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Mutual learning advances civilizational development

DONG XINJIE | 2022-06-23 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

People from different countries, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing (Hanfu), display their calligraphy in Nantong, Jiangsu Province. The Chinese character “愛” (ai) in the picture means “love;” and “和” (he) and “平” (ping) combined means “peace.” Photo: CFP

From the perspective of historical materialism, civilization is a product of human social practices. Since civilization came into being, how we can continuously reproduce civilizational achievements, sustain human development, and free man from alienation, allowing him to obtain equal rights and unfettered growth, has been an essential question. The advancement of human civilization is the outcome of a synergy between two basic elements: production and exchanges. Civilizational exchanges or mutual learning are about exchanging with, and learning from, each other, mainly human social practice achievements, with the aim of creating new ideas and achieving new results through learning and comparisons to identify their similarities and differences. Therefore, civilizational exchanges and mutual learning are important forces driving human progress and the world’s peaceful development. 
Chinese civilization’s features 
The Chinese civilization has a history of more than 5000 years. It houses extensive and profound cultural treasures. The central concepts of civilization in China feature paired ideas, such as yin and yang, heaven or nature and man (tian ren), good and evil (shan e), knowledge and action (zhi xing), presence and absence (you wu), and so forth. 
In general, the Chinese civilization ontologically values harmony between man and nature, and flexibility to cope with changes while being aware of constant rules. Epistemologically, it favors optimism and emphasizes the unity of knowledge and action. Its methodological approach involves acquiring knowledge through experience and seeking truth from facts. When it comes to state organization, it has carried out a political system with great unity for centuries, thus fostering a community for the Chinese nation. On state governance, it upholds people-centered administration, attaching more importance to the people than to the monarch. In terms of value judgment, it advocates for benevolence and justice, and pursues great unity in diversity. 
These basic characteristics constitute fine traditional Chinese culture. They represent the profound foundation and “family assets” of the Chinese civilization, making it resilient, sustainable, cohesive, proactive, inclusive, and open. 
In its development course, the Chinese nation engaged in dynamic, extensive, and colorful communication activities with regions and civilizations around the world. Amid their material and intellectual exchanges, the above features of the Chinese civilization, more often than not, unleashed the huge power of assimilation and creation, particularly in exchanges and mutual learning with India and the West. 
Absorbing Buddhism from India  
After Buddhism was introduced to China, the religion’s doctrines, like the six realms of existence and karma, were heatedly debated by Confucians and Taoists in terms of their scholarly tenets and potential impact on social order, and Buddhism was at one time rejected as a “foreign barbaric” religion. 
Nonetheless, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism learned from one another and progressively blended with each other, so Buddhist culture came to be gradually integrated into the Chinese civilization’s basic model. 
Although Buddhism was banned during the reigns of some emperors during the Northern Wei (386–534), Northern Zhou (557–581), Tang (618–907), and Later Zhou (951–960) dynasties, no religious wars ever occurred in Chinese history. Furthermore, eight major sects evolved out of Buddhism, namely the Three Treatises (Xing), Dharma Character (Xiang), Tiantai (Tai), Flower Garland (Xian), Zen (Chan), Pure Land (Jing), Vinaya (Lyu), and Tantric (Mi) schools. Together with other factions, they formed a Buddhist culture and theories with Chinese characteristics, and these spread to other regions, such as East Asia and Southeast Asia, exemplifying civilizational interactions under the feudal agriculture-dominated economy. 
Learning from the West
Exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese and Western civilizations are more complicated. The so-called Western learning that the Chinese civilization was exposed to could be traced back to scholarship imported in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) when Christianity was brought into China. 
Starting from the late 16th century, Chinese and Western civilizations communicated on fairly equal footing. However, after the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, capitalists’ excessive pursuit of profits and market expansion, capitalist industrial countries’ exploitation and plundering of feudal agricultural nations, and conflict between imperialist powers, became the main phenomena shaping civilizational interactions around the globe. 
Into the mid-19th century, especially after the First Opium War of 1840–1842, aggression and violence demonstrated by Western capitalist civilizations prompted Chinese intellectuals to focus on epochal themes such as resisting foreign invasion and salvaging China from subjugation, vigorously calling for social reforms. 
In late 1842, the Illustrated Gazetteer of the Countries Overseas (Haiguo Tuzhi), the first systematic masterpiece on geography and the material conditions of foreign nations in modern Chinese history, made its debut, which proposed drawing upon foreign civilizations’ advantages to compete with them. In the early 20th century, modern Chinese intellectual leader Liang Qichao issued a warning against Eurocentrism inherent in Western capitalist civilizations and urged the Chinese civilization to innovate. 
