Scholarly article on topic 'The Historical Revelations from the Chinese Civilization'

The Historical Revelations from the Chinese Civilization Academic research paper on "Philosophy, ethics and religion"

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Academic research paper on topic "The Historical Revelations from the Chinese Civilization"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

ELSEVIER Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 7006-7011

Selected Papers of Beijing Forum 2006

The Historical Revelations from the Chinese Civilization

Yuan Xingpei

Professor, Peking University

Ladies and gentlemen,

The reason why I am making a speech with such a topic lies in the following facts: with the organization of the Academy of Traditional Chinese Culture, Peking University, a historical work entitled A History of the Chinese Civilization has been completed by 36 professors and researchers of the university after 6 years' work. As the person in charge and one of the general editors of this work, I have been thinking about a question during my work, namely, what can the history of the Chinese civilization reveal to human beings in the 21st century? I would like to outline my ideas briefly on this topic to the scholars from all over the world on the occasion of Beijing Forum.

The first revelation of the history of the Chinese civilization lies in the choice of peace and harmony.

Just as the peace-loving Chinese people are rooted in their native land, so is the peace loving Chinese civilization rooted in the vast continent of East Asia. The idea of "peacefulness" or "harmoniousness" has emerged many times in the Chinese classics, as is said in The Tao-te-ching "Everything possesses yin and yang and achieves harmong with qi (breath of life)." (Chapter 12) The idea of "harmoniousness" has been interpreted philosophically here to summarize the co-existent interrelationships of everything in the world. "Harmoniousness" has also been mentioned in The Analects, "Noble persons can enjoy themselves in harmonious variety, while the ignoble ones can but lose themselves in factious disagreement."(Chapter 13) Although "harmoniousness" is interpreted here in terms of individuality, it can also be regarded as a doctrine applied in the community. The Analects, also says, "The function of li (courtesy or rite) lies primarily in harmoniousness, which is the best law passed down from the former kings." (Chapter 1) Here the term li, bears the interpretation of "harmoniousness", which is not only the function of li, but also the political doctrine, and also a cultural aesthetic. In the Doctrine of Mean, "harmoniousness" is regarded as "the most extensive law under heaven". With "harmoniousness", everything goes freely without any harm. And it also reads, "It is the mean and harmoniousness that position the heaven and the earth properly, and that nurture everything in the world." Here "the mean and harmony" is considered to be the essential law in the universe as well as the world, and the significance of "harmoniousness" is clearly revealed.

The Chinese people know very well not only the safeguard of peace to the civilization, but also the damage of war to it. When China was united in the West Jin Dynasty, for instance, prosperity began to mushroom in the fields of document editing, history compilation, academic accumulation, and literary creation, etc. It was war that disrupted the development of the civilization, which caused a break in society for many years in Northern China. In the Song Dynasty, for another instance, China was leading in the world in science and technology, but again fell to the impact of strife and war.

Both harmony and peace are based on "harmoniousness". Harmony, including the harmony between man and nature, between man and man, and within the individual, is a higher realm above that of peace. Harmony between man and nature is focused not only on remolding nature to meet man's needs, but also on adjusting man himself to live according to the law of nature. This is the essentials of the so-called "the unity of nature and man". The harmony between man and nature is focused on the respect for others as well as for the self, and considers the interests of the whole as well as that of the individual, so as to guarantee coordinated development. The harmony

1877-0428 © 2010 Beijing Forum. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.05.054

within the individual, including the two aspects of coordination, physical and mental, is focused on the improvement of personality and morals by means of practice and introspection. The idea of harmony in Chinese civilization, undoubtedly, will be of much value when tackling the various problems encountered by China as well as the world.

The history of the Chinese civilization has revealed that, without peace or harmony, civilization cannot develop; only in peace, can the achievements of the civilization be preserved, and only in harmony, can civilization steadily develop.

The second revelation of the history of Chinese civilization lies in the choice of tolerance.

