I’ve been watching Rory Stewart’s programs on the new great game on SBS. Yes, I know they were on over a month ago but as we watch very little television we tend to accumulate shows – for example we’ll probably end up watching Boardwalk Empire in January despite the fact it started running three or four weeks ago.
Mr Stewart has produced an extremely intelligent and literate account of the Great Game and engagement by Britain and Russia in Central Asia.
And running through his account is the unspoken assumption that in order to understand a region you also need to know something of its languages and culture – something that appears a little out of fashion these days.
Now as I’ve said at length I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the post 1917 civil war in Russia as part of my ongoing fascination with the place.
In the course of this I’ve just finished a biography of Baron Ungern von Sternberg, who was clearly a sociopath, a sadist, and someone we would nowadays lock up for a very long time.
However, Sternberg despite his many faults was probably responsible for Mongolia not being assimilated into China in the 1920’s as had happened earlier with what we now call inner Mongolia.
Mongolia is comparitively rich in mineral resources and next to resource hungry China. There is also a railway line across it that would allow easy trasnshipment of minerals from Siberia.
Now I live in Australia. Our economy is resource dependent – ie we dig stuff out of the ground and sell it to China, Japan and Korea. It would be better for our economy if we made things here but in the main we sell raw materials.
This means that our major competitors are other raw material suppliers, and Russia and Mongolia.
Understanding about Mongolia’s history is part of the process of understanding why Mongolia may not wish to be dependent on China just as understanding the story of the Japanese occupation of Korea and Manchuria is useful for understanding current antipathies. And of course why China may prefer to buy from Australia rather than Russia and Mongolia who my be more averse to a close economic relationship than we are.
And to understand these things needs an understanding of history languages and cultures, and often quite esoteric knowledge.
We seem to be going through a phase where studies of other cultures, languages and histories are not esteemed. Mr Stewart’s programmes give us one reason why we should esteem them more. New footage of people in China trashing Toyotas gives us another.
While we would be stupid not to pay attention to economic realities focusing on the short term economic benefits of downplaying the humanities and allied subjects risks prejudicing our long term economic well being
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