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Pet Sins July 2004

Societies with 'no culture'

I once was told by an Arab man that Persians or today's Iranians had 'no culture', and that all their present day culture came from the Arabs. The reasoning seems to be: modern Iranians use the Arabic alphabet and largely subscribe to Islam, both Arab imports, therefore, they owe much of their civilization to Arabs.

I really doubt the accuracy of such comments. The ancient Persians built a large empire long before the medieval Arabs arose to spread their conquests over Africa, Asia and Europe. And even if they didn't precede the Arabs in empire building, it is not as if Persians didn't have a way of life before Arabs brought Islam to Persia. By Webster's definition, culture is "the ideas, customs, skills, arts etc of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along, as in or to succeeding generations." So there is no one in the world who has 'no culture', IMHO. A culture is simply a way of life. If you're alive, you have a culture.

In a similar vein, I was also told by a Korean that the Japanese were a vulgar people with 'no culture', late to the game of civilization, and that all their refinement was picked up from the Koreans. Well, I'm not here to argue about whether the Japanese or the Koreans came up with writing first, or which of them invented metal type printing. But just because some societies are 'behind' in some respects does not qualify them as having 'no culture', for previously stated reasons. If we want to argue about 'X is more advanced that Y because X came up with whatever first', that could get extremely convoluted because everyone is ahead in some things and behind in some other things.

A Chines couple also told me something similar - that the Japanese had little culture of their own, and copied lots of ideas from the Chinese and Koreans. I understand that both Chinese and Koreans had some reasons for not thinking well of the Japanese, because of the cruelties of WWII, but still, this culture-thing is an unrelated issue and should be dealt with as such.

Just because a culture was shaped by some external influences does not mean that it is inferior to the source of influence. Most brilliant civilizations thrived on the exchange of ideas from within and without. Japan may have accepted influences from China and Korea in ancient times. But in modern times, China and Korea are in their turn influenced by Japanese business models, pop culture, etc. China, in its medieval heydey, also accepted philosophy, arts and sciences from Central Asia, South Asia, and West Asia, some of which filtered through to Korean and Japan.

Shouldn't we be building each other up by focusing on the roads we walked together, instead of tearing each other down by drawing the imaginary line between civilized people and uncultured 'barbarians'?