I recently finished reading Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, the first book in a sci-fi trilogy written by a Chinese author. It is very much a Chinese story that takes place against the history of the Cultural Revolution with distinctly Chinese backdrops. It was constantly brought up as one of the top books to read in recent times, and I thought I’d finally give it a try. I was glad I did. Typically I don’t read a lot of genre fiction. Something about the language and the types of storylines don’t seem to appeal to me. Yet with this book, it spoke to me differently.
I am Asian-Canadian, more specifically Vietnamese-Chinese-Canadian. I will admit up front, I barely know how to read any Chinese beyond writing my own name, my spoken Cantonese is the equivalent of an elementary school kid in Hong Kong. I also don’t know Vietnamese at all. I am very much a Canadian first, whatever that means. Despite that, I did learn about Chinese stories growing up and going to Chinese school on Sundays, at least until I quit in grade eight. Reading Cixin’s work, despite being translated (really well) into English, I could tell there was a Chinese rhythm and tone to it. Other than the clear Chinese historical influence, which I only have a surface level familiarity with, there were some uniquely Asian traits that come across in the story and characters. The way they speak, the way they address each other, the arrangement of authority. The narrative prose itself carried with it a kind of poetic flow that instantly reminded me of how Chinese is written. It’s hard to pin down. It’s more of a feeling I never got reading Western sci-fi.
What really surprised me was the sci-fi itself. Without spoiling too much, it involves a search for extraterrestrial beings and the physics of — surprise surprise — the three-body problem where three celestial bodies create unpredictable movement due to their gravitational interaction. The way in which all the science was presented was phenomenal and made astronomy feel more relevant. I never quite cared much about space personally since I always thought it didn’t have much impact on our lives on this blue dot (I’m more of a psychology and neuroscience guy), but this story showed how maybe we got lucky to live where we live in the vast universe. It also clearly demonstrated that the language of science is really the language of humanity. It showed how scientific changes and significant shifts in knowledge are able to affect the mindset of humanity as a whole.
Throughout much of my educational experience here in western Canada, I was taught all about history, science, literature, philosophy, psychology, computer science all from a Western perspective. World Wars were about Europe and America, with some side notes about the other nations involved. Novels were obviously all Western stories by great American and European authors. Philosophers were Greek, psychologists were German, neuroscientists were Canadian actually (so proud). And everything we learned about science came from European discoveries. There were always these little footnotes here and there, like the Chinese also discovered gunpowder and invented paper, or the Koreans actually invented the first printing press, but they were always confined to a single line or paragraph tucked away from the main text. But why did it seem like it was always the Westerners that did everything first?
It wasn’t until I finished up university and started to read more widely on my own that I gained a better understanding of the bigger picture. I started to become more curious with Asian history since we essentially didn’t learn it in school. (Fun fact, East Asian history at my university was so easy it was used as a GPA booster course.) I read some general history of China and overall Asian history written by Western scholars. There really wasn’t a lot of choice since I doubt there is a wide enough audience to translate real Asian history into other languages. To be honest, it didn’t really change my perspective much. There was a timeline and interactions between Asian countries as they fought one another. Usual boring history stuff. But then I started to learn about the advancement of math and science through the main educational institution of our time, the internet.
The advancement of knowledge is indeed a global effort. The Roman numerical system we all love to hate was terrible for math, so the Arabic system became what we use now. The number zero was invented by various cultures but likely spread from India. It might not seem like much, but zero is critical for all modern math and pretty much all of science. Without China’s paper we would still be inscribing text in cloth and stone, and without their gunpowder the West wouldn’t have had their coveted guns. The advancements and use of metal technology came from all over as well. The West did make significant advancements in machine technology with the great Industrial Age, and also were the roots for theories like psychology and evolution. So, if knowledge and discovery were happening all across the world, what exactly made the West so dominant in recent history? In my opinion, colonization.
