The Diversity of Chinese Culture

Presented at a panel discussion on the diversity of Chinese culture organized by the Forum for China Studies at Uppsala University on September 29, 2016. Participants in the discussion were four Chinese scholars and four Swedish scholars: Professors Guo Yingde, Huang Huilin, Yang Yuanying and Zeng Qingrui  from Beijing Normal University and Professor Joakim Enwall from Uppsala University,  Associate Professor Hans Hägerdal from Linnaeus University in Växjö, Professor emeritus Torbjörn Lodén from Stockholm University and lecturer Helena Löthman from Uppsala University.

What is Chinese culture?

When we discuss the diversity of Chinese culture, we should ideally clarify what we mean by “Chinese culture”, and in order to do so we should make clear what we mean by “culture” and by “Chinese”. This is easier said than done. The meanings attached to the word “culture” vary so much that there are scholars who suggest that the word has become useless[1] “Chinese” is also a complicated notion. The Chinese intellectual historian Professor Ge Zhaoguang 葛兆光has recently published a book entitled He wei Zhongguo 何為中國? (What is China), and last summer we held a scholarly conference in Stockholm on this topic.[2]

Although defining “Chinese culture” is very difficult, we can still, as I see it, most of the time use this concept without difficulties. The difficulty is not to identify innumerable phenomena as examples of Chinese culture – Confucianism and Daoism, Tang and Song poetry, the paintings of Badashanren and so on and so forth – but to define the precise limits of Chinese culture. However, at least in my opinion it is not important to define the exact limits. This may be impossible, and I suspect that sometimes the effort to do so can even be harmful.

No matter how we conceive of Chinese culture, the Chinese language is a very important part of its content. This is not to deny that there are examples of texts in other languages than Chinese that are part of Chinese culture or that there are texts in Chinese that are not. But generally speaking we may conceive of the Chinese language as we know it since more than three thousand years as part of the core of Chinese culture.

In my discussion today I think of Chinese culture in a rather loose and narrow sense as referring to the rich legacies of (i) ideas, thoughts and attitudes formulated in Chinese and (ii) literature and art. As we know there is source material dating back at least from 3000 years ago (and even earlier when we think of artefacts) and up until today.

A paradox

On the one hand, diversity is a good characterization of Chinese culture from pre-Qin times, and even earlier, and up until today. In pre-Qin times the southern state of Chu was culturally very different from the northern states of Jin and Qi. Today we also know that from the very beginning, the formation of Chinese culture had different sources.

On the other hand, when we look at the different cultures of the world, we may discern fundamental commonalities. As I understand the history of Chinese and European thought, the many differences mainly appear as variations on common themes.

It seems to me that with regard to specific cultures, unity has often been exaggerated, while with regard to the relationships between cultures, differences have often been exaggerated.

The imperial Chinese state tried to define a unified culture, as a way to counteract the strong centrifugal forces that posed a threat to the continued unity of the country. But local cultures remained very diversified throughout the history of the empire, and in fact, in many ways the high culture of the elite also remained diversified.

From the beginnings Chinese culture has absorbed so many elements from outside that it seems futile to speak about a “pure Chinese culture”, as it is to speak about a “pure” Swedish, French or English culture. There is Chinese Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in China, and they are indubitably Chinese but not purely Chinese. In more modern times, hybridity has become a more and more prominent feature of Chinese culture.

Traditional and modern Chinese culture

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese culture went through a rather fundamental transformation. The radical iconoclasts rejected much of the indigenous tradition as incompatible with modernization, and Chinese culture was in many ways westernized. Not least the conceptual apparatus for intellectual and artistic discourse was westernized. The traditional Chinese taxonomy was rejected in favour of a modern taxonomy imported from the West. This had a profound impact on Chinese culture, and yet we must regard modern culture in China as Chinese, although it is to a considerable extent westernized. Li Bo was a Chinese poet, but so is Bei Dao.

     In our era of globalization Chinese culture continues to be influenced by foreign cultures, especially Western culture. At the same time Chinese culture is becoming more and more part of world culture. Chinese films, Chinese art and literature, modern and classical, let alone Chinese food, are attracting more and more attention all over the world.

Hybrid or cross-cultural forms of Chinese culture become more and more common. We May think of Ha Jin’s novels, written in English, Ang Lee’s films, including the arch-European Sense and Sensibility 理智与情感, or the writings of Gao Xingjian, most often in Chinese but sometimes also in French.

Chinese culture has a rich legacy of thousands of years. This legacy belongs to all mankind, not only to Chinese people. For those of us who are concerned with Chinese culture, it is an important challenge to keep this legacy alive and make it known to more and more people in the world. Chinese culture is a pride of humankind’s cultural heritage as are the other cultural traditions in the world. One exciting feature of the contemporary globalized world is that world culture is at the same time becoming more pluralistic and more unified.

[1] See for example Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

[2] Ge Zhaoguang 葛兆光, He wei Zhongguo 何為中國? Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2014.