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Literature reflects spiritual qualities of Chinese civilization

Author  :  LIU YUEJIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-07-26

When presiding over the 39th group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, stressed that China’s fine traditional culture represents the wisdom and essence of Chinese civilization, is the root and soul of the Chinese nation, and serves as the foundation for China to gain a firm footing amidst global cultural interaction.

Chinese literature, an important part of fine traditional Chinese culture, is the spiritual portrait of different eras and of the nation.

In literary history, authors of Chinese classical and modern literature have won the respect of later generations. Their works vividly demonstrate the landscape of the times and social changes, as well as accurately reflect people’s sufferings, struggles, ideals, and aspirations. They profoundly reveal the unique spiritual qualities and rich cultural heritage of Chinese civilization, reserved and introspective, strong and optimistic, well-grounded, and timeless.

Contemporary writer Sun Li’s novel The Mandate depicts a soldier anxiously returning home in intervals between years of wars, after having lost track of the situation at home. When he calms down, the very moment he opens the door, there his wife is, who is just about to walk out. The two of them stare at each other, stunned. A few moments later, his wife says “you…” and turns away, tears trickling down her face. In times of war, the joys and sorrows of ordinary people are all condensed in this one word “you.” This is the expression of traditional Chinese emotions.

During the An Shi Rebellion (756-763), Du Fu was separated from his family. After three years of separation from his wife and children, Du Fu was finally able to visit them, when he wrote the famous Qiang Village Three Poems. The poems describe that death was perhaps the norm in the war years, and survival was a luxury or accidental. “My wife and children, amazed to see me alive, recover from their astonishment, wipe away tears.” In the dead of night, the old couple who had suffered from hardships for so many years, holding hands, and looking at each other with tears in their eyes, still felt like it was a dream. “As night deepens, we bring out candles, face one another as though in a dream.” What deep feelings are hidden in those simple words? Isn’t this a vivid reflection of our subtle and reserved national character?

In Chinese stories and legends, we believe “one good turn deserves another.” Even if the motif is death, we retell this as a victorious love and life. The ending of A Pair of Peacocks Southeast Fly poetically renders the harrowing tragedy of the death of Liu Lanzhi and Jiao Zhongqing: the cemetery is covered by the thick shade of pine, cypress, and paulownia trees, and a pair of mandarin ducks sing to each other beneath the velvety foliage, seemingly transformed by the two spirits, symbolizing their undying love, and how now no pressure can tear them apart again.

It is in these ordinary details that our literature unfolds the beautiful hearts, noble emotions, and unyielding character of the Chinese people, filling the reader with a strong power. The Chinese people have never given up their pursuit of a better life, their identification with national unity, and their expectation of national strength, despite the vicissitudes of life they’ve survived.

This subtle and introverted national character, and strong and optimistic national spirit, originate from our tradition of ritual civilization, which features the unity of knowledge and action, the unity of family and nation, benevolence, an emphasis on people’s lives, respect for justice and integrity, righteousness, and universal harmony. According to the Zhouyi (Book of Changes) : “We look at the ornamental figures of the sky, and thereby ascertain the changes of the seasons. We look at the ornamental observances of society and understand how the processes of transformation are all accomplished under heaven.” Here, the word “transformation” is emphasized. The greatest virtue is just like water, nurturing all things without competing with them. So is our influence of the people and the world with Wen [an inclusive concept which contains culture and literature]. The essence of Chinese humanism emphasizes the harmonious coexistence, and the complete unity of truth, goodness, and beauty.

In Chinese literature, it is easy to find that our culture values personal cultivation, emphasizes responsibility, promotes the spirit of dedication, and values cooperation. The world today is confronting profound changes unseen in a century, with intricate contradictions. Chinese civilization will play a more important role in solving these problems.

Confucius said, “The Odes serve to stimulate the mind. They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art of sociability. They show how to regulate feelings of resentment. From them you learn the more immediate duty of serving one’s father, and the remoter one of serving one’s prince.” Literature can also unite people and connect the world. Through the window of literature, the spiritual qualities of Chinese civilization internalize our national spiritual will and national cultural philosophy, creating an individual self-consciousness. This helps eliminate barriers and confrontations between people, in society, and in nature, and helps promote exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations, to inject Chinese wisdom into the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind.

Wen, or pattern, is very great indeed.”


Liu Yuejin is a CASS Member.

Editor: Yu Hui

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