Having recently covered the construction of Modern China, the following discussion goes partly back to remarks in an interview from 7 Jan 2004 where some of the differences between eastern and western culture this was said derive partly from perceptual differences, what is attended to, and in turn, are driven by differences in social structure and practices and that are more likely to make attributions based on context, are happier with contradictions, seeking the "middle way" rather than rejecting one of two contradictory positions and eastern students among others also tend to make classification judgments based on family resemblances rather than rules. Westerners are more analytical. People from kinship-intensive cultures, by comparison, tend to think more holistically. They focus on relationships rather than categories.
This also involves the role of older adults, including arranged marriages. Whereby today, we will also look at drivers of psychological change.
In a soon to be published book written by Tonio Andrade "The Last Embassy" tells the story of the Dutch mission of 1795, bringing to light a dramatic but little-known episode that transforms our understanding of the history of China and the West.
China was on the brink of rebellion. In Europe, French armies were invading Holland. Enduring a harrowing voyage, the Dutch mission was to be the last European diplomatic delegation ever received in the traditional Chinese court. Andrade shows how, in contrast to the British emissaries, partly based on their earlier experience in Japan, the Dutch were men with deep knowledge of Asia who respected regional diplomatic norms and was committed to understanding China on its own terms.
A key person in Tonio Andrade's new book is Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest. For fourteen years he worked for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Canton (Guangzhou) and Macao but in 1783 he settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and became a citizen of the newly independent country. With his knowledge of rice cultivation, he established a plantation but it was not a success. By 1790 he was back in Asia working for the company again.
In 1794 the Dutch learned about the failure of a high-profile British ‘embassy’ to the Qing court the previous year and began to plot a way to turn the situation to their own commercial advantage. The British aristocrat George Macartney had been deputed by the government in London to request ‘fair and equitable’ trading rights from the Qianlong Emperor and invite him to establish diplomatic relations on an equal basis. It was a costly venture. To impress the emperor, Earl Macartney took with him three ships full of modern wonders, among them a mechanical planetarium, a new imperial carriage, and a hot air balloon. Much has been written about Macartney’s failure. The emperor was not impressed with the earl’s refusal to kowtow before him and Macartney was sent away with a message for King George III. It said that the Celestial Empire ‘possesses all things in prolific abundance’ and ‘has no need to import the manufactures of foreigners’. The request for trading rights was not granted and the idea of equal diplomatic relations not even understood.
Macartney’s disastrous 1793 mission to China plays a central role in the prevailing narrative of modern Sino-European relations. Summarily dismissed by the Qing court, Macartney failed in nearly all of his objectives, perhaps setting the stage for the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century and the mistrust that still marks the relationship today.
Van Braam however saw an opportunity and set about planning his own mission. He knew that 1795 was the sixtieth anniversary of Emperor Qianlong’s accession to the Qing throne and he worked his Canton contacts to engineer an invitation to the ceremonies. It took his delegation forty-seven wintry days to make the 2,000-kilometre journey by cart and sedan chair to Beijing. They arrived just in time for the lunar new year celebrations.8 Unlike the British, they hadn’t packed their gifts properly and, in van Braam’s account, ‘Not a single article escaped undamaged’. But also unlike the British, they had arrived prepared to comply with every request for imperial kowtowing. In fact, they went even further: they pulled off an international fraud.
Braam presented the Qianlong Emperor with a superbly obsequious message from the Dutch king, ‘[we foreigners] have all been transformed by China’s civilizing influence’, it oozed. ‘Throughout history, there has never been a monarch with such a peerless reputation as you possess, my exalted emperor.’ In reply, Qianlong offered gifts with the hope that they ‘strengthen your bonds of loyalty and integrity, preserving good government in your kingdom and making you forever worthy of my esteem’. The only problem with this diplomatic exchange was that the Dutch king didn’t actually exist: 1795 was the time of the Dutch Republic. However, van Braam thought modern governance was unlikely to impress the emperor, so he invented a monarch who could send the necessary tribute. The details of these early encounters between European governments and the Qing court have been much argued over but one thing is clear: the Qing rulers did not present themselves as equal members of an international community of separate, sovereign states. Their court rituals positioned them at the pinnacle of a hierarchy. Their choice of maps made this clear. The Qing had put away the maps the Jesuit priests had drawn for the Ming rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and commissioned new ones. These depicted neighboring states and even faraway Europe and Africa as appendages sitting on the western margins of their realm. In 1795 the Qianlong Emperor could really believe that the Netherlands considered itself a tributary of his great-state. Having fooled the emperor and his court, van Braam and his colleagues may have laughed to themselves as they made their uncomfortable journey home. From the emperor’s point of view, however, that did not matter: courtly protocol had been followed. The foreigners had submitted themselves to the emperor’s presence, thus confirming that Qianlong was indeed the ruler of ‘all under heaven’ or, in Chinese,Tianxia 天下. His status as the emperor of the central state, the zhong guo 中国 - Zhōngguó, had been reinforced by the kowtow of the visitors from abroad. The primary audience of the rituals of tribute was not foreign but domestic. They confirmed the legitimacy of the monarch who could send the necessary tribute.
