Harmony, Nissology and lessons from the Pacific Islands

by on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 Comments

-- Some speculations using Darwin, Marx and questioning stasis[1]

China has been called “the Middle Kingdom” and European commentators have accused it of “insularity”: being cut off from the rest of Asia and, for a time, the rest of the world (see e.g. Needham 2008)

However, China’s ancient culture has had a considerable affect not only on its immediate continental and insular neighbours but also for millennia as the source for the ancient spread of humankind around the rim of the vast Pacific Ocean which itself as a body of water covers one-third of the Earth’s surface.

Most immediately, 25,000 BP, people moved from what is today southern China and began a migration that eventually led them to occupy the entire Pacific Ocean as Islanders, where there are notable vestiges of sinoculture that have persisted for nearly 3,000 years as far north as Hawaii, east as Rapanui (Easter Island) and south as Aotearoa (New Zealand) (Howe 2008; Kirch 2000).

Oceania in ancient times consisted of island kingdoms who maintained constant contact through trade and intermarriage.

I have proposed the concept of “Nissology” for the study of islands on their own terms and I wish to apply that understanding to the concept of harmony in China and its survival as a core value Pacific Island cultures.

China’s core value of Harmony came from its vast land and people mass; Pacific Islander core value of Harmony comes from their small populations occupying small places, but set, as Epeli Hau’ofa (1993) wrote, in a “sea of islands”.

I wish to use some history from Rapanui to show that many conceptions of Harmony are based on a notion of stasis (both natural and social), which I shall argue is wrong minded and will lead to inefficient actions in the pursuit of Harmony.

Both China and Rapanui, so very different in length of settlement and scale, shared a number of social actions to secure Harmony. Both used wide spread cultural development to bring about unity. Both developed a writing system to unify and facilitate Harmony over their respective lands.

For Rapanui, the questioning of stasis will be developed through two events that disrupted the Harmony of Rapanui that could not have been foreseen:

1) The 14th century “Little Ice Age” and its consequences;
2) The arrival of outsiders – Europeans – and their special requirements, power and disease.

I will analyse these events and their impact on Harmony using Darwin’s “Signal Theory” and his concept of “Acquirement Gradation” (Darwin 1859/2008).

In both cases, the Rapanui responded, acquired by gradation their capacities for Harmony and restored their social order.

Marx observed:

Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand. (Marx 1852/2005: 1)

And so it is with Harmony: humans make their own Harmony, but not in circumstances of their choosing because the social is not static, but dynamic, and the natural world is not static, but in constant evolution, as both Marx and Darwin argued from their respective points of view.

I argue in my paper in conclusion that both China and Rapanui, from their vastly different history and circumstances, nevertheless share a pursuit of Harmony, which probably is the case for most if not all human societies. This is not done in a static context, but one that is in constant movement that requires the “acquirement of capacity through gradation”. And importantly, that “capacity” is to maintain harmony.

Perhaps a better understanding of Harmony may be gained by considering its dialectical development of opposition and renewal which has a lesson for all of humankind on the Earth of Harmony.

Rapanui sought to keep harmony over their history and they maintained this “piringa” [coming together or harmony] through constant exchange of food, goods and marriage partners as well as the cooperative construction of community monuments. This impressive megaliths required “piringa” in order for the materials and peoples to be carved and transported over the surface of the entire island. This piringa lasted until the coming of the Little Ice Age when environmental factors produced drought, unsettled weather and famine.

Rapanui arrived in a sub-tropical island and tried to maintain harmony. Built moai; when moai complex failed, moved on to a seasonally based worship of a birdman and eventually have become Catholics in the 19th century and followers of many different Christian sects in the 20th and 21st.

Constant adaptation and transformation in the pursuit of harmony, but on a small space: their island (See McCall 1994a).

Even when I was doing fieldwork on Rapanui, the Islanders preserved still the concept of “Mana‘uhakapiri” whereby people could sense when someone else in the population was thinking about them, most commonly when they were about to arrive at some place. People did not remark on this and found it quite normal. It was not telepathy, since the message was indistinct: simple sensing. But it meant that the people had a sense of one another and where they were on the island. “piri”, together and “piringa” togetherness is roughly equivalent to the Chinese concept of “harmony” to which I now turn.

Speculations on Harmony in China

At first glance, considering China as an island seems odd since it is a large continental population, with considerable ethnic diversity and a long history of complex interactions with neighbouring countries and those further afield.

To take a different view of China and the concept of harmony, I suggest that in the long history of China, the country has seen itself as separate and apart from the rest of the world in its culture and nature.