The idea of tolerance is innate in the Chinese tradition, as is said in The Book of History, "More tolerance, and more merits." (The Imperial Remarks, in The Records of Zhou) In other words, a person with tolerance can achieve tremendous merits. It also says in The Tao-te-ching (Lao Zi, or Dao De Jing), "Be tolerant, and one will become a duke, and then a king, and then an emperor, before he becomes an immortal with the Tao." In other words, a person with tolerance will become more and more powerful. Although this is related to political rulers, it is also of significance to all Chinese civilization. Thus, the Chinese civilzation is one of great tolerance. There is a saying in China, "one sea accepting hundreds of rivers," used to describe a broad-minded person. This can also ba applied to China as a whole.

More and more archeological evidence suggest that the birthplace of Chinese civilization is located not only in the Huanghe River valley, but also in the Yangtze River valley. Furthermore, many other cultural traces have been found throughout China. Chinese civilization, then, is composed not only of the civilization of the Hans, who lived by farming in the two valleys, but also that of the minority nationalities, who lived by herding in other regions. The rich and colorful Chinese civilization has evolved in a combination of multiple civilization factors, which was centered on the civilization of the Hans, with the expansion of the civilization from the center to the surrounding regions, and with its cohesion vice versa, and with mutual complement, absorption, and fusion of civilization between the center and the surrounding regions. The Hans and the 55 minority nationalities have made important contributions to the Chinese civilization. For instance, the Wooden Tower in Yingxian County, Shanxi Province, in which we take pride, is an exguisite work by the Qidan Nationality during the Liao Dynasty. And in the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongols, a sea navigation route was opened from south to north for the first time. Dnying the Qing Dynasty established by the Manchus, there was a period of prosperity from Emperor Kangxi to Emperor Qianlong, which are important pages in Chinese history to say the least.

I would like to use the Warring States Period and the Tang Dynasty as further examples. It is a well-known fact that during the Warring States Period, different schools of thoughts, such as Confucianism, Mohism, Taoism, Legalism, Logicism, and the yin-yang School co-existed with unrestricted academic arguments. What I want to emphasize is that tolerance came not only from rulers, but from all of society. Confucius had over three thousand disciples, and "the speeches of Yang Zhu and Mo Zhai were heard all over the world." (The Remarks with the Duke of Tengwen, Mencius Volume III ) Other schools of thought likewise had their own leaders and disciples. All this illnstrates the great tolerance of society.

Tolerance can also serve as a key symbol of the Tang Dynasty in many aspects. To begin with, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were mutually accepted. Further, the imperial examination system made it possible not only for scholars with low social status, but also those belonging to minority nationalities to have opportunity to serve the government at various ranks; there mushroomed various themes and styles of literature and art, etc. For example, some generals in the Tang Dynasty, such as Ge Shuhan, Gao Xianzhi, and Li Guangbi, etc., were from minority nationalities. Even Chao Hong or who was from Japan, and Chui Zhiyuan, from

Korea, held posts in the Tang Dynasty.

The history of the Chinese civilization has revealed to us that tolerance is needed in the development of civilization. As is said in a Chinese proverb, "Tolerance can even make a mountain lofty, and a sea deep." Only with tolerance can hundreds of rivers gather into a vast sea; only with tolerance can one become stronger and stronger.

The third revelation of the history of Chinese civilization lies in the choice of enlightenment.

There are four essential points in enlightenment: firstly, the people are of nobility. As Mencius says, "The people are of nobility, the country of second, and the monarch of humbleness." (The Hearty Remarks (continued), Mencius Volume VII). Secondly, the monarch should be ready to accept advice or even criticism given by the subject. As is said by Ban Biao, "(The monarch) should accept advice or criticism as is going with the stream." (On the Monarchal Decree, The Selections) This is the fundamental condition for an enlightened monarch. Thirdly, only noble and virtuous persons should be appointed to government. As is said in The Book of Rituals (Li Ji), "The

virtuous man should be upheld, the worthy man respected, the able man appointed, and the righteous man recommended to the appropriate posts." (The Ritual Instruments). Fourthly, the law should be the main criterion. As Emperor Tang Taizong said, "The law does not belong to my own, but to all under heaven." (On Justice, The Essential Policies during the Reign of Zhenguan) This, to a certain degree, defines the idea of legality.

