Yangshuo, China

Chinese History & Culture

Traditional Chinese Culture

Traditional Chinese Culture, edited by Zhang Qizhi. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2004. ISBN 7-119-02033-1. Paper, including Appendix and Index.

I
like this book. Of the several on traditional Chinese culture that I have read, it seems to be both the most comprehensive and the most balanced. On the one hand, the writers and editor display great appreciation for the fine achievements of their high civilization; on the other, they stress the need for China to receive and absorb lessons and new things from other cultures.

In a very helpful introduction, the editor surveys traditional Chinese culture and selects several fundamental aspects which permeate much of what we know of as “Chinese.” He mentions the ethos of humanism; the ethos of naturalism; the ethos of the “odd and even” principle (usually known as yin and yang); and the ethos of “communication” or “absorption and assimilation.” Then he sketches ways in which traditional Chinese culture might be of value today.

Chapter 1, “The Dawn of Chinese Culture” relates the early development of agriculture, medicine, and musical instruments, as well as Chinese characters and clothing. Significantly, the earliest legends speak of ordinary men, not gods, and testify to Chinese humanism from the beginning.

The Chinese grew millet 3,000 years before anyone else, we are told. Likewise, the Chinese were the first to cultivate rice. Ancient farming skills in China, “are unique in the world.” Material culture precedes other forms of civilization. Advances in agriculture (somehow) led to the emphasis upon harmony in the Western Zhou areas, and on national unification in the Qin domains- though no explanation is given for these distinctions.

After surveying the origin of Chinese characters, and showing how shamans (“sorcerers”) gained an early monopoly on the use of writing, the book notes that “This combination of authority in the use of characters, theocracy and political power was a historical characteristic of China as it entered its era of civilization and had a profound impact on the development of traditional Chinese character.”(32) If we substitute the Communist Party for the sorcerers, and its control of the media and of “correct” language, one could perhaps say that this aspect of traditional Chinese culture persists down to the present.

Though scholars differ as to the origin of the dragon image, they agree that (1) it is very early; and (2) “symbolizes auspiciousness, power and prosperity.” As a pre-historic cult “the dragon reflected endeavors to achieve ideals and repel suffering.” Since then “It has become an almighty symbol, capable of roaming the four seas, and taking a commanding position everywhere,” and able to assume many different forms.

In time, of course, the dragon represented the imperial system, and even, to some extent, China itself.

Chapter 2, “Chinese Philosophy – The Soul of Traditional Chinese Culture” takes us first through “The Study of the Universe and Man,” and shows how the Chinese have alternated between two views: “Heaven is a supreme god with its own will;” or it is “simply nature with neither will nor purpose.” If the former is true, than man is an abject slave, with no control over his environment. We must simply worship and do nothing. If the latter, then our actions make a difference, as we learn how to work within natural “laws” and even understand nature and exercise our will to determine our own destiny.
Clearly, the author(s)(1) believe(s) that humans are masters of their own fate, and that different views issue from varying social conditions.

The introduction to Chinese philosophy includes a very helpful discussion of various theories of change (particularly the concept of the interplay of yin and yang) and ends with a brief description of ways in which assimilation and absorption of different tenets from competing schools of thought, including Buddhism and Western science and philosophy, has been a constant characteristic of Chinese intellectual development.

Chapter Three introduces us to “Ethics and Humanities,” beginning with traditional virtues, especially those of the Confucian tradition. Confucius’ ethical doctrine is summed up in the concept of “ren,” benevolence, which is carefully explained and analyzed. Other traditional Chinese values include upholding the integrity of the nation (including its unity and honor), and respecting and caring for the elderly. Concern for national prestige and unity has engaged the energies of the Han race for a long time – a consideration which policy makers in other nations should note carefully. This section concludes with the correct comment that Chinese culture is permeated with ethics and morals.

Space prohibits us from even listing the contents of later chapters, which present very helpful introductions to “The Dominant Religions of Ancient China – Buddhism and Taoism”; Jade, Bronze Mirrors, Gold and Silver Articles, and Bronze, Pottery, and Porcelain Ware; Education; Calligraphy and Painting; Medicine; Chinese Food; and Architecture.

Two final chapters discuss the challenges facing traditional Chinese culture, especially as it has encountered the West in the past three hundred years or so, and the prospects for traditional Chinese culture in the 21st century.

A few themes emerge: The antiquity of Chinese culture; its profound ethical and even scientific insights; its constant absorption and adaptation of elements from other cultures. The authors believe that traditional Chinese culture has a great deal to offer the rest of the world, even as China “must concentrate more on the absorption of the merits of foreign cultures to enrich and develop the traditional Chinese culture.”

The lack of illustrations makes this book a bit too “dense” for beginning students, but I very highly recommend it for those who have already gained some knowledge of China and its rich cultural heritage. Even experts will, I believe, find something new in almost every chapter, and be stimulated by its many penetrating insights.

No book is perfect, and Traditional Chinese Culture is no exception. Although extremely tightly edited and mostly well written, it suffers from the lack of a native English-speaking proofreader. Again, though it surpasses in sophistication, balance, and modesty similar books like A Reader on China (reviewed elsewhere in these pages), it displays an ignorance of other ancient cultures, and especially of Christianity and the latter’s influence on the West, which leads to some rather puerile boasting about China’s supposed unique contributions to ethics and philosophy. Finally, the underlying ideology seems Marxist (perhaps necessary nowadays), with the strengths and weaknesses of that system.

Notes

1. Several scholars, including the editor, are listed as writers to this excellent volume, but their particular contributions are not noted, so it is impossible to say who wrote what.