The Gift of Culture: Speech by Mr. Yuan Xingpei at the Closing Ceremony of the 2004 Beijing Forum

[Source]    Hanban [Time]    2012-01-16 15:11:31 

Editor’s note : The first “Beijing Forum” held in August 2004 on the theme “The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All” engaged in a profound and wide-ranging discussion. Mr. Yuan Xingpei, Director of the China Studies Institute at Peking University, gave a speech entitled “The Gift of Culture” at the forum’s closing ceremony, elaborating on his thoughts on the blending of Chinese and world cultures and the future of Chinese civilization from a macro-historical perspective.

The theme of this year’s Beijing Forum, “The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All”, represents the goal we strive for. The “gift of culture” I am referring to is an attitude and pattern of behavior which should be adopted to achieve this goal. I study classical Chinese literature, in recent years paying particular attention to the course of development of Chinese civilization, and I am delighted to begin my speech today from the history of Chinese civilization.

If we think back to the origins of the world’s last several ancient civilizations, Chinese civilization cannot be considered to be the earliest, but Chinese civilization is the only continuous civilization. Chinese civilization is composed of both the relatively early, predominantly agricultural and settled Chinese civilization of the Yellow River Basin and the Yangtze River Basin, and also the predominantly nomadic civilizations of ethnic minorities. The Han Chinese continuously blended with the peoples of the peripheral areas, forming a great big family composed of 56 ethnicities. The evolutionary process of Chinese civilization is not one of mutual extinction, but rather one of mutual blending. The evolutionary process of Chinese civilization, to a great degree can be seen as a process of integration into a single whole through the process of interaction between civilizations of different regions and the civilizations of different nations. The pattern of a pluralistic whole was established, at the latest, during the Western Zhou Dynasty, and although it experienced wars and divisions, new elements of civilizations were continually incorporated, and there was never a single civilization to branch off or split away, so this overall pattern maintained its integrity and was never destroyed. Therefore, from one perspective, the history of the development of Chinese civilization appears to be the history of the blending of nations.

Contact between Chinese civilization and foreign civilizations has promoted the development of Chinese civilization. The influence of Buddhism from India is manifested in many areas such as the Chinese way of thinking and life customs, and the blending of Buddhism into traditional Chinese culture gave birth to Zen Buddhism, which has become an important component of Chinese culture. Western civilization began to enter China at the end of the Ming Dynasty, but for a relatively long period of time it was only a supplementary part of traditional Chinese culture. After the Opium War, in the cry for national salvation, Chinese intellectuals in great numbers introduced and studied advanced Western civilization, the strategy of “Learn from the Foreign Invaders First and then Defeat Them” put forward in Records and Maps of the World compiled by Wei Yuan, was a sign of change. Thereafter, studies of the West went shifted from the areas of science and technology to place a greater emphasis on the areas of government and the humanities. All sorts of new occurrences took place, such as the abolishment of the imperial examination system, the implementation of a new school system, scholars went abroad for studies, and newspapers began to run, which ushered in a new era and caused Chinese civilization to move forward.

However, Chinese civilization developed and matured in a relatively closed off geographical environment, and on the one hand the peripheral natural barriers served to protect Chinese civilization from much invasion by outsiders and allowed it to continuously develop independently; on the other hand, they also limited exchanges between Chinese civilizations and other civilizations. On the whole, there were not many opportunities for exchanges with foreign cultures, and the areas for exchange were also limited. After the peak of Chinese civilization, and especially after civilizations of other regions of the world underwent transformations of modernization, Chinese civilization urgently needed to absorb the excellent achievements of other civilizations to enrich and develop itself, but at this juncture in history the Qing Dynasty rulers implemented policies to close off the country from foreign contact, was stuck in the old ways with no intention of forging ahead, and lost a historic opportunity, thereby causing Chinese civilization to gradually be excluded from the development of mainstream world civilizations, and found itself in a backward position, even reduced to being exploited by others. This is something we cannot help but feel deeply sorrowed for when we look back on the history of Chinese civilization, and it is also a lesson in history that we ought to firmly remember!

Since modern times, the trend of the development of Chinese civilization can roughly be summarized by opening up and going out into the world, with the various calls and efforts made by people of insight at its center. Even today, opening up and going out into the world is still an incomplete historical task. Opening up means to absorb the outstanding achievements of peoples of other nations of the world while maintaining one’s own fine traditions; going out into the world means bringing the outstanding traditions of one’s nation while integrating into mainstream world civilizations.

