“ample time in which to change a world”

Fifty years is ample time in which to change a world and its people almost beyond recognition.  All that are required for the task are a sound knowledge of social engineering, a clear sight of the intended goal — and power.
— Chptr 6, “Childhood’s End  by Arthur C. Clarke  (1917-2008) (wiki)

arthur_C_ClarkeClarke’s book is one of my favorite science-fiction stories — a short book with great writing and an amazing plot.  I am rereading it after some thirty years.  The book was written in 1953–the year before I was born–and like many of Clarke’s books, speaks of technologies in our grasp today but barely imaginable back then.  Clarke was a unique genius.

As I read this quote this morning, I thought of my times in China and the contrasts between the Mainland and Taiwan. 

China’s civil war ended in 1949 with the Nationalist capitalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to Taiwan with 2 million refugees.  Redolent of the process of evolution through geographic isolation, here too, this seeded the beginning of the evolution of two different Chinese cultures.

Taking several month holidays from my home in Japan, I first visited Taiwan around 1984 and then visiten the Mainland in about 1984.  The contrast was huge.  Though both these nations had politically oppressive regimes — where dissent was not tolerated — Taiwan had a prosperous, industrious and polite culture unlike the homeland in the Mainland China.

Through that experience I discovered that it took only two familial generations to completely change a culture.  Culture is a tenuous fluxing thing.  Culture is not homogenous and it is unstable.  And the communists had destroyed much of the beauty of the Chinese culture from only a few decades ago, with the remnants however clearly visible in Taiwan.  [see my post: “Does Culture exist“]

I was then again spent went to both Mainland China and Taiwan in 1996 for a little more than a year — 15 years after my first visits.  The transformations had continued in all their complexity.  Though the mainland had gained much more personal freedom, the scars of the communist social engineering and power remained.

I’m not sure of Clarke’s political positions or if he was foreseeing historical futures in this novel as he was scientific futures, but the quote left me reflecting and wondering.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

2 responses to ““ample time in which to change a world”

  1. I like Clarke too for several reasons one being that he has thought through the whole plot and, in some vague sense, stays away from the `fantasy’ genre.

    Regarding culture, I am not sure it is so easy to change it. Perhaps (again!) it’s a matter of definition. I had this discussion last week in France with a friend who is an author of a book on Pythagorean mathematics and we talked about culture and its continuity. Perhaps we can change some cultural traits and behaviors, but there are some things that seem to resist to change. I read your linked post on culture and saw that you were referring to cultural stereotypes. The medical instructors were trying to `teach’ you that Hispanics were of a certain type. Of course, this is wrong, but, I guess, the teacher was just trying to finish his job as quickly as possible. (And that’s why he got angry when you asked a question. You were wasting his time.)

    Is there such a thing as culture, you ask. But what do we mean by culture? From a biological point of view, certainly we (and many primates, chimpanzees, gorillas, etc.) have culture. At the museum of natural history last week I learned a bit about culture of primates thanks to the special exhibition on great apes. For example, different groups of animals show different behaviors, pass them on to their offspring and continue doing so. Going to humans, of course things are much more complex.

    Perhaps it is correct to argue that, by force, you can change people, but there probably are some aspects of culture that are irresistible to change. What are they, if any, how it happens that they do not change, even under the crushing power of a communist regime, I don’t know because I never thought about it and neither have the skills or time to do it, but it’s a fascinating question.

    (P.S. If someone had shown me, when I was in high school, what kind of interesting questions one can ask and answer, perhaps by experimental and scientific methods, about society, maybe I would have gone to humanities. But the only subjects that were in some way challenging were mathematics and physics; the rest were trivial, boring, or irrelevant, probably because they were taught by people who had never engaged in any thinking process themselves. Alas, nowadays, the non-thinking approach to teaching has infiltrated mathematics and physics too.)

  2. Holy crap, does that ring a bell. I was supervising an animation project in Shenzhen in August 1994. One of the Chinese themselves warned us not to expect too much (any) autonomous action by the Chinese in the studio. They would only do exactly what they were told, and not take an initiative of their own.

    My English comrade and I refused to believe this, and rattled off all the names of the Chinese who didn’t fit this description, the ones who were able to take initiative of their own, who weren’t afraid.

    Each one was from Hong Kong, or Taiwan, Macau, etc., anywhere but the mainland.

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