a painful process of modernization, which in reality is a process of Westernization, similar but deeper and faster moving than the process by which China absorbed, was changed by, and changed Indian Buddhism in the first millennium AD.

Then for the Chinese to fully grasp to what they are moving to, it is fundamental to understand Western history. Only by being clear about Western history will China know where it is heading. It is not just about democracy, human rights, the internet, or missiles; it is about changing history, changing the understanding of history of their own and of other people, and changing historical patterns and projections.

However, this West, which China wishes to turn into, to some extent, and that confronts China, is divided into many states and with many histories. How can China then look at the West? When does the history of America begin? Is it 200 years ago? More? Less? How old is Russia? 400 years? More? How much more?

It seems a puzzle impossible to solve. In fact, America and Russia, but also many countries of the south Mediterranean, begin their histories or have their histories potently intertwined for a long time with the history of the Roman empire, which lasted about 2000 years, and possibly is still here in the new incarnation of the Holy See, heir to many ancient Roman traditions. In fact, if we take recorded history to be about 3,000 years, both for the West and China, over 90% of that history can be found in Italy, from the ancient Greeks, to the Romans, to the Renaissance, and the Jesuits, who traveled to China. The history of Italy can thus be a unique, although partial, mirror through which the Chinese can look at Western history to better understand their actual process of modernization, which is largely Westernization.

There is no updated history of Italy in China, and certainly nothing done specifically for the Chinese reader, and this book tries to provide a first answer to this need. Chinese after all feel that there is something unique binding them to the Italians, and it is not simply Marco Polo or Matteo Ricci—it is the deep feeling of coming from old uninterrupted civilizations.

This history of Italy is incomplete and possibly superficial. Western history, although viewed through the keyhole of Italian history, is just too long and complex. But here the choices are made with a Chinese reader in mind, to provide him with a first comprehensive stop of Italian history. After this he can wander around in all the directions he may wish to pursue.

At least, my hope is that Chinese readers may have a first easy answer to their many curiosities and interests.

In this way, history perhaps can also work in the other way. Western readers, surely more familiar with Italian history, might find in this book a key to China, easier to approach through their own history than through the mysterious Chinese history. What Chinese today are looking for, what are they searching for, what are curious about in Italian history, also tells Westerners what they should look for when viewing China.

Introduction. Italy geographic or political

In the Italian history school books of the 1960s, the ones I used when I was a kid, a standard lesson was the criticism of Austrian Prime Minister Prince Klemens Wenzel Von Metternich’s position on Italy. The books explained that in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, which reorganized the borders and states of Europe after the Napoleonic wars, Metternich dismissed political ambitions for a unitary state of Italy and re-imposed the Austrian control over the peninsula, allegedly saying: “Italy is only a geographic expression.” Hence it could not have political ambitions and had to remain divided into a dozen of statelets without much weight beyond the Alps.

The unitary Italy of the 1960s deemed this statement wrong, as the Napoleonic wars actually brought the first sense of an Italian state to Italy.

Napoleon invented the Cisalpine Republic in Northern Italy in the late 18th century after his first campaign in Italy against the Austrians, and he gave Italy its first flag, different from the French revolutionary flag by only one color: the French was (and is) blue, white, and red; the Italian was (and is) green, white, and red. Even the difference in color was tiny, as green is a color most similar to blue. Napoleonic France felt the Italians were close, and their feeling was warmly reciprocated. After all Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, was sold to France by Genoa in 1764. It was at the beginning done by a secret treaty, when the Duc de Choiseul, then minister of the French Navy, bought it on behalf of the French crown. Genoa did so because it had not managed to suppress the pro-independence rebellion led by Pasquale Paoli and wanted to get rid of those troublemakers for some profit. In 1755 Paoli had proclaimed the Corsican Republic with a constitution, which might have influenced the later American Constitution[1]. Paoli founded the first University of Corsica (with instruction in Italian). Paoli considered the Corsicans to be an Italian people. Napoleon, born in 1769, from a family originally from Tuscany (Bonaparte is a fully Italian surname, meaning “good side”), might have also been inspired by Pasquale Paoli, whose supporters conducted a war of resistance on the island for many years after the annexation to France.

Yet, before the Cisalpine Republic, and most importantly before the annexation of the Kingdom of Naples (ruling all of southern Italy) to the Kingdom of Savoy (ruling part of northern Italy and part of central Italy) in 1861, there had never been a unitary Italian state. Even at the time of the republic, Italy was not united. The area of Venice went to Italy in 1866, thanks to an alliance with rising power of the Prussians against the declining Austrians. Rome and the surrounding area was taken by Italy in 1870 in a war against the Pontiff State, while the areas around the cities of Trento and Trieste were wrested from the Austrian rule only at the end of World War I in 1918!

