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.

Talk at Prize ceremony for 会林文化奖

Talk at Prize ceremony for 会林文化奖 March 14, 2015 尊敬的黄会林教授,于丹教授,各位嘉宾,各位朋友,

女士们, 先生们:

今年一月份得知北师大的中国文化国际传播研究院要设立“会林文 化奖”,我就很高兴。后来收到罗军教授的邮件说我本人得了会林 文化奖,这就完全出乎我意料,并不觉得我值得得这个奖,也知道 有许多同行,包括瑞典人,比我更值得得这个奖。不过不用说,会 林文化奖还是我莫大的荣誉,也是瑞典汉学很大的荣誉。得会林文 化奖给我最大的鼓励,鼓励我继续在瑞典和西方介绍中国文化,尽 我所能推动瑞中文化交流。我愿意借此机会向会林文化奖的评委会 表示我衷心的感谢。

将近半个世纪以前,于 1968 年,我在斯德哥尔摩开始学中文和中 国文化。我的主要动机是一种好奇。我愿意了解世界,而中国是全 世界人口最多的国家,而且是历史悠久,文化遗产非常丰富的国度。 虽然如此,但是中国当时还是一个与外比较隔离的国家。 瑞典很早, 于 1950 年 5 月,就跟新中国建立了外交关系,但是瑞中交流还是 很有限。我觉得中国当时的隔离妨碍我们深入了解中国,也妨碍中 国人了解外在的世界。这种情况我觉得需要改变,因为互相的理解 非常重要。误解和无知很容易导致冲突。所以为消除隔阂而努力非 常重要。

从那时候起,这一直是我的研究和活动的一个主要目的:我愿意多 了解中国和中国文化,推动交流,促进互相的理解和信任,消除隔 阂。

女士们,先生们: 我们可以试图理解中国文化,但是永远达不到一个全面的,完全真 正的理解。应该尽量追求真正的理解,也可以越来越接近于这个目 标,但是要记住无法抓住最后的,绝对的真理。如果我们以为完全 能够给中国文化下一个确切的定义,文化的形象就很容易变得僵化, 我们就很可能看不出来或者不承认它的变化。因此如果有人以为能 够完全理解中国和中国文化,这不但傲慢,也是一个会产生严重后 果的谬论。

黄会林教授说在今天的世界里,中国文化是第三极文化。跟欧洲和 美国等文化一样,中国文化非常丰富,也很多样化,不是一个一成 不变的实体,相反它在不断变化中。如何理解这种文化不但取决于 文化本身,也取决于观察者的视角。不同的视角之间的关系是一种 互补的关系。因此也可以这样说,对中国文化感兴趣的人越多,中 国文化也就显得越加丰富。

19 世纪末和 20 世纪初中国人就开始搞现代化。到了五四运动的时 候,当时的大师就觉得需要打倒孔家店,搞西化以及邀请西方的两 位先生,即赛先生和德先生,来救中国。当时,抛弃本国传统文化 似乎是为现代化需要付出的代价,一个令人痛苦的代价。这可以让我们想起王国维先生的悲剧和他的名句“可爱者不可信,可信者不 可爱”。

回顾起来,抛弃传统文化,否定儒家太过分了。邀请赛先生和德先 生我觉得是应该的,是需要的,但是没有必要把这两位先生和儒家 传统那样激烈对立起来。关键是如何理解儒家和中国文化。

在五四时期的历史条件下,也许别无选择。而且,我还是觉得五四 的启蒙在中国文化和现代化方面的贡献非常大。不要否定五四,但 是可以认为五四把中国和西方的文化那样对立起来很可惜,也可以 认为五四对中国传统文化的否定太过分了。中国文化完全可以吸收 西方文化的因素,西方文化也可以吸收中国文化的精华。

女士们,先生们: 最近三十多年以来,中国的经济发展很了不起。中国今天已经不孤 立了,在世界的舞台上现在扮演着很重要的角色。难怪这令很多中 国人更加具有一种文化自信,为本国的传统文化感到骄傲。在这种 状况下,很多人觉得抛弃中国传统文化不是一个需要付出的代价。

中国传统文化有它独特的地方,但是引我注目的更是中西传统文化 的共识。与其说中西文化本质上不一样,不如说两种大传统表现了 许多共同的主题和多样的变奏。此外,中国传统也好,欧美传统也 好,都很多样化。很可能每个传统内部的差异大于两个传统之间的 区别。

现在恢复中国传统文化是一股很重要的思潮。作为汉学家我觉得中 国人愿意多了解,多认同他们的传统文化是一件好事。我唯一的担 心是这种兴趣很容易会导致把中国和西方文化对立起来,把中国文 化的所谓“特殊性”夸大。这一点是不是需要警惕?

中国传统文化非常丰富,也很宝贵,但是这并不意味着我们必须全 盘接受它。作为现代人,我们可以选择要接受哪些部分,要抛弃哪 些部分,可以取精去糟。什么是精,什么是糟,归每个人自己界定, 这是我们的自由,也是我们的责任。

女士们,先生们: 纵观中国传统思想,有三个方面,我自己特别重视。不用说,我这 个想法也非常主观。

第一是儒家人生观的几个方面。比如,孔子关心的是人,他的关心 并不限于某一个民族或某一个国度的人。孔子是一个世界主义者, 不是一个民族主义者。孔子主张的价值具有普遍性。

另一个方面是孟子的性善论。 孟子说“人皆有不忍人之心”。他 认为,如果不能同情别人,就不是真正的人。他把同情或者怜悯体 恤当作伦理的基础。孟子的性善论和荀子的性恶论的关系也非常值 得思考,也许可以说它们是一种互补的关系,可以共同作为我们当 代人的宝贵资源。

第二是道家,尤其是庄子,对差异的尊重以及对自由的向往。庄子 ?醒我们不要“以己养养鸟”,要“以鸟养养鸟”,也指出“先圣 不一其能,不同其事”(《至乐篇》)。

第三是一种很有特色的审美感。这种审美感表现在古代诗歌和山水 画上。很多诗和画把一个小的人放在大自然中。这个人跟自然就组 成一个有机的整体。美籍华人汉学家刘若愚教授(James J.Y. Liu 1926–1986)谈中国诗歌中的人和自然的时候,就说过:

Man is not conceived of as for ever struggling against Nature but forming part of it. […] Man is advised to submerge his being in the infinite flux of things and to allow his own life and death to become part of the eternal cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth that goes on in Nature (James J.Y Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 49).

[中国古诗]并不表现人与自然的不断斗争,而是描写前者成 为后者的一个部分⋯⋯人的生命体应该融入到万物的无穷流动 中,生与死理应包含于大自然里出生、成长、衰败、死亡与重 生的永恒轮回之中。(中国诗歌艺术,49 页)

我相信在当代和未来世界很多人都会认同中国诗歌对人和大自然这 种?写,也会认同这种?写所代表的审美感和向往。

女士们,先生们: 中西文化传统有相似的地方,也有不同之处。不管我们觉得相似还 是区别占主要地位,在今天日益全球化的世界里,跨文化的理解和 对话极其重要。因此,我很佩服黄会林和于丹两位教授以及她们在 北师大的同事们在推动交流和对话方面的努力。这也令我特别荣幸 今天来到北师大领取会林文化奖。

黄教授和北师大还邀请我,从今年起到 2017 年,每年来北师大一个 月,在中国文化国际传播研究院当客座教授,帮助推动跨文化的对 话和交流,在国外介绍中国文化。我非常盼望投入这个工作。

最后,请允许我再一次向黄会林教授和北京示范大学表示我衷心的 感谢。

罗多弼 2015年3月14日于北京