Nishan Forum and Rise of Chinese Culture

Last week I attended the first Nishan Forum on World Civilizations (尼山论坛). Nishan is the reputed birthplace of Confucius, near Qufu (in Shandong province) where the Kong family has lived for many generations. The Forum was an interesting event, heavily supported by various levels of government (notice the orchestra, playing pieces specially written for the event), and clearly designed to contribute to the increasing visibility of Confucianism, both domestically and internationally. There is a lot one could say about the event, both in terms of its content and in terms of the way it was framed (e.g., why was Robert Schuller chosen as the most prominent representative of Christianity at this “dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity”?). There is no simple conclusion, positive or negative, that one can draw from a complex event such as this, but I thought I would share some concerns that crystallized in my mind when thinking about a question that a journalist at the Forum asked me. He said, “Do you think Americans should be worried about the rise of Chinese culture?”

The philosopher’s answer to this (and almost any other) question is: it depends what you mean by some of your words. In particular, the “rise of Chinese culture” can mean different things. On the one hand, it could mean a greater awareness on the part of both Chinese and non-Chinese about the great traditions of Chinese philosophy, religion, literature, and art. I believe that many readers of this blog have learned from such a heightened awareness of Confucian insights, and I believe it would be a good thing if more people—Chinese and non-Chinese—were to take these sorts of insights seriously, as guidance for their lives and as a means to better understand the universe. This kind of “greater awareness” is perfectly consistent with simultaneously being moved by insights and values from other philosophical and spiritual traditions. In this sense, the rise of Chinese culture would lead to a greater sense of possibilities, as well as the challenges of finding new ways to integrate perspectives as we all seek to live fulfilling lives in our ever-changing world.

On the other hand, I believe that some people have a different vision of the “rise of Chinese culture.” Rather than thinking of Chinese culture as open, changing, and composed of parts (texts, insights) that can be constructively employed in many different places, some people think of Chinese culture as “a civilization,” as a monolithic whole, and as equivalent to the Chinese nation. According to this kind of opinion, the only way for China to occupy a more significant role in the world is for Chinese culture—by which they mean Confucianism—to be more influential. Chinese people must become thoroughly Confucian; perhaps foreigners will “convert” to Confucianism. Admittedly, this vision fits with the way that some Americans think about the world, as Samuel Huntington infamously articulated in his book the Clash of Civilizations. According to this way of thinking, cultures are single units that compete with one another, and one’s nation only succeeds in such a competition if one’s culture “rises.” If this is the right way to think about the “rise of Chinese culture,” then I suppose Americans should be worried about it!

No one at the Nishan Forum explicitly said that the “rise of Chinese culture” should be understood in the way described in my last paragraph. But to some degree, I think that many participants—both Confucian and Christian, both Chinese and non-Chinese—made some assumptions that suggest the closed, monolithic idea I was just describing. The language of multiple “world civilizations” easily leads one to think that each national culture is distinct, and that they do not and cannot overlap. Much of the talk at the Forum was about understanding the differences and similarities between Confucianism and Christianity, but this risks forgetting that each tradition grows and changes, and even at a single point in time has many different interpretations. It also makes it hard to see where there is room for Confucian ideas in America or Christian ideas in China, unless it is through competition and conversion. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to understand that there can be Confucian Christians and Christian Confucians (and many, many other possibilities).

The Nishan Forum was a splendid event, and I believe that Confucianism has a great deal to offer to, as well as learn from, our diverse world civilization. So do other Chinese traditions, even though I personally find the most insight in Confucianism. So the rise of Chinese culture is and should be a great thing for the world. We should all be happy that Chinese scholars and now many public officials are encouraging the study and practice of Confucian values and texts. We should also be happy that  Americans (and others!) have started to learn about, and learn from, Confucianism. So long as we all can embrace an open attitude toward our traditions and their roles in world civilization, the future looks bright.

