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Society & Culture

The Rise of a Great Nation Entails Cultural Prosperity

Apr 24, 2012
  • Yu Xintian

    Director, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

In his recent government work report, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has set the mission for facilitating substantial cultural progress and prosperity, noting that a nation's perpetuity depends on the inheritance of its cultural cream. China's rise has made the whole world hanker for the cultural secrets of its success. Hence, it falls to Chinese people to understand the characteristics of their culture, establish their cultural values and contribute to human civilization.

The millennia-old Chinese culture has thrived in a self-nurtured system with a wealth of profound legacies that stem from the same ancient roots. Its values serve as both the starting point and the foundation for establishing the nation's contemporary cultural values. Each culture and its values have their own characteristics to suit changing environment and to tackle different challenges, and carries with them distinctive strengths and weaknesses. The Chinese culture and its values are no exception. One primary feature of Chinese cultural values is their freedom from domination by a single religion. Although the Han people have never been a pious people as a whole, they have embraced various religious faiths and secular beliefs with an open mind, an attitude that has both made it possible for various beliefs such as native Taoism and Confucianism and imported Buddhism to be practiced together in many temples, and facilitated the one-and-only assimilation of Judaism into the Chinese society.  When cast against today's increasing cultural conflicts, the tolerance and inclusiveness characterizing the Chinese culture stands out with all its splendor and brilliance. There is a negative result, however, from the absence of a dominating religion: the general public may easily grow utilitarian, and remain indifferent to any ultimate concern.

The second feature of Chinese cultural values is their emphasis on the central role of families and clans, and their perception developed therefrom of the relationship between a family, a nation and the world. On the positive side, the dominant role of families and clans in the Chinese society has guaranteed family-sponsored (or clan-sponsored) support and assistance to the subsistence, education and development of individuals as well as achievement of relative social stability, and provided a solid ground for the continuation of the Chinese nation. On the negative side, it has weakened the sense of community beyond families and clans.

The third feature of Chinese cultural values is their stress of the dominant role of ethics in social governance and international affairs. The greatest merit of an ethics-based society is the prevalence of good sense. Such a society is completely humanity-oriented instead of divinity-oriented as in a religious society when dealing with social issues such as individual behavior, inter-personal relations, national affairs, international relations, and the relationship between mankind and nature relationship, all designed to secure energetic, balanced, practical and harmonious development. In Chinese culture, moral maxims always inspire benevolence. However, this ethics-based society has some obvious shortcomings too. Since it followed social codes of inequality as embodied in the relationship between a monarchy and its subjects as well as between sires and sons, it has long stifled individual zest and creativeness. Meanwhile, overstress on moral standards and inattention to the rule of law makes it hard to develop working social codes into established systems but easy to degenerate morality into hypocrisy. Only rediscovery and refinement, therefore, will bring traditional Chinese cultural values to conform to the progress of this age and meet the complicated, ever-changing demands of modern life

During the current course of modernization and globalization, no developing country can bypass the challenges from Western cultures. The relationship between native and Western cultures has long been an issue hotly debated in developing countries, and will remain so in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, since China has taken the path of modernization like other emerging countries, it should be a natural choice for it to learn and borrow from Western cultures and their sensible values. What China aims at is development of a modern socialist democracy that is prosperous, strong, civilized and harmonious. “Respect and protection of human rights” has been incorporation into its constitution, and “rule of law” has been established as a basic national policy. It is by no means copying by rote Western concepts. Rather, it has incorporated some of the Western concepts such as  “democracy”, “rule of law” and “human rights” into its national values on the basis of selection and refinement and in view of suit its national conditions.

Study and absorption of Western cultures and their values require appropriate attitudes and cultural consciousness. Qualms or rejections are not warranted. Any conspiracy of “peaceful evolution” will be doomed to failure, as long as the Chinese government can genuinely achieve socialist modernization, provide public well-being, and win acknowledgement from all ethnic groups. Another point worthy of notice is that when the Chinese people learn and borrow from Western cultural values, they will select only those that well suit their national conditions and remold their selections accordingly with Chinese cultural values. When Western cultural values are successfully grafted into China, they will take a form different from their original back at home. For this reason, introduction of Western values will not lead to any real Westernization. On the contrary, localization has been the cases seen every minute these days.  How to borrow and localize Western cultures, therefore, is what we should study more closely today.

A popular opinion holds that the endorsement of Marxism and the inheritance of China’s traditional cultural values are incompatible. This is obviously wrong. The Mao Zedong Thought and the theory of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” are both the products of localized Marxism, which not only befit the country's political and economic conditions, but also meet its cultural and ideological demands. They have already inherited Chinese culture themselves. All members of the Communist Party of China, be they top leaders or the rank and file, have embraced Marxism from the perspective of Chinese culture, without which this ideological espousal would have been no more realistic than building a castle in air. Moreover, Chinese people embraced Marxism not only because their previous attempts with capitalist ideas all failed, but also because the values of Marxism and Chinese culture share something in common. From 1929 to 1935, Chinese intellectuals launched an extensive debate on which modernization path to choose. According to published treatises, most of them favored socialism over capitalism, because the latter stands for confrontation of classes. This was not a CPC-led debate, and most CPC leaders never participated in it. In fact, Chinese intellectuals' preference for socialism stems from the classless, egalitarian concepts in Marxism, whose goal resembles the Confucian ideal of “Datong,” or great Harmony. Hence, Chinese people’s embrace of Marxism has been warranted by history, a process in which their culture has also played an important role.

Many foreigners hold the misconception that China's contemporary cultural values have broken away from the values of its traditional culture. With attentive comparison and analysis, however, it is not hard to discern how the former has inherited and improved the latter. For instance, today’s principle of “people-oriented” is inseparable from the ancient concept of “subjects-oriented.” What distinguishes the former is its stress on the value of individuals and its reflection of a modern mindset. Another example is the consistency between atheism advocated in contemporary religious philosophies and the priority attention attached by Chinese ancestors to issues of “this world and this lifetime” and their preference for no dominance by a single religion, although modern concepts like “freedom of religion” and “secularism cutting religion from politics” have come to be incorporated.
China cannot establish its cultural values without opening to the outside world, since this process requires absorption of various cultures in an age of globalization, modernization and informationization. The mission to study and master the quintessential values of Western cultures is not accomplished yet and must be carried on with increasing thoroughness. Besides, today's China needs to learn from both Western and non-Western countries. No doubt, its international communication should elucidate the distinctiveness of its cultural values and underscore the contribution of its culture to the world civilization. Meanwhile, it should not overlook the elements common in the cultural values of its own and those in other cultural values. Only through this approach will Chinese culture spread across the globe and become an integral part of the values created and shared by the entire human race.

Yu Xintian is Director of Academic Committee of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies


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