The travails of extra conservatism could not have been better illustrated than by Jared Diamond in his important book “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies”. Diamond provides some very interesting insights in his probe for an answer to the intriguing question of why some societies have progressed far ahead of others, although the race to modern civilisation was flagged off about 13,000 years ago for everybody, as the last Ice Age receded. Diamond who discounts the race theory from an evidentiary standpoint, says besides geography, which is a primary factor, at higher stages of evolution, it is also the willingness of different societies to accept and adapt to changing times which made the difference between winning and losing in many cases.
Two examples from not too distant past, therefore within the realm of recorded history, are striking. One is the case of the abandonment of world dominating sea faring vessels by China’s Ming Dynasty 500 years ago. Diamond recalls from records that in the 1400s the Chinese Empire had developed over 3500 ocean worthy ships and its traders were routinely touching the shores of the African continent besides ports nearer to them. If these trade explorations had been allowed to continue unhindered, or better still received regime patronage as in many European powers, he speculates that the Chinese may have beaten Europeans even in reaching the Americas.
If this had been the case, the history we know today, could have been a very different one. But Ming rulers however became insecure that the rise in stature and power of the newly emerged wealthy mercantile elites may surpass their own, and consequently their hold on the people’s imagination as leaders, therefore decided to ban these seaward ventures, and destroyed all of more than 3500 existing ocean worthy ships in possession of Chinese traders. The Ming rulers also banned any further development of such ships. This devastation of China’s shipyards was complete by 1525, Diamond notes.
The other case Diamond uses to demonstrate how conservativism has worked against the ascendence of a society in the race for supremacy is that of Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867) imposing a sever restriction of gun manufacture and ownership in Japan in 1629. Japan had learnt gunpower making technology from China since the 1300s but there was little effort to weaponize the technology. But in 1543, some Japanese learnt the potency of guns from encounters with Portuguese, and had begun developing gun making technology themselves from what Diamond calls blueprint replication.
However, the conservative ruling class, steeped in the Samurai culture, where even combats to settled disagreement between individuals or even the act of committing suicide (hara-kiri) had been ritualised to make them elaborately ceremonial, saw the rise of a gun culture as a corrupting influence on Japanese tradition, marginalising and rendering the Samurai tradition redundant. This led to laws that put severe restrictions on gun ownership and development. Had this not been so, Diamond speculates, Commodore Perry would not have had it so easy to overwhelm Tokyo in 1853 with just four cannon armed ships and firearm equipped soldiers, forcing the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 to compel Japan to open up to American trade on American terms, leading history’s trajectory towards what we know today. But the fact is, while history as we know it today is a reality beyond revision, what must be noted is, this reality was never something inevitable while the events that made it were still in the process of unfolding.
The two examples of China and Japan described above are not the only cases Diamond recounts to illustrate the point that societies receptive to time’s pressures of change have always been favoured by history to gain ascendency. There were several others, at every different stage. Geography always remained a major factor in very many ways. For instance, if plant domestication which ultimately led to the game changing Agricultural Revolution of ancient time, why did Eurasia which is largely spread latitudinally (from North Africa right through to Far East Asia) have a greater advantage over other continents where the land spread is longitudinal, such as the Americas, in this revolution spreading. The fact is, because of the sight incline in the earth’s axis, seasonal variations and rotations are shared along latitudes. Hence, if the Agricultural Revolution in the Fertile Crescent generally constituting the flood plains of two great rivers Tigris & Euphrates and Nile, coinciding roughly with southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and parts of Turkey and Iran, it was not difficult for the technology to spread horizontally along regions falling generally within the same latitudes as the Fertile Crescent, therefore also sharing seasonal rotational pattern. Unlike here, if the Incas of Aztecs in Meso-America had domesticated corn, it took much longer for the technology to spread or be replicated at all, towards the north or south of the longitudinally spread American landmass.
These are extremely valuable lessons, not the least for Manipur today which on the one hand is seeing a phenomenal rise in extreme revivalist cultural trends, especially amongst the valley dweller Meiteis. The community’s new inward-looking trend, and consequently a resistance to all influences from outside is beginning to match the traditional resistance among communities in the state’s hill districts to changes to keep abreast with the modern times in crucial areas like land reforms, among many others. In the long run, neither is likely to put any of the communities in a better stead in facing the stiff challenges and competitions of the globalised era. The effort must be to strike a right balance between the need to accept and absorb changes on one hand, and keeping identity and cultural stability on the other.
Change as they say is the only constant, and those who refuse to acknowledge this inevitability will surely miss the bus and be ultimately left far behind. When this happens, those left behind because of their own intransigence must not suffer from heartburns or shift blames on others who advanced because they were willing and capable of striking this balance between stability and progress. It is with these thoughts and understandings of the progress of human societies that the current fad of purist fanaticism must be assessed. Be it language, culture, identity or even genetic, assimilative outlooks have always enriched and strengthened all these constituents that make a society healthy and resilient.
Take just the case of the Meiteis again, although this would apply to all else. Once upon a time this community was such an assimilative one. This is precisely why they have so much diversity, cultural as well as genetic, within the same community. If a genome study were to be done on them, certainly the discovery they would be they carry genetic and linguistic components from practically every direction. Their surnames say this quite loudly, but even in more recent history, the coming into being of the Pangal and Bamon identity are loud examples of this.
This strength in assimilation is the same in the case of language too. The richest languages in the world are those which absorbed vocabularies and grammar from other languages and indigenised them. Vocabularies are symbolic sounds that represent particular shared experiences of the speakers. Hence, if aeroplanes were never the experience of the Meiteis in the past, they will not have a word for it, for they did not need it, until of course globalisation ensure they now have this as their everyday experience. Now that aeroplanes are their reality as well, instead of having to invent the wheel all over again, they can simply call an aeroplane an aeroplane, and perhaps even indigenise the word if doing so is convenient and useful. Simon Winchester’s book “The Professor and The Madman” (based on real characters and events) on what gave the impetus as well as the work that went into the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, is enlightening in this regard.
The Oxford English dictionary is updated every decade, and each time this is done, the number of words that are dropped because they have become redundant, and the number of new words which are introduced because they have gained currency is astounding and run into thousands. A great many of the new words that come into being have foreign origins. The obscurantist linguistic revivalists in our society must remember that this is how English, arguable the richest and the world’s lingua franca today, keeps itself in the forefront of an immensely large pack of world languages because of its receptive character. They should also remember this applies to not just language, but to every aspect of the growth of human societies.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author