06/01/2020 No. 156
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China’s cultural status quo and its "going out" dilemma
By Yongnian Zheng Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
November 1, 2013

Editor’s Note: This paper is the second part of the abridged edition of the speech entitled "Can China Provide the World with Another Cultural Paradigm?”, given by the author in December 2011 at  the Zhejiang Humanities Lecture Hall.  We thank Professor Zheng for giving us the permission of translating it into English and publishing both the Chinese and the English versions on www.ChinaUSFriendship.com. This paper first appeared on www.zaobao.com (12-20-2011).


China is an ancient nation with a few thousand years of civilization. In history, the Chinese civilization has made great contributions to the Western civilization. The Western philosophy in the Enlightenment period absorbed much of the Chinese cultural rationalism. We often stress the "four great inventions," but they were of a technical nature. However, even in the areas of ideas and implementation, the influence of Chinese culture has spread far beyond the East Asia region and reached the West. Here are a few examples.


One factor was that China had a civil service system. Traditionally, China developed the world's most massive and most effective civil service system. What did it rely on to rule such a huge Chinese Empire? Empire-building relied on force, but empire-ruling resorted to a well-developed civil service system. The West also went through the empire stage, but did not develop a civil service system similar to China's. Without the civil service it would be unthinkable to generate modern Western countries and the subsequent democratic transition and operation. Several principles implicitly contained in the civil service system of China produced a great impact on the West.


First, China had the separation of imperial power and the power to govern. The world was conquered by the emperor and the country belonged to the emperor. But the power to govern the country, that is, the administrative power or the right to rule (by the prime minister) was open to the society. China developed a centralized system of examinations to hire officials. This constituted a striking contrast with the family rule in the history of the West. The West imported the civil service system from China. In the wake of democratization, it eventually evolved into the present political and administrative separation. And the separation of political and administrative functions was the precondition of democratic political operation in modern history.


Second, China had civil service neutrality. Politics changes, but how to ensure the continuity of the policy of a country? How to ensure that the right to rule will not be interrupted because of political changes? The key lies in the neutrality of the civil service. In the West, politicians are constrained by democratic rules, but the operation of the civil service system has its own laws, which is not subject to democratic politics. This point is discussed in any textbook of the West.


Third, civil servants took charge of different departments under a rotation system. In Chinese history, civil servants generally could not stay in power in one place for a long period of time. The Emperor would move them around, similar to the "cadre exchange system" in effect at present. There were two objectives: first, it would prevent the formation of regionalism and local forces; second, it would allow officials to accumulate experience of governance in different areas to facilitate their promotion and accumulate their ability to manage national affairs. This point is also very important for the power system in the modern Western nations, let alone in Asia.


Another factor is the traditional Chinese idea of "education for all" ("education for everyone, irrespective of background"). Traditional China also had a hierarchical system consisting of "scholar, farmer, artisan and merchant" and so on. But China did not have a hierarchical system similar to other civilizations such as those based on religion, caste, ethnicity, etc. In Chinese Confucianism, the only difference was people who were "educated" and "not educated," while everyone could be "educated to be good." The traditional educational system of the West was the elite educational system. Those who had access to education were children from the noble and wealthy families. Before the modern times, the right to education was monopolized by a handful of people. The "education for all" idea of China later had a great impact on Western "public education." Although in traditional Chinese society, Confucianism often monopolized knowledge and China itself did not develop the public education system, the "education for all" philosophy evolved into the "public education" system in the West. In modern times, the political systems of Western countries gradually became democratized, and public education has constituted the most important part of the effective functioning of mass democracy.


So, what is the situation of contemporary China? Here we can begin by discussing the "going out" campaign of Chinese culture that is in full swing. With its economic rise, China felt the importance of cultural soft power. This is because, without the culture "going out," other aspects of China's "going out" have already met with great resistance. For example, the "going out" of enterprises is often seen as a threat to the external world, military modernization is seen as a threat to the world safety, and so on. Therefore, in recent years China has been trying to push the Chinese culture abroad including the Confucius Institutes and a variety of "media going out" projects. So, what is the fate of this "going out" of international projects? To what extent are they successful?


The harsh reality is that we all know that the Chinese culture needs to "go out," but no one knows what aspect of the culture should go out. To do marketing in business in order to sell products, you must first have products. Marketing is only a matter of packaging and strategy. Proper marketing can change people's awareness of all your products or even establish recognition of your products. In any case, the first priority is that there must be high quality products. If the product quality is poor, no matter how good the marketing is, it will be to no avail.


What do the Confucius Institutes do? They are marketing the Chinese language. What do the variety of media projects do for "going out"? In the Western opinion, China is making efforts to “replace exports by domestic consumption." That is, China has imported some concepts from the West, and exports them to the West after Chinese packaging.


In fact, from an international point of view, the objective situation of Chinese culture is not promising. Simply put, the two main religious cultures, the Western culture and the Muslim culture, are rapidly expanding, while the Chinese culture is increasingly on the defensive.


The Western culture, that is the culture which was generated and arose near the Mediterranean Sea, still continues to occupy the dominant position of world culture. This culture started to expand all the way from the Mediterranean Sea; it first occupied the two sides of the Atlantic and has now extended to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Western culture lays its basis in religion with a mission. This religious mission has always been the powerful driving force for promoting its unlimited expansion. At the same time, we also need to be aware that despite its religious nature, many aspects of this culture have been secularized. That is, it no longer has the original color of fundamentalism. In Asia, especially in East Asia, this change is more conducive to its spread.


Another religious culture is the Muslim culture.  In recent years, due to the war by the West against terrorism, this culture seems to be on the defensive and even regressive. Some people simply connect the Muslim culture with terrorism. But in fact this is not the case. The Muslim culture in general does not encourage violence. Only a very, very small portion of the people in the Muslim culture or the extreme fundamentalists engage in terrorism. In fact, over the years, despite the war of the West on terrorism, Islam has expanded rapidly and in a peaceful manner in the world all these years. Even in the largely Christian society of Europe, Islam has also developed into a cultural force to be reckoned with. In Europe, the Muslims and the Christians are often in conflict, which shows the profile of the Muslim expansion in Europe. In the Asia Pacific region, especially in Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands region, Islam expands just as quickly. Compared with the Christian culture, the expansion of Muslim culture has its own characteristics. As mentioned above, Christian culture tends to be secular or its secular components are increasing. The main bodies that implement the Christian culture are the secular governments that are the main product of this culture. We can see that the West has made worldwide efforts to implement democracy and freedom as its political culture and system. Within the Muslim cultural circle, governmental power is relatively weak, and there is no political system with freedom and democracy to attract people. In fact, the Western political culture and its system with democracy and freedom at the core also have produced a huge influence upon the Muslim circle. The main body for the expansion of the Muslim culture is the society itself. This is an expansion of faith and the moral system. In the long run, with the secularization of Christian culture, will the Muslim culture increase its influence on faith? This requires attention.


Compared with these two major religious cultures, despite the rise of the Chinese economy, the Chinese culture is on the defensive. This defensiveness is also very obvious even inside China. The reason is simple; the thinking of the Chinese people is already quite Westernized. The present cultural promotion carried out by China, although massive, will not have any substantive significance on the expansion of Chinese culture. What China misses is a set of core values as well as shared values with other cultures. Obviously, if Chinese civilization cannot develop its own set of core values and on this basis develop shared values, it will gradually be absorbed and dissolved by the afore-mentioned two cultures.


The key is that China does not have its own products of cultural knowledge, and even no voice based on the quality of cultural products. The West has learned a lot from the Chinese tradition and has already far surpassed China. It is very difficult for China to continue to rely on tradition to sell itself. Not trying to make progress but just trying to think of something from tradition is very irresponsible. More importantly, tradition cannot explain contemporary China any more. Although today's China has a traditional heritage, it no longer uses the traditional culture of China. After thirty years of reform and opening up, China has changed dramatically. Of course, such changes can be traced back to three decades before the reform and opening up, and even to the history since the late Qing Dynasty. It is up to us to produce a new body of knowledge and to pursue a new voice. Without these, a new culture is out of the question.


The key question is whether we can accomplish this task. Can this new culture become an alternative to the Western culture? In other words, this culture should not only be acceptable to the Chinese people but also to the people in cultural circles of other countries and regions.


