November 7, 2018
Ideals to aspire beyond the Chinese Dream
Recently I met up with an old friend and we recalled our conversation years ago. He was then a visiting professor at one of the top universities in Shanghai. Though a foreigner, he is a great fan of Chinese literature and speaks fluent Mandarin. He has been all the while a keen student of Chinese history. It is fair to describe him as a Sinophile of some sort.
Soon after his arrival at the Shanghai University about 15 years ago, his colleagues brought him out on a sight-seeing tour in the financial district. They pointed out to him the array of skyscrapers dominating the area, expecting him to utter words of admiration. Instead, he kept silent and shook his head. When asked why, he said: “These super-tall structures are bad for the environment. They are expensive to build and expensive to maintain. What if there is a fire? Moreover, these buildings will not last for thousands of years. If you ask me, one thousand of such buildings cannot impress me as much as one Li Bai or one Wang Wei.” Li Bai and Wang Wei are two preeminent poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Fast forward to today, I asked for his take on the Chinese Dream. His reply was no surprise. The Chinese Dream is a multi-dimensional project, but he prefers focusing on its cultural dimension. Instead of pouring so much resources into massive iconic structures, it would be more fruitful and enduring to direct the resources to improving the educational conditions for children in rural regions and places lacking decent living environments. He has traveled to many parts of China and the school conditions in most rural areas caused him heartache. Of course, better schools and teachers by themselves will not guarantee production of awe-inspiring poems and novels. But they can increase the chances by widening the talent pools and nurturing potential Li Bais and Wang Weis.
To support his position, he mentioned the legacies of ancient Greece, whose brilliance in literature, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy remains today a gold standard for others to emulate. The achievements not only form a key foundation of European civilization, but are also an immense contribution to the cultural resources of the world. These cultural-intellectual achievements, rather than McDonalds, Hollywood or jeans, are soft power in the most profound sense.
The conversation somehow steers me to reflect on the Chinese Dream and his approach inspires me to come up with three suggestions.
First, ancient China, like the ancient Greece, was a period of intellectual brilliance with its thinkers and literature. Names like Confucius, Mencius and Sun Zi are well known all over the world, with Taoism of Lao Zi exerting influence in food, healthcare, paintings, science and literature. However, unlike Greek mythologies, Chinese literature of that period is relatively unknown outside East Asia. It is even less well known than The Arabian Nights. In percentage terms, probably more Chinese know about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves than Arabs about Chang-E Flying to the Moon. China will do well to rectify this situation.
Second, to embark on a project of compiling a set of books, pretty similar to the Great Books of the Western World which was an initiative of the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the Encyclopædia Britannica publishing house. Let us tentatively name the proposed set the Great Books of the Chinese Civilization. The collection shall bring together the essential core of the Chinese cultural and intellectual canons and includes China’s most significant achievements in literature, history, philosophy and science. With authoritative editing and introduction, the books will provide as complete and accurate as possible the background and ideas that have shaped the course of Chinese civilization.
The project can serve as a platform for top scholars of China all over the world to work together, creating as a byproduct a network of intellectuals of similar interests. It would produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world. It should become a key component of a common body of knowledge for global-minded citizens.
The third project is to modernize traditional Chinese medicine and widen its scope of application. TCM represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of herbal medical practice and many associated treatment methodologies. It is evidence-based. However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of Western medicine.
The theory of TCM needs a modern set of vocabulary and to be updated to take into account new medical findings. Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine Ayurveda, and traditional Islamic medicine practiced in the Middle East. It would be a rewarding project for the three streams of traditional medicine to share their insights and exchange their advances. This is an area for active collaboration among Asian countries, the success of which can boost the intellectual confidence of Asia, while making tangible contributions to healthcare in the whole world.
Michael Heng is a retired professor who held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia. The author contributed this article to China Watch exclusively. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of China Watch.