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Chinese wisdom continues to spread westward

Author  :  Huang Zhonglian and Li Yatu     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-07-07

Chinese wisdom has its roots in the traditional agricultural civilization and has successfully adapted and flourished within the constantly evolving industrial civilization. As China transitions from an agricultural society to an industrial powerhouse, it continues to make significant contributions of wisdom to the global community.

Spread of traditional wisdom

The dissemination of Eastern knowledge to the West primarily encompasses the traditional Chinese wisdom rooted in agricultural civilization. This wisdom, which emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature, can be summarized as “the harmonious and sustainable development between humans and nature” in modern terms. This traditional wisdom is the source of Chinese wisdom, and contains not only scientific and technological wisdom, but also humanistic wisdom.

Scientific and technological wisdom, exemplified by the four great inventions of ancient China, are artifacts in the traditional sense. Initially introduced to the West to meet practical needs, they have had a profound impact in those regions. Humanistic wisdom mainly consists of Confucianism, including the Four Books and Five Classics. Unrestricted in form, this wisdom nurtures people from within, fostering adaptability and resourcefulness.

In the past, the westward spread of Chinese wisdom was largely driven by Westerners, who exerted significant influence over cultural preferences and translation methods. The dissemination of Chinese wisdom suffered from incompleteness, inaccuracy, and even distortion, stemming from variations in societal demands, prevailing aesthetics, and the personal preferences of translators.

It is therefore necessary to continuously expand the sources involved in the westward spread of Chinese wisdom. On the one hand, we should rely on the charm of Chinese wisdom to attract Western translators to a wider range of fields. On the other hand, we should take the initiative to translate Chinese works into other languages and promote Chinese wisdom in an increasingly comprehensive way in order to avoid partial and biased translations by Westerners.

The differences between Chinese and Western wisdom stem from their philosophical foundations. Western modernization originated from Western culture. Rooted in the dichotomy of subject and object, it focuses on the dominance, conquest, and transformation of the object by the subject. Chinese modernization grew out of China’s fine traditional culture with its roots in notions such as “harmony between humanity and nature” and “unity of subject and object.” It is based on and centered around people at home, while maintaining a global vision and remaining committed to the welfare of the world. The wisdom of the Chinese nation can be manifested in cultural concepts, complementing the Western approach to the world in this complex and chaotic era.

Spread of contemporary wisdom

While ancient Chinese wisdom was valued by the West, Western discourse enjoys a dominant position today. To revitalize the westward diffusion of Chinese wisdom, it is essential to cultivate contemporary Chinese wisdom rooted in tradition, thereby establishing it as a fresh and influential source for the western audience. The most appropriate way to design the vision of the westward dissemination of contemporary Chinese wisdom is to “guide the flow.” This guidance has three dimensions.

First, step-by-step guidance. It is necessary to adopt a two-step strategy in the westward spread of Chinese wisdom, with scientific and technological wisdom closely succeeded by intellectual wisdom. This strategy embodies China’s governing wisdom and highlights the methodical and systematic characteristics of Chinese wisdom.

Scientific and technological innovation has now become the main battlefield of international strategic competition. China has been making significant strides in catching up with the West. High-tech is the future for China’s development and its main source of confidence. Modernization began in the West, but is no longer equivalent to “Westernization.” The Chinese path to modernization is gradually becoming a new landmark within the global modernization landscape.

Second, dual-track guidance. The westward spread of contemporary Chinese wisdom requires the combination of outward translation and two-way translation. The former involves translating from Chinese into other languages, and the latter involves translating between Chinese and other languages. In recent years the Chinese government has attached great importance to outward translation because it is an important channel for actively presenting China to the world.

Currently limited to literary works, two-way translation should be applied to a broader scope of fields. We should be flexible in our use of various translation methods in addition to full translation, and examine the ways China is depicted in other languages as well as the acceptability in the eyes of readers, as mutual understanding can help us better promote ourselves.

Third, guidance by example. Chinese wisdom belongs to the world despite its Chinese origins. The more local it is, the more likely it is to captivate the Western mind ready to explore differences. Contemporary Chinese wisdom is not isolated. Instead, it has embraced foreign influences, reflecting the characteristic integration of industrial civilization.

Discourse plays an integral role in shaping the perception of both Chinese and Western wisdom. We should maintain national confidence in the westward spread of Chinese wisdom, while emphasizing the importance of concern for others. By integrating the essence of tradition with contemporary expression, the West can be motivated to actively embrace and incorporate Chinese wisdom over time.


Huang Zhonglian (professor) and Li Yatu are from the Center for Translation Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.

Editor: Yu Hui

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