This is clearly not the current situation. At least we are very far from that goal. In order for a culture to become "soft power," at least three conditions must be met. First, this culture, whether it is produced locally or combined with outside "input" factors, must be able to explain itself. If a culture cannot explain itself, then how can it be understood by “others"? Second, this culture must be able to convince "others" and be trusted by them. If "others" cannot be convinced, and if they cannot trust this culture, then it is not soft power. Third, and more importantly, the "others" should voluntarily accept such a culture. This is the essence of soft power. After having met these three conditions, culture does not need to be promoted; in particular, it does not need to be promoted through political force. In the Tang Dynasty, the government did not go everywhere to promote culture, but its culture reached every corner of the East Asian community. In modern times the spread of Western culture has essentially not relied on government force. Western values such as democracy and freedom are the core of Western political soft power. But if Western governments use a variety of means to forcefully sell these values to other countries and to compel other countries to accept them, then this is no longer soft power, but the opposite of soft power.


China still does not have such a culture at present; therefore, the various kinds of "marketing" efforts appear to face great difficulty. What China has now is a knowledge attached to its own historical traditions, or attached to Western culture. Chinese culture contains elements of traditions, or elements of Western culture, or a combination of both. This by itself is not a problem, and it also has advantages. However, this culture must be able to satisfy the first condition; that is to be able to explain itself. What China lacks are cultural products that can explain China. Now all cultural products are replicas with a strong "knockoff" flavor. Many people during the so-called "culture innovation" process simply make copies or make applications, that is, borrow the Western technology and use the Chinese materials. In many ways, the Chinese people often use other people’s words to describe themselves. The result is obvious. China is such a big country that it is difficult to act like some small countries using Western discourse to dress themselves. But also because of its efforts of resisting the Western-style political system, China cannot behave like other countries such as Japan to present itself as a Western country. China strongly opposes the West’s attempts to impose its logic on China, but what is China's own logic? No one can state that clearly.


For many years in China, whether it was the government or the private sector, people called for "cultural innovation." But what was the result? These calls were often reduced to simple slogans and policies of movement. Now the country has money, people all want to have a piece of the cake. Can they spend the money on cultural innovation? No one can tell. But past experience tells us that once they receive the money, the matter is left unattended. Even if the money can be used in the field of "cultural innovation," it would not be able to ensure such cultural innovation.


In fact, from a historical point of view, money is not a prerequisite for cultural innovation. The rich culture of Europe has indeed created an enormous economic value, but money is the result, not the premise. Many cultural creations are carried out in poor conditions. In the West, if you remove those philosophers, novelists, artists, musicians who engaged in difficult creative works under impoverished conditions, then the Western civilization we see today would not be so attractive to us. In fact, once the individuals or the creators of culture are reduced to money slaves, they are rarely associated with cultural creation. To conduct cultural creation or innovation, we must find another way.


Lacking cultural development and innovation not only makes it difficult for the Chinese culture to "go out," but also as discussed above, squeezes the survival space of the Chinese culture in the face of other religions and cultures. However, historically, the secular civilization of China has successfully digested other religious cultures including Judaism and Buddhism cultures. People can believe that China may also be able to re-develop a new cultural paradigm, a way to accommodate and integrate other religious cultures while maintaining their own culture and the nature of secular culture. Whether be digested or reborn again, China does not have many choices. If you do not want to see the first case, then the culture must be born again. This is the whole meaning of our discussion today about Chinese culture and innovation.


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Yongnian Zheng is Professor and Director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He is Editor of Series on Contemporary China (World Scientific Publishing) and Editor of China Policy Series (Routledge). He is also a co-editor of China: An International Journal. He has studied both China's transformation and its external relations. His papers have appeared in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, Political Science Quarterly, Third World Quarterly and China Quarterly. He is the author of 13 books, including Technological Empowerment, De Facto Federalism in China, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China and Globalization and State Transformation in China, and coeditor of 11 books on China's politics and society including the latest volume China and the New International Order (2008). Besides his research work, Professor Zheng has also been an academic activist. He served as a consultant to United Nation Development Programme on China's rural development and democracy. In addition, he has been a columnist for Xinbao (Hong Kong) and Zaobao (Singapore) for many years, writing numerous commentaries on China's domestic and international affairs. Professor Zheng received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Beijing University, and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He was a recipient of Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1995-1997) and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2003-2004). He was Professor and founding Research Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Tel: (65) 6516 5067; E-mail: eaizyn@nus.edu.sg
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