As van Braam understood, in a top-down fashion, the Qing rulers did not present themselves as equal members of an international community of separate, sovereign states. Their court rituals positioned them at the pinnacle of a hierarchy. Their choice of maps, not that different from what happened during the following Nationalist period made this clear. The Qing had put away the maps the Jesuit priests had drawn for the Ming rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and commissioned new ones. These depicted neighboring states and even faraway Europe and Africa as appendages sitting on the western margins of their realm. In 1795 the Qianlong Emperor could really believe that the Netherlands considered itself a tributary of his great-state.
Having fooled the emperor and his court, van Braam and his colleagues may have laughed to themselves as they made their uncomfortable journey home. From the emperor’s point of view, however, that did not matter: courtly protocol had been followed. The foreigners had submitted themselves to the emperor’s presence, thus confirming that Qianlong was indeed the ruler of ‘all under heaven’ (tianxia). His status as the emperor of the central state, the 'zhong guo', had been reinforced by the kowtow of the visitors from abroad. The primary audience of the rituals of tribute was not foreign but domestic. They confirmed the legitimacy of the emperor, his empire, his officials, and their Confucian ideology. The ruler of China claimed the Mandate of Heaven to rule all mankind. If the rest of mankind did not acknowledge his rule, how long could he expect China to do so? Tianxia had no formal boundaries: it was potentially universal. The only difference under tianxia was between cultured hua 华 - huá , those who accepted the emperor’s wise rule, and those who didn’t – the barbarians. In the Sinitic world, the barbarians could elevate themselves to become 'hua' if they accepted the rules of defined ‘Confucian’ culture and order.
The developmental forces in East and West
As we earlier pointed out, by 1000 CE, at the beginning of Europe’s transformation, the world was already highly economically unequal and likely quite psychologically diverse. Propelled by the early development of food production, the most prosperous and urbanized societies were all in Eurasia, in the Middle East, India, and China.
Next, the Industrial Revolution in the West transformed economies based on agriculture and handicrafts into economies based on large-scale industry, mechanized manufacturing, and the factory system. New machines, new power sources, and new ways of organizing work made existing industries more productive and efficient
In a parallel development that includes colonialism, and we detailed in part one, part two, part three, the elites of early modern Europe thus held most of the wealth. Wealth, as we have seen, buys armies, and armies bought degrees of security.
Of course, we could argue that Europeans failed to demonstrate impersonal prosociality when they ventured beyond Europe. If anything, the empire’s violence and devastation suggest that the kinship thinking supposedly purged by Christianity re-emerged in Europeans’ new theories of race. White people were happy to dismiss the talent and futures of hundreds of millions of non-European people to pursue financial gain and do so across centuries.
During this takeoff, the leading economies were in some of the places where agriculture and states arrived relatively late within the Eurasian context: England, Scotland, and the Netherlands.
In the last two centuries, these regions, along with British-descent societies like the United States, saw economic growth the likes of which had never been seen before in human history and resulted in what we could call western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic norms.
Thus, we call here the West heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief systems, political systems, artifacts, and technologies that originated in or are associated with Europe. The term also applies beyond Europe to countries and cultures whose histories are strongly connected to Europe by immigration, colonization, or influence. For example, Western culture includes countries in the Americas, such as Canada or the United States, and Oceania, such as Australia or New Zealand, whose language and demographic ethnicity majorities are of European descent without indigenous influence.
Recognizing the cultural and psychological impact created by a long history of societal complexity helps us understand why some societies, like Japan, South Korea, and China, have adapted relatively rapidly to the economic configurations and global opportunities created by Western societies. Two factors are likely important. First, these societies had all experienced long histories of agriculture and state-level governments that had fostered the evolution of cultural values, customs, and norms encouraging formal education, industriousness, and a willingness to defer gratification. In a sense, these are preexisting cultural adaptations that happened to dovetail nicely with the new institutions acquired from Western societies. Second, their more powerful top-down orientations permitted these societies to rapidly adopt and implement key kin-based institutions copied from Western societies. Japan, for example, began copying Western civil institutions in the 1880s during the Meiji Restoration.
Or in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist government initiated a program to abolish clans, polygyny, arranged marriages, unions between close relatives, and purely patrilineal inheritance (i.e., daughters had to receive an equal inheritance).