So Metternich was right in 1815 in not believing in a political entity called Italy, and the 1960s Italian history books were wrong. The history of this “geographic expression” also supported the cold-blooded, realistic statement of the Austrian prince, a role model for droves of diplomats up to Henry Kissinger. Italy had been the center of the Roman Empire but before, after, and even during it, many different people lived there, with different languages and customs. Semitic Arabs had ruled Sicily, and Turks from Central Asia had conquered coastal southern Italy; before them there were Greeks who thought the Italian peninsula was a bigger Greece (Magna Graecia); Phoenicians were living between Sicily and modern Tunisia; Gaul spanned both sides of the Alps, the Po valley and modern France; and the Etruscans, an obscure people perhaps originally from Anatolia, left an unforgettable mark. Vikings from Norway and princes or pirates from France or Spain or Germany had also come in claiming this or that piece of the peninsula.

None had ruled Italy in its entirety, only the Romans, but for them it was only the hub of a much bigger network, their empire. A kaleidoscope of many very different languages had been spoken, so one could coldly assume that Italy had no reason to be treated as a unit. Even after unification Italy remained very divided with mutually unintelligible dialects and languages spoken in the long peninsula—so much so that anybody, not just Metternich, could have found plenty of reasons to claim that the political unity of the peninsula had been a huge mistake.

However, there is also something that brings Italy together. It is something hard to pin down in a specific way, but it is definitely there. It is a common culture: the interaction of people meeting and fighting for millennia in a small space that yet spread its influence over the whole world, a space that has actually been for centuries the center of Western civilization. In fact, of the about three millennia of Western civilization, over 90% of it can be found in Italy—so much so that the history of the Western world cannot ignore Italy and the history of Italy is in some ways a concise version of the history of the West.

Even now, when the political and economic importance of Italy has been receding for decades, Italy is home to two of the world’s most powerful organizations. There is the Catholic Church, centered in Rome, by far the largest unitary religion of the world, and the mafia, possibly still the most formidable crime syndicate on Earth. With these two taking up the best minds in the country, one could argue with a smile, what is left to Italian politics? Moreover, despite overall economic difficulties, Italy has some unique niches: its food industry with pasta, pizza et cetera is popular all over the world, its football is followed by billions worldwide, its fashion is second to none, and there are hundreds of standouts in almost any industrial field.

It seems a miracle that this occurs despite its poor political management. Or is it like this because of its political management, as some its Christian Democratic politicians argued in the 1980s? Mussolini, leader of Italy from 1922 to 1943, famously said: “to try to rule Italians is not impossible; it is useless.” Or is this some form of divine justice, if Italians found a good political system for themselves, no other country would have any chance to survive, as it was with the Roman empire. Yet Italians for centuries found ways to rule themselves differently. Most importantly, for centuries Italian influence went well beyond the borders of their “geographic expression” and contributed to molding Europe, the Mediterranean, and the world.

This book is a small glimpse of how this happened, how Italy became what it is now, and why its legacy is so important for everybody.

A note: An issue of perspectives

For over a century, one of the great riddles that puzzled those who study China has been why China did not develop and was taken over by the West.[2]

The intellectual torture was further complicated by the recent history of Japan, which although once part of “China’s world” (Tianxia), at the end of the 19th century managed to modernize (i.e. Westernize) while China lagged behind. To add ridicule to insult, more recently, in the 1970s, the Asian tigers—South Korea (even closer to mainland China than Japan), Taiwan (an outright splinter of China), Singapore (mostly settled by Chinese), et cetera—sped forward while China was in the thrall of the Cultural Revolution. It was not just a cultural issue, but a basic political one because the Chinese thought that if they could solve this riddle, then they could find again their own rightful place in the world.

Until recently, this was a mild academic curiosity for the “Western conquerors,” who after all were winning, and thus didn’t need to belabor why it happened. Things have changed, however in the past decade or so, as China has been approaching the finish line of overtaking the United States as the largest economy in the world. This has reawakened non-Chinese interest in what went wrong with China before and “China’s rightful place in the world,” because obviously this involves everybody who is “the world” and not just “China.”

Thousands of books have been written on the subject of this divergence, and yet there is no consensus even on when the divergence took place or what went wrong with China to miss capitalism, modernization, and the push to reform according to the ways of the world. Many searched for the seeds of modern capitalism and found them during the Song dynasty, only to be smothered by the Mongol conquest and the Ming restoration. Needham dedicated all his life to proving that signs of science were present all along in the history of China, but the scientific revolution never happened and the whole history of China is full of missed opportunities.

There is no consensus but for a fact. In the early 19th century, in a couple of brief decades before the first Opium war in 1840, to Western eyes, China went from being a paragon of civilization to another barbarian state needing to be civilized. It went from being a frightening sleeping lion not to wake, according to Napoleon, to being a dirty, obnoxious paper tiger, according to English ambassador Macartney. More practically, although in 1840s China accounted for one-third to half of the global GDP, sat on 70% of all the silver in the world (what now would be foreign reserves), and had the largest population on the planet; it was easily defeated by a small flotilla of the English Navy. However, perhaps more importantly, while Britain had been wary of facing China, the Macartney mission convinced London that China was nothing to be afraid of and that it could be taken on and beaten.

