Cultural Diversity Leads to a Shared Future for the World

By: Qian ChengdanFrom:English Edition of Qiushi Journal July-September 2019|Vol.11,No.3,Issue No.40 | Updated: 2019-Nov-14 14:15
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General Secretary Xi Jinping once said, “Cultures become diverse through exchange and rich through mutual learning. Intercultural exchange and mutual learning are important impetuses for the progress of human civilization and world peace and development.” Adopting a perspective of cultural evolution, this article will attempt to demonstrate two points. First, diversity is the most essential and important characteristic of human civilization. Second, accompanying the advancement of modernization and globalization since the advent of modern times, diversified cultures have increasingly assumed a common responsibility – building a shared home for all humanity.

I

Human civilization has been diverse since the very beginning, and diversity embodies the essence of civilization. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions states that cultural diversity forms a common heritage of humanity and should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all; that cultural diversity creates a rich and varied world, which increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values, and therefore is a mainspring for sustainable development for communities, peoples, and nations.

The earliest civilizations were largely river civilizations, as major rivers provided a means of convenient interaction between our ancestors. It was frequent interaction, in the form of exchange, plundering, conquest, and war, as well as intermarriages and alliances that made possible the birth of civilization. In order to survive and to live more comfortably, our ancestors constantly sought to learn new things from far and wide to generate new ideas, which changed their way of life. Civilization was formed through interaction, and without interaction, there would be no civilization. This tells us that civilization, at the moment of its birth, was surely the outcome of clashes between different ideas and states of living, and that diversity is a necessary precondition for the birth of civilization.

Early civilizations demonstrated rich diversity. Generally speaking, the world’s earliest civilization appeared in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, which was a crossroads for the convenient passage and exchange of ancient humans. With a constant flow of people from all directions, it was here that language, religion, social division, and nation building first emerged. In ancient times, it was also here that produced a number of regional hegemons, such as the Akkadian Empire, Babylonia, Assyria, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which were all well-known ancient powers.

Ancient Egypt completed its unification around 3000 BC, and the pharaoh, as son of the sun god, firmly controlled the country by exercising theocratic and monarchic governance. At a time when civilization had yet to emerge in other parts of the world, this system had already lasted nearly 2,000 years in the Nile Basin, with its principles and framework basically unchanged. Such a stable political structure was rare in the ancient world. However, under the governance of ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, the ancient Egyptian civilization gradually fell apart and eventually became a part of the Islamic world.

The case of India was different again. There was once an ancient civilization in the Indus Basin, which was later destroyed by the Aryans, who then introduced the caste system. Under the influence of the caste system, there were many small countries clustered around the South Asian subcontinent for a long period of time, which were quite turbulent politically but were highly stable and rock-solid in terms of social structure. As a result of this system, social strata and the relationships between them almost never changed, and therefore, no matter how politically turbulent things became, social conditions remained unaffected. Political disunity and an extraordinarily stable social structure were the distinctive features of ancient India, a state of affairs that rendered the Indian subcontinent powerless to resist frequent foreign invasions before eventually becoming a British colony.

A fresco in cave number 320 of Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves. In ancient times, Dunhuang was the frontier where China learned about the world, and a window through which the world learned about China. As a place where the cultures of the central Asian region as well as nations such as India, Greece, and Persia could engage with Chinese culture on an equal basis and where interaction and integration led to constant innovation and advancement, Dunhuang became a model of cultural exchange between China and countries to its west. PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE DUNHUANG RESEARCH ACADEMY

The Great Sphinx is located near the Pyramid of Khafre in Egypt. The 57m-long and 20m-high statue is said to be carved from a single giant rock. Symbolizing the majesty of the pharaohs, it is one of the most emblematic remnants of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

As the cradle of European civilization, ancient Greece was markedly different from the aforementioned civilizations. First, it originated from the east coast of the Mediterranean, or to put it another way, the origin of Western civilization was actually in the East. Second, ancient Greece was also located near water, but it was an ocean, not a river. This meant that the Greeks had more space for maritime activities, consequently leading to a tradition of colonization. Third, with its political framework based on city-states, ancient Greece was different from the rest of the ancient world. Its land was home to about 200 city-states that clashed and warred with each other constantly, and as a result, the city-state civilization of ancient Greece lasted only a brief moment in history. Another feature of ancient Greece was democracy for citizens of city-states, later claimed by some as a “universal value.” However, the following facts should be noted. To begin with, ancient Greece was a slave society, where nine out of every ten persons were not “citizens” and were certainly not able to live under “democracy.” Secondly, among the hundreds of Greek city-states, Pericles’ Athenian democracy was a special case which only lasted for several decades within the history of Athens. Meanwhile, there were also different political systems that existed in other Greek city-states, such as Sparta. After the Peloponnesian War, it was widely believed that the defeat of Athens was attributable to its system, and Aristotle’s negative comments on Greek city-state democracy influenced the political notions of Europe as a whole. Describing ancient Greece and even Athens as a standard model for the ancient world was in fact a later fabrication.Ancient China developed a unique civilization, which was mysterious and difficult to understand in the eyes of many. The Yellow River was not the only cradle of Chinese civilization, which had multiple points of origin. More than 5,000 years ago, the vast area spanning from the Loess Plateau to the shore of the East China Sea was home to several converging points of civilization. They gradually became integrated with one another, and eventually developed into a single country. Over 4,000 years ago, the Xia Dynasty was already a huge regional nation; at least 3,500 years ago, the Shang Dynasty was keeping written records; 3,000 years ago, the king of Zhou adopted an enfeoffment system to standardize land allocation and social hierarchy. There was good reason for the emergence of such a system as it facilitated the tiered management of large areas of land, but it eventually led to the serious dissolution of society and caused wars lasting hundreds of years. After this historical period, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty unified China in the 3rd century BC, and from that moment onward, unity became the most precious heritage of ancient Chinese civilization, as it guaranteed the continuation of our civilization and lasting national development. Among all the world’s civilizations, only China’s has been uninterrupted since ancient times, and political unity has been its guarantee.

Beyond political unity, there was a strong theoretical force that bound the country together – the doctrines of Confucius. Confucius lived in an era of severe turmoil and endless war, and longed for the restoration of order and peace. It was for this reason that he created a set of doctrines on order, which dealt with both humans and nature. Building on past achievements to blaze a new trail, the doctrines of Confucius advocated peace, opposed war, upheld public morality, and criticized the pursuit of self-interest. For thousands of years, this remained the main theoretical vessel of Chinese civilization, and, to a great extent, guaranteed the continued progress of Chinese civilization.

Civilization has two vessels: the political vessel, which is country, and the theoretical vessel, which is ideology. In comparison with other ancient civilizations, the unique feature of Chinese civilization was that as early as the 2nd century BC, Chinese society had combined the Confucian doctrine (the theoretical vessel) with the imperial structure (the political vessel) to realize perfect integration between theory and country. Throughout the several millennia of Chinese history, social stability and economic prosperity have been directly related: social stability has led to economic prosperity, while social turmoil has caused the people to suffer. The reason why the Confucian doctrine became the core principle of ancient Chinese civilization has profound social and historical roots.

Comparatively speaking, integration between the theoretical and political vessels was not so smooth in other civilizations. For example, the long-term failure of Europe to integrate theory with country had an extremely negative effect on its later development. Looking at the period from 3rd century BC up until 3rd century AD, there were two empires in the world, i.e., the Han and the Roman which respectively dominated the East and the West and thrived as superpowers during that time. However, after the Barbarian invasions, the Roman Empire collapsed, marking the beginning of the feudal period in Western Europe. The most distinctive feature of this period was the separation of state power and ideology, namely to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Medieval Europe lagged behind the rest of the world, leading to a widening gap between the civilizations of the East and the West. The East was home to several glorious and fascinating civilizations, including the Indian, Arab, Ottoman, and even Byzantine empires, yet the Chinese empire outshone them all. According to an estimate by the California School, China’s GDP remained the largest in the world throughout the millennium prior to the 18th century, and for a long period of time the East was “advanced” while the West was “backward.”

Why was the East advanced while the West backward for more than a millennium? The answer is actually very simple: Western Europe’s feudal system meant that its society was highly fragmented, lacking in cohesiveness, and stuck in a state of endless turmoil and wars. More than 1,000 years prior to this, China experienced the same situation, and it was only the country’s unification in the Qin and Han dynasties that changed its destiny. Therefore, for the Western world to escape its medieval backwardness, it had to integrate society and re-establish united nations. This process began in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages.

II

In the beginning, civilization was like a candle lit against darkness, its lonely glow only able to illuminate the immediate surroundings. If a single candle is lit in a large space, it is easily extinguished by wind or rain. It was only when the lights of early civilizations were successively lit across nearby regions and were able to shine brightly together that those civilizations were able to survive and grow. Therefore, mutual support was a necessary condition for the survival of ancient civilizations, indicating that interaction made the emergence of civilization possible.

