Inclusive legacy of Chinese culture a benefit to the world

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-10-20

A parterre featuring distinctive Chinese elements to illustrate Chinese civilization in downtown Beijing on Sept. 27 Photo: Chen Mirong/CSST

A speech delivered by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, at a meeting on cultural inheritance and development on June 2, has received an enthusiastic response from academia both at home and abroad.

Over the course of human civilization, the withering, disruption, and decline of civilizations has been a recurring phenomenon. In stark contrast, Chinese civilization has demonstrated unwavering resilience in the face of challenges, enduring for thousands of years with continuous vitality. Guy S. Alitto, a professor from the Department of History at the University of Chicago, also among the most eminent and influential Sinologists in the West, recently received an interview with CSST reporter Bai Le, when he shared his views on the unique characteristics of Chinese civilization.

Continuity and inclusiveness

CSST: You mentioned that Chinese civilization has strong continuity and inclusiveness, which is unique among human civilizations. From perspectives of the Chinese and world history, can you talk about your understanding on this?

Guy S. Alitto: Indeed, as I consider, there is a cultural continuity and inclusiveness in Chinese civilization that does not exist in any other civilization on earth.

Diffusion through space and eternalness through time are two major factors in China’s unparalleled cultural continuity. Chinese civilization was not just that within the borders of the various Chinese empires. This civilization had profound influence well beyond the borders of the Chinese state as it has existed in history. It has clearly identifiable characteristics that had developed originally in what is now north and central China, but from that base proliferated to its utmost geographic limits. That is, to the east, the Pacific Ocean; to the northwest, the huge deserts, steppe, and frozen tundra; to the southwest, the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, and to the south, the jungles of Southeast Asia.

The fundamental cultural continuities that were clearly recorded in the Shang-Dynasty oracle bones remained intact throughout the various Chinese empires and kingdoms, as well as the other “Sinic” civilizations of East Asia and Southeast Asia–Japan, Korea, and what is now Vietnam. These younger variations of Sinic civilization were distinctly identifiable as such, although each has its own distinguishing characteristics as well.

There are certain fundamental principles upon which other aspects of the culture are still based. When Chinese civilization was disrupted by invasions, it, unlike other civilizations, always reconstituted itself, always reproduced itself based on those principles. This is of course a unique feature of Chinese civilization.

I do indeed think that from its very inception, Chinese culture has been inclusive, quite the opposite of ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Groups, either political or religious, were “exclusive” in the ancient Western world and were highly articulated. Their structures rested on binary logic–either one was a member of the organization, or one was not. You could not participate in two religious/political communities simultaneously. This would explain why in Western military conquests, the entire defeated side was either destroyed or enslaved. In such situations in China, co-option and absorption would take place, not mass destruction and enslavement.

Distinctions between beliefs of human groups including religious organizations were mainly made by culture. I think that under an ideal cultural atmosphere, private and undisclosed religious beliefs could be free; they mattered much as long as actions were within the norms of “civilized” society. In traditional Chinese society, disputes over interpretations of religious scriptures did not result in violent struggle, as they did in monotheistic Western civilizations.

In addition, all early human groups (lineages, tribes) in ancient Chinese society had animals as totems and emblems for the group. In this regard, I find it significant that the first image for “China” that emerges is a dragon, which is a composite animal, an amalgamation of parts of different animals–rooster, lion, fish, snake, bird, and so on. The zoomorphic masks symbolizing power that appear on Shang-Dynasty bronze vessels are also composite animals. Different parts of animals could form one body in a harmonious way, and the images were products of co-optation, rather than a struggle to obliterate the “other” among multi-group organizations. These early sacred symbols exude a spirit of inclusivity.

Inspirational yin-yang thought

CSST: Regarding the inclusiveness of Chinese civilization, do you think the dialectical yin-yang thought embodied in the Chinese classic, Book of Changes (I Ching), also reflects inclusiveness? What inspiration can inclusiveness provide for building a more peaceful world?

Guy S. Alitto: One of the oldest Chinese books, the Book of Changes, is the basis of a Chinese cosmology that is 2,500 years old and still forms the basis of traditional medicine, the martial arts, and astronomy. It represents the crystallization of the “Chinese mind.”

It deals with Cosmology—that is, the way that the world works and is put together. In the Book of Changes, very clear cosmological pictures of the world become the basis for later Chinese thought. The first and foremost quality of this cosmological concept is that the cosmos is in constant, unrelenting flux. Everything is changing every nanosecond, and nothing is permanent. However, this flux—this constant change—takes place within certain patterns, according to certain principles. And that’s where the notion, for instance, of yin-yang comes from. That is, one can trace patterns within the constant flow of change. You can make out that this is not chaotic change but a change that is within certain patterns.

The image of the cosmos overall that emerges is one of a unified organic whole with yin and yang—a harmonious whole, each part of which is interdependent and interpenetrating. It is the inherent qualities of the parts that cause them to act in harmony and cause them to act the way that they do. Yin and yang are naturally interdependent. If there is no yin, no yang can exist. If there is no yang, no yin can exist. They are interdependent and interpenetrating. This concept about nature differs from other cultures and has extremely profound consequences for later Chinese thought.

This is quite a different way of looking at the world from any place else. In the West, specifically the development of Christianity, which is derived from certain aspects of classical Greek philosophy and Judaism, there are many bifurcations: human versus nature, divine versus human, and nature versus divine. These are absolute bifurcations of clearly two different entities that share nothing.

The way that the thought embodied in the Book of Changes relates to international relations is that they are not binary. The spirit of compromise and conciliation should be the attitude held by diplomatic representatives of modern states, but it clearly is not.

Morality of any sort is unrelated to modern international relations, which was recognized by modern Western theologists such as the American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Naturally, in theory, the world in general would be better if the spirit of yin-yang, of harmony, compromise, and interdependence influenced international relations.

Valuable Chinese mentality

CSST: Intellectuals are important inheritors of culture. You have analyzed the difference between Chinese and Western intellectuals. How would you say they differ?

Guy S. Alitto: The thought of many Western intellectuals are based on binary logic. For example, the end of the Cold War constituted a watershed event and ushered in widespread anxiety about the shape of the world in the future. Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory provided a prediction of the shape of the world of the future and so met a need of the time. By now the facts of history have proved his theory wrong.

Traditional Chinese intellectuals and thinkers were indeed different from traditional Western intellectuals and thinkers in terms of mentality and character. Since the ancient times, there has been a tendency toward the eclectic, toward synthesis and compromise, which is uniquely characteristic of Chinese thought—the “Doctrine of the Mean” as Mencius said.

I trace this difference back to the pre-Qin period of the flowering of Chinese thought. In pre-Qin China, different schools such as Confucian, Taoist, Mohist, and Legalist schools emerged. In my reading, they were more individual thinkers than members of any “school.” If you were a student of a particular Master, you could also explore other thought. This thought it implies homogeneity or uniformity. The result was a constant inescapable inclination toward harmony.

Editor:Yu Hui

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