Like many great discoveries, finding America was an accident and the Europeans were the first to land. It was part of a larger European race to colonize the entire world, mainly to flex their superiority to other Europeans. Not to say that other nations didn’t play into this game of takeover. Mongolians are pretty famous for that. And there are some tense histories across many civilizations that still hold until this day. But the Europeans with their guns and ships had the most power at the time, and so the colonization adventures began. They all began collecting civilizations like Pokémon. And they treated them as such too. They were all just little pets in their pockets. They could do with them as they wished, and their pets had no choice but to follow their commands. I believe that this mentality of dominance is the root of what can broadly be considered “White culture”.
To show you what I mean, let’s try a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend that the Industrial Age didn’t start in Europe but instead in Asia. They generated these massive machines, built railroads, developed their navy and their guns. Then they set off in a race to take over the world. China started enslaving all the Eastern Europeans. The Indians push into what I’ll call the Middle West. The Japanese and Koreans, on their way to sail the other way to Europe, find the Americas, and take over the native land. In the meantime, all of Europe is carved up piece by piece by whoever got there first. Africa fends for itself, but loses significant grounds as well. (I apologize to Africa, but it was, for many reasons, the least developed historically.) Overtime, more and more migrants start going to the new land, and bring their European slaves with them. Now, fast-forward to modern times in the Great Republic of America where all media and education revolves around Asians and their history. They are the great peoples that brought about the modern world. All others are lesser-than.
This is essentially the timeline that has brought about White privilege. They were brought up to think they were the best. They owned everything and everyone. They are home to the great thinkers. They created the moving pictures the world watches about light skinned people with their colored hair and eyes, suits and dresses. They are the “land of opportunity” that other nations try to flock to. And, for a while, maybe that was true. The tides of power shift, sometimes in massive waves, and the one of European dominance was a tsunami (ironic I have to use a Japanese word). The wave continued to flow over to North America after WWII, which was also predominantly White. They were no longer European descendants, but divided simply into White people and coloured people, the dominant ones and the others. I’m not here to demonize the White people. Like any population there are good and not so good people. They were just the standard many were judged by, and that norm is rapidly changing.
The wave continues to flow, and it is quickly spreading to Asia. Now, I’m no historical authority, but what if the Western age is ending and a new Eastern age is rising? The historical memory of White dominance doesn’t just go away. It has been embedded in the minds of many cultures for many generations. It shows most clearly in the minds of White Americans. They are desperately holding onto their symbols of dominance. Guns, the Confederate flag, and even Nazism. Meanwhile, Black culture is taking center stage in the art and political spheres. All ethnicities, Hispanic, Muslim, Black, Asian, and Indian, are entering into top economic and political positions. And, a Chinese written sci-fi novel has become one of the notable stories of our time. Times are changing, and North America is becoming the battleground for cultural dominance.
One thing that Canadian education got right, other than just being pretty top notch globally, was the idea that our country is a melting pot. To be honest, as it kid it seemed like a stupid joke. What a terrible name. It’s like we’re all blended together like some stew. What is melting anyway? But as I got older, I realized that Canada and the United States are very unique in that there really isn’t a monoculture. After visiting Tokyo recently, it felt kind of strange being surrounded by a single kind of peoples. I was so used to seeing all types, everywhere, in every city I’ve had the chance to visit in North America. Sure, it was still predominantly White in many ways. They are still the majority population here. But it’s fascinating being able to eat all kinds of foods from around the world, meet people from every corner, and see the incredible diversity of humanity all in one place.
In a very real way, the new world really is a new kind of world that didn’t exist before. All cultures exist and blend in here, and it is the only place with this level of diversity. The trend will likely continue as the melting continues. Where White people and White culture will go, only time will tell, but my guess is that it will go through a significant re-evaluation. The Western world has brought about many great innovations and changes no doubt, and they will remain in the history books for centuries to come. Yet, the idea of Western, and subsequent White, dominance will shift. Just as they taught us the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, neither is the West the center of human history. The model for how we view the world will continue to change as the great wave of power continues to flow across the globe.