One thing about my education at Oxford was that, in addition to being the best university in the world, I got to study some pretty amazing stuff which gave me a passion for the world rather than just a small narrow field of interest. I am especially interested in western political traditions, which have evolved dramatically throughout the ages. My thoughts on East Asian history/culture will be published in due course.
At the University of Oxford, I studied all the major branches of the humanities and I offered eight papers for Final Honours School which consisted of two literature (Greek Core, Latin Core), two history (Archaic Greek History, Roman Republic), two philosophy (Plato's Republic, Latin Didactic Poetry) and two philology (Greek Historical Linguistics, Latin Historical Linguistics), and in each pair there was one Greek paper (Greek Core, Archaic Greek History, Plato's Republic, Greek Historical Linguistics) and one Latin paper (Latin Core, Roman Republic, Latin Didactic Poetry, Latin Historical Linguistics). Furthermore, my research on Latin-Romance historical linguistics has led me to explore the late Roman Empire and the subsequent Medieval era and beyond. I have hence acquired a strong interest in international history and politics, especially western political traditions from the classical era to the present day. Below is a brief sketch of my interpretation and analysis of western political history (open to debate and disagreement, of course, in which case please contact me):
Archaic History (Proto-Indo-European-Classical Greece (5th century BC)
The beginnings of western history can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE), namely the mother language that is putatively reconstructed as the linguistic and cultural origins of all the major western European languages and some Near Eastern ones (e.g. Sanskrit, Hittite, Tocharian). In the post-PIE phase, Greece emerged as a culturally and historically vibrant country (in the loose sense of the term, since the concept of a unified Hellenic country is highly controversial in the agglomeration of Greek states) in the second millenium BC, as seen in the magnificent archaeological evidence in the Mycenaean kingdom and the various Greek settlements in Cyprus and Crete. After the fall and decline of the Mycenaean Age, there was a period of relative
Roman Empire (Republic-Imperial (2nd century BC-5th century AD)
In the post-Peloponnesian period, a new city-state emerged as the new political power in Europe, and it was Rome. In contrast to the great colonial periods of archaic Greek history, the Romans asserted themselves via conquest and established a huge territorial hold over much of Western Europe. They also had a complicated and sophisticated political system, one which was layered between old tribal divisions (patrician/plebeian) and new political measures (tribunes, senate, consuls, all elected) and hence gave rise to instability, especially in moments of military and domestic crises. There was hence numerous coups and transitions in the history of the Roman Empire (Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, his assassination, Roman civil war), and the decline of their fortune came in the 5th century after series of spoilt and ineffectual Emperors. The Western Roman Empire finally succumbed to barbarian forces.
Dark Ages to Medieval (5th century AD-14th century AD)
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, its former vast territorial hold underwent radical divisions and rearrangements. The former citizens of Rome became culturally intermingled with the Germanic tribes and various landlords emerged as sovereigns of their respective territories. This marked the rise of western feudalism, namely a land-based system in which sociopolitical power was defined within feudal domains. Numerous rich and aristocratic groups emerged throughout western Europe and divided it up into individual kingdoms. This was a period of division, poverty and war until the emergence of Charlemagne ('Charles the Great') who conquered a lot of territory in western Europe and loosely unified it as the Carolingian Empire. He proclaimed himself Emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire, which was a huge confederation of Germanic and Frankish states and set the foundations for modern Germany and France. After his death, his sons divided the Carolingian Empire again but the Holy Roman Empire remained a loose unity. Other parts of Europe also saw resurgence, namely the Saxons in England, the Longobards in Italy and the gypsies in Spain. A period known as the Christian crusades saw the Christians reconquering adn hence recovering much of western Europe, and Christendom was secured for Europe from then on.
Renaissance (14th century-18th century AD)
The 15th century AD marked a new phase in western history, namely a return to the ancient classical ideals in the form of Latin and Greek education (see above). It was not a straightforward allusion to the past, however, as there was evident political manipulation in the way the feudal aristocrats used the classical language and old ideals of Empire to consolidate their own political power in their respective kingdoms. This period hence saw the consolidation of European city-states, as Medieval feudalist politics gave way to national unification as seen in England (Henry Tudor VII and VIII), Spain (King Phillip). The decline of feudalism also coincided with the rise of capitalism as the previously agrarian economy gradually gave way to urban production and many European cities arose as major cultural, political and economy centres for work, employment and investment. The rise of capitalism led to the rise of the Middle Class, which gained so much wealth that they began to rival the feudal aristocracy. Europe was set for a revolution.
