The story appears on

Page A4_5

March 9, 2024

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Sunday » People

Foreign-born ‘Dean of Shandong’ explores Chinese traditions in modern context

Q: How did your friends respond to your job as a dean at Shandong University from 2017 to 2022?

A: There were different reactions. My Chinese friends generally thought it was an excellent opportunity to learn about the Chinese system from the inside because I had written a book about the idea of political meritocracy. But it was more based on my experience at Tsinghua University, where many academic discussions were about how to train future leaders. So finally, I was given this wonderful opportunity to learn about how these kinds of ideas of how political meritocracy or academic meritocracy might work from the inside.

It’s also, perhaps, a Confucian-influence view that a desirable form of life involves serving the community, or sometimes, we say in Chinese, wei renmin fuwu (serving the people). For Confucians, the highest form of life involves serving as a public official. That’s probably why, generally speaking, in Chinese academic institutions, it is considered to be an honor serving in the university as an academic administrator. The term yuanzhang (dean) sounds very positive, even to non-academics.

In English, the term “dean” doesn’t really have the same positive resonance, and actually, many academics in the West would much prefer to have free time to read, write books and teach — often seeking to avoid administration. So that’s why many of my Western friends were actually saying: “Why would you want to do this? It will take time away from your research.” They didn’t quite get it.

Q: From your experience as a professor and dean at Chinese universities, do you have advice for Chinese universities eager to pursue global prestige?

A: I think there’s sometimes a bit too much emphasis on global prestige and global rankings. In the hard sciences, I guess people prefer to rank themselves internationally, and there’s one kind of widely accepted standard for what counts as good research, and you publish in the leading journals, like Nature and so on.

But in the humanities, sometimes it’s important to have a very good understanding of one’s own culture. It’s hard to mark that against international standards. China is one of the few countries in the world where there’s more support and funding for the humanities. Partly, it’s because for much of the 20th century, China’s own traditions were devalued, and it came time to re-evaluate them in academic research.

It’s still important to compare one’s own traditions with other traditions abroad, so there is much comparative work we can do. For example, how Confucianism compares with liberalism, socialism, feminism and so on.

Now back to your question. Well, Chinese universities do try to improve their international rankings. Sometimes that means professors feel pressured to publish in leading English journals that often are viewed more favorably in these international rankings.

Now that’s both good and bad. Some professors are not really trained in English, and so it’s harder for them to compete. On the other hand, we are lucky that China has such a large academic market. We have our own way of assessing journals and academic contributions in Chinese.

Q: You mentioned in your book that the West has a strong missionary impulse, dating from the early days of Christianity, to export ideas of morality and politics abroad. What do you think is a more sensible approach?

A: The mainstream Chinese approach to religion and tradition is actually much more inclusive. Though it could be Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist or even Christian, it’s not necessarily viewed as all or nothing.

Over the course of one’s life, one could prioritize different kinds of cultural traditions in different stages. But in the West, there’s a view that typically comes from the Christian tradition that there’s only one true and universal religious system.

If you partake of that view, then you have to try to export it to the rest of the world, sometimes by force, such as the Crusades in the Middle Ages. That view is no longer so strong in the West, but there is still this kind of legacy that our view about morality and politics is the one universal view that should be exported abroad by whatever means, sometimes including military means.

That’s a very dangerous view. My own view is that we do have some universal values. For example: Don’t kill innocent people. Don’t torture people. Slavery is bad. There are also what we call positive rights, like rights to basic material well-being. And it’s OK to try to universalize those rights. But on how to select political leaders and how to organize one’s economy — those can be very particular in different cultures and societies.

I think it’s very dangerous if the West seeks to export those kinds of values. At the very least, there should be more serious effort to understand the political ideals that often motivate people here in China.

Q: You mentioned in your book that there is nothing wrong with promoting Chinese ideas abroad so that foreigners can better understand what’s going on in China, but this should be done in the right way. Could you elaborate?

A: Sometimes it’s the low-hanging fruit of how to translate some of the terms and ideas. In my book, I discuss translation issues for the term “harmony,” or he (和), in Chinese. There’s clear distinction between he and tong (同), like junzi he er bu tong, or “exemplary persons pursue diversity in harmony but not sameness/uniformity/conformity (tong).” This saying from the “Analects of Confucius” is well known to all Chinese intellectuals.

So we can translate he as “diversity in harmony” rather than uniformity, sameness or even conformity. But in the West, there’s not that clear distinction between he and tong.

So when people in the West hear that China values harmony, they often think that it means that everybody should try to think and act in the same way. It’s almost exactly the opposite meaning of he.

That’s why we should translate terms in a way that doesn’t lead to such misunderstandings because clearly the Chinese idea of he values and, in fact, celebrates diversity.

So those are some of the terms that literally are lost in translation. There are lots of things that need to be improved in intercultural communication.

Q: Do you think Confucianism is still important for China or the rest of the world, for that matter? What should be done to spread its message?

A: Confucianism is one of many traditions in China, and it’s the one that has been most influential, at least politically. It was devalued for much of the 20th century, because Chinese intellectual reformers blamed it for China’s poverty and relative backwardness compared with Western countries. But more recently, there’s a view that countries with Confucian heritage, including China, South Korea and Singapore, actually developed quite rapidly in an orderly and peaceful way. And maybe Confucian heritage has something to do with that.

For example, Confucianism is a very diverse tradition but, generally speaking, it’s this-worldly. And it promotes constant self-improvement, with high value placed upon education and concern for future generations. All these values probably contribute to a relatively peaceful and orderly form of modernization.

The Confucian tradition should not be studied in isolation. In China, it has often been mixed with other traditions, including Buddhism and Taoism. It’s important to examine these traditions. If the concern is intellectual history, fine. You just look at what people said and why they said it. But if the concern is about thinking what lessons Confucianism offers today, then it’s important to interpret these traditions in a comparative context. And sometimes the traditions need to be modernized in a way that adheres to central values.

Q: Could you talk about your academic pursuits this year?

A: I’m now at the University of Hong Kong, where I am writing a book and teaching. If you really want to promote ancient traditions, including Confucianism, in a way that engages modern university students, it’s best if we present them as though they are part of larger debates. I’m trying to show that fascinating ancient debates on issues like what counts as a “just war” or how to minimize corruption in government are still relevant today.

I’m currently writing a book showing how these debates in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) are diverse and engaging, but also have some lessons for dealing with contemporary challenges.

Q: Do you already have a title for the book?

A: Probably the title will be “Talking about Politics,” with the subtitle “Why Ancient Chinese Political Debates Matter Today.” I hope to finish a draft this year.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend