Last time, I analyzed why you have to look at history through relative terms and not absolute number of years. Today, I decided to analyze another common Chinese fallacy when applied to America. Before I begin, I want to make clear that this fallacy happens in general when studying history. In this specific case, Chinese people commit this when analyzing American history, but this way of thought is in no way unique to the Chinese.
When I visit China, Chinese people always tell me:
Jerry, your America has nothing significant in its history besides the Civil War.
Before I even analyze the "Civil War" part of this statement. Let's just agree that America had a lot go on besides the Civil War. It went from 13 colonies to 50 states and territories. It adopted a grand experiment in governance and more or less succeeded. It went from a relatively struggling economy to the greatest economy in the world. It continues to struggle with an ideology of race that the Europeans invented centuries ago to justify slavery. America created one of the biggest cultural influencers in the world in the form of a massive movie industry, which as an artist I have to mention. I can go on and on, but each of these topics have volumes of books written about them.
But my analysis will focus on the Civil War part of this Chinese fallacy. From the above statement, we can extrapolate that the American Civil War was so significant an event that even Chinese people who know zero English and zero American history know that the Civil War happened some time in America's history. That's a start, considering some Americans can't even locate China on the map (once I was in a store in LA, and this lady asked, "What part of China are you from? Japan or Korea?).
The American Civil War was five gruelling years of Americans fighting Americans over the morality of slave ownership and the political power of the states over the federal government. In absolute terms, that's only five years. So to Chinese people with 5,000 years of history and dozens of civil wars in every dynastic transition, one American Civil War seems a little puny. However, the puniness is deceptive. Before we begin, I'm going to state an axiom: no history exists in a vacuum.
What is History? History is the progression of events based on the combination of human, geographical, and environmental interplays. History is the progression of cause and effect of human development.
Even if the most significant event in American history was the Civil War (which if I were writing this in 1867 might have been more or less true), that's evidence that a lot has already happened due to the cause and effect nature of history. The fact that something, in fact many things, caused Americans to slaughter each other for five years straight in the 1860s means that there were very crucial periods in those prior two hundred years before that to lead to this!
Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially wars. People don't just get up one day and decide to start fighting and risk losing everything (unless we're playing video games in the virtual world).
So we've established from the first part of this analysis that everything has a cause, everything has an effect, and history is so damn fun because analyzing all the factors around any specific period or event requires intense analysis and creates amazing discoveries about human nature, human potential, and human craziness. The second part of our analysis involves the linear progression of history versus the circular progression of history that I talked about last time. Please read that one first if you haven't already!
In absolute terms, yes, America only had one civil war compared to Imperial China's countless ones. But let's look at the absolute effects of these wars. The American Civil War fundamentally changed America and made permanent political, social, cultural, and economical changes. What did each civil war do to Chinese society? It just led the way for a different family to rule the country in more-or-less the same manner (maybe after an initial period of flourishing and innovation) until it fell. In colloquial, Western-centric terms, all the civil wars in Chinese imperial history lead to more or less the same bullshit over and over again :) The only civil war that really counted when analyzed in the lens of the upward progression of history was the anarchy that happened after the last emperor in China got dethroned. That chaos for the next two decades fundamentally changed every inch of Chinese society and spearheaded Japan's military invasion of China's territory and human capital and Western Communism's invasion of Chinese intellectual thought. To quote stoners, "That's some serious sheeet!"
So next time someone says that the only significant thing to happen in America is the American Civil War, put on your history glasses and explain through the cause and effect lens of history. Explain all the significant events that lead to the Civil War--the evolution of mercantilism and slavery, the adoption of race as an ideology, the Seven Year's War, the taxation of the colonies and the resistance to the lack of representation, the American Revolution, the various struggles after the Revolution trying to find a government that balanced power, rule of law, and the protection of everyone's rights, the various attempts to push the slavery question under the mat. Fill in the blanks of all the things I missed that directly lead to the American Civil War.
If you don't like early American history, use the Civil War as the beginning and explain to the ignorant the War's effects--how the war drastically changed American government, how it changed the economies of both the North and South forever, how it fundamentally changed the way that Americans saw government in their lives, how it shaped future elections for generations. How it still shapes our lives.
Or turn the analogy around. Tell the Chinese person, "Well, the only significant thing that happened in Chinese history was the dismantling of the dynastic cycle in 1911. That's what you're telling me when you analyze American history with your assertion."