10 replies on “Nishan Forum and Rise of Chinese Culture”

  1. As another invited participant in the Nishan Forum, I have many different impressions that I’m still trying to sort out. Among them is a distinct uneasiness about what appeared to me a simplistic attempt to equate “China/Chinese” with Confucianism. This denies the cultural and religious diversity of China. E.g., by common estimates there are now ca. 100 million Chinese Christians. So, are they not true Chinese? This sort of cultural hegemony would be most unwise, creating deviance unnecessarily. China’s greater moral stature in the world today is not based on promoting Confucianism but on the perception that in the last couple of decades the govt has begun to allow the people somewhat greater freedom in life. But to date it’s mainly economic freedom. China’s further rise in moral stature will depend on how wisely and generously the govt can trust the people and grant them fuller freedoms of aspiration, thought and belief. Good govts have nothing to fear from Christians, and Chinese Christians should be able to affirm Confucius as an important figure in Chinese history and heritage without having to adopt “Confucianism”. It’s the “ism” part that is potentially dangerous. (Larry Hurtado)

  2. Hi Larry — I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to speak in China! I certainly agree with the concern about equating China with Confucianism. Often, I think, the equation works this way: China = Chinese Culture = Confucianism = One particular version or interpretation of Confucianism. Each of these steps is problematic!

    But it might be helpful for me to relate the following. Yan Binggang, a scholar of Confucianism and one of the Forum’s organizers, gave a firey speech during one of the panels that centered on the role of coercion employed by Protestant missionaries in China during the 19th century. There seemed to be little legitimate space in his account for Chinese Christians (or for American, etc., Confucians, for that matter). When I asked him about this in the (all too brief) discussion period, though, his response was quite good, I thought. He referenced an instance of Buddhist practice changing as it put down roots in China, which he saw as an instance of non-coercive, respectful growth of the Buddhist tradition in a Chinese context. In this light, your own paper seems very relevant (summary from your blog):

    My own paper was a study of two second-century Christian texts, Epistle to Diognetus and Justin Martyr’s Apology, and I argued that these texts provide a case-study of Christians affirming their particularity while also seeking to play a positive role as good citizens in their non-Christian society. I propose that these texts provide a good model for Chinese Christians, and also perhaps for the Chinese govt in taking a flexible attitude toward religious diversity.

    This is just the right note to strike, I think; a pity that so many of the papers operated at the level of vague generalities. But in many ways this particular Frum was more about symbolism and less about actual scholarly conversation and piecemeal dialogue. Other context may offer better opportunities.

  3. Thanks for the very interesting reports and thoughts!

    (Steve, the severe limits of my capacity make “awareness” of this or that culture sound zero-sum to me. In the Western tradition I suppose “awareness” sounds innocuous, even incorporeal, as we distinguish it in the abstract from action.)

    If someone asked me about the “rise of X-ian culture” I would of course, be wary about what they might mean, but I think the obvious guess would be that they meant a rise (in or out of X-ia) in the respect accorded to ideas and patterns with long roots in X-ia, so that the X-ian roots support more foliage (in or out of X-ia).

    Prima facie, such respect is at least partly a relative thing (given that we’re talking about real respect and not just PC politeness). Think of curriculum decisions. I think it’s interesting to try to be explicit about what in particular can make the allocation of respect among traditions not be zero-sum.

    First, as has been mentioned, roots in different places can support the same or compatible ideas or patterns, or not. We find the golden rule in different places; and Chinese food is compatible with French painting; and one country’s pattern of sartorial tolerance is compatible in that country with many of a second country’s hats.

    Second, there can be a rise or fall in the amount of respect given to ideas and patterns in general, or to ideas and patterns from the past, quite apart from where they might come from. Thus for example, one might suppose that peace and prosperity tend to bring a rise in culture generally.

    Third are some relevant fine points about what’s meant by “respect for Chinese culture/traditions.”
    (A) There’s a de dicto/de re distinction. “Respect for what’s rooted in China” can mean respect for particular traditions that are in fact rooted in China, or respect for “whatever is rooted in China.” The difference is in which errors I can make while still “respecting what’s rooted in China.”
    (B) There’s room for variation in how much by “respect” one means the kind of respect that amounts to tolerance.
    (C) What counts as “respect for what’s rooted in China” depends on how long are the roots one means, and how exclusively “in China” one means. (The shorter the roots one requires and the less the exclusivity, though, the more pointless the phrase becomes.) Insofar as a society’s traditions are indeed stable and distinctive, variations in one’s meaning along these dimensions make less difference.

    It seems to me offhand that the main tricky thing about what people are likely to mean by “Chinese culture” is that one can think of China has having been culturally stable and distinctive for a long time, and then having for a while taken up a culture that is distinctively not Chinese or even not culture. Given such a view of China, the phrase becomes inherently conservative, referring to the past as opposed to what people have been doing in China recently, and making the literal Chineseness of living people arguably irrelevant to whether their work is part of Chinese culture as such (cf. Steve’s post on Zhao Tingyang) – except insofar as the old Chinese tradition intends to apply mainly to Chinese.

    Is some disrespect to living Chinese thus inherent in the idea of the rise of Chinese culture in China? I wonder whether this was a concern at the conference at all.

    Other things I wonder:

    Does the inherent conservatism of the phrase provide an opening for Mohism, even though it hasn’t been popular in recent millenia?

    People who think Chinese Culture = Confucianism: are they thinking of Daoism as anti-culture?

  4. Very helpful, Bill — thanks. A couple of points in response. First, there were one or two individuals at the Forum who put themselves forward as representatives of Daoism. Their view, for what it is worth, seemed to be that Chinese culture had a yang side (Confucianism) and a yin side (Daoism): you get one with the other almost by default.

    Second, when the rise of Chinese culture is defined in sufficiently monolithic terms, you are certainly right that it can mean a threat or disrespect to current Chinese. Even it turns out, people who are in their own minds fans of Confucius. Consider Peking University professor Li Ling, for example. The current issue of Contemporary Chinese Thought is a translation of selections from Li Ling’s recent book, 《去圣乃得真孔子》 [The Real Confucius Is Only Revealed by Stripping Away his Sagehood] (Beijing: Sanlian, 2008). Li draws on late Warring States and Han sources to present a very different image of Confucius than one sees in much current hagiography. He makes no claims that his version is the unique “real” or “true” one, but rather is concerned to undermine the current mainstream discourse. As editor Carine Defoort writes, “The real motivation for propelling Li to write about Confucius came from the increasingly instrumental use of the figure of Confucius during the last two decades in the People’s Republic of China for political, moral, and especially religious ends. Li Ling found it ‘a bizarre phenomenon bordering on insanity'” [Contemporary Chinese Thought 41:2, p. 4].

    • Thanks, Steve – very interesting again!

      The people who lean toward thinking Chinese Culture = Confucianism — I wonder on what grounds they exclude Daoism from “Chinese Culture.” Maybe you don’t mean to comment on that, or maybe you mean to suggest either that (a) such people are mainly propagandists who don’t care about the facts, or that (b) such people are likely to be thinking that “Confucianism” implies Daoism on the side. A little of all three, perhaps.

  5. Hi Steve,

    thanks a lot for these very precious insights! From a Taiwanese perspective, the problems you are describing feel very acute: I often feel confronted with this very fragilized cultural state here in Taipei, where huge forces are pulling us into two very different directions, China, on the one hand, and America, on the other. The “rise of China” sometimes seems very threatening.

    Philosophical truth claims are often (always?) embedded into broader cultural claims of superiority: only think of Immanuel Kant (the rise of European middle class and Protestant values), Hegel (European ethnocentrism) or Foucault (a certain liberal French life-style, leftist cosmopolitanism). Thus, I think, the “rise of China” will provoke many more of these “monolithic” cultural self-descriptions, as they reflect certain deeper values (I do not think that they merely reflect the closed world of the Communist one-party system). Ideally, we should be able to distinguish between a purely philosophical truth claim and a claim for cultural/political/ethnical superiority – but this is easier said than done…

    What is important, I would say, is that we, as a scholarly community, are aware of the larger political and cultural forces behind all this: why do Chinese authors write this and that, why do we need critical voices like Li Ling, and why do we want to engage with Chinese philosophy, why do we sympathize with China… I would say that we absolutely need more self-critical reflections on our own identity, as “China-watchers” or “Westerns trained in Chinese philosophy”. At what point will this engagement conflict with our own values?

    Last week, some Taiwanese professors came up with the idea of organizing a conference on the question of how to philosophize after the Cultural Revolution (as Adorno spoke about philosophizing after Auschwitz). Of course, this kind of conference wouldn’t be possible in mainland China. But it would be a great opportunity to make clear once for all, that any reinterpretation of a bygone tradition needs to suffice certain moral standards, especially intellectual honesty. I think that there are too many scholars out there trying to revive the Confucian heritage without the honesty to face the darker sides of the Chinese past.

