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China’s self-identity as a modern civilisation

By ucyow3c, on 24 February 2014


Written by Bobby Xinyue (UCL Greek & Latin)

How can the translation of a single word sum up the cultural history of a nation?

In the inaugural lecture of the Centre for Research into Dynamics of Civilisation (CREDOC) Professor Wang Mingming of Peking University argued that the way in which the word “civilisation” was translated into Chinese and understood in Chinese history is typical of the fluidity of civilisations — the bringing in of the outside.

Thomas Cole, 'The Course of Empire – Destruction' (1836)

Thomas Cole, ‘The Course of Empire – Destruction’ (1836)

Wang Mingming’s illuminating lecture was prefaced by a mission statement from one of the co-directors of CREDOC, Professor Maria Wyke (UCL Greek & Latin), who outlined that the objective of the centre is to bring together colleagues around the world to compare and explore the geographical, material, cultural and ethnic structures of civilisations, and to probe the relationships between all these throughout the history of mankind.

Professor Wang’s lecture, entitled ‘To learn from ancestors or to borrow from the foreigners? China’s self-identity as a modern civilisation’, demonstrated precisely how the centre’s objective could be achieved.

The concept of civilisation
Delivered in front of a packed audience of students and scholars, Professor Wang first outlined some ideas about Chinese civilisation that intellectuals have formulated, and analysed how the concepts of civilisation were deployed in official discourse.

He pointed out that the words “culture” and “civilisation” entered the Chinese intellectual scene through Japan in the late 19th century. These two concepts were then used to construct the idea of a new, strong and independent collective body, on the one hand, referring to perfecting the external material form of the Chinese nation (civilisation) and, on the other, to the internal cultivation of the national spirit (culture).

However, these two concepts were not always treasured as ways of linking the past and present; on the contrary, they became the core stimulus to various political campaigns and discourses to the present day.

Wang Mingming’s main contention was that the concept of civilisation in China’s current intellectual climate is too wedded to the internal homogeneity of national culture, and this stance should perhaps be reconsidered.

He argued that the Chinese word used to translate ‘civilisation’ (wenming) to an extent transformed it into a Chinese concept.

By comparison, recent research by Chinese folklorists, ethnologists and religious studies scholars has shown that the long history of the exchanges between the religions and civilisations of Eurasia have had a strong influence on the formation of Chinese civilisation.

“All under heaven” – but what does it mean?

Indeed, Wang’s own research has demonstrated that the ancient Chinese concept of “civilisation” – that is, “all under heaven” – and the idea of the “state” have undergone several transformations and reinterpretations.

By thus thinking about Chinese civilisation as a fluid and mobile circulation of ideas, Wang suggested, we can avoid the pitfall of seeing “Chinese civilisation” as an internal concept distinct from external forces.

In his conclusion, Professor Wang noted that the possible reason why modern Chinese scholars’ tend to see the country’s civilisation as a closed-off internal unit is the current Chinese intellectual scene’s attempt to rebuild its sense of self-identity on the basis of a linear temporality that creates clear chronological distinctions between China’s past, present and future.

When a concept such as “civilisation” reached East Asia and gained significance, it was then translated and re-translated because it served a purpose in China’s social situation.

The fusion of ideas in this process produced different interpretations, and different schools of political and intellectual thought brought their own creativity to their interpretation of the concept. 

The lecture ended with a famous Chinese idiom – “there are mountains beyond the mountains”. This idiom, as Wang aptly put it, perhaps gave the clearest indication that China’s self-recognition of its civilisation not only relied on the traditions passed down from ancestors, but also on civilisations beyond its own.

Professor Wang’s conclusions provided useful material for the respondent of the lecture, Professor Stephan Feuchtwang from the Department of Anthropology at the London School Economics. His response primarily drew attention to the issue of ‘irreversible change’ in the history of civilisations, which Wang Mingming’s lecture alluded to.

Professor Feuchtwang’s comments sparked lively discussions among the audience, who contributed their own thoughts to Wang’s well-received paper, and the exchange of views continued well into the reception afterwards.

The mission of CREDOC, to put it simply, is to ask big questions about, and provoke responses to, important issues such as human progress, history, culture, environment, science and technology. Professor Wang Mingming’s lecture did that and more.

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