Changing the world's lens on China

13:30, December 10, 2009      

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We are greeted by 10 Chinese characters - which mean independent spirit and freethinking - on the door to Prof Liu Dong's new office in Tsinghua University. Liu is the deputy dean of the university's Institute of Chinese Studies, which reopened last month after 80 years.

This motto, of "independent spirit and freethinking", will guide the institute's work, in which academic autonomy will take priority, Liu says. Those who associate Chinese studies with only Confucianism will see the motto as a paradox because it does not reflect Chinese tradition, which is rooted in order and obedience rather than freethinking and independent spirit. But Liu says the concept is what formed the basis of the old institute, founded in 1925 and known for linking Chinese studies with Western cultures and sciences, and the ancient with the modern.

Liu has embarked on an ambitious mission of trying to revive the glory the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) enjoyed during the four years of its existence. Its faculty had luminaries like Liang Qichao (1873-1929), Wang Guowei (1877-1927), Chen Yinque (1890-1969) and Zhao Yuanren (1892-1982), top scholars in the fields of history, philosophy, literature, linguistics and archeology who later came to be known as the "Four Tutors". It had about 70 students, including linguist Wang Li and historian Wu Qichang, who went on to become some of the most influential scholars in the country.

The "Four Tutors" were especially known for their unique approach to research and independent spirit. They applied Western scientific methods to interpret traditional Chinese culture, which bore the hallmark of the times when modernity clashed with established traditions after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

"Great thinkers are born in turbulent times," Liu says. "But ours is a time when everything else is flourishing, except Chinese studies. Alas, the academic achievements of those times (1920s) may not be repeated."

Liu's lamentation could be premature, because Chinese studies have caught the imagination of the youth over the past few years. In fact, Tsinghua University is not the first to set up (or reopen) such a school. Many other universities today offer courses on Chinese studies, and "experimental" schools have opened in many cities where students learn ancient literature and customs.

But Liu is right in thinking that some such schools do not offer solid teaching and research facilities, without which it is impossible to enrich our spiritual world in today's materialistic society.

There was a period before 1978 when Chinese thought ancient traditions were detrimental to the country's development. Even after the reform and opening up, the mad rush for everything modern made ancient Chinese culture, at best, irrelevant for people for quite some time. The transformation started in this decade - when China reached a high level of development - with an increasing number of people becoming interested in their cultural roots.

But unlike what many people think, Liu holds that Chinese studies should not stop at rediscovering ancient traditions and classics. "It should play a role in international dialogue, too," Liu says.

The international angle is another important contribution of the old institute to Chinese studies. During the four years of ICS's existence, Liang Qichao invited many foreign scholars and writers to deliver lectures in China. The visits of leading lights such as philosophers John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, and Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore became the most talked about cultural events of the time.

Liu says the institute will be guided by the spirit of its founding fathers. He plans to collect the research works done in the 1920s and get them published and translated into English to disseminate the knowledge of the old masters.

But he does not intend to stop there, for he wants to establish a "two-way exchange of culture on equal status", too. Liu explains: Chinese studies was established as a subject around the 1920s after Western culture was introduced to China, and Western scholars dominated the research framework, method and evaluations. "It's like dancing in an area demarcated by Westerners." Many Chinese scholars cannot gain recognition at home unless they have done so abroad.

Although students in the reopened institute will still have to learn Western theories on Chinese studies, they will do so only as a reference point. They don't have to be confined to the Western framework.

Reviving the 1920s' tradition, the institute will invite Western scholars to China from early next year to deliver lectures. This will open new vistas for them; they can interact with Chinese and see for themselves what China is really like. "We hope to have deep and meaningful dialogues," Liu says, "instead of visits limited to reading papers, climbing the Great Wall, and savoring Peking roast duck."

Liu organized many cultural exchange visits in his capacity as professor of comparative studies at Peking University, which he served for nine years before moving to neighboring Tsinghua University. He says it is especially important to communicate Chinese culture to the outside world today, when many perceive China's rising economic power as a threat.

Although the gap between real China and how the Swedish people see it is still wide, it will be narrowed as more cultural exchange visits take place between the two countries, Torbjorn Loden, professor of Chinese Language and Culture in Stockholm University and director of Nordic Confucius Institute, said at a seminar on "The World's China", organized by Liu in October last year. Loden said any critique should be based on knowledge and understanding of contemporary China. But it's a pity there aren't enough of them.

Liu agrees, saying Chinese culture is not fundamentally different from other cultures to the point of being undecipherable. Chinese studies should be applicable to contemporary issues. Scholars must grasp the core values of Confucianism, and see them in the light of modern civilization. The mundane elements in Confucianism may hold the key to solving today's development problems, just as David Hall and Roger Ames say in their book, Thinking Through Confucius. East Asia's rise as a whole - home to the world's second (Japan), third (China) and 11th (South Korea) largest economies - is partly attributable to the Confucian way of life that values education, frugality, prudence, diligence and tolerance.

Liu doesn't think Chinese studies are only about the culture of Han people, who account for about 92 percent of the population in China. Of the three seminars the institute offers, one is History of Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368) and Frontier Ethnic Groups. Liu, who is the editor of several Chinese academic journals, including Historical Journal of Frontier China and China Scholarship, says research of history, culture and language of the frontiers is particularly important for the stability and well-being of China, a big country with so many ethnic groups.

"I feel lucky to be living in an era when Chinese culture is walking out of the doldrums," says Liu, who was not so lucky during his childhood. He had to quit school at 11 when the "cultural revolution" began in 1966, and became a worker in a foundry at 16. But he continued his self-learning before enrolling in Nanjing University to study philosophy. After graduation, he taught in various universities and joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a researcher in 1991, before moving to Peking University in 2000.

"My fate has been changing along with that of the country. That's why I'm excited to take up challenges," he says.

Source: China Daily
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