Civilizations grew out of small areas that we call the birthplaces of civilization. Through mutual exchange and contact, these areas continued to expand until they became culture circles, and different culture circles began to communicate with one another. This is a historical process of isolation to integration, and it shows us that a sense of a shared future was conceived in the smallest areas before expanding to eventually reach all corners of the world.

It was Chinese historians who introduced the theory that world history developed from isolation to integration in simultaneously temporal and spatial terms. This theory offers a highly condensed summary of the patterns of historical development and change, and adopts a historical perspective to expound on the process in which humanity developed from isolation to integration and eventually connected to form a whole.

A stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi at the Louvre in Paris, France. This legal code is a symbol of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

From small areas to large areas, large areas to culture circles, and from these circles to the whole world – this is how civilizations grow. Through this process and after several millennia of evolution, the emergence of capitalism was preceded by the existence of several major culture circles. These mainly included those of East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and North Africa, and Europe, as well as the budding civilization of American Indians. Every culture circle contained several sub or sub-sub culture circles, as well as even smaller cultural paradigms. These culture circles, sub culture circles, and sub-sub culture circles shared similarities in some aspects yet also maintained their uniqueness; they were extraordinarily diverse, and together formed a riotously colorful world. At that time, relations between different civilizations were equal. Despite the long distances between civilizations, and their lack of mutual understanding or even prior interaction, all civilizations had their own distinctive features, and there was no one civilization that was considered superior to the rest.

This landscape was altered when capitalism first appeared in Western Europe. In the late Middle Ages, a process of reunification began in Western Europe, during which a fragmented Europe under feudalism was unified based on location, forming “nation-states.” The nation-state was a new form of country, and was different from all “countries” that had previously existed in the world. With the national community as its political support (political vessel) and national identity as its theoretical support (theoretical vessel), the nation-state thus combined the political and theoretical vessels. Supported by these nation-states, the West began its contemporary rise, thereby changing the state of affairs in which the East was advanced and the West backward that had existed for more than a thousand years.

And so it went that from around the year 1500, the world witnessed great changes, and a new civilization emerged in the West. Driven by capital and the market, this civilization expanded across the globe without constraints. A new kind of ideology began to dominate society – capital was the axis around which industry and commerce revolved, worship of God turned into worship of money, and science and technology were the tools of capital. It was around this time that the theory of Western-centrism was introduced, from which the idea of universal values emerged subsequently. The true meaning of universal values is to equate the West with the world, and to make the whole world follow the Western path, which is the death of cultural diversity.

With the discovery of new sea routes, Western countries began to expand and colonize new lands with increasing ferocity. However, after the Industrial Revolution broke out and capital joined hands with industrial forces to sweep across the globe, the world was powerless to resist. After centuries of struggle, by the end of the 19th century the world had been carved apart and Western hegemony had been established. It seemed that the time-honored system of coexistence between different civilizations had reached its end, and from the ashes emerged the theory of cultural superiority, which regarded Western civilization as advanced and other civilizations as backward. According to this theory, Western civilization would one day dominate the whole world, which would be reshaped in line with the Western model. However, history and reality have repeatedly disproved this theory.

III

All civilizations are of equal value, and all have merits and flaws. There is no such thing as a perfect civilization or a civilization without a single virtue, and no one civilization should be judged superior or inferior to another.

Before the opening of new sea routes, there existed a state of basic equality between different civilizations. This state was shattered, however, by Western colonial expansion and eventual hegemony. During this process, some remote civilizations were decimated, such as the American Indian and ancient West African civilizations, and core regions of ancient civilizations such as West Asia, North Africa, India, and China also fell one by one into the hands of Western invaders. Equality between civilizations no longer existed, and many civilizations faced a crisis of life and death.

According to Arnold Toynbee, challenge and response constitute a mechanism for the existence of civilization that determines whether a civilization will disappear or continue. Whether this theory is correct or not, the fact is that at the moment of Western hegemony reaching its peak, at a time when many civilizations were facing a crisis of life and death, there formed a global movement, and that movement was named modernization. This marked the beginning of cultural rejuvenation, the means of which was modernization. Through modernization, non-Western countries learned from the West how to catch up. By the beginning of the 21st century, non-Western countries had already achieved tremendous progress toward modernization, ushering in a new historical turning point.

Modernization began in Western Europe, and the emergence of modern nation-states marked the starting point of this process, which involved all aspects of society. Many important events from the history textbook, such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the opening of new sea routes, the scientific and technological revolution, and the bourgeoisie revolution, are all part of Western modernization. Today, while the process of modernization has generally been completed in Western countries, cultural diversity has not disappeared. On the contrary, it has become even more vibrant, even within those Western countries.

First, there are different pathways to modernization. Britain took a gradual approach toward reform, France took the road of violent revolution, Germany carried out reforms from the top down, and the US, as a British colony, had to first gain independence before focusing on development. On the economic front, after the Industrial Revolution, Britain adopted the laissez-faire approach, and France basically followed suit while making some alterations, while Germany took the extraordinary route of promoting rapid economic growth with state power. Although the US followed Britain’s laissez-faire model, in the 20th century, it became the first developed capitalist country to carry out large-scale state intervention.

Second, different countries have different political and social systems. Politically, Britain practices constitutional monarchy, while the US adheres to the republican system. There are clear distinctions between the parliamentary and presidential systems, further widening the political gap between the two countries. Looking at electoral methods, Britain has adopted the “first past the post” system, while the US invented the Electoral College system. As for the “three branches of government,” the US is the only developed capitalist country to have truly incorporated this into its institutional design, so the US system is hardly the typical model. In terms of social systems, European countries practice a welfare model, something that the US has refused to adopt, perceiving it as a hotbed for laziness.

Third, Western countries are not immutable throughout the development process. As examples of this, Britain shifted from a laissez-faire society to a welfare-based one, France cycled through revolution to reach reform, and the US abolished racial discrimination policies, acknowledging racial equality at least in legal terms. These changes prove that there are differing forms of modernization even within one country, and that cultural diversity is a normal state.

The exterior of the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India. The caves, which are chiseled out of dark colored rock on a steep, horseshoe-shaped precipice, were built in two phases from the 2nd century to the 1st century BCE and from the 5th century to the 6th century CE. They bring together fine examples of ancient architecture, carving, and painting, and blend elements of Buddhist faith, cultural change, and social life, thus possessing both great artistic value and deep historical significance. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER ZHANG NAIJIE

If this is the case even in Western countries, then when the wave of modernization sweeps through non-Western regions, it surely exhibits even greater diversity. It is apparent that during the global process of modernization, every country displays its own characteristics, and it is also clear that different countries have different models of modernization, for example, the Latin American model, the East Asian model, the Soviet model, and of course, the Chinese model. Mahatma Gandhi who launched the campaign of nonviolent resistance, Fidel Castro who led the Cuban revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser who advocated Arab socialism, and Nelson Mandela who fought against apartheid in South Africa – all played a unique role in the modernization process of their countries and endowed that process with unique features. And yet, these successes cannot be replicated. When Western countries tried to forcibly change the political systems of Arab countries under the pretense of building a democratic Middle East, the Arab Spring became the Arab Winter, not only drenching the Middle East in blood but also bringing disaster to Europe itself.

Nevertheless, the Western theory of universal values insists upon uniformity, and does not acknowledge the diversity of cultural development. Francis Fukuyama declared that human history had come to an end. This idea can be traced back to Hegel, although the difference is that the latter believed Prussia to be the end, whereas Fukuyama believed the US to be the end. However, if even the US has not reached the end of its own history, how can humanity come to an end?

Does cultural diversity inevitably lead to conflict, and does conflict in turn lead to a life-and-death contest? Why can we not learn from the words of ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi when he said that “One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things,” or from the Chinese adages, “amiability brings wealth” and “peace is most precious?” In the eyes of the Chinese people, “the ocean is vast because it embraces all rivers.” The modern world can accommodate a diversity of modern civilizations, and modernization will mold a richer and more varied world. After a century of effort to modernize, many old civilizations have gained new life, recovered their confidence, and rediscovered their identities. The inequality between civilizations caused by Western hegemony is now being reversed. This process, which Samuel Huntington referred to as “clash of civilizations,” should actually be considered a “revival of civilizations.” Revival means a reappearance of cultural diversity and a rebalancing of equality between different civilizations; it also means that people think more deeply about the relevance of ancient civilizations in modern times by turning to traditional wisdom to resolve contemporary issues, such as the relationships between humans and nature, morality and gain, individual and collective, and freedom and constraint. In this complex and changing world, the only way to resolve humanity’s common problems is to rely on the concerted efforts of all civilizations, both Western and non-Western ones.

IV

In upholding cultural diversity and building a global community with a shared future, what kind of role should China play? How should we treat ourselves, other countries, and other civilizations?

The Chinese nation has a civilization that dates back more than 5,000 years, and witnesses both glory and misery in its history. The soul of the Chinese nation was not destroyed in the complications suffered in modern times. Through the ceaseless and terrible struggle of multiple generations spanning nearly 200 years, China was able to escape from its state of backwardness and vulnerability, and is now experiencing a great national renewal. Thanks to a modernization drive that has been ongoing for several decades, this ancient civilization is gleaming with fresh vitality, and China has once again stood up tall among the global community of nations to play its due role.

