Wed, Dec 14, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Crisis — the end of a golden age?

By Engelbert Altenburger 古堡

The world all over has slumped into a crisis, shocking developed and industrialized countries that now find themselves on the brink of a disaster — could this be the end of their Golden Age?

This “crisis” not only encompasses socioeconomic sectors, ethnic groups or nations, the environment or public sentiment, but also targets a waning golden age previously unseen in history in terms of the number of people affected, the countries and duration. Most of Europe over the past 60 years could peacefully develop the economic vitality and prosperity that had fueled the American dream before, a model for others to frantically copy, including the most populous nations, China and India (which had their own good times much earlier).

The West and East had experienced a number of periods when “great” empires flourished, long before Roman times and spanning as far as the Arabian and continental Asian space. Only centuries later, when Indian kingdoms and the Tang Empire had already seen intensive transactions across the seas, the Europeans in the 16th century began traveling overseas with their trading fleets.

Competing traders from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France and England were new in the rediscovered Americas, but beyond Africa they followed old trading routes to gain fame as monsoon traders (some of their transferred commodities and booties are now being exhibited in the UK’s National Maritime Museum).

The 17th century has often been described as the “Golden Age” of the Dutch and the 18th and 19th centuries as that of the British. However, those times were not at all shrouded in “great peace, prosperity and happiness,” a state that was more imaginary than real. This romanticized term would rather apply to classical mythology (the “first and best age of the world”), or to humankind’s outstanding periods of poetry, art and critical literary movements.

Therefore, the periods and purports of Western and Eastern civilizations do not always seem to correlate, due to their distinct geographical, material and immaterial environments. While the West was defining the 18th century as the “Age of Enlightenment” and the intellectual movement mobilizing the power of reason to reform society and advance technology, China ushered in the “golden” Kangxi (康熙)–Qianlong (乾隆) period, when scholar-bureaucrats, with the help of Western technology, tried to consolidate the ostensive boundless Qing Empire.

The more dynamic peninsular Europe had produced a series of adventurous seafarers, the last yet most persistent ones arriving from England. Their grimly competing private companies took hold in South and Southeastern Asia, from where they accumulated riches by trading tea, spices, ceramics and other wares. The East India Company established trading posts along the Indian coast and started “free trade” with China in 1684. This was 127 years after the arrival of the Portuguese in Macau, when for the first time East Indiamen (merchant ships chartered under the East India Company) navigated the Pearl River upstream to Whampoa Island (Huangpu), the restricted hub of the famed Canton System.

When England lost its 13 colonies in what is now the northeast US, global trade routes became even more intensive, although Europe slipped from crisis to crisis, and wars decided its political and economic reordering, as did the two world wars in the 20th century. The establishment of an economic union after 1945 (eventually leading to the EU) was like a miracle, as the centuries-old feudal divisions, antagonism and animosity gave way to unprecedented economic and political cooperation, peace, welfare and opportunities. The EU became a model for global integration, also thanks to its godfather, Uncle Sam.

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