Time Spiral

In the Author’s Note to Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones (2006, subtitled ‘A Journey Between China’s Past and Present’), it is explained that:

The main chapters of this book are arranged chronologically, but the short sections labeled ‘artifacts’ are not. They reflect a deeper sense of time — the ways in which people make sense of history after it has receded farther into the past.

As time advances, the past recedes. Modernity, however, is more than that. It is the excavation of the past through acceleration into the future, a process of discovery, reclamation, and dilation, through which the past is explosively expanded. As Hessler realizes, the Oracle Bones, indissolubly binding the recovery of China’s deep history to its activation of modernity, provide an exemplary illustration of this.

Yet modernity, as consolidated upon European foundations, has been dismissive of Chinese history, seeing only scale without pattern:

In the traditional view of the Chinese past, there is no equivalent of the fall of Rome, no Renaissance, no Enlightenment. Instead, emperor succeeds emperor, and dynasty follows dynasty. History as wallpaper.

In a Nanjing museum gift shop, Hessler glimpses an alternative model:

At one Nanjing museum, I bought a poster labeled OUTLINE OF ANCIENT CHINESE HISTORY. The poster featured a timeline twisted into the shape of a spiral. Everything started in the center, at a tiny point identified as ‘Yuanmou Ape-man.’  After Yuanmou Ape-man (approximately 1.7 million years ago), the timeline passed through Peking Man and then made an abrupt turn. By the Xia dynasty, the spiral had completed one full circle. The Shang and the Zhou dynasties wrapped up a second revolution. The spiral got bigger with each turn, as if picking up speed. Whenever something ended — a dynasty, a warring state — the spiral was marked with a line and a black X, and then something new took its place. There weren’t any branches or dead ends. From Yuanmou Ape-man, it took three turns of the spiral to reach the revolution of 1911, where the timeline finally broke the cycle, straightened out, and pointed directly up and off the page.

Whether folding the historical time line, or expanding a snail shell, the spiral synthesizes repetition and growth. It describes a cyclic escalation that escapes — or precedes — the antagonism between tradition and progress, elucidating restoration as something other than a simple return.

This is a matter of ineluctable importance, because the history of modernity is rapidly becoming Chinese, and Chinese history is not meandering ‘wallpaper’ but Confucian Restoration, conforming to three great waves, each a turn of the spiral, or Gyre. Following China’s classical era, and the Song Dynasty rebirth of native philosophical tradition, the third Confucian epoch, or second Confucian Restoration, is underway today, coinciding exactly with the renaissance of Global Modernity (as ‘Modernity 2.0’). As future and past evolve — or involve — together, the time-spiral is our guide.

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