This notion today appears normal, but at the time it was exceptional. Since the Jesuits had been sending reports to Europe about China in the late 16th century, China was the model state. It is hard today to exemplify the massive impact of Chinese thought on Europe in the two centuries of Jesuit work in China.

Europe adopted the bureaucracy from China, which was instrumental for modernization and the ensuing industrial revolution; modern mathematics was also inspired by China, and Leibnitz recognized the debt; from China came ethics without the necessity of God, as Kant proved. Hume was inspired by the knowledge spread out through all of society, which he passed on to his friend Adam Smith to form the cognitive basis for the concept of the modern market and competition. Vico got the inspiration for the history of philosophy, which has been shaping all Western thinking since then and passed on to Hegel and Marx. The idea of enlightenment itself, and possibly that of political revolution, came from China, et cetera, et cetera.

It sum, it is hard to underestimate the impact of Chinese thought, brought by the Jesuits in the 17th century. It is only fair to say that the Western powers that approached and challenged China in the middle of the 19th century were probably more Sinicized than China is Westernized now. Then, before attacking China with warships, Europeans had to erase and forget the idea of China they had in the past, and possibly blaming it all on a big deceit concocted by the wily Jesuits, who in the meantime, shortly before the build-up to the French Revolution, had been disbanded under pressure from France for becoming too powerful and influential. Then this was a total cultural revolution, as if now the world glued to the Internet turned mobile communication into a devil, or just forgot about it. It could happen, but it would be a very tough process.

If we look at things in this way, perhaps the overlooked issue is not the divergence, when China stopped progressing toward a scientific and industrial revolution, but how the West chose to forget its Sinicization—and also why China chose to discard many of the new notions brought by the Jesuits. That is, the Jesuits influenced Europe more than they influenced China, and Chinese people, with some notable exceptions such as the great mandarin Xu Guanqi, were not too keen on learning what Europe could give them. At the same time, Europe was conversely feverishly curious and almost besotted by chinoiserie. Both in the mid-19th century forgot the lessons of the Jesuits.

Almost two centuries later, it would be time to deeply rethink the situation. But it would also be time to think about a new way to study each other.

In his Disputers of the Tao, Angus C. Graham gives a full account of early Chinese thought and he concludes by arguing that this is the basis also of modern Chinese thinking. After all, it is the same in the West, where people for over 2,000 years have been glossing over Plato and Aristotle, in favor of or against either or both of them.

Then, as many great Chinese intellectuals had sensed in the 1920s and 1930s, the Europe-China divergence ran deeper, and the modernization of the “Chinese periphery”—Japan in the late 19th century, Korea, Taiwan, et cetera, since the 1970s—could not hide the larger stumbling blocks to coming together. Singapore’s 1990s appeal to ill-defined “Asian values” underscores the point. Even Singapore, the most Westernized of the Asian countries, feels there is something that does not flow with Europe and its American appendix. There is something deeply different that for lack of a better word, better research, and better knowledge was simply labeled “Asian values.”

There is the concept of freedom for instance. In China, it is an anarchist concept of independence “coming from itself” (zi you), closely related to “following its nature” (shun qi zi ran). It is strongly advocated by the philosopher Zhuangzi, and from there it streams through the whole of Chinese history, as opposed to the rigid regimentation of the state, in which the raison d’etre is the raison d’etat. This means either the total bounds of the state or “no bounds” of freedom, and in normal life, one can be totally regimented at work and totally free at home.

In the West, freedom is different. In Greek democracy or the Roman republic, freedom is the other side of duties/responsibilities. One’s freedom ends where other people’s freedom begins, and respect for the other’s freedom is the price people demand in return for respect for one’s freedom.

There is a constant and unstable balance between oneself and the other. The reward for this instability is that no one is clearly subject to a hierarchical order, and people have to learn to live in a fairly egalitarian society. In China there is basically no equality, there is always a hierarchy, and changes in this hierarchical order are highly significant. But in return, private life is totally free, and not subject to the same rules of social life. Conversely, in the West the price for the unstable public equality is that there is not total private freedom.

This is only one of many different approaches to life.

Feng Youlan, in his History of Chinese Philosophy, sensed it had to do with history and geography. China evolved through states competing with one another for survival and dominance around the Yellow River basin. There, philosophers were managers or market strategists providing the best advice to improve the efficiency of the state. Western thought stemmed from traders/pirates faring the Mediterranean Sea and competing with one another to get the best price or the best goods.

After over three decades spent plodding through the hard Chinese field, I feel I have little understanding of what went on in China. However the effort to try to understand China pushed me to better study my part of the world, as the world now is largely Westernized and China needs to better understand it. I offer here a sample of pieces on the history of the West that may be relevant to Chinese readers. But also Western readers by looking at this may have a glimpse of what is or may be important to Chinese people regarding Western history.

[1] Saul, John Ralston. Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Vintage Books, 1993. 55-61.

[2] For this part I am deeply indebted to conversations with Father Antonio Spadaro and professor Guy Alitto.