Who’s afraid of getting intimate with Chinese philosophy and world views? Nearly everyone Western, apparently

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation -- cultural and spiritual nourishment - photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation — cultural and spiritual nourishment
– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

The ting (cauldron), cast of bronze, was the vessel that held the cooked viands in the temple of the ancestors and at banquets [… and … ] refers to the cultural superstructure of society.

– oracular philosophy in the I Ching (3000-2000 BCE); trans.: Richard Wilhelm (Chinese to German); Cary Baynes (German to English)

If a rival for economic and military supremacy is always potentially a foe, could a diluted version of the old adage, ‘Know your enemy’ – from Sun Tzu’s 6th century BCE classic, The Art of War — still be sensible advice to follow?

Obviously, yes.

So you — or certainly anyone paying attention to world affairs – might suppose. Bizarrely, though, adults in the West seem to be leaving the job of understanding China to future generations, starting with the one in junior schools today. In an interview seven years ago with America’s National Public Radio, a headmaster of a British public school and biographer of two recent prime ministers said, ‘I think, within 10 years we need to have as many children in Britain learning Mandarin as are currently learning French.’

But what if one of those little brows perspiring over her ideograms was a grandchild of, say, Dennis Overbye, the fizzing, often very funny, New York Times science writer? In a brief aside in his column yesterday, sketching the big questions now perplexing physicists – every bit as much as they have for the entire history of philosophy and science — he asked:

The latest cosmological wrinkle is dark energy, which is speeding up the flight of galaxies from one another. And the great question is whether this dark energy is going to suck the light and energy out of the universe so completely that some day billions of years from now nothing is left: no memory even of Homer, Jesus, Mozart, Elvis or Nelson Mandela, not to mention the rest of us.

Especially as a light-hearted throwaway remark, that was proof of stunningly unconscious and blinkered Eurocentricity, never mind his token tossing-in of Mandela — or any pedant who cares to bark that Christianity’s founder was Middle-Eastern. If Overbye were to insist to a school-going relation of his that a C+ grade in Mandarin was simply not good enough, there could hardly be a more discouraging example of the admonitory, ‘… not as I do, but as I say.’

If members of the intelligentsia were paying proper attention, Chinese Dreams, a revelatory short book or long essay by the Indo-American writer Anand Giridharadas – whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – would have been reviewed within an inch of its life by every high-profile current affairs publication in the English language, for a start.

It should have made no difference that Chinese Dreams – containing critical information distilled from a series of interviews with mostly young Chinese thinkers in the urban elite, ranging from academics to entrepreneurs – was self-published two years ago exclusively as a post-print e-book. As scores of reviews on the Amazon sites testify, though it is acutely disturbing, in parts — because of its implications for philosophical principles the West holds most sacred – it is a completely engaging fast, lively read that slips down as easily as dim-sum prawn dumplings.

Large, mainstream Western publishers have long shrunk from publishing books that delve into the roots of Chinese and Indian cultural traditions and perspectives – claiming that their readers have no interest in these, so perpetuating, if not setting up, a circle of willed ignorance. In no general-interest publication has post-Gutenberg heard from Chinese voices like the ones Giridharadas coaxed into his recording device.

A sample, from post-Gutenberg’s Kindle ‘notes and marks’:

Eric X. Li is a successful and well-connected venture capitalist in Shanghai. He was once a believer in the American Dream, he now wants to help create a Chinese Dream all its own.

[…]

While Westerners focus on how China has failed to measure up to Western principles – for example, its resistance of democracy or the capriciousness of its legal system – Li believes that China is inventing ‘an alternative set of organizing principles for human affairs that are fundamentally different – not in opposition – but fundamentally different from what the world has been looking to the West for in the last three-four hundred years.’

[…]

[T]he ideas of Li’s circle are now referred to as the ‘Beijing Consensus’ in some quarters, to rival the Washington one, and are, at the least, taken seriously in some of the countries that have struggled to implement Western political and economic formulas in contexts very different from the West’s.

[…]

These were the four core principles I was able to glean from Li, Jin, Rao, and others.

1. Individualism isn’t universal.

[…] The West … does not understand societies – for example, Iraq – where tribal or sectarian or neighbourhood loyalties overwhelm simple individualism. […I] n Li’s view, China has, at a minimum, shown the world something new: that a large society can be successful and bring peace and prosperity to its people without an understanding of the individual derived from the European Enlightenment. […]

2. Pragmatism over abstraction.

… [A]s the members of this circle view it, it is China that lives by pragmatism as a way of life and the West that believes, and is defined by a belief, in abstract, universally applicable truths.

In reality, of course, no one has a monopoly on either pragmatism or principle. But it can be observed that the culture of China, like that of India, is generally less comfortable with the kind of sweeping, true-in-all-cases ideology of the kind you find in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. ‘Our framework is more down to earth,’ said Fu, the political scientist. ‘We lack metaphysics. We are not interested in idea-based searches. We practice first.’ […]

3. Meritocracy over democracy.

[…] The members of Li’s circle are also seeking to revitalize the Confucian idea of meritocracy over democracy as the fount of political legitimacy. ‘Americans believe in election; the Chinese, if I simplify, believe in selection,’ said Zhang Wei-Wei, an international relations scholar who divides his time between Geneva and Beijing and once served as a translator for Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who opened China’s doors to the world in 1978. […]

4. Representing the future.

… China’s senior leadership, for all its other faults, has struck a healthier balance between the country’s short- and long-term interests than many Western democracies

[…]

China’s relationship with the environment … is on the one hand, ravaging the planet … It should be excused, its leaders say, because they have to secure economic growth for its people. But China has also pivoted more speedily than many democracies toward building a renewable energy industry – something for which the short-term payoff is minimal, as Western politicians know, but the long-term societal benefits potentially massive.

… and to fill in the gaps and glean everything else Giridharadas’s book has to say, we suggest a quick hop over here, after which we hope readers will ask: why haven’t I read about any of this in – The New York Times? The Economist, … ?

[ For the record: no, post-Gutenberg does not know this author, and we have no acquaintances in common, as far as we know … ]

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2 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of getting intimate with Chinese philosophy and world views? Nearly everyone Western, apparently

  1. The clachans in Ireland and Scotland used the runrig form of farming, where land belonged to the tenants in common, often on a tribal basis. So not everyone in Western Europe was doggedly pursuing private property. Sun-tzu continued with “Know your enemy AND know yourself and you will always be victorious.” I will investigate ‘Chinese Dreams’ on PG’s recommendation. And I note that the philosophical contexts in the West differ according to one’s social and/or economic stratum. At the lower end of the economic scale, wage slaves are urged to be “team players,” encouraged to use democratic principles to control outcomes, reminded of the importance of institutional memory; whereas in the upper strata, individualism is unbridled; short-term expediency is valued over principle; and plutocracy rules the day. PG has, as usual, produced another thought-provoking blog.

  2. Quite, and ‘the tragedy of the commons’ is about such sharing in England that went wrong, a long time ago…. Chinese rice farmers have always had to collaborate to keep their paddy farms going, concentrations of Dutch, Italian-Swiss and Portuguese immigrants in parts of rural California were owed to the close cooperation dairy farming requires. … But don’t think you think we need to move away from such comparisons in this context — to make it clear that artistic copyright shouldn’t be conflated with the corporate kind; that it is protecting radically different interests?

    Your mention of different standards for respect for initiative and originality in different strata is well-observed. Incisive and deeply true. … Also deeply sad.

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