Through China over the last tens of thousands of years have passed those humans who became American Indians and Austronesians, both peoples producing great civilisations in their respective parts of the world (Thorne & Raymond 1989)

One of the main ways that the unity of China and its concept of “Harmony” has been achieved is through a universal standard of literacy. This is not exactly the same kind of literacy discussed by Benedict Anderson (2001) in his famous “Imagined Community” book. The use in China of universal characters to render complex thoughts, no matter the particular language of the person using them, means that any educated person in China could communicate with any other educated person. They may not speak the same language, but they shared the same written one.

The impact of this on the development of China cannot be overestimated. It allowed people from around the country to exchange ideas on their own terms, but with a common writing system. They could continue hold their own beliefs and culture, but through the writing share their ideas with others.

I believe that the Chinese characters allowed everyone in China to share in being Chinese but, at the same time, preserve their own group identity. People in China could be Buddhist, Moslem or follow other local faiths (and later Christianity) but to remain at the level of literate communication, Chinese.

This gave a great deal of unity to an otherwise fractious mix of local, distinctive populations.

Built into this universal system, too, was that through the examination system, anyone no matter their humble origins could achieve learning and thus become literate Chinese. This kind of achievement of status rather than ascription by birth took place in China more than a millennia before the European Enlightenment espoused similar values.

Now, I am not painting a romantic picture of China and Chinese-ness, saying that equality characterised that ancient civilisation. Certainly not. Chinese society always has been hierarchical, just as all human societies are. There are gender hierarchies, hierarchies of power and hierarchies of learning. Every society clings to hierarchy by age, so that the older experienced always guides the youthful beginner.

What I am saying is that through the examination system, invented in China, a meritocracy of learning evolved and that core to this meritocracy was the use of Chinese characters. Both the examination system and the script preserved harmony.

The universal Chinese quality of this system of characters and their adulation of form meant that people felt a sense of balance and a sense of order through the administration of government. I believe that the Chinese system of writing is responsible for the concept of Harmony (Hexie 和諧). People saw that there was balance and relationships between concepts. They saw in their script both an intellectual and an artistic expression. Whilst there were different level of competence, people believed that if they worked hard they could achieve perfection or, at least, adequacy to a level at which they would be satisfied.

As all took the examinations, they all had a common interest in the common purpose of writing and order. Harmony is a natural outcome of Chinese writing.

But there are other factors.

Chinese writing gives great unity within Chinese-ness, but it acts as a barrier to those who use different forms of writing. The characters can be translated, of course: that is what Chinese writers are doing all the time. But the monolithic quality of Chinese characters means that most outsiders are excluded.

In that way, the unique writing system creates China as an island surrounded by a sea of cultures who do not know Chinese writing.

We can see this more clearly when we compare those two great, abiding civilisations, China and India.

India is a land of many languages, but no unifying one, excepts perhaps the use of the colonialist English. Moreover, India has no unifying script as does China. For an Urdu speaker to adopt the Hindi script is lose their identity, their self. For a Tamil to write in a Hindi script, also is to lose identity and so it is around the sub-continent. Script is language and script is identity: they do not seem to mix (Pei 1966).

Ethnicity in India often, but not always, has been tied to religious beliefs. There is the pan-Hindu belief that all religions are Hindu, but just don’t know it. However, this does not obscure the strength that a belief system gives to ethnicity. People in India would find it a difficult concept to hold more than one belief system in equal respect. For Indians, for the most part, you either are in or you are out of the group. This is more the caste with the caste hierarchy for which India is so well-known.

This is not so in China where Confucious thought can co-exist with that of Mao or Christ or the Buddha. I suspect that even the fervent new converts to Christianity have their Chinese residues built up over millennia.

India, unlike China, has been invaded many times and by significant outsiders who layered their beliefs and ideas, but also displaced existing systems, causing inequality and dissent, which erupts from time to time in both ancient and modern times.

China on the other hand takes in the invader and converts them to being Chinese in the end, as many have remarked (eg Needham 2008)

Again, the unifier of all this is the script which is at once no one’s, but also is everyone’s. There is no alternative writing system that can command the same respect or, indeed, usefulness.

Calligraphy by B. Vermander

Does this mean that China is without conflict?

No, conflict seems to be the way that humans as a species develop their ideas, keeping some and transforming others. Conflict produces discussion, but also permits new ideas to evolve. We know from Charles Darwin (1859/2008), whose 200th birthday it is this year, that everything on the planet, living and non-living is in a constant state of transformation and evolution. And that this process is cumulative through the acquirement of capacity. This capacity develops best when harmony is achieved and the full potential of a culture is permitted to develop.

This change can be accomplished in harmony with the Chinese writing system being its carrier and it has done so through the many changes that have taken place in China over the years. These changes have not led to a new writing system, but continue to symbolise the distinctiveness of Chinese-ness as a trait with many internal variation, but one abiding identity: the writing system.

