Past traditions give guidance for future

By Lau Nai-keung (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-30 06:35

In the broadest sense, our culture is the way we live. To many Westerners, we are Asians or Orientals, but as Chinese, we are aware that we are culturally different from the Koreans and the Japanese.

Our collective past has forged a common identity, which determines how we behave, how we interact with other people, how we think and how we see the world. These, in turn, will shape our common future.

In recent years, many pundits have observed that the Chinese are gradually embracing our traditional culture after a century of abandonment. Culture here is referred to in its narrower sense. It is a distillation of certain aspects of our past which some regard as uniquely Chinese.

At one time, we chose to throw some of them away, considering them to be harmful to our national development. Confucianism, for example, was one of the victims.

And we have ceased to celebrate some of our traditional festivals. In their place, we substituted modern science and technology as well as many other things Western, including Christmas, McDonald's and Prada.

Looking back, such a wholesale revulsion of our traditional culture was nothing but the manifestation of a transient inferiority complex.

We blamed our failure to confront to the modern world on what we inherited from our ancestors. Through various spectacular achievements over the past quarter of a century of reform and opening up, we have gradually recovered from the humiliation and shock of facing up to the West. We are now seriously taking stock of our past.

Since last year, proposals appeared in meetings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) advocating making traditional festivals national holidays. I am sure this will come about in the very near future.

We have also been taking a more objective second look at Confucianism, which was the official culture of our past, at a time when there is a worldwide revival of neo-Confucianism. Some even believe this holds the key to the future of the human race.

I never believe there is anything superior or inferior about any culture, be it traditional or contemporary. What matters is whether it serves its purpose.

To some, Confucianism entails certain elements they regard as beneficial to sustained economic development. Others may question whether working one's head off, spend just a few pennies and saving all the rest is such a good thing after all. Some critics even ask, if Confucianism was so conducive to economic development, why the Chinese had not industrialized 300 years ago, but instead, remained downtrodden for so long.

Traditional Chinese culture evidently used to serve its purpose very well and needs to adjust to new challenges that came along with a new environment. We treasure it, because it is part of our history.

For the Chinese, who are not religious in the Western sense, tradition is perhaps one of the most important bases of morality as well as a unifying force.

Chinese are being judged by history, not by hell's fires. It is history that binds us together to a common vision in our endeavour to build a collective future. We are now scurrying to reconnect to our not-too-distant past which at one time, we tried very hard to forget and to scavenge intellectual inspiration as well as spiritual strength.

What we are currently doing is just attempting to more objectively put our painful modern history in its proper perspective. Those were by no means good old days, and no matter how hard we try, there is no way we can go back.

Confucianism is now being reinterpreted to become neo-Confucianism. Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns will no longer be lit by candles. In their place are battery-operated light bulbs and LED's.

But we will still tell our children stories of Chang'e and the rabbit that lived for thousands of years in the moon, and mooncakes that carried the message of the uprising against the Mongolians, who now have become one of the Chinese minorities. Life goes on.

If we are confident that there is no way we can shed our history and our heritage, an obvious corollary is that there is no such thing as total Westernization.

I was born and brought up in Hong Kong when it was under British administration, and was being educated in an elite system designed to produce little Englishmen. I have mastered the language and can thoroughly appreciate their culture, but I am far from being Anglicized.

In that regard, Japan was also forced to Americanize by the US occupation after World War II, but they came out as Japanese as ever. My countrymen in the mainland are living in a much less fertile ground for total Westernization and should never have such fears.

The real danger is not Westernization, but rather, placing an unreal aura on everything coming from the West because of an inferiority complex. Some of us are psychologically imbalanced and casually throw away treasures handed down to us generations ago, thereby creating a void to be filled indiscriminately by idolized Western culture.

Fortunately, most of us have come to our senses now, and with a renewed pride in our heritage, we can come to terms with anything Western as equals.

We can objectively value what is good no matter where it comes from, and learn from it with an ease of mind. We have also set up centres around the world to facilitate others' learning from us.

Because of this, the Chinese have become inquisitive people.

Everything new that comes into sight, we will treat it with a curious and open mind and will not hesitate to touch it, sniff it and even take a bite out of it. If we like it, we calmly put it into our pocket. If we do not, we just discard it without any fanfare.

Consequently, we are the fastest learner in town. This new mindset is perhaps the best-kept secret of our rapid revival during the last quarter of a century.

Again, with our roots firmly grounded on our culture, we will not end up just another copycat.

After sustained nourishment, we will innovate. In fact, we have been innovating so fast in so many areas in such a short time span that we have startled the whole world.

To us, reform and opening up is a never-ending process, and has become part of our contemporary culture.

We will carry on scouting and sampling more of the goodies from the West, and later on, surprising them with something new of our own. Our country is so big and our cultural heritage so rich and entrenched, that our hunger is hard to satisfy, and we shall not fear indigestion.

(China Daily 11/30/2006 page4)

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