In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Conversation as a taste of harmony

Posted by seumasach on February 23, 2010

David Gosset

Asia Times

24th February, 2010

At the end of his life, Jacques Delille (1738-1813), known for his translations in French of Virgil and Milton, composed The Conversation, a long poem whose preface begins with a penetrating observation which also stands as a philosophy:

A group of intelligent and polite persons gathered to discuss and instruct each other through the communication of their ideas and feelings in a pleasant conversation, always seemed to me the best illustration of the humankind and of social perfection.[2]

At a time when misunderstandings between cultures are rampant, when walls of fear, prejudice and hatred divide the members of the human family, it is urgent to intensify the dialogue between civilizations. Under the new leadership of its Director-General Irina Bokova, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared 2010 as the “Year for the rapprochement of cultures”. In this context, the concerted reflection and action of Europe and China can be highly meaningful.

If, from 2003 to 2005, commentators were busy elaborating on a Sino-European convergence confronting the American neo-conservative moment of hubris and its unipolar fantasy [2], the first year of the Barack Obama presidency was marked by discussions about a Sino-American G-2. However, rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over climate change, trade, the Internet, Taiwan and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, are now weakening the excitement about the G-2 mirage imagined by former national security advisors Henry Kissinger [3] and Zbigniew Brzezinski [4] on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between China and the US.

Overreaction to relatively isolated events can generate appealing catchwords but analyses that tend to re-bipolarize the global dynamics cannot obliterate the centrality of the European Union (EU), US and China in an increasingly pluralistic world. Within this triangle, China and Europe have developed two rich and balanced visions of the world congenial with their respective historical experience as civilizations. On the long term, the cultural dimension, a permanent factor among ever-varying interests, is the keystone of the overall Sino-European relationship, one of the most significant resources for a constructive triangulation between the EU, US and China, and beyond, a world of equilibrium. The framework to best handle the 21st century’s complexities is not one of the various forms of globalism, but the Sino-European understanding of universalism.

In The School of Athens adorning the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, Raphael (1483-1520) represents his vision of the ancient Hellenes’ intellectual life. The animated debates among thinkers and scientists, the intense dialogue between the painting’s two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, produce a striking effect of movement and epitomize the Renaissance’s spirit.

A contemporary of Raphael, Ming dynasty painter Shen Zhou (1427-1509), founder of the delicate Wu style, depicts in Literary Gathering at Wei’s Garden [5], a majestic nature where, on the foreground, scholars have convened under the roof of modest pavilion. On the left a servant is on its way to bring a guqin, a seven-stringed zither, to one of the literati while other scholars are having a conversation.

This exquisite scene by Shen Zhou is a variation on one of the main themes of China’s artistic tradition, the “yaji“, commonly translated as “elegant gathering” or “literary gathering”. Xie Huan whose works were collected by Shen Zhou, painted Elegant Gathering in the Apricot’s Garden [6] and later Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) created another famous Literary Gathering [7]. The Chinese practice and representation of the “yaji” can be compared with the “salon” phenomenon, which from the 17th to the early 20th century has been at the center of Europe’s social transformation.

Obviously, The School of Athens and Shen Zhou’s “yaji” belong to two different aesthetic climates separated by technique, form and style, however, a common source of inspiration, the art of conversation, suggests a meaningful comparison: the two masterpieces are an invitation to appreciate the internal polyphony which has been at work both in the construction of Europe and in the making of China. A monolithic and immobile Chinese world of total conformism can only be found in imaginary constructions or in unperceptive and ill-informed prose.

Despite different historical rhythms, distinct sequence of development, China and Europe have gradually emerged in a context of a very high internal diversity, and have, because of the same centrifugal forces, often abruptly sunk into fragmentation. The Greek, Roman, Christian and modern moments of the European history do not correspond with the Chinese dynastic successions, but beyond their idiosyncratic evolutions, the same effort of synthesis has been inspiring the two civilizations.

While Europe put more emphasis on the particular (cities, kingdoms, nation-states), China aimed at the universal, the rich notion of “tianxia“, “all-under-Heaven”, whose political expression has been the empire or the dynasty (wangchao). As the great Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao (1873–1929) remarked:

The Chinese people have never recognized the nation (guojia) as the highest form of mankind’s organization, claiming always that a higher form must exist, a suzerain (zongzhu) of all nations, that which we call all-under-Heaven (tianxia)… This type of broad-minded cosmopolitanism (shijiezhuyi) has been the nucleus of Chinese political thinking for the past several thousand years. [8]

China mirrors Europe’s historical-philosophical reality, which, despite innumerable narratives centered around the nation-state as the point of reference, has endured. In 1932 English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) noted: “The European civilization is not an abstract intellectual concept … it is a concrete social organism which is just as real and far more important than the national unities of which we talk so much.” [9] However, the two civilizations went through – and still have to manage – a complex pattern of tensions between diversity and unity.

Interestingly today, in Eurasia’s Far West, the European Union is advocating “multipolarity” while China, at the other edge of the Eurasian megacontinent, is promoting the ideal of a “harmonious world” (hexie shijie), a notion which will become an important legacy of Hu Jintao, China’s president. When he visited France as vice president in 2001, he explicitly referred to the notion of multipolarity in an address at the French Institute for International Relations. “Multipolarity constitutes an important base for world peace and the democratization of international relations is an essential guarantee for that peace,” he said. As president, Hu used the United Nations’ 60th anniversary summit to define the concept of “harmonious world” as a combination of multilateralism, cooperation and “a spirit of inclusiveness where all civilizations coexist harmoniously and accommodate each other”.