Early Modern Period (18th century AD-19th century AD)
The 18th century AD is critical not only in western history but in world history, since two seismic events occurred which changed the world forever, namely the American Revolution (1765-1785) and the French Revolution (1788-1796) (though see my blog in which I have argued that these two events have a very interesting yet often overlooked precedent in the English civil war of the previous century). The rise of the Middle Class coincided with the gradual decline of the feudal European aristocracy, and when crises occurred, the people were able to fight back with independent means. The American Revolution saw the political independence and separation of North American colonies from the Europeans (namely the English), while the French Revolution saw the downfall and expulsion of the Bourbons by the French people led by a new generation of intellectuals in the form of Jean-Marc Maras and Maximilien Robespierre. The result of these two revolutions was the creation of two western super-powers in the form of Republics (United States of America and the French Republic), a new political form which was not centred around the royal sovereignty but a quasi-democratic system in which the people led by the capitalists were able to be self-sufficient. The following period saw the rapid demise of European feudalism as Napoleon rose to power as the new leader (self-proclaimed consul/Roman Emperor) of the French Republic who endeavoured to conquer the whole of Europe and banish the aristocracy once and for all. His military genius was so great that he almost got his wish, as he defeated and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in the Battle of Austerwitz and reached as far as Moscow until he was eventually pushed back by the Russian army in 1812 and was defeated by the European coalition in 1814 and finally in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Although Napoleon was defeated and exiled (and met his end in 1821), the world was never the same again since he and France had shown the world a new political order, one in which the feudal aristocracy had little to no political power and the common people were able to live autonomously as modern citizens of their own states. This marked the end of Western feudalism and the beginning of modern Republicanism.
Modern Day (20th century AD)
With the continual and exponential rise in science and technology, capitalism flourished and became the global economic system. The Medieval feudal structure leaves no trace in the new world (apart from certain backwards areas in the Russian Empire where serfs were tied to their lands by their landlords) as it is based on trade, monetary economy and mass production. The two main classes in the modern capitalist world are the owners, known as the Bourgeoisie, and the workers, otherwise known as the Proletariat. In modern terms, the former are the employers and the latter employees and while the latter work the former, the former reap all the economic benefits and redistribute them as wages to the latter. This led to Marxism, namely the theory proposed by Karl Marx and his associates (e.g. Engels) that in the modern capitalist world the main class struggle would be between the owners and the labourers and that just as the Middle Class had defeated and ousted the feudal aristocracy in the 18th century (see above), there would be another revolution in which the workers would unite against the owners and overthrow them. The result would be a socialist state, one which was operated by the workers themselves in the form of self-organisation (workers' councils, trade unions). Marxist theories played a huge role in world politics in the past century and is the single most important political debate today, namely the tension and relationship between the two main classes in today's world, the employers and the employees.
I mentioned before that studying Classics (Literae Humaniores) at Oxford was an amazing intellectual experience since it was a uniquely broad education where one was encouraged to study most (if not all) of the main disciplines in the humanities (literature, history, philosophy, philology and more) and to draw connections between them in reconstructing the Ancient World. It was a thrilling intellectual development for me as I was constantly generating new ideas in my comparisons between literary, historical, philosophical and philological methodologies and learnt to analyse the same pieces of data in different ways. My two tutors in Ancient History were Professor Rosalind Thomas (Balliol) and Dr Jonathan Prag (Merton) who taught me Archaic Greek History and Roman Republican History respectively. I was so lucky to have got to study with them, since these were precisely Rosalind and Jonathan's super-specialities and their knowledge and expertise in these two subjects were second to none. They taught me how to analyse ancient historical sources and interpret historical evidence in conjunction with archaeological and epigraphical evidence, which allowed me to use my philological skills too. I pursued these ideas in my graduate training in advanced philology with Professor David Langslow and David's philological approach was just breathtaking. I thoroughly enjoyed analysing late and imperial Latin with him and he taught me a lot about classical philology. It would be interesting to apply a similar historical-philological approach to my native Chinese dynastic history. More on this in due course.
Modern World (21st century AD)
One of the most profound developments in the contemporary modern world is the meteoric and exponential rise and development of technology, which has radically transformed our lives (for good or worse- that is open to debate).