In South Korea, the government passed a Western-style civil code in 1957 that required the consent of both grooms and brides to marry, prohibited polygynous marriage, and forbade marriage to relatives out to third cousins, through both blood and marriage. Since then, many amendments have shifted South Korean society even further away from patriarchal intensive kinship.
Of course, the effects of the church’s “marriage and family program” were wildly uneven across time and space. For example, the Protestant church was far less hostile to cousin marriage than its Catholic rival. (The Reformation received a crucial boost from Henry VIII’s determination to marry his former wife’s cousin.) Not to forget that cousin marriage increased across many European societies in the 17th and 18th centuries before it was stigmatized again in the 19th century. Both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein married their first cousins, and so on.
Yet in all three of these Asian societies, the European Marriage Pattern that had come to dominate medieval Europe under the Catholic Church was implemented rapidly from the top down.1
The big difference here, compared to preindustrial Europe, is that these 19th- and 20th-century Asian societies could also copy and adapt working versions of representative governments, Western legal codes, universities, scientific research programs, and modern business organizations in ways that permitted them to plug directly into the global economy. Modern formal institutions are now to a degree available “off the shelf,” though their performance depends on the populace's cultural psychology.2
This approach may also illuminate why populations with particularly long histories of agriculture, like those in Egypt, Iran, and Iraq, haven’t fully integrated with the modern formal political and economic institutions that first arose in Europe. These societies have maintained quite intensive forms of kinship, probably for religious reasons. Due largely to its divinely sanctioned inheritance customs (daughters must inherit half of what sons inherit), Islam likely drove the diffusion of or at least helped sustain, an otherwise rare endogamous marriage custom in which daughters marry their father’s brother’s sons. Specifically, as agricultural and pastoral societies adopted Islam, the need to sustain family landholdings against the possible loss of land each time a daughter married out (and into another clan) favors marrying within clans to avoid the continual depletion of wealth, land is the primary form of wealth in many such societies. This custom encourages particularly intensive forms of kinship, which favor certain ways of thinking and feeling along with particular formal institutions (e.g., not democracy).3
Drivers of psychological change
While the rising wealth, income, and material security are part of the story, they were neither the initial sparks nor the most important psychological change drivers over the last 15 centuries.
Rather, people’s psychology shifted through adaptive cultural and developmental processes but not substantially through natural selection acting on genes. This is due to what we know about how cultural learning, institutions, rituals, and technologies shape our psychology, brains (e.g., literacy), and hormones (e.g., monogamous marriage) without tinkering with our genes.
However, it is possible that the cultural and economic developments we’ve described also created selection pressures on genes favoring some of the same psychological differences. It’s important to confront this possibility head-on for a couple of reasons. First, as noted above, cultural evolution products have shaped our species’ genetic evolution well back into the Stone Age. And in more recent millennia, the agricultural revolution and animal domestication have further altered the human genome in myriad ways, including favoring genes that permit people to process both milk and alcohol more efficiently. So, the notion that culture can influence our genome is now well established. Second, both our evolved tribal psychology and Western inclinations toward dispositional explanations of behavior predispose us to see innate or essential differences where none exist. This explanatory bias has led some researchers to assume that any observed or inferred psychological differences among populations are due to genetic differences. The durability of this bias makes it all the more important to be crystal clear about the evidence.4
Overall, one can argue that cultural processes have dominated the formation of the psychological diversity that is apparent around the globe and within Europe, China, and India. Although natural selection acting on genes may have sluggishly responded to the world created by religious beliefs, institutions, and economic changes.
At the broadest level, cultural evolutionary processes are fast and powerful relative to natural selection acting on genes. This means that cultural adaptation will tend to dominate genetic adaptation over periods of centuries (as is the case here). However, in the longer run, over many millennia, genetic evolution can have larger effects and, in many cases, push things further than culture alone could. Moreover, by adaptively “fitting” people, psychologically, to their institutional environments, cultural evolution will often (but not always) deplete the strength of natural selection acting to address the same adaptive challenges. A classic example of this is genetic variants' evolution over thousands of years that permit adults to break down the lactose in milk. The selection for these genetic variants began with animal herding's cultural diffusion (cows, goats, etc.). Both genetic and cultural evolution responded. And as initially argued by W. H. Durham, people developed cheese- and yogurt-making techniques that allowed adults to access the nutritional bounty in milk without possessing any special genes in some populations. Only in other populations, where those practices never evolved culturally, did genetic variants spread that permitted adults to process lactose.5
But the much-heralded recent ideals of Western civilization, like human rights, liberty, representative democracy, and science, aren’t monuments to pure reason or logic, as so many assume. People didn’t suddenly become rational during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and then invent the modern world. Instead, these institutions represent cumulative cultural products, born from particular cultural psychology, that trace their origins back over centuries, through a cascade of causal chains involving wars, markets, and religion.
