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The Chinese Ibn Khaldoun cycle 10, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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In the 14th century Ibn Khaldoun noted something of an immutable cyclical trait for Arabs. Families would rise to prominence, take power and last for no more than three generations before the cycle would begin again.

The first generation retains the desert qualities, desert toughness, and desert savagery…they are brave and rapacious…the strength of group feeling continues to be preserved among them. They are sharp and greatly feared. People submit to them.

Under the influence of royal authority and a life of ease, the second generation changes from the desert attitude to a sedentary culture, from privation to luxury and plenty, from a state in which everybody shared in the glory to one in which one man claims all the glory…others are [in]…humble subservience…the vigour of the group feeling is broken…But many of the old virtues remain…because they [the people] had had direct personal contact with the first generation…The third generation, then, has (completely) forgotten the period of desert life and toughness…Luxury reaches its peak among them…Group feeling disappears completely…People forget to protect and defend themselves…In the course of these three generations, the dynasty grows senile and is worn out.*

I was starkly reminded of this in a curious article in the Sunday Times (London). There was a feature on ‘America’s strictest mother’. Born to Chinese immigrants to America, she posited exactly the same kind of three generational cycle in terms of the ‘strictness’ (or ‘typical Chineseness’) of parenting.

There’s an old Chinese saying: “Prosperity can never last for three generations…The immigrant generation…will work non-stop until they become successful…Everything they do and earn will go towards their children’s education and future…The next [second] generation…will be high-achieving…The next [third] generation…Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents…will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class…They will expect expensive clothes…they will feel they have individual rights [!]…In short, all indicators point to this generation being headed for decline.

While I never assumed that Ibn Khaldoun’s cycle was particularly particular to the Arab world, indeed, it would seem to offer something of an immutable truism of ‘the human condition’, I’ve not come across it before being so clearly mirrored in a wholly different culture and situation. Interesting stuff.

(The Chinese mother, incidentally, came across as barking mad; a horrifically pushy parent who is desperately lucky that she didn’t drive her kids to the bottle or some other damaging vice.)

*Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah, an Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 1969.