Europe’s and China’s historical experiences partly explain the paradigms of “multipolarity” and “harmonious world”. The two visions are, mutatis mutandis, the European and Chinese contexts enlarged to the world. They are also the reinterpretations of two traditional philosophical ideals which are, for the beginning of the 21st century, of a great relevance.

Globalism is not congenial with the two Eurasian civilizations. It is to “multipolarity” or the notion of a “harmonious world” what an arrogant monologue is to a genuine conversation. However, as America’s dominant and persistent representation of the world, the fiction of an integrated global village is highly consequential. Wrongly assuming an integrated international system in which the US is in a position of moral and material superiority, Washington can act according to an unipolar fantasy or feel obliged to demonstrate leadership.

Despite the obvious dissimilarities between Fukuyama’s post Cold War essay The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat (2005), they introduce a world where growing techno-economic interdependence leads to political, cultural and intellectual convergence. However, globalization is a paradoxical process where connectivity does not entail the fusion of cultures but, to a certain extent, underlines what differentiates them.

If the 21st century complex international reality is not a post-historical uniform and integrated system, it does not mean either that, in reference to Huntington’s terminology, civilizations have to clash, they have to co-exist not as distant objects of curiosity but as close neighbors. In such a context, the Sino-European disposition toward complexity, compromise and negotiation is more apt than the American posture of self-proclaimed leader of the world.

In a reinterpretation of the Greek concept of cosmopolitanism, Ghanaian author Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests that universality and difference does not have to exclude each other. [10] To a certain extent, the making of Europe has been, on the scale of a relatively small continent, the attempt to realize the ideal of cosmopolitanism. In the 18th century the European society was a concrete reality: its elites spoke French [11] without abandoning their particular identities. One can still peruse 182 letters that Pushkin (1799-1837), the founder of modern Russian literature, wrote in a flawless French [12]! The European Union continues Europe’s effort to balance universality and difference. In the words of the Lisbon Treaty, which now structures the ancient continent’s political life, the 27 EU member states agree that “the European Union shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced”. (Article 2).

China’s intellectual tradition developed with the concept of “Da Tong” or “Grand Union” its own version of cosmopolitanism. One of the most stimulating texts on the “Grand Union” can be found in the “Li Ji“, the Classic of Rites, one of the five classics [13]. The “Grand Union” refers to a moment of conciliation where “the public and common spirit rule all under Heaven” [14]. It remains China’s highest political ideal. After his visit to Europe in 1919 and a direct contact with the Western realities, Liang Qichao had regrettably to admit: “One has to recognize that it is as yet too early to hope for the Grand Union, and that for the time being nations will not disappear” [15]. But Liang Qichao, as a genuine Chinese humanist, did not relinquish the universal when he added in the same context: “We hope that the talents of every individual in the nation can be expressed so that they can make the greatest possible contribution to the betterment of universal civilization.”

In the Analects Confucius presents a gentleman who values more the universal than the particular, while the inferior does exactly the opposite.[16] But the Analects precise that harmony does not mean assimilation or uniformization.[17]

The European cosmopolitanism and the Chinese “Grand Union” envelop the necessary balance between universality and difference, their modern expressions, “multipolarity” and “harmonious world”, indicate the path toward a world of equilibrium.

A true world civilization would burgeon from constant dialogue, exchanges and cross-fertilizations between the ancient traditions, and far to flatten their depths or to reduce their differences, it would mature owing to their experiences and wisdoms in an endless conversation. Such a conversation, in Delille’s words is “the best illustration of the social perfection”, and would certainly have a taste of harmony.

In its immortal calligraphy Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion Wang Xizhi (303-361) improvised:

A cup of wine, a chant, enough to put us in the mood of a free and subtle conversation.[18]

1. La Conversation, Jacques Dellile, 1812, Preface : “Une societe de personnes spirituelles et polies, r้unies pour s’entretenir ensemble et s’instruire, dans une conversation agr้able, par la communication mutuelle de leurs id้es et de leurs sentiments, m’a toujours paru la plus heureuse repr้sentation de l’esp่ce humaine et de la perfection sociale.”
2. Follies of Power – America’s Unipolar Fantasy (2009), is the title of a remarkable book written by American intellectual David P Calleo, a work which is in itself a clear evidence in the words of Professor Calleo that “the United States has a healthy tradition of self-criticism that, with luck, rouses itself to spare the nation from egregious folly”.
3. “The Chance For a New World Order”, Henry A. Kissinger, International Herald Tribune, Jan 12, 2009.
4. “The Group of Two that could Change the World”, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Financial Times, Jan 13, 2009.
5. Weiyuan yaji tu
6. Xingyuan yaji tu
7. Yaji tu
8. The League of Nations and China (Guojia lianmeng yu zhongguo), Liang Qichao,
9. The Making Of Europe, An Introduction to the History of European Unity, 1932.
10. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, 2006.
11. When Europe Spoke French, Quand l’Europe parlait fran็ais, 2003, Marc Fumaroli
12. Pushkin, Lettres en fran็ais, 2004, Edition established, presented and commented by Bernard Kreise.
13. The Book of Changes (Yi Jing), The Book of Odes (Shi Jing), Classic of Rites (Li Ji), Classic of History (Shu Jing) and The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu).
14. Classic of Rites, Li Ji, Li Yun.
15. Liang Qichao, Record of My Impressions on A Tour of Europe (Ouyou xinying lu). 16. Confucius, Analects, 2:14 : junzi zhou er bu bi, xiao ren bi er bu zhou.
17. Confucius, Analects, 13 : 23 : junzi he er bu tong, xiaoren tong er bu he.
18. Yi shang yi yong yi zuyi changxu youqing.

David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.

(Copyright 2010 David Gosset.)

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