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Chinese Culture in the 21st Century

chinadaily 2013-10-31

Liu Yunde

Thirty years ago when China began to reform and open up, some Western scholars claimed that the 21st century belongs to the Pacific, to China specifically. We took it as complimentary remarks out of politeness and out of the need to enter the Chinese market. Now we’re already in the second decade of the new century. Suddenly, a clear prospect has appeared before us. Looking back on the past decade, it seemed that the turn of the century had brought a turn of luck for China. Many long-cherished dreams have now become true: Hong Kong and Macau returning to China, entry into the WTO, the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai World Expo, sustained economic growth, long-term social and political stability. Those presuming a pessimistic future for China would now have to watch the oriental century unfolding right before their eyes.

Let’s recall the international political climate before 911. Encouraged by the end of Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, some Western politicians shifted their attention and started to regard China as their main target. China’s embassy in Yugoslavia was bombed. In the South China Sea, a reconnaissance aircraft crashed into a Chinese jet fighter. They even attempted to deploy a missile defense system in the eastern island chain. They seemed confident of their success. However, when the giant was lifting its axe for the kill, the rock under its feet collapsed.

911 is not a simple religious conflict. As early as 1973, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his famous work A Study of History, prophesized the inevitability of conflicts of this kind. He also asserted that Western culture cannot free itself from the conflict. The only antidote is in the East, in China and Chinese culture.

Mr. Toynbee didn’t make his assumption arbitrarily. He studied the history of human civilization as a lifelong career. By outlining the thirty-three forms of civilizations in human history, he pointed out the rules and trends of the development of human civilization. His A Study of History (1961) is a 12-volume definitive masterpiece. For the convenience of readers, in his old age, Mr. Toynbee condensed the voluminous work into two books, Mankind and Mother Earth and A Study of History. The former outlines the history of mankind, while the latter is a philosophical interpretation of the history of human civilization. Starting from his mastery of Western civilization, Mr. Toynbee transcends his cultural affiliations and logically puts the hope of the future in the East. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we can better understand the opportunities and challenges in the new situation by re-reading Toynbee A Study of History. We can also learn how to better take up our responsibilities.

Culture and Civilization

It’s important to distinguish between culture and civilization.

There are numerous academic definitions of culture. But undoubtedly, its nature is the ability of human beings to know and grasp the world around them. It is with this ability that mankind has gradually marched toward modern civilization. Seen in this sense, human culture is as long as human history, at least three million years.

During the three million years, mankind remains, for the most part, in a state of cultural primitivism. It took tens of thousands of years to attain a little progress in human culture. The discovery of fire allowed mankind to finally march out of darkness. Fire allowed mankind to march out of primitivism into the age of savagery. This period is called one of “savagery” possibly because the prevalent violence in handling tribal conflicts.

When tribal life developed, better tool-making skills made it possible to have surplus product. Tribes began to divide due to the struggle for possession of surplus product. Gradually rules came into being, to handle internal relationships such as inequality. According to these rules, all members within a group would recognize the fact that some could have more surplus product and could rule and manage group affairs on behalf of all. This became the earliest institutional culture. While culture used to be about the man-nature relationship, institutional culture started to handle the relationship between men. Nomadic life gradually gave way to agricultural settlement. The institutional culture of mankind was then further enriched and fully established. We can call this institutional culture “culture as a form of civilization”. The process from private ownership to the appearance of the nation is one from barbarism to civilization. In fact, it is a transition from general violence to limited violence. Internally, the limited violence takes the form of the modern ruling system, such as law, prison, government and power structures. Externally, it becomes wars, along with negotiations and treaties. The history of human civilization is one of war. And in the age of civilization, people are likely to think that those breaking civilized rules are barbarians. Against a background of human cultural history of around three million years, the history of human civilization is short, in Toynbee’s words, “5,000 years at most”. Institutions of modernization are far from being mature. That’s why in modern days, clashes of civilizations often lead to violence and war.

The Juxtaposition of Cultures, East and West

The distinction of Eastern and Western cultures was proposed by Westerners. Greeks and later the Romans regarded the eastern Mediterranean region as the Orient. As territory expanded, they discovered farther east, hence the Near East, Middle East and the Far East. On the other hand, in ancient China, “Jiu Zhou” (the nine provinces) means the whole world. The Chinese culture developed in a geographically insulated environment. With the Mediterranean as its cradle, Western culture covers the whole of Europe and a large part of Western Asia. Oriental culture, on the other hand, consists of Chinese culture and Indian culture. Mr. Toynbee follows this method of division in his A Study of History. In his The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington excludes the entire Islamic region from Western civilization. This article does not intend to review the entire history of human civilization, but only lists the major oppositional elements of Eastern and Western cultures, as historical traces of contemporary cultural development.

1. The juxtaposition of cultural origins.

Western culture, as a form of civilization, developed around 3000 BC, with ancient Egyptian Nile culture and Mesopotamian Sumerian culture as its sources. About 1000 BC, on the basis of the Aegean culture, ancient Greeks created ancient Greek culture by absorbing part of Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures. This became the main body of Western civilization and runs through it till the present.

Almost at the same time, in the Yellow River Basin in the East China region, tribal groups represented by the Yellow Emperor unified China. They inherited earlier cultural elements of Youchaoshi, Nu Wa and Suiren, and on that basis, created the source of Chinese culture. With developments in Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, the Chinese civilization came into being in the East, in opposition to the civilization in the West.

In their early stages, Eastern and Western cultures were independent of each other. Each developed on its own into two oppositional cultures.

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