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China scholars discuss country's unique traits

By Lin Shujuan in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2023-11-29 09:34
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Guests attending the World Conference on China Studies — Shanghai Forum listen to an introduction on the costumes of Kunqu Opera in Shanghai on Thursday. XU CHENG/FOR CHINA DAILY

Experts at forum call for diverse perspectives in studying nation

It's no exaggeration to call Rachel Murphy a China expert. The professor at the University of Oxford has long been committed to development research and China issues, exploring China's urbanization, educational development, demographic transition and national policies as well as the social and cultural changes they have caused.

In the past 30 years, Murphy has visited China's rural areas many times. Her recent long stay in the country entailed a three-year field survey in counties of Jiangxi and Anhui provinces between 2010 and 2013, followed by some short visits in the next two years, based on which came the British scholar's most recent book, The Children of China's Great Migration, published in 2020.

While she's used to seeing rapid changes in China over the past three decades, culture shock remains for the professor, who shared her thoughts on a recent return to a Chinese village ahead of the World Conference on China Studies — Shanghai Forum, in which she participated as a keynote speaker on Friday.

The countryside was very different, she said. Yet she was most impressed by the local grannies in their 60s or even 70s embracing short-video apps as a new hobby and social skill. Electric vehicles have also been embraced in the countryside among its senior population.

"I found a mini electric car in the village, so small that it can literally fit in any space to park. A local villager said it was her husband's. And then I found out that her husband is 83," Murphy recalled with a wide grin.

Having seen these huge changes, she believes that if she still used Western social science to explain China, there will be many limitations.

"If I read The Children of China's Great Migration now, I feel that it is a bit outdated," she said.

"Western social science has ignored topics related to China's socio-cultural characteristics. The study of China requires a diverse global perspective."

Murphy's view echoed the theme of Friday's conference, which gathered more than 400 Chinese and foreign experts to discuss the rich connotation of Chinese culture and the outstanding characteristics of Chinese civilization, and China's path from a global perspective.

The conference is a rebrand of the World China Studies Forum launched by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in 2004.

As of the end of 2021, a total of 2,741 Chinese and foreign scholars had participated in the biennial event from 102 countries and regions around the world, according to Shen Guilong, director and researcher at the Institute of World China Studies at the SASS.

This year's event attracted a record number of more than 400 Chinese and foreign scholars from nearly 60 countries and regions.

"As China develops and plays an increasingly important role in global affairs, the study of China has increasingly become more salient and has attracted much attention around the world," Shen said.

Murphy agreed. While in the past, major academic works of China studies were mainly in the West, nowadays, a new trend has emerged.

"Articles published by Chinese scholars can often be seen in international China studies journals, and more and more are from India. Scholars from non-European and American countries are conducting research on China studies, and many Chinese scholars and foreign scholars are collaborating on research projects on China studies," she said.

Zhang Xiping, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University, said the rapid development of China studies overseas shows that the study of Chinese knowledge, thought and civilization has become a global subject.

"Global China studies have since emerged amid the ongoing major changes in the world structure," Shen said. "It is a subject that is rapidly advancing along with China's reform and opening-up and the tremendous changes in society, during which Chinese civilization has demonstrated its global significance."

Hence the mission of Friday's conference was "to promote mutual communication, exchange and dialogue between scholars from all over the world", according to Shen.

During the conference, Timothy Brook, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia in Canada, Baik Young-seo, professor emeritus at Yonsei University in South Korea, and Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, were conferred the 2023 Award for Distinguished Contributions to China Studies.

The award, which recognizes those who have made outstanding contributions to the development and global exchanges of China studies, as well as the promotion of Chinese civilization, has been presented to 22 scholars since its establishment in 2010.

While Brook stresses his status as "an outsider" in his presentation of Chinese history in a global context, Baik takes pride in his "participant "approach as he actively engages in the study of contemporary China by positioning China as part of East Asia.

In comparison, Mahbubani has tapped into his extensive diplomatic career and research of Chinese history to highlight "the global imperative to promote a deeper understanding of China".

"Even a brief study of the history of China, with its record of zero overseas colonial expansion, could help American policymakers lay to rest their deep fear that China is threatening America," said Mahbubani in his acceptance speech, adding that, in fact, China is willing to cooperate with the United States and other global powers to solve pressing global challenges.

Participating scholars agreed that Chinese civilization has global significance, the understanding of which holds the key to understanding Chinese modernization.

"We recognize that it is critical to fully understand China, from the ancient wisdom embodied by Confucius, to China's remarkable rise as an economic powerhouse and technological innovator, to today's role as a major player in international affairs," said Moeketsi Majoro, former prime minister of Lesotho, in his keynote speech at the conference. He called on the forum to "let our collective exploration be inspiring and enriching, illuminating the path to knowledge, cooperation and mutual respect".

Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, professor emeritus for East Asian Literature and Culture at the University of Goettingen in Germany, said Confucian tradition, which is characterized by respect for tradition and openness to innovation, has become the force for China to embark on a new "Long March" toward modernization.

Zhang Weiwei, dean of the China Institute at Fudan University, agreed.

"As a civilizational state, today's China is both ancient and modern," he said.

Historically, "harmony with diversity, seeking common ground while reserving differences" has been the attitude that China has always adhered to in its interactions with other civilizations. The attitude is also demonstrated in the country's principles of "co-discussion and cooperation, building and sharing" in the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative, he said.

"The principles all come from China's cultural heritage," Zhang said.

The Confucius tradition of a shared culture as demonstrated in the advocates of Chinese sages, such as "Don't worry about scarcity but worry about inequality, don't worry about poverty but worry about insecurity" and "the world is for the common good", also explains the practice of common prosperity in China's modernization process, he continued.

It is also in line with the equality, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation emphasized in China's foreign policy, Zhang added.

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