It was the continuing of the writing system that deceived foreign scholars, particularly Europeans from the 18th century onwards (e.g. Weber 1921-22/1978), to image that China was un-changing, constant and somehow frozen in time. The great inventions of China, such as writing, printing, modern paper, even gunpowder, became the civilisers of the rest of the world. But, people thought that since the distinctive external feature of Chinese-ness, the script, seemingly had not changed, so too did the society remain static. They did not realise that a universal script can convey very particular and distinctive ideas. So, whilst the script had to be memorised, its use was not. Complexity and change did not perturb the Chinese script.

The memorisation of the script miss-led outsiders to think that China was static and that seemed confirmed colonial conquest devoured the country’s wealth and labour in the 19th century, shortly after a similar process was commenced in neighbouring India. Outsiders trumpeted their conquest of what they saw as moribund cultures without realising that they too would be absorbed eventually by their supposed subalterns.

It has escaped the notice of many observers of China that powerful European ideas, such as those of Karl Marx, have found their home not in that important thinker’s home (Germany) or adopted land (England), but in China where the ideas have served to produced an increasingly successful world economic power. And there is cultural or “soft power” as well in the adoption of many Chinese gifts to the world.

From a very particular place, Australia, we can see how a man who intended a career in public life, Kevin Rudd, early in his education decided to learn a Chinese language but, most probably, not the Chinese script in any depth. For that, a lifetime of study is required.

The identity of China with its script means that those places where Chinese-ness once held sway symbolise their departure from their origins and influences by altering or elaborating their script. Japan preserves Chinese characters along with its own local innovation, whilst Korea, developed over time its own semi-phonetic “Hangeul”. The Korean script, like others so closely tied to its own language, could never aspire to universality (Pei 1966).

Just to take only one more example, in Vietnam, the same kind of descriptive name is used as for Korean, something like “the script of the national language”, so it too is tied to one tongue and not capable of being universalised. Significantly and related to Vietnamese acceptance of foreign influence is that the present alphabet was the invention largely of a French Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes.

In Conclusion

The search for a universal language has been one that has obsessed scholars ancient and modern. In ancient times, an Egyptian pharaoh hoped to find universal language by isolating one or more children to see which language they spoke spontaneously. Other scholars were convinced that some antique scriptural languages could be the foundation for all human speech. In European medieval times, the scholar ruler, Frederick the Great, tried the same experiments of isolating children to see if they would speak in Hebrew, the language he believed was the one used by God. The Englishman Judge Sir William “Oriental” Jones, the “discoverer” of Sanskrit in the 18th Century believed in the Indo-European concept (Pei 1966; especially Allen 2002).

In more modern times, artificial languages have been proposed that could unify humankind and bring harmony out of chaos; to bring understanding out of prejudice and to realise the foundational promise that just as all humans descend from common ancestors, so too can their future be one of unity and peace. One contemporary source, a website by Richard Kennaway[2] lists 312 “constructed languages”, referencing an extensive bibliography compiled by Richard K. Harrison between 1992 and 2002[3].

The difficulty with such proposals made by earnest and well-meaning scholars is that always one or more sectoral languages prevail in the invention. And, without exception, the spoken language is mirrored with exactness in the written language.

This means that to join in the promised universality, one must give up one’s own uniqueness and special qualities. That is a prospect many people find unacceptable.

What the world needs is a way of communicating whilst preserving still local variation and identity. We need a way that complex ideas can be conveyed efficiently, but without having to lose one’s own identity.

I argue that the world community should consider something like the Chinese script as such a universal communication system or, at least, the model for such an innovation. It has served China well for centuries and could serve humankind for centuries into the future. This is not a call for people to learn Chinese, but for people to learn from the Chinese (as so many have done before) the value of a universal communicative system, unfettered by local language and sound.

If I am correct in my argument about the Chinese script being a factor in the preservation of Harmony (hexie) in China, then the adoption of a Chinese inspired universal medium of communication could bring with it the grace, serenity and productive tranquility which humans always have sought but only in some times and places have achieved.

In proposing my concept of “Nissology” more than a decade ago, I quoted the phrase: “Islands are a metaphor for the world” (McCall 1994b, 1996)

If my argument about China being conceptually an island, perhaps its concept of harmony is linked to a universal mode of communication, a character based script, could be a model for the world: the harmony of this island China can show the way for the harmony of this island Earth.


The opportunity to pursue a cooperative project in Austronesian studies should be launched at the 16th IUAES and on the occasion of this panel.

I propose that an Austronesian Research Circle (ARC) be launched to investigate:

1) Origins and relations of the Austronesian peoples, who originated in south China

2) People and place of the Austronesian peoples, their relations with the environment

3) People and organisation of the Austronesian peoples, their concepts of governance and, especially, harmony

4) The explorations of the Austronesian peoples and how they came to live where they do today from Madagascar to Taiwan Island to Hawaii and Rapanui (Easter Island).