No matter how complex today’s world appears to be, there is only one trend, and it is of peace, development, and mutually beneficial cooperation. Those who embrace this trend will prosper, while those who reject it will perish. This is our basic standpoint, proved many times by history. Based on this standpoint, China has devoted itself to the grand cause of building a global community with a shared future, and will continue to do so by joining hands with the rest of the world for our common advancement.

We will continue to uphold peaceful development and mutually beneficial cooperation. Harmony between countries leads to world peace, while confrontation can only end in chaos. Peace and development are the common aspirations of people the world over, Cold War and zero-sum mentalities are becoming increasingly passé, and arrogance or “going it alone” is universally decried. Only peaceful development and cooperation can truly bring benefits for all and ensure that everyone wins. The lessons of the Peloponnesian War, two world wars, and a Cold War that lasted more than 40 years have been both bitter and profound. Since ancient times, the peace-loving Chinese nation has understood that “a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually fall.” In today’s hard-earned environment of peace, China cherishes development opportunities, and is willing to promote world peace through its own development. We will uphold the principles of peace, sovereignty, universal benefit, and shared governance, and work with other countries and nations to resolve disputes, reduce tensions, and put an end to war and conflict, with a view to safeguarding world peace.

We will continue to uphold shared development to ensure the coexistence and common prosperity of all. Humankind has developed into one indivisible community of shared interests, where according to ancient Chinese wisdom, “the prosperity or suffering of one will ripple out to affect others.” Nowadays, no country or nation can achieve self-development while isolating itself from other countries or nations, let alone at the expense of others. Instead of pursuing beggar-thy-neighbor policies, countries should work together to overcome difficulties. Through more than 40 years of reform and opening up, China has accomplished remarkable economic feats. We are willing to share the dividends of our growth with people around the world so that other countries can board the fast train of China’s development.

We will continue to treat others as equals and will never seek hegemony. Amity with neighbors, harmony without uniformity, and peace are values cherished in Chinese culture. For several millennia, peace has constituted the essence of our national tradition. China has grown from poverty and weakness to become the world’s second largest economy not through military expansion or colonial plundering, but through the hard work of our people and defense of peace. The Chinese people have never accepted the idea that “rising powers always seek to dominate.” Rather, we have always advocated that irrespective of size, strength, or wealth, all countries are equal members of the international community and have equal rights to participate in international affairs.

We will continue to respect all of the world’s peoples and civilizations. Cultural diversity is a basic feature of our world, and a wellspring for human progress. Our globe contains more than 200 countries and regions, over 2,500 ethnic groups, and a large variety of religions. Different histories, local conditions, ethnic groups, and customs have given birth to different civilizations and created a world rich in diversity. Cultural differences should not be a source of global conflict, but rather a driving force for the advancement of human civilization. “Myriad petals of purple and red set spring aglow;” only when a civilization adapts to the historical needs of the nation and keeps pace with the changes of the times can it fully exert its strength. Thus, we need to accentuate the fine points of others and share all that is beautiful, reject the concept of “cultural superiority” in all its forms, and oppose those who would impose their systems of governance onto other countries.

We will continue to uphold openness, and draw on the strengths of others to make up for our weaknesses. To ensure the prosperity of civilizations and the advancement of humanity, we must seek common ground while setting aside differences, uphold openness and inclusiveness, and facilitate exchange and mutual learning between cultures. History calls on human civilizations to shine brightly together; different cultures should coexist harmoniously and complement each other to provide intellectual strength to push human development forward. A traditional Chinese saying goes, “stones from other hills may serve to polish our jade,” which means that the lessons from others may help us to overcome our shortcomings. The maturation process of Chinese civilization has been one of integrating with various cultures and learning from other nations. In today’s world, it has become increasingly important that we establish a global perspective, actively learn from and draw on the cultural achievements of people all over the world, and utilize this new knowledge in line with China’s realities.

Today’s world has become a community with a shared future in which all countries are bound together. It is an irreversible trend of the times that people around the globe must join hands to overcome difficulties and achieve shared development. We should uphold the idea of living in a rich, vibrant, and culturally diverse world, create a bright tapestry interwoven with elements of all civilizations, and work together to eliminate real cultural barriers, to resist erroneous views obstructing the interaction of human minds, and to eliminate misunderstandings hindering human exchange. In this way, we will ensure that diverse cultures can coexist, grow together, and learn from one another in the modern world to create a better future for all.

Qian Chengdan is a Boya Chair Professor at Peking University.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 10, 2019)