The current world situation has witnessed unprecedented changes, and economic globalization profoundly influences the course of human civilization. However, this type of situation should not and will not result in the withering away of the unique characteristics of national cultures. At the World Conference on Sinology held by Peking University in 1998, I put forward the idea of the “gift of culture”, which received responses from many scholars. The gift of culture goes in both directions, and is also an activity of blending and innovation of civilizations that is rich in energy and charm in which all nations give their best things to others, and are also willing to accept the gifts of others. Both sides respect the attitude of giving as well as the choices of others, and is by no means forced upon others. Giving and receiving is a process of learning from the strong points of others and gaining a comprehensive understanding of a subject. Because different civilizations have their own distinct natural qualities, the content, quantity, and methods of absorbing foreign cultures are not the same, and the human civilization that emerges after the blending is still made up of all shapes and forms, and our world is still extraordinarily beautiful.

All scholars with a conscience should take the lead in adopting an attitude of mutual respect in relation to this important issue concerning the fate and prospects for mankind, shouldering the task of giving the gift of culture and influencing one’s own government to pursue peaceful coexistence with other civilizations in order to preserve the diversity of civilizations. The Chinese economy is booming, and China’s comprehensive national strength is gradually increasing, but the boom and might of China will not pose a threat to others. I say this from a scholar’s point of view and on the basis of the knowledge I have gained through many years of research, Chinese civilization is in essence a peaceful civilization, and although Chinese civilization is about to preserve itself in the face of foreign threats, it is not concerned with threatening others. A civilization like this is indispensable for stability in the world in the future.

In the major trend of economic globalization, the future of Chinese civilization is an issue which I am greatly concerned with. At Peking University Humanities Forum in 2002, I presented three ideas on this topic, which I would like you to please allow me to reiterate here at the higher and more extensive Beijing Forum:

First, we must welcome the more extensive and profound cultural interactions accompanying economic globalization, which has actively absorbed all of the outstanding achievements of human civilization. In the past, since Chinese civilization was able to absorb and alter these achievements for its own enrichment and development in its contacts with foreign civilizations, in the future it will certainly be able to do so even better.

Secondly, Chinese civilization ought to actively go out into the world. Although Chinese understanding of the world is still inadequate, the world understands China even less and its understanding of China is even more superficial. In 1967, Oxford University Professor Raymond Dawson published a famous book entitled “The Chinese Chameleon: an Analysis of European Conceptions of Chinese Civilization”, which also has a translated version in Chinese published in 1999. This work gives a detailed and concrete introduction of the West’s various views on China, which can be summed up by the following: in the eyes of Westerners, the image of China seems to fluctuate between two extremes: either it is an ideal kingdom, or it is a symbol of stagnation and backwardness. China at times is depicted as prosperous, advanced, wise, beautiful, strong and sincere, and at times is depicted as poor, backwards, foolish, ugly, weak and deceitful. One can see from this book that there is a relatively large distance between the West’s understanding of and the realities of China. We can profoundly perceive that Chinese civilization possesses a broad space in the process of economic globalization and that it can fully display its true features in the world. Along with economic globalization, especially China’s increasing prosperity, the world has a greater need to understand China; Chinese civilization will also have more channels for going out into the world. For Chinese civilization, economic globalization is an opportunity and a challenge. We should posses a clear-headed understanding of this type of situation and take hold of this historical opportunity, cultivate and enhance the national spirit, and make greater contributions to the advancement of human civilization.

Thirdly, we must adhere to the autonomy of civilizations. Whether it is importing the outstanding achievements of world civilizations or going out into the world, they are all our own independent thinking and actions. Looking back on history, the broad-mindedness of the people of the Han and Tang Dynasties and the grand spirit which they adopted for their own use, called “large and bold” by Lu Xun to describe that kind of attitude, is a very good representation of autonomy. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, modern Western civilization gradually began to arrive in China and greatly poured into China after the Opium War, influencing the course of history in China for over one hundred years, but Chinese civilization did not lose its capacity for autonomy. Until today, we have better conditions for strengthening the autonomy of civilization and deciding the fate of our civilization for ourselves. In the trend of economic globalization, on the one hand we adopt unfaltering and realistic measures and make efforts to preserve the national characteristics of Chinese civilization, and on the other hand we must also see that our national characteristics exist because of relativity, with more to compare ourselves to we are better able to display ourselves. We also need to see that national characteristics of civilizations are not unchanging, that certain elements are made prominent and certain elements gradually fade or even disappear in the process of interaction with other civilizations. We should create conditions for bringing about the progressive formation of new characteristics adapted to the development of times.

In conclusion: along with the advent of economic globalization, which is neither a single global civilization nor a clash of civilizations, but is instead the autonomy, gifts, and prosperity of diversified civilizations. This emergence and establishment of this new type of environment for civilizations is an important indication that the evolution of mankind has reached a higher stage. The Chinese people must be able to seize this historical opportunity and realize a great revival. The Chinese people must be able to reconstruct a greater image of their civilization in the world. Chinese civilization, which possesses a continuous history of thousands of years, must reproduce its brilliance in the course of future civilizations, and make greater contributions to the advancement of all of human civilization!


About Mr. Yuan Xingpei


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