To achieve the aims of ARC, I propose that scholars from a variety of disciplines be invited to participate with their existing projects, with an idea that in four years time a symposium and book may be produced to document these investigations both as individual achievements and the lessons learned through collegial exchange.

Some name that might be suggested include:

Professor Lisa Mattisoo-Smith, Anthropology, University of Otago NZ
Dr Darren Curnoe, Science, UNSW
Prof Andrew Pawley, Linguistics, Australian National University
Professor Emeritus James Fox, Research School of Asia and Pacific Studies, Australian National University
Professor William Foley, Linguistics, University of Sydney
Professor Jose Miguel Ramirez, University of Valparaiso
Professor K. R. Howe, University of Auckland
Professor Patrick V. Kirch, University of California, Berkeley
Professor Terry Hunt, University of Hawaii
Professor Patrick Nunn, Geography, University of the South Pacific
National Museum of Prehistory, Taitung, Taiwan island
Professor Christophe Sand, New Caledonia Museum

From these widely distributed persons, a larger list of participants may be invited.

Given its location in southern China, near the continental origins of the Austronesian peoples in southeastern China (Oppenheimer & Richards 2001; Tianlong Jiao 2005), I suggest that the coordination of this network should be located in Kunming at an institution prepared to support such an initiative in this heartland of one of the most widely dispersed populations, the Austronesian peoples.



Allen, Charles. 2002. The Buddha and the sahibs. London, John Murray.
Anderson, Benedict. 2001. The imagined community. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London, Verso.
Darwin, Charles. 1859/2008. On the origin of the species by means of natural selection. London, Sterling.
Hau‘ofa, Epeli. 1993. A new Oceania: Rediscovery of our Sea of Islands. Suva, University of the South Pacific.
Howe, K. R. 2008. Vaka moana. Voyages of the ancestors. The discovery and settlement of the Pacific. Auckland, David Bateman & the Auckland Museum.
Kirch, Patrick Vinton. 2000. On the road of the winds. An archaeological history  of the Pacific Islands before European contact. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Marx, Karl. 1852/2005. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Translated by D. D. L. New York, Mondial.
McCall, Grant. 1994a. Rapanui. Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Press.
McCall, Grant 1994b. “Nissology: The study of islands”. Journal of the Pacific Society 17(2-3): 63-64.
McCall. Grant. 1996. “Clear confusion in a disembedded world: The case of nissology”. Geographische Zeitschrift 84 (2): 74-85.
Needham, Joseph. 2008. Science and civilisation in China. 6 Vols. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Oppenheimer, Stephen J. & Martin Richards. 2001. “Slow boat to Melanesia?” Nature 410(8 March): 166-167.
Pei, Mario. 1966. The story of language. New York, New American Library.
Thorne, Alan & Robert Raymond. 1989. Man on the rim. The peopling of the Pacific. Sydney, Angus & Robertson & the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
Tianlong Jiao. 2005. “Environment and culture change in Neolithic southeast China”. Antiquity 80: 615-621.
Weber, Max. 1921-22/1978. Economy and society. 2 vols. G. Roth & C. Wittich (eds). Berkeley, University of California Press.


[1] This paper was invited for presentation at the 16th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological & Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) that took place in Kunming, China, between 25 July and 3 August 2009.

[2] Richard Kennaway. Compiler. “Some Internet resources relating to constructed languages”. Last accessed on 01 June 2009 http://www2.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~jrk/conlang.html

[3] Harrison, Richard K. 2002. Compiler. “Bibliography of planned languages (excluding Esperanto)”. Tenth Anniversary Edition. Last accessed on 01 June 2009. http://www.rickharrison.com/language/bibliography.html

Grant McCall

Grant McCall是一位社會人類學家,研究太平洋群島的民族與文化,特別是東波里尼西亞,從庫克群島的曼加伊(Mangaia)到復活島的Rapanui。他最近的研究是全球化、記憶和殖民主義的”Matamu‘a”研究──這個字在Rapanui是用來指涉歷史。

Grant McCall is a social anthropologist who studies the peoples and cultures of the Pacific Islands, most especially those of Eastern Polynesia from Mangaia, in the Cooks group, to Rapanui (Easter Island).
Research Areas Current research examines globalisation, memory and colonialism as is to be a book called Matamu‘a, the word the Rapanui use to mean history. The theoretical innovation in Matamu‘a is to link the global with the local using time structuration as the core device.
Future plans include the making of short ethnographic films for research and teaching as lived experience and an enquiry into the Pacific Islands as an “Oceanic Empire”.

Website: unsworks.unsw.edu.au

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