Chinese knowledge played constructive role in world civilization

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-07-11

A Chinese-style pagoda stands at Kew Gardens in London. The pagoda was designed and built by British architect William Chambers in 1762. Photo: CFP

For centuries, knowledge of the world has been confined to a discourse center occupied by the West. China, as a nation in the Far East, has always been regarded as a heterogeneous “other” in the landscape of world civilization. The westward transmission of China’s civilizational and cultural influence since the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties has been overshadowed by Western clout, with Chinese knowledge’s role in shaping the world discourse system long neglected.

Under the guidance of the spirit of the Global Civilization Initiative proposed by General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping, it is necessary to examine the constructive role of Chinese insights in world civilization from the dimensions of Chinese influence on the Enlightenment, aesthetics, modern consciousness, and world outlook.

Influence on the Enlightenment

When Chinese knowledge was disseminated in the West, Chinese culture, represented by Confucianism, had a profound influence on the Western Enlightenment for its rich political theories and moral doctrines. Chinese culture’s core view of the universe and epistemology were learnt, directly or indirectly, by Western thinkers, and considered a comparable intellectual system to the Western knowledge system.

On one hand, European Enlightenment thinkers viewed Confucianism as a natural religion and compared it to Christianity. They criticized superstitious and fanatical elements of Christianity, preferring Confucianism’s rational perspective. For example, prominent English deists Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal made a comparison between Confucius’s moral maxims and Jesus Christ’s teachings, and defied Christianity’s unquestionable authority by referring to the Confucian philosophical system.

On the other hand, these Enlightenment intellectuals also associated Confucianism with individual moral perfection. From the height of human history, they objectively evaluated Chinese civilization’s historical value to world development. According to famed French philosopher Voltaire, the religion of the Confucian literati “was never dishonored by fables, nor stained with quarrels or civil wars.” Voltaire even affirmed that, the East is “the cradle of all arts, to which the West owes everything.”

In his preface to Novissima Sinica (Latest News from China), renowned German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz acknowledged that the Chinese were far ahead in what he called “the percepts of civil life,” despite the European cultures’ superiority to China in “logic and metaphysics,” “knowledge of things incorporeal,” and “military science.” “Certainly, they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the percepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and use of mortals,” wrote Leibniz.

A review of the Enlightenment’s history suggests that most of these European sages were inspired by Chinese learning in one way or another. In a sense, ancient Chinese civilization had unintentionally sparked the flame of the Enlightenment in Europe as an “enlightener.”

Infiltration of aesthetic notions

In the 7th to 6th centuries BCE, Chinese culture began to filter through to the West as the Scythians migrated westward. In the era of King Mu during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), the degree and scope of this cultural influence gradually grew and widened.

Following Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian’s expeditions to the “Western Regions” in the 2nd century BCE, the ancient Silk Road allowed both Chinese commodities and aesthetic genes of Chinese culture to flow from East to West.

In the 15th century, navigator and diplomat Zheng He’s fleet brought more Chinese craftsmen and artifacts to the West. In the 16th century, as Europeans gained maritime access to China, Chinese porcelain goods, silk, and furniture were exported to Europe in large amounts. European missionaries in China also introduced the architectural style of Chinese palaces, temples, and gardens to mainstream society in Europe. In the subsequent two centuries, imitating Chinese gardens and palaces was widely popular in Europe.

The philosophical approach of interacting with nature respectfully, and seeking harmony between humanity and nature, a distaste for intense religious worship, and rich ethical orientations of Chinese aesthetics set off a China wave within the Western art world. The fusion of depicted sceneries and expressed emotions contained in Chinese aesthetics was extensively absorbed in the West, whether in architectural, garden, or poetic arts.

Under the influence of Chinese aesthetic philosophy, garden designs which attempted to recreate natural landscapes became quite fashionable in 17th-century Europe. English humanist Sir William Temple and landscape-architect Charles Bridgeman played a vital role in the growing popularity of Chinese garden art in the West. In his magnum opus Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils, British architect William Chambers dedicated one fourth of the book’s length to introducing the art of Chinese landscape gardens — with high praise.

