Op-Ed Contributors

Eastern civilization's roles

By Wu Jianmin (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-28 08:06
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As Asian economies develop further, the ancient pursuit of 'harmony but not uniformity shines again.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington put forth his "Clash of Civilizations" theory. Since then, the world has undergone a number of major changes that merit our attention. The clash between Christian civilization and Islamic civilization, one of the fastest growing religions, is escalating. And the momentum in the rise of Asia has surged. The focus of international relations has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, primarily because of the rise of Asia.

Japan was the first Asian nation to rise after World War II. We should be grateful to the Japanese for inventing the export-oriented economic development model. This model is particularly suitable for Japan and the developing world, especially Singapore and the Republic of Korea as well as China's Taiwan and Hong Kong. The third stage is the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and then China and India. In this context, the rise of China is not an isolated case. I do not agree with the claims that "China is the only bright spot on the landscape" and "China has stood out from the crowd".

The focus of the world has shifted with the rise of Asia as a whole. Never before has the world shown so much interest in Asia and its cultures. The Western cultures had dominated the world for centuries. The paradigms and approaches evolved from these cultures had failed to resolve a lot of problems of the whole system. It is important to draw upon the wisdom of Asian cultures, particularly Chinese culture, to lead the development of the world to a better future.

Admittedly, Chinese people need to upgrade their understanding of their own cultures. There are also some essential elements shared by both the East and the West. Different countries attach great significance to democracy, freedom and community spirit. But it is urgent for the international community to know that communication between different cultures is indispensable to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings.

Over the past centuries, Western civilization has made enormous contributions to humankind. It has experienced the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the bourgeois revolution and the technology revolution. However, the binary opposition theory in Western culture has brought the world a lot of trouble.

Western culture is resistant to foreign cultures and insists that all other cultures be like itself or be reformed. This is the philosophy of struggle. Western culture is bent on reforming other cultures to make them the same as itself. This cannot be found in Chinese culture, which is more tolerant. That is why several religions have coexisted peacefully in China for centuries. A temple can be dedicated to Laotzu, Sakyamuni or Confucius.

Environmental degradation also has its roots in culture. In 1851, Queen Victoria visited the first World Expo in London and wrote in her diary that "there is nothing mankind can't do". This showed that advances in science and technology had boosted people's confidence to conquer nature. In contrast, all schools of traditional Chinese thought share one thing for sure: That nature should be regarded as a harmonious component of humans. The laws of nature are guiding principles for human action.

I think China needs to build its mainstream culture. The practice of "letting a hundred schools of thoughts contend" during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) laid the groundwork for the formation of mainstream culture in China's feudal society, the most dark and persistent feudal society in human history.

Building a mainstream culture for modern China in the destructive aftermath of political movements and the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) requires the hard work of several generations. Before that, the stability of society will go through harsh tests featured by competition from Western cultures in a post-colonialism context.

I believe mainstream Chinese culture will consist of two parts. The first part will be the good things that have been tested for thousands of years in Chinese history. This must be carried forward, but the dross must be weeded out. The other part will be the valuable introduction of foreign cultures as well as modern Chinese thought, which serve as an important way to implement the complete system. Chinese civilization has lasted thousands of years precisely because it has rejected no foreign cultures. It is not closed. Rather, it is open, accommodating and constantly absorbs the strengths of other precious ingredients.

Asia, especially the whole of East Asia, is rising, not just China. Chinese civilization pursues "harmony but not uniformity". This goal can be achieved by seeking common ground while reserving differences.

The author is vice-president of the European Academy of Sciences of China and former Chinese ambassador to France. This is an excerpt of his speech at the first Nishan Forum on World Civilization held in Shandong province.

China Forum

(China Daily 09/28/2010 page8)