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31st January, 2018

The Sinosphere Simplified

Prof. Alan Macfarlane, Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science, University of Cambridge

In his lecture on the sinosphere and the various social, cultural, and historical features that define it, Professor Alan Macfarlane argued for the validity and value of dividing the world into "spheres", with each sphere defined not only by its internal characteristics, but by its relationship with the spheres around it. The sinosphere, as with the other spheres that as a whole make up human civilization, defies easy description, but Professor Macfarlane nevertheless managed to encapsulate its essence in a few main themes.

The first of these is China's written language, which, being pictographic, can be read and understood independently of the spoken language. This greatly enhanced China's ability to communicate with and spread her influence to the peoples on her periphery. Other important themes included the influence of Confucianism, as well as the creation of a merit-based bureaucracy through the introduction of an imperial examination. According to Professor Macfarlane, both of these served as stabilizing influences in Chinese society, both by creating self-reinforcing rules for highly structured social interaction, and by creating mechanisms for upward social mobility, which would theoretically prevent the development of a powerful hereditary nobility that could potentially threaten the state.

During the post-lecture discussion, a number of attendees raised questions or comments for Professor Macfarlane. One attendee cautioned against the use of Confucianism to explain social phenomena in China, noting that the term is often retroactively applied by the Chinese government as a form of propaganda. Another listener inquired about Professor Macfarlane's experiences travelling through China, while yet another questioned the differences between the concepts of "sphere" and "civilization", as well as the way in which Professor Macfarlane had chosen to delineate the various spheres.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman