I invite you to take a walk with me through a Chinese park which we shall name ‘The blessed gate to eternal prosperity’.
The first thing we see after we cross the entrance is a group of people dancing, beautifully dressed in old Chinese clothing. In the plaza to the west we find several people dressed in Western clothing and practizing, amongst others, the charleston. We continue our walk and pass several red pavilions where Chinese from all ages engage in traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy while others are painting abstract with Western oil paint. We continue our walk and arrive at the square in the centre of the park. Here are many people singing together and even doing karaoke. The songs they sing, range from ethnic folk songs to contemporary Chinese pop songs to Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. We leave the square behind and in a corner of the park, beautifully hidden underneath pine trees, we see young and old doing psychophysical practices. They practise different styles of taijiquan, shaolin, wushu, qigong, aerobics, fitness, western boxing and jogging. Amidst all of these activities, scattered throughout the entire park, on their own or in group, people are practising their music instruments like the violin, the pipa, the guqin, the guitar, while others are quietly walking, sipping tea or cheering for the many players of Go, Chinese chess and Western chess.
At the end of our walk, we cannot but wonder about the ecclecticism we have just witnessed, this seemless blend of activities from other parts of the world, peacefully co-existing next to eachother.
It is exactly this feature that is of the utmost importance.
China’s rise to economic power has been studied in great length and depth. The studies devoted to China’s business environment and political and economic peculiarity number in the many thousands.
But what has been neglected is the role of culture. I believe that it is through culture that China has risen again. It is through the study and partial assimilation of other cultures that China has been able to broaden and deepen their understanding of their own culture, while also gaining a thorough understanding of the cultures of the rest of the world.
This stand in shrill contrast with Europeans. The shameful truth is that most Europeans barely know anything about China, except for their favourite menu number of their local Chinese take away restaurant.
It is clear to me that if Europe wants to play an important role on a global scale in the twenty first century, it will have to invest in the understanding of other cultures and reach out beyond its borders.
But how can this be done?
If we want change to endure, it has to start from the base on an educational level: Let us teach our children about China. For example, it is unthinkable that in our history lessons nothing is taught about an empire with a continued history of five thousand years. In comparison, the country I live in and where many European institutions reside, is a mere 184 years young. Also, there is no other country in the world that has such a vast and rich literary history. To sum up the incredible writers and poets that have sprung forth from China would take up several volumes. Shakespeare, Dante, Milton and Vergilius are widely read in China, while few in the West have heard of Li Bai, Dufu and Bai Juyi.
The same goes for philosophy and religion. Of course it is important to teach our children about Plato, Kant, Aquino and Descartes, but they also should know about Kongzi, Mengzi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Wang Yangming and Mozi as well.
There are many more examples, like Chinese medicine, Chinese art and so on.
But there is hope.
There is already one tiny aspect of China’s cultural heritage that enjoys recognition, and that is the gentle art of Taijiquan. Once a tremendous effective martial art, now known for its transformative, therapeutic and meditative qualities. Since it is already quite known, it could be a great starting point to further explore Chinese culture.
I do not argue that Europeans should become Chinese. But through the study of Chinese culture, we can learn valuable lessons: We earn respect for other cultures and we learn to appreciate diversity. And we can look with new eyes upon our own culture and broaden our understanding of it. I firmly believe that is only through the study of culture that we can find common ground, the essence of what binds us together as humans, as a species.
It is only fitting I should conclude this essay with the words of the most famous cultural hero of China. His name is Kongzi, known in the West under his Latinised name Confucius. His words are now fifteen hundred years old, but are as relevant today as they were then:
‘Is it not pleasant to learn with perseverance and application? Is it not delightful having friends coming from far away places?’
We should heed these words and learn from each other. We should broaden our perspective and welcome our friends from afar. We will all become the richer from it.