Westerners speak of China too easily, starting with the name of the country, which itself is poorly understood. Writing a few books about China or going on a few visits will not compensate for this lack.
A more sensitive approach to understanding China would not start with "China" as such -- a proudly misinterpreted European term from seafaring times -- but with its core meaning of "center."
It is this hexing "center" that matters and grips the "Chinese" nation beyond whatever borders might exist.
Two letters in the Taipei Times by foreign teachers in Taiwan on Sept. 28 and Oct. 10 prompted the following considerations. Though valuable contributions, both seem to miss their essential target of critique, namely the debate on Confucius (
China's power reconfiguration is in full swing amid economic frenzy, preparations for the Beijing Olympics, attacks on the Dalai Lama and unresolved social miseries. Will the new central power really return taxes to the people as has been claimed? Or set a historic precedent by introducing more freedom and justice and adopting a new world outlook?
After more than 2,000 years the "center" still has its grip on a country that has been shaped and shackled by Confucian thinking. Just take corruption, one of the most serious viruses, which is strangling a nation just as surely as an unprecedented series of environmental disasters in the wake of economic growth.
No wonder that some people in China have stood up, once again regarding their "land of the middle" or "Middle Kingdom" from an outside point of view, such as the 95-year-old bishop of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. This wise man is reported to have said that only the Catholic Church might resist China's raging scourges.
There is a lot of substance in this statement, although critics might immediately recall the role of foreign powers and missionaries that opened up the Qing empire, and not always using exemplary methods.
The Church's voice is heard today not because it comes from outside China, but because it has since toed the line of the Doctrine of the Mean and other Confucian doctrines. As the Classic of Rituals says: "Because Heaven has laid down what is the way to perfect virtue, it is not so difficult to follow the steps of the holy rulers of old if one only knows what the right way is."
Have there ever been "holy" rulers in China? The Catholic Church might dodge this question, instead turning its attention to responsibility for a globalized world and the safeguarding of a fragile peace, while silently remaining non-conformist with a culture that is worldly and materialist and that has failed to achieve sustainable progress.
There still appears to be no limit to human misery -- beneath a shallow cover of brocade. China has never had a chance to break out from its "center" or to engulf the Earth with its contents. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) tried once, but he, too, got stuck at the limits of this self-centered world -- a world which traditionally was square and flat. This locked-up domain and its philosophy of life never allowed mankind's largest civilization to really integrate with the outside.
Anything related to this world view can be definitively traced back to Confucius. We know little more about him than his errant teacher's career. Later he managed a temporary political career, as described by historian Sima Qian (司馬遷). Much later he became a "sage," even a "god," or at least someone who could hold the post of a saint.
Confucius upheld eternal ideals and much of the material attributed to him concentrates on political-social "order and harmony" with the "absolute ruler" on top by right. His words "Study, in order to be excellent, and then become a high official" thus become more transparent.
In contrast, the common idea of an omnipotent place in society was never so strongly championed in the West, nor so deeply rooted in the philosophical literature. Leaders since the birth of democracy are conceived as civil servants rather than owners of power.
What caused this liberation from undiscerning servility? It was perhaps not so much the Roman Catholic Church, which provided the political instrument for a new Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries.
During the 5th century BC Athens had become the center of the Greek world. Under the rule of Pericles, the citizens represented by a people's assembly had an insight into government business. The demokratia (democracy) was born, an institution made by the demos, the "people" who "ruled" or "held power."
Socrates had a chance to collect his students and teach them the objective truth, but then was sentenced to death when he tried to question the old gods of the Athenian city state and the sophists, those idle "men of wisdom and fine speech" who negated the absolute truth and propagated infallible power.
In many ways these "wise-ists", from whom modern 19th century nihilism (Nietzsche) has received influence, seem to approach Confucian thinking.
But Socrates, to whom the paradoxical phrase "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing" (or better: "I know that I do not know") is attributed, was not trapped by materialism and self-approval. He knew that one could only be convinced, but not be sure of one's knowledge.
He questioned dogmas and turned against bogus assurances. One day when he did not help stop a murderer from fleeing, he asked the man in pursuit: "Who is a murderer?"
The answer was: "Someone who kills."
When Socrates thought that this man might have been a butcher, he was told: "Nonsense ... a murderer is a man who kills another man."
Socrates suggested that this man must have been a soldier.
"Oh no," said the man, "it is a man who killed someone in the midst of peace."
"Now I understand," Socrates replied. "This is a hangman."
"Oh, my Zeus," the man said. "No, no, no, this was a man who killed someone in his home."
"Sure," was Socrates' final reply. "I have it now, you mean a doctor."
There are no temples of Socrates in the world that we can visit, only the modest inscription of "Know thyself," one of three aphorisms at the temple of Apollo in Delphi -- the ancient center of the Greek world.
Intercultural understanding begins with this self-recognition, which, by the way, is not solely attributed to Socrates. Does this not seem to be contrary to Confucian behavior?
One day Confucius is said to have praised his most outstanding student, Yan Hui (
Had Confucius advised, scolded and pushed his student to stand up and fight against poverty and idle philosophizing instead of "harmonizing" him, the supposedly intelligent student might have had a chance of making a living for himself. Poor Yan missed a pedagogue, teacher and guide who could give him a hand instead of letting him be a tool for his master's pride.
Oh globalized world: Are there Yan Huis not seen everywhere now? And Confuciuses, too?
Confucius and all later adherents did not have a "forum" where "public matters" were discussed, but schools where principles were declaimed and adapted to the universal idea of "stability and harmony." What Athens represents for "democracy," Rome also represents for res publica -- the "public matter" that is discussed not behind closed walls but openly in front of the emperor's palace.
The name "republic" therefore has a dimension in addition to the version in Chinese translation. The gongheguo (
State affairs remain secret and are resolved in silent harmony. At least in the People's Republic of China.
With Western thinking, China had moved forward, but global understanding needs more than mutual education.
Europe can learn from Confucian thinking, but China would take greater profit from Christian and non-Christian cultures that are offered by other civilizations and that harbor views other than those in the worldly, materialistic and isolated tradition that focuses on a restrictive "center."
The greatest profit may indeed come from critical analysis of both cultures and their mutual integration into a more intellectual and spiritual philosophy of life.
Engelbert Altenburger is an assistant professor at I-Shou University.
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