Traces of Chinese culture in the Western aesthetic realm, though not as obvious as in architecture, utensils, and gardens, can also be found in paintings and literature. Dao (tao), chanyi (Buddhist mood), and xuwu (emptiness) in Chinese aesthetics, alongside xieyi (freehand brushwork) and shiyi (poetic qualities) in idea-scape creation, have been evident in Western paintings and literature.

The imitation of Chinese poetry was an important part of pronounced American poet Ezra Pound’s compositions. He regarded Chinese poetry as a treasure trove, saying that inspiration for the future could be found in it, just as the Renaissance drew inspiration from ancient Greece. “It is possible that this century may find a new Greece in China,” he added.

Swiss painter Paul Klee argued that popular techniques in modern painting, such as exaggeration and distortion, and approaches like symbolism and abstraction, in fact learnt from the Eastern xieyi and drew upon its vision to extrapolate deeper meanings beyond the physical image and text.

Awakening modern consciousness

Due to Western centrism, China has long been viewed as an “other” in modernization, but in fact, the West absorbed rich inspiration from Chinese culture as the modern consciousness was budding. At the beginning of Western missionaries’ stay in China, conflicts between the church’s traditional approach to handling China issues and the Jesuits’ new model of interpreting Confucianism had already shown traces of modern consciousness.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuits in China introduced more than 700 Chinese works to the West. The ancient Chinese thoughts contained in these works set the stage for Western modern consciousness to emerge, and spawned many new ideas and values to some extent. The resultant Enlightenment’s thorough criticism of old traditions fostered the tradition of rationality in Western modernism, and finally fueled the rise of the modern consciousness.

Leibniz had a very high opinion of ancient Chinese rationality, as epitomized by Confucianism, contending that it was the model for human rationality. Immanuel Kant applied the rationality-based new values to criticizing cultural and social phenomena, which implied that theories concerning Western modernism had begun to mature. Additionally, the social science research methodologies used by Hegel and Max Weber to reflect on Western civilization with China as a foil already had a modern air.

In the 1920s, the works of Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), a pivotal figure in Chinese Daoism (Taoism), reached Europe. They first influenced literary and art circles, gradually extending to the entire intellectual community. Zhuangzi’s theories generated positive influence on the shift in Martin Heidegger’s philosophical system. In his Being and Time, Heidegger yearned for harmony between humanity and nature, in a deep echo of Zhuangzi’s intellectual pursuit of giving nature the space to take its course. This resonance was also a sign of Heidegger’s critical attitude toward the Western ethos, and activated the genes of Western postmodernism, exerting significant impact on the world cultural pattern after World War II.

Tianxia outlook

In Chinese culture, the unique notion of tianxia, or all under Heaven, which encompasses sihai (the four seas), is not an explicit geographical concept, but a cultural space outlook with wild historical imagination. The ancient texts Shang Shu (Book of Shang) and Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas) had clear expressions of hainei (within the four seas), haiyu (areas bordering the sea), and haiwai (beyond the four seas).

Ancient Chinese made sense of the world through the concept of sihai, which was bounded by hainei but looked outward, haiwai; this framework formed the distinctive views of the country and the world in Chinese culture. The views represent a unique civilizational outlook formed in certain geographical and historical conditions, and a civilizational norm that can bring “harmony among all nations.” It hints at a desired vision of shared governance and harmonious coexistence. On this basis, tianxia has become a crucial foundation from which the Chinese understand the world, people, matters, and culture.

Whether discussing Zhang Qian’s missions to the Western Regions or Zheng He’s voyages to the West in history, the Chinese tianxia outlook was factually spread along the time-honored Silk Road. However, in modern times, due to the decline in China’s national strength, theories which place Western civilization in the center of the world and suggest that conflict between civilizations is inevitable, a result of cultural disparities, ideological differences, and uneven economic development, have swept across the world. Chinese culture’s tianxia concept was viewed as unrealistic and utopian for many years.

Gratifyingly, with the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, a new wave of delving into Chinese knowledge has emerged worldwide in this new historical period. Under the broad premise of the tianxia outlook, which advocates for and respects the diversity of world civilizations, the Belt and Road Initiative that aims to bring global benefits, and the grand vision of building a human community with a shared future are rationally responding to and gradually abating the claim that the Western civilization is superior to others and the “clash of civilizations” thesis, as different development paths converge between China and the West.


Xu Baofeng is a professor and director of the World Sinology Center at Beijing Language and Culture University.

Editor:Yu hui

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