In ancient China, people tended to associate "the period of prosperity" with "enlightenment", calling it "the enlightening period of prosperity". Some enlightening period of prosperity, such as the Reign of Emperor Han Wendi and Emperor Han Jingdi in the Han Dynasty (the Reign of Wen and Jing), the Reign of Emperor Tang Taizong (the Reign of Zhenguan) and the Reign of Emperor Tang Xuanzong (the Reign of Kaiyuan), are comparatively enlightening. Take the Tang Dynasty for example: Emperor Tang Taizong said to the crown prince, "The ship can be compared to the emperor, and the water to the people: the water can not only carry the ship, but can also overturn it." (The Admonitions to the Crown Prince and Other Princes, The Essential Policies during the Reign of Zhenguan) Once Emperor Taizong asked Wei Zheng, one of his Ministers, for the difference between an enlightened emperor and an unenlightened one. He replied, "An emperor is enlightened because he listens to others impartially, and an emperor is unenlightened because he believes others partially." (The Principles of the Emperor, The Essential Policies during the Reign of Zhenguan). In the second year of Xiantian (713 A. D.),Yao Chong, appointed prime minister by Emperor Tang Xuanzong, came up with "the ten issues" of that time, such as the effects of benevolent policies, the constraints of border merits, the suspension of interference policies by eunuchs and royal relatives, exemption from sundry taxes, etc. All this was fully accepted by the emperor. When Yao Chong retired from his post as prime minister, he recommended Song Jing, who was straight-minded and ready to admonish the emperor, as his successor. Song carried on Yao's policies, which made the taxes and levies relieved, the criminal penalties lessened, and the nation prosper.

There is something enlightening in the political pattern of the Song Dynasty. An entire civil service system was perfected in the Song Dynasty so that the emperor and the ministers, the central government and the local ones, the administrative organ and the regional branches, could all cooperate and interact with one another. As far as the emperor-minister relationship is concerned, Chen Liang made a statement by quoting Emperor Song Renzong's remarks, namely, "National affairs should not be solely disposed by me, but rather be publicly discussed in the court before they are put into practice by the prime minister. If some malpractice arises, the supervisory officials should point it out publicly and then correct it." (On the Principles of Governing, The Collection of Longchuan) Emperor Song Renzong thinking that the national affair should not be at his exclusive disposal is the very defination of an enlightened ruler.

Chinese civilization teaches us that without enlightenment, civilization can not develop soundly. Only with enlightenment can a government be fully supported by the people, and can the country flourish and bloom.

The fourth revelation of the history of the Chinese civilization lies in the choice of reform.

Of the four great ancient civilizations in the world, the Chinese civilization, though not the earliest one, is the only one that has been incessant in its development. For this there are many reasons, some of which have been illustrated in the general preface of The History of the Chinese Civilization. I want to underline but one point, that is, there contains the idea of change in the Chinese civilization, which explains its self-innovation. As King Zhou Wenwang is praised in The Book of Songs (Shi Jing), "As old a kingdom as Zhou is, it can last long by reform." (An ode to King Zhou Wenwang, Great Elegance of Shi Jing) This is the praise to "reform". As it reads in the Book of Changes (Zhou Yi), "Daily innovation is a grand merit, and constant life lies in changes." (The Upper Annotation of the Eight Diagrams, The Book of Changes) It has been pointed out that incessant change is the universal law for development. It also reads in The Book of Changes, "A standstill comes before a change, a change before a turn for better, and a turn for better before development forever." (The Lower Annotation of the Eight Diagrams, The Book of Changes) In other words, change acts as a key link between a standstill and a turn for better. In fact, the character "yi" (M) in "Zhou Yi" (The Book of Changes) bears the very meaning of "change". As for the thought of change in Chinese philosophy, Mr. Zhang Dainian cites a series of Chinese philosophers (such as Confucius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Zhang Zai, Cheng Hao, Cheng yi, Wang Fuzhi, Dai Zhen, etc.) in saying that, "In Chinese philosophy change is a fundemental fact in the universe. Change is fundamental in that everything is in change and that the universe is but a great changing torrent." (A survey of Chinese Philosophy) The thought of change has often been used as evidence for reform. At the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, Kang Youwei found a pretext in the Chinese Classics as the evidence of his reform. He says, "Nothing else can be more changeable than the universe, which, because of its changeableness, goes on forever." (On Change for Better, The Four Submissions of Admonition to the Emperor

by Mr. Kang, published in The Current Affairs (Shi Wu Bao 1895) This conforms not only to traditional thought, but also to his proposition of reform. It is in essence the historical experience of the Chinese civilization.