After 1500, European societies began expanding worldwide, often as we have seen with devastating consequences, especially for those outsides of Eurasia or from less complex societies. In the modern world, what we call “globalization” is a continuation of the processes that started with Late Antiquity. Impersonal institutions like representative governments, universities, and social safety nets, which all evolved in Europe (before the Enlightenment), have been exported and transplanted into numerous populations. Often, especially in formerly non-state societies, the newly transplanted institutions created a misfit with people’s cultural psychology, leading to poorly functioning governments, economies, and civil societies. And then, all too often, this led to rising poverty, corruption, and malnutrition, as well as to civil wars between clans, tribes, and ethnic groups. Many policy analysts can’t recognize these misfits because they implicitly assume psychological unity, or they figure that people’s psychology will rapidly shift to accommodate the new formal institutions. But, unless people’s kin-based institutions and religions are rewired from the grassroots, populations get stuck between “lower-level” institutions like clans or segmentary lineages, pushing them in one set of psychological directions, and “higher-level” institutions like democratic governments or impersonal organizations, pulling them in others: Am I loyal to my kinfolk over everything, or do I follow impersonal rules about impartial justice? Do I hire my brother-in-law or the best person for the job?
This approach helps us understand why “development” has been slower and more agonizing in some parts of the world than in others. The more dependent a population was, or remains, on kin-based and related institutions, the more painful and difficult is the process of integrating with the impersonal institutions of politics, economics, and society that developed in Europe over the second millennium. Rising participation in these impersonal institutions often means that the web of social relationships, which had once ensconced, bound, and protected people, gradually dissolved under the acid of urbanization, global markets, secular safety nets, and individualistic notions of success and security. Besides economic dislocation, people face the loss of meaning they derive from being a nexus in a broad network of relational connections that stretches both back in time to their ancestors and ahead to their descendants. The nature of “the self” transforms through this social and economic reorganization.
Tellingly, the primary way that culture enters psychology is as an explanation for why people in places like Japan and Korea are psychologically different from Americans. If you want to learn about Japanese or Korean psychology, you need to go to cultural psychology textbooks. Psychologists treat Americans, and Western people more generally, as a culture-free population; it’s “culture” that makes everyone else appear deviant.
Cultural evolution, however, need not create a correspondence between reality and people’s beliefs. In Africa, for example, there’s little doubt that people’s actions are strongly influenced by widespread beliefs in and concerns about witchcraft. Despite a laser-like focus on understanding why African economic growth has been sluggish, there’s almost no research in economics on witchcraft in Africa or anywhere else, most economists won’t even entertain this possibility. Of course, inclinations to believe in supernatural beings are common: about half of Americans believe in ghosts, while a similar fraction of Icelanders accepts elves' existence. The key is to figure out how and why certain beliefs evolve and persist in different ways in different places. Far from being inconsequential, certain kinds of supernatural beliefs and rituals have fueled the success of large-scale, politically complex societies.6
One challenge created by all of this psychological diversity is that we generally see and understand the world through our own cultural models and local intuitions. When policymakers, politicians, and military strategists infer how people in other societies will understand their actions, judge their behavior, and respond, they tend to assume perceptions, motivations, and judgments similar to their own. However, even when implemented perfectly, policies can have one effect in London or Zurich and very different effects in Baghdad or Mogadishu because the people in each of these places are psychologically distinct.
Instead of ignoring psychological variation, policy analysts need to consider both how to tailor their efforts to particular populations and how new policies might alter people’s psychology.
What impact will laws have that reduce competition among firms such that a few giant companies dominate the marketplace? Should competing voluntary associations or market integration in rural regions be encouraged or discouraged? Such decisions not only have economic effects; they also have psychological and social implications over the long haul, they change people’s brains. Even if the immediate economic effects are small or positive, it’s worth contemplating the psychological changes that may ensue and create knock-on political and social effects.
There’s little doubt that our psychology will continue to evolve in the future, both culturally and, over millennia, genetically. In many societies, new technologies are augmenting our memories, shaping our cognitive abilities, and rearranging our personal relationships and marriage patterns. At the same time, greater gender equality and rising education levels are reorganizing and shrinking our families. Robots and artificial intelligence are increasingly doing our manual work, and many of our most laborious cognitive tasks. Online commerce and tighter security in financial transactions may be reducing our need for impeccable reputations and dissolving our internalized motivations to trust and cooperate with strangers. Facing this new world, there seems little doubt that our minds will continue to adapt and change. We’ll think, feel, perceive, and moralize differently in the future, and we’ll struggle to comprehend the mentality of those who lived back at the dawn of the third millennium.