Traditional philosophy makes Chinese civilization brilliant

By BAI LE / 11-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A visitor (left) experiences Chinese tea culture at an exhibition themed “Tea for Harmony” in Brussels, Belgium, in mid-2023, an event aiming to promote Chinese humanistic spirit and life philosophy. Photo: XINHUA

In his speech delivered at a meeting on cultural inheritance and development, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, emphasized two important concepts embodied in traditional Chinese culture—harmony between humanity and nature, and the unity of knowledge and action. Xi’s elucidations of these traditional concepts sparked enthusiastic discussions among foreign scholars. 

In a recent interview with CSST, two renowned scholars specializing in traditional Chinese philosophy—Franklin Perkins from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, and Chris Fraser, the Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair in Chinese Thought and Culture in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto—provided interpretations of fundamental Chinese cultural principles from the perspective of early Chinese philosophy. 

In their opinion, traditional Chinese culture emphasizes continuity, connection, and wholeness rather than stillness, isolation, and division. Compared with the antagonism and tension between heaven, humanity, and things in Western culture, traditional Chinese culture pursues the unity of the three. A manifestation of the unique world view of the Chinese people, this is consistent with Chinese people’s idea that destinies of individuals, society, and the nation are intertwined. This concept also constitutes the philosophical basis of inclusiveness and peace in Chinese civilization. 

Inclusive social atmosphere 

As Perkins pointed out, the origin of traditional Chinese philosophy can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770–221 BCE). This period witnessed great turmoil and transformation of social order. Many important schools of thought such as Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, and Legalism appeared during this time. The opinions of pre-Qin scholars led to the basis of early cultural tradition of China. 

During this period, abundant cultural resources were available and were utilized in a manner akin to the influential roles played by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in shaping Western philosophy and European culture. 

“Regarding the origin and development of early modern European philosophy, I want to start with a point that many Western scholars who hold cultural pride and prejudice tend to ignore,” Perkins said. “In Europe, there was a period of over 1,000 years in which one could not freely philosophize or debate. The restrictions of freedom of cultural expression prevailed at the social level.”

“There have been periods of control over philosophy in other cultures and limits on what one could say, but both the degree of restriction and the length of time that it happened in Europe is unique. People were forced to affirm a view that this world is the product with single value and the world is of a being who shares our values and shares our rationality,” Perkins continued. 

Perkins further emphasized that philosophy is inherently diverse and cannot be confined to a single system. The world’s complexity far surpasses human cognitive abilities, and when philosophy operates under relatively unrestricted conditions, it invariably gives rise to a multitude of perspectives.

As he further explained, when compared to early Greek, Roman, and Indian civilizations, the social atmosphere in early Chinese civilization was relatively inclusive and encouraged free debate and thinking. The richest times for classical Chinese philosophy, as in the pre-Qin period, were characterized by a great diversity of opinions. 

“If you look at classical Chinese philosophy, none of the philosophers were entirely the same. Xunzi and Mengzi had complete ethical systems, but they did not try to explain all of the natural world in the same way,” Perkins said. 

Illuminating thoughts

When discussing the cosmological concept and worldview encapsulated in Chinese culture, Perkins highlighted that the aspect of Chinese philosophy he finds most intriguing is its nontheistic nature. 

“It was not easy to escape the whole history of Western philosophy that was directed toward an anthropomorphic God and the conception of human beings as made in God’s image. Most of the philosophers were still concerned with defending theism and the conception of human morality and reason as based on something divine,” Perkins said.  

He continued to say that in Western culture, human beings are made in God’s image. “That means our morals are not just human; they are God’s morals. Our rationality is not just human; it is an imitation or a copy of God’s rationality.”

 “In Chinese culture, human morality is somehow built into the natural world. You find traces of anthropocentrism in Chinese philosophy, perhaps most of all in the idea that heaven responds to human actions, but most early Chinese philosophers would agree that human beings are just one of the myriad things,” Perkins explained.

“In this sense, nature and human action interact with each other, and the two should establish harmonious relationships—the highest state of which is the concept ‘unity of heaven and man.’ This supreme state also applies to the relationships between humans, and between cultures,” Perkins added.

As Fraser noted, Dao is the core structural concept in Chinese thought. It is a distinctive way of articulating the sphere of the normative and the development of this concept deserves extensive, careful study from Western academia. The extensive tradition of discussing this concept has undoubtedly made significant contributions to global philosophy. The prevailing perspective in Chinese thought is to perceive the Dao as social and as encompassing our relationships with heaven, the material world, and others.

“There are many ways in which Chinese philosophy is still illuminating. Chinese tradition includes many intrinsically fascinating questions, discussions, and texts, which unsurprisingly have sparked the intellectual curiosity of Western readers. Since the opening up, particularly in the 1990s, a generation of influential senior scholars with training in Chinese philosophy and culture has grown significantly. These included Donald Munro, David Nivison, Benjamin Schwartz, and Roger Ames. Attributed to the cultural genes and the values of thought in traditional Chinese philosophy, Chinese civilization continues to radiate with brilliance to this day,” Fraser concluded.