Examining throughout the history of Chinese civilization, we see that countless reforms large and small occurred over thousands of years. As far as the overall system is concerned, each reform, from the feudal system to shire/county-governing system, from the recommendation system to the imperial examination system, from the urban district-administrating system to the street/lane-administrating system, contributed to the development of a civilization. The reform from the feudal system to shire/county-governing system guaranteed the emergence of the unity of the nation; the reform from the recommendation system to the imperial examination system promoted the growth of a fair eletion process for gouernment officials; and the reform from the urban district-administrating system to the street/lane-administrating system motivated the development of the urban economy. Likewise, each literary reform, either from the archaic poems to the classical ones, or from the classical dictions to the vernacular ones, or from sundry dramas to romances, brought about huge advancements in literature.

I need not deny the fact that there exists something conservative in the Chinese civilization, as is read, "All the laws of our ancestors must be carried on as they originally were, and one must be cautious to alter them." (The Biography of Wang Dan, The History of the Song Dynasty) There are numerous quotations of such remarks in historical works. In retrospect, we see that civilizations develop soundly when innovative force played a dominant part in it, while civilizations are held back when the conservative force played a dominant part in it.

We have learned from the history of the Chinese civilization that innovation or reform is the necessary route towards development. Only with incessant innovation can the civilization advance continuously with full vitality.

The fifth revelation of the history of the Chinese civilization lies in the choice of opening up.

The Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty, the two periods of prosperity in Chinese history, had very active cultural exchange between China and foreign countries. The connection to the West during the Han Dynasty brought to China the civilizations of Central Asia and West Asia. When Buddhism was introduced to China in 2 B.C., it exerted a profound influence on the innate Chinese culture in many aspects such as ideology, customs, literature, art, etc. Before the introduction of Buddhism, for instance, there was only the concept of "this life" in China; Buddhism brought to China the doctrine of "the three lives" (previous life, this life and after life), which expanded time and space in thought. And for another instance, the emergence of fan qie (a traditional method of indicating the pronunciation of a Chinese character by using two other Chinese characters) and the discovery of the four intonations of the Chinese language are related to the translation of the Buddhist Scriptures. With the translation of Buddhist Scriptures, Chinese vocabulary and literary concepts increased. Some concepts, such as "kong" (nothingness or nonDbeing) and "jing jie" (state or realm), are related to Buddhism. Zen Buddhism, which was formed by the unification of Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture, became an essential part of local Chinese culture.

There were more and more frequent foreign-oriented cultural exchanges in the Tang Dynasty. With the Silk Road opening, the culture of the Tang Dynasty spread to the foreign countries and vice versa. In those days, big cities such as Chang'an, Luoyang, Yangzhou, and Guangzhou were spots where the Sino-foreign culture interflow took place. Chang'an, was the largest international metropolis in the world at that time. In the first half of the 8th century, the population of Chang'an was as much as one million or more. Many foreigners lived there, including foreign princes and marquises, foreign officials working with the government of the Tang dynasty, foreign students, monks, musicians, dancers, and painters, as well as business persons swarming in from the foreign countries. Diplomatic envoys of various states, such as Arab, India, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan, etc., came to and fro endlessly. As far as the religions are concerned, besides Taoism and Buddhism, other religions such as Islam, Zoroastrianism, Nestorians, Manichaeism also spread in China. Emperor Tang Taizong set ten sects of music, of which four sects came from minority nationalities in China, and four other sects from foreign countries. In the Ming Dynasty, there emerged a symbolic diplomatic event, namely, the voyage of the Chinese fleet to the western ocean lead by Zheng He, which, as a magnificent feat of the Chinese civilization opening up to the outside world, not only covered a vast range of areas, such as Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and East Africa, but also helped to form close diplomatic relationships between China and the foreign countries.