    • There are really great comments, Kai — inspirational, in fact, to use one of your favorite words 🙂

      Makes me think of the following exchange that took place at the Forum. During his introduction of my paper, the chair of the panel I was on noted that since I wasn’t from Boston, I couldn’t really count as a “Boston Confucian.” My paper looked at different contemporary Confucian perspectives on social justice, and then argued for the conclusion that contemporary Confucianism ought to be a “critical Confucianism,” in two senses: (1) self-critical, and (2) social-critical (i.e., paying attention to institutional change). These remarks prompted a Chinese scholar in the audience to ask me during Q & A: well, if you’re not a Boston Confucian, what would you call the Confucianism you’re advocating? Not a question I felt well-prepared to answer — I feel like I’m still trying to work out the parameters, and it’s too early for a slogan — but I replied (only half seriously) that perhaps “New England Confucianism” would do for now, since both the original Boston Confucians and I all live in New England.

      Maybe there’s more to this than I realized? I remember finding Metzger’s claim, in Cloud Across the Pacific, that Rawls is a distinctly American philosopher to be surprisingly plausible. And surely Roger Ames’s Confucius is an American Confucius in another way? As I think you’re suggesting, though, noticing things like this are just starting points, because we are interested not just in expressing our own antecedent values in another vocabulary, but in challenging both ourselves and others — thus the matter of truth claims!

  6. Thanks, Steve! You are right, our goal in this kind of intercultural debates should be truth or, in more modest terms, some kind of universally acceptable consensus. In my earlier comment, I just wanted to underline that we should be aware of the different backgrounds of philosophical claims. Yes, Roger Ames seems to be a very “American” Confucian, with his highly idealistic view of the whole Confucian tradition. And I agree with you that Rawls’ thought embodies certain American values… Frankly speaking, I sometimes have the vague feeling that American sinologists are actually struggling with American problems, in the same way as let’s say French or German sinologists are struggling with French or German problems… But of course we should do better, and so it might be important to elucidate how your “New England Confucianism” (if I may say so), as an attempt to “universalize” a very particular cultural tradition, relates/reacts to the very individualistic political environment in New England?! F.ex., how would a New England Confucian convince a group of Tea Party members of the need for heavier taxation, for the higher goal of 民本? I am kidding, here, and I actually DO think that Western scholars like you and me rise questions which have a universal meaning – but could it be that Chinese scholars are not always interested in this kind of universalized Confucianism (maybe this is the reason for “labeling” Westerners). A huge question, of course, but sitting here in Taipei, shortly after breakfast (in a very different cultural setting), it seems to be a truly important one.
    By the way, a German colleague told me that he will meet you in Beijing these days. I will be there for a Zhu Xi conference starting next monday…

  7. I’m assuming that we should equate the expression ‘rise of Chinese culture’ with, in fact, the rise of Chinese economic and political strength upon which any adjustment of Chinese ‘cultural level’ might ride.

    In terms of culture proper, if such a thing exists: are we really willing to claim that Chinese culture is unambiguously rising? And that Confucianism corresponds with that rise?

    My experiences in China do not correspond with these assumptions.

    • Hello Haiwen; thanks for revisiting this post.

      I’m not sure why we should make that assumption. “Chinese culture,” as Steve points out in the second through fourth paragraphs, is difficult to pin down without contention. On the other hand, though economic and political strength might have a direct causal effect on the rise of awareness of anything Chinese, I don’t think we should simply equate the two. Indeed, as your questions imply, “the rise” applies ambiguously either to heightened awareness of Chinese culture (however we end up defining it) or to some kind of “progress” of the culture toward some historical apex, or an end more mundanely defined.

      If we’re just talking about awareness on the rise, that seems uninteresting and completely explicable by, as you suggest, the rise of power. The more interesting question is the one you very astutely ask: “Are we really willing to claim that Chinese culture is unambiguously rising?” But to answer that, not only do we have to define the parameters of “Chinese culture” but also the success conditions for “rising” or “progress” of culture. I think you have an opinion about that — that the culture is not “on the rise.”

      So, I would be interested in what stands out to you as representative of the culture and, also, what that fails to move toward, in your experience.

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