More than sweet and sour pork - R.H. Joseph

Amused as any world traveler by Atlanta's hubristic self-description as an international city, I nevertheless keep my mouth shut.

After all, ours is an environment in which virtually every street, every building, every edifice has been named after someone living or that has lived during our lifetime. Such consummate self-absorption is not an indulgence with which to trifle.

But even I, Mr. Moderation, have my limits.

Whilst perusing a popular local periodical recently I was taken aback when an allegedly informative photograph of a Chinese book was accompanied by a description revealing the text was written in "Mandarin."

Folks, there are roughly 1,287,000,000 Chinese on the mainland; that's about 1,000,000,000 more than the population of the United States. It is about one sixth of the population of the entire planet.

Equally important, the first historically significant dynasty, the Shang, was established 3,500 years before the United States. Since then both the Han (206 BCE to 220 CE) and T'ang/Southern Sung (618-1279 CE) Dynasties achieved levels of sophistication rivaling those of Athens and Florence.

In short, China has been around a while and achieved much. Someone in our "international city" should be aware Chinese books are not written in "Mandarin."

Though there are numerous mutually unintelligible languages spoken in China, as there are numerous distinctive subcultures, all Chinese share the written language. A Uygur from Chinese Turkistan in the northwest may not be able to converse with a Hakka speaker from the southeast but they can write letters to one another with the utmost clarity.

Herein lies the common heritage. Chinese books are written in Chinese.

Since the advent of The People's Republic of China great efforts have been made to inculcate the use of a "national language," that initially spoken by the Han Chinese in Beijing and often referred to by Westerners as "Mandarin." The economic and cultural benefits of a common spoken language should be obvious.

Now, as it would behoove the citizens of our "international city" to know something as simple as how one sixth of the world's population communicates, it may interest you to know something about the philosophical foundations of the culture. This is particularly important because though we are presently obsessed with political activists from another region of the planet it is within China that the next great cultural efflorescence in the human chronicle is sure to manifest.

With a median age of 31.5, a rich, lengthy and sophisticated history, and immense human resources the challenge to our culture will come from the Far East.

More interestingly, it will not be between antagonistic faith-based religions, but between a culture undermined by self-defeating dualism and one whose history, literature and politics belie such a paradigm.

The philosophical history of the "Middle Kingdom" (as it was known until the 20th century) finds its origins in the work of Laotse and Chuangtse (spelling varies) who lived 2,500 years ago.

Contrast the first sentence of Laotse's book: "The way that can be spoken of is not the way," with the conceits of faith-based religions. To appreciate the difference between Laotse's philosophy and that of the world with which most denizens of our international city are familiar is to acknowledge others, vast numbers of others, do not share our dualistic cultural paradigm.

Early 21st century Americans, particularly those living under a regime willing to promulgate any lie in order to further its goals, must be very careful to recognize extrapolations projecting the dualism of their own cultural paradigm upon a society unburdened by such a debilitating obsession.

We are endangered by our own ignorance. If we live in an international city it is incumbent upon us to at least attempt to understand those with whom we share the globe.

Any future effort to depict the Chinese as expansionist (thereby justifying another "preemptive" assault on a sovereign nation?) relies upon America's continued parochialism. Our experiential dualism may compel us to attempt to conquer all that is other than us but it is a grave error to assume such dualism is an innate human experience.

The next time you speak of Atlanta as an international city ask yourself how much you know about Chinese history, the Chinese people, the difference between the teachings of Laotse and faith-based religions.

If Atlantans know virtually nothing about a 3,500 year-old culture currently populated by one sixth of humanity perhaps we should reflect upon who we really are.

R.H. Joseph is a longtime employee of the News Daily. His column appears on Wednesdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 252, or by e-mail at rjoseph@news-daily.com.