The first half of the 20th century saw Chinese society in misery. As the October Revolution in Russia secured a victory in 1917, socialism emerged as a new model of civilization in the history of human society, inspiring exploited and oppressed colonial and semi-colonial nations and people in these nations a great deal. Marxist historical materialism’s pragmatic and dialectical nature as well as affinity for the people fueled the integration of theories on class struggle and social forms with fine traditional Chinese culture, when Chinese communists began to adapt Marxism to China’s specific realities. The Chinese civilization’s core model absorbed the basic tenets of Marxism and released great innovative power, contributing to the most extensive and profound civilizational renewal of the Chinese nation throughout history. 
Creating a new civilizational model
Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era are major achievements of the adaptation of Marxism to China’s actual conditions, and represent creative practices in the Chinese civilization’s self-renewal. These systems of thought have been capable of addressing problems from the new democratic revolution period, the socialist revolution and construction stage, reform and opening up, the socialist modernization drive, and the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics. 
Since the Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in 1921, the Chinese nation thoroughly put an end to its semi-colonial and semi-feudal history, and eradicated thousands of years of feudal exploitation and oppression within a mere century, scoring remarkable achievements in socialist revolution and construction, reform and opening up, and socialist modernization. Chinese people’s lives leapfrogged from a lack of basic living necessities to general moderate prosperity, and further to moderate prosperity in all respects. 
Following the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, socialism with Chinese characteristics entered a new era. The Chinese nation has achieved tremendous transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong. Uniquely Chinese socialist modernization theories and practices are based on a large population, and aimed for common prosperity of the whole people, coordinated material and cultural-ethical progress, harmony and symbiosis between man and nature, and the pursuit of a peaceful development path. Through these theories and practices, socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era has redefined the path choice, development principles, and strategic arrangements for humanity’s modernization, significantly boosting productivity and enriching the development rights of man. This represents a huge advancement in human modernization and civilizational history. 
The new and uniquely Chinese path to modernization and the new civilizational model of socialism with Chinese characteristics highly align the interests of the people with national and social interests, providing a Chinese solution to fundamental civilizational issues. 
Specifically, the new civilizational model of socialism with Chinese characteristics is an organic unity of the people’s democratic dictatorship, a socialist market economy, and core socialist values. It is marked by the coordinated progress in material, political, cultural-ethical, social, and ecological terms. In social interactions domestically, the whole-process people’s democracy is implemented to pursue well-rounded human development and common prosperity for all. Externally, China adheres to the principles of independence, peace, mutual benefits, and equality to present new opportunities to the world through the nation’s new developments, making crucial contributions to the poverty relief cause of human civilization. Regarding the trend of civilizational development, China starts from the common interests of humanity and advocates for building a community with a shared future, carrying forward the shared values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom. The new civilizational model of socialism with Chinese characteristics is an inheritance and sublimation of the basic model of the Chinese civilization. 
Writing new chapters
When Christianity was introduced to China in the late Ming Dynasty, famed Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci was deeply impressed by the Chinese civilization’s peace-loving traditions, distaste for aggression, and freedom of religious belief. He made a comparison between the Chinese civilization and Europe’s conditions at that time, stating that Chinese people were not zealous for conquest, while Europeans were usually dissatisfied with their governments and coveted things possessed by others. 
Through historical and global lenses, exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese and other civilizations have painted a picture of open interactions between China and the world. While continuously enriching its own connotations, the Chinese nation has also written new chapters for the peaceful development of human civilization. 
Rich exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese and foreign civilizations have robustly illustrated the vital role played by exchanges for civilizational development throughout human history and still today. The actual development level of production is the premise and guarantee for the role to come into play. 
Embodying man’s active living process, the historical course and realistic development of human civilization is characterized by a dialectical unification of unity and diversity, continuity and periodicity. History-based analyses of civilization using the two basic elements of production and exchanges will help us grasp the specific content, stages, process, and panorama of each civilization. Taking the initiative to develop productive forces and enhance capacities for exchanges will facilitate the Chinese civilization to realize sustainable, benign, and proactive development, thereby better safeguarding peaceful human advancement. 
Dong Xinjie is a research fellow from the Institute of Historical Theory Studies at the Chinese Academy of History under CASS.