The cultural exchange between China and foreign countries mutually developed both civilizations. For example, papermaking and printing technologies in China contributed greatly to western civilizations after they were introduced to Europe. In the late Ming Dynasty, Western missionaries, represented by Mathew Ricci, initiated their missionary work by spreading science in China, which evoked the interest of Chinese scholars and officials in

Western philosophy and science, including ancient Greek philosophy, ethics, linguistics, logics, geography, medicine, biology, mathematics, calendar, fine arts, music, gun-making, irrigation, and architecture, etc. After the discovery of the new continent by Columbus, some American crops such as corn, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, were introduced and spread in China from the 16th century to the 19th century, which played a vital role not only in developing the vast scarcely ^populated mountainous areas in China, but also in meeting the requirement for crops and developing the labor force.

Unfortunately, while science and technology advanced rapidly in Europe after the Industrial Revolntion, as did Western society as a whole, Chinese rulers were content with the status quo and began to isolate the country from the outside world. What a bitter lesson this was! After the Opium War, the Chinese swarmed to introduce and learn from the advanced western civilization in order to save their nation from crisis. A symbolic figure at that time was Wei Yuan, who came up with a principle of "learning from the foreign countries" in a book titled The Illustrated Records of Overseas Countries (He Guo Tu Zhi). Afterwards, China experienced a deepened transition from science and technology to politics and humanities in learning from the West. With various new things mushrooming rapidly, China began to gradually flow into the main stream of the world civilization. Up to now, it still is an incessant mission for China to open up to the world.

A significant revelation of Chinese history is that opening up is one of the important preconditions for the development of a civilization. Only by opening up can China absorb the advantages of other civilizations and stand up alongside other nations of the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen what I have mentioned above, namely, peace, harmony, tolerance, enlightenment, innovation (or reform), and opening up, are the main revelations in the retrospection of the history of Chinese civilization. Briefly speaking, when such circumstances appeared in the Chinese history, civilization would prosper and boom; in lack of such circumstances, however, civilization would be held back in its development, or even come to a standstill. I believe that what has been stated above is of significance not only to China, but also, to countries or regions beyond China.

Finally, please permit me to restate my viewpoints on the civilization of all human beings in the 21st century.

It seems to be a general trend that economic globalization is on the move. What about cultural globalization? A sober judgment must be made for this.

Economic globalization, which has promoted international economic transactions, not only lessens cultural differences among various nations, but also defines the living patterns of human beings. The cultural tradition of a nation, however, is a necessary result accumulated over thousands of years. And culture, where the soul and dignity of a nation lies, serves as the very mark of a nation which can be distinguished from that of other nations. It is therefore unimaginable to unify all the various cultural patterns in the world, we are also reluctant to see a monotonous, colorless culture pattern.

Thus I don't advocate the terms of "globalization" or "the age of globalization." Rather, a specific analysis of globalization is needed. Economically, globalization is of course the general trend. It is easier to spread throughout the world advanced science and technology, which can make human life more convenient. On the other hand, it is impossible and unreasonable for someone, by means of economic or military force, to impose a certain cultural pattern on other nations, as it refers to many cultural aspects such as religious belief, national psychology, ways of life, thinking, language, etc.

We clearly see that there exists universal and profound misunderstandings between different civilizations. Various prejudices, formed self-centeredly, shades human wisdom; self-interest confuses the collective human conscience. All this, together with linguistic barriers, makes it hard for nations with different civilizations to understand and respect one another, and even more difficult for them to tolerate and absorb one another. Why on earth do human beings, who have succeeded even in space travel, fail to give up narrow, stubborn, and extreme ideas and embrace different civilizations open-mindedly? Why on earth do human beings fail to have dialogue and exchanges of culture? And why on earth do human beings fail to respect the choices made by each nation? I believe that human beings in the 21st century will bridge different civilizations with great wisdom and aspiration, so that different civilizations can co-exist harmoniously, and that perpetual peace will come about in the world.

In the world nowadays, the isolated nation will find it is hard to survive, while the unified global culture is unimaginable. Human beings with different cultures must tolerate each other with an attitude of enlightenment and open-mindedness and co-exist in peace and harmony, before mutual development and prosperity are attained.

All in all, the correct choice of the living patterns of the human beings in the 21st century lies in economic globalization and cultural diversification. Thank you.