It seems that Thucydides is starting to infiltrate China: back in November (I heard about this only in the last couple of weeks, courtesy of @JakeNabel), President Xi Jinping participated in a session at the Berggruen Institute for Governance’s conference on ‘Understanding China’. His opening address can be read at http://berggruen.org/topics/a-conversation-with-president-xi-at-big-s-understanding-china-conference, and after a hilarious put-down of the idea that a bunch of world leaders could possibly ‘understand’ China as the result of a brief conference – “As we Chinese say, one needs to read ten thousand books and journey ten thousand miles to gain understanding” (yay, world figure recommends reading!) – we find the following gem within his broad overview of China’s prospects:
We all to need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves.
Obviously this is not the ‘real’ Thucydides but rather Graham Allison’s soundbite concept (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5d695b5a-ead3-11e1-984b-00144feab49a.html), developed precisely as a means of characterizing in a memorable way a supposedly core issue for relations between the US and China over the coming decades: interpreting Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War as the result of a rising power confronting an existing power, and assuming that this is a universal tendency. We could have lots of fun considering the interpretative and rhetorical moves involved in this appropriation of Thucydides (as indeed I have done in the past; see https://thesphinxblog.com/2012/10/30/the-thucydides-trap/), but at the moment I’m more struck by the way that it may be serving as a gateway drug, so to speak, leading people towards the real hard stuff. Maybe Xi Jinping was just repeating a phrase, but it’s clear that someone in his office has been reading Allison’s articles; it’s not hard to imagine that they may then be led to do more detailed research on its background. Another correspondent (Clifford Kiracofe) has told me that Thucydides is now being studied in at least one Chinese university, as part of International Relations; again, clearly in the first instance as a means of understanding US thinking better (given the obsessive citation of Thucydides as a key influence), but it might lead to more intensive engagement.
Among my many regrets about things I’ve never done and am unlikely to have time to do any time soon is the fact that I haven’t studied Mandarin. This first came home to me years ago, when reviewing a fascinating volume edited by Chris Kraus called The Limits of Historiography, that brought together specialists in classical Greek and Chinese historiography; it was clear that there were innumerable interesting parallels and contrasts that could be explored, but of course I was wholly limited to what the Chinese scholars translated and summarised, without any way of discovering whether my ideas would have any validity if applied to a wider range of source material. I felt similar pangs after writing Antiquity and Modernity; engagement with the past was such an important part of the European response to (and invention of) modernity that surely the response of a different culture would be extremely illuminating whatever it was – how far contemporary Chinese thinkers developed a different attitude towards modernization because of a different historical consciousness, or embraced it wholesale by jettisoning their traditional attitude to history and historical change – but again I have no way of pursuing such research. And now Thucydides…
Again, the immediate questions seem both obvious and interesting. Is Thucydides being read solely in the terms in which he’s presented within conventional IR discourse (the crude ‘realist’ reading of the Melian Dialogue), or in a more open manner (a la Naval War College), and/or in comparison to Chinese traditions like the writings of Sun Tzu? How far is he interpreted as offering universal principles, such as the ‘Thucydides trap’, and how far is such a claim accepted, rather than being treated as a phenomenon of US thinking? It’s obvious enough how Thucydides has hitherto been interpreted in many cases as if he were an unproblematic exemplar of Western modernity, whether in historiography or in political theory; it’s intriguing to imagine alternatives. It would be a little depressing if Chinese students received no more than the conventional account on a ‘take it or leave it basis’ (though still revealing); any indication of the application of alternative approaches to understanding classic texts and their significance for the present would be far more exciting.