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15 Questions about Chinese Culture in Wang Meng’s Mind

Date: 2018-01-02
 
Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping has articulated China’s cultural development strategy on may occasions. Culture is the spiritual homeland and the root and soul of a nation. Cultural confidence is of fundamental and overall importance. It represents a fundamental and profound force that sustains the development of a country and a nation. It is the foundation of our confidence in our path, system, and theory.

Now is the time to ask ourselves these questions: have we fully understood these statements? Are they inspiring our work on the ground? Is our foundation, our spiritual homeland, our root, and soul as solid as expected? Are we learning culture and cultivating our own character? Do we understand the relations between cultural tradition and the theory, path, and system of the country?

At the 19th CPC National Congress, President Xi made another important statement about our culture, “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics is derived from China’s fine traditional culture, which was born of the Chinese civilization and nurtured over more than 5,000 years; it has grown out of the revolutionary and advanced socialist culture that developed over the course of the Chinese people’s revolution, construction, and reform under the Party’s leadership; and it is rooted in the great practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

This is a clear understanding of the structure and ecology of the Chinese culture in modern times. It is a well-rounded view of our culture that takes into consideration the past and future and sees culture as dynamic. It means that while traditional culture is our valuable heritage, we are not honoring it for the purpose of repeating the past, but for doing better at present to develop socialism, promote modernization, and realizing the Chinese dream. Traditional culture needs to be integrated with the revolutionary and socialist culture to be the best of itself.

Cultural confidence is the living source of tremendous power. It would be a huge shame if we simply pay lip service to it.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, this is the first time cultural development has been given such great attention. The newly proposed views, strategies, and policies about culture deserve everyone in the cultural community to think deeply.

There are many topics in cultural development that merit our careful study and analysis. These include advanced culture, cultural prosperity, the position of Chinese tradition and culture, the good and bad in our culture and what to do with it, cultural ecology, the destiny of culture, the ebb and flow in our long cultural history, cultural anxiety, cultural confidence, cultural innovation, core values, morals, relations between Chinese characteristics and the community with a shared future for mankind, reform and opening-up, principles and inclusiveness, and the national and the universal.

This is why, around the time of the 19th CPC National Congress, I published two books, Wang Meng on Cultural Confidence and Chinese Secret: Let us Talk About Tradition, to explore the idea of cultural confidence with a view to real life.

The cultural topics are so numerous and intriguing that every one of us, especially members of the CPC, needs to clearly understand and truly implement the policies of the central government for cultural development. Only by carefully studying the history and the present and coming up with a clear road map can we bring about cultural prosperity for the nation. Questions that worth attention include the following:

First, what defines traditional Chinese culture? How are these characteristic shaped in the twists and turns of history? How do they relate to the people’s revolution and the western culture? How may our traditional culture provide intellectual support for socialist modernization?

Second, what makes the traditional Chinese culture so profound and what does it mean for the different generations of our people? How should we view the thirst for foreign cultural elements since modern times?

Third, how should we explain the differences between various schools of thought within our traditional culture and what do they bring to the unity of our culture? Today, what is the best way to move forward to keep our cultural tradition alive?

Fourth, How should we view the exchange and interactions between the culture of central China and that of other ethnic group in different parts of the country? How should we view cultural integration and the need to protect and develop a unified yet diversified culture of the nation?

Fifth, how was the traditional Chinese culture examined and criticized during the May Fourth Movement? How did the revolutionary culture denounce the traditions in the old times and the old society? How should we find common ground between the different cultural strategies, policies, and measures at different points in time to maintain the revolutionary, advanced, constructive, and modern nature and keep its continuity?

Sixth, what is the position of Chinese culture in human civilization? Why is complete westernization and a return to the old time unacceptable? Why is cultural nihilism and parochialism to be rejected?

Seventh, how to put the people at the center in our cultural endeavors? How should we translate the belief that only the people are the creators of history into action? How should we view the cultural elites’ contribution in Chinese cultural history and their relationship with the imperial court, power, the people, and social progress.

Eighth, how to view the localization, popularization, and adaption to the times of Marxism and all other foreign advanced cultures? Why is it possible and indeed necessary to learn from the past and the foreign? Why are foreign cultural elements part of the cultural treasure trove of the Chinese culture once they are integrated into the Chinese context and tradition? Why is it ill-advised to say learning from foreign cultures is contrary to self-confidence? How to choose and absorb foreign cultures that tend to differ from our own? How to tell the story of China and explain Chinese solutions on a continuous basis?

Ninth, how to view the cultural progress and achievement since China started the reform and opening-up policy? How has the market economy affect the culture and people’s mindset? How has money-worshiping and vulgarism crept into our culture? Is it true that in culture exchanges we receive more than we give?

Tenth, how should view the current cultural ecology, such as popular culture and high-end culture, classic production and market production, the moralities of the people in modern times, and the team of cultural workers and their development.

Eleventh, how do the Internet, new media, and multimedia change our life? How should we view the fragmentation and tremendous supply of information and the greater participation of the ordinary people? Are paper books, literature, and physical bookstores really going downhill? Is it right to be pessimistic about the trend that takes culture away from the elites and the high-end group?

Twelfth, cultural confidence as shown in primary and higher education. What are the pros and cons for children to memorize San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic) and Di Zi Gui (Guidelines for Being a Good Person)? Shall we encourage the reading of Er Shi Si Xiao (24 Stories About Filial Piety) by primary school student? Other topics include the environment in which single child grows up and the parent-child relations, how to evaluate the research of college teaching staff, and how to factor in academic title in the selection of academicians.

Thirteenth, how can mass communication improve cultural life? How should we view the various forms of cultural phenomena and cultural indicators, such as chicken soup for the soul, opinion leaders, quiz show, soap opera, celebrity effect, clickbait, box office, printed copies, and viewership ratings.

Fourteenth, as more and more cities and counties in the country try to identify themselves with a cultural celebrity and different sectors of society try to foster their own culture to promote tourism, how should we see the relationship between the locality and the wholeness, abstraction, and idealism of culture? What are the effective ways to truly enrich the cultural component of our life?

Fifteenth, how should we deal with formalism, commercialization, stereotypes, falsehood, ostentation, and emptiness in culture.

All these questions challenge and inspire us at the same time. Over the past decades, I have had many opportunities to speak up my mind and discuss these question with experts and the ordinary people. I never shied away from sharing with them my thoughts.

For example, in my two books, I said the cultural tradition we are celebrating today is a living one extending into the life of our people in the 21st century. It is a tradition celebrated by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people. The statements at the 19th CPC National Congress made clear that our cultural confidence not only comes from our ancient history, but also the modern developments and the practice today.

I argued that traditional Chinese culture values intellectual acuity, morality, harmony, flexibility and inclusiveness. In ancient China, there was cultural and moral oversight over power. According to the Cheng-Zhu School of Neo-Confucianism, principles are higher than power. Some later rephrased this idea as morality being stronger than power in unifying the people. I talked about the rationality and elitism behind the principles of a gentleman and the golden mean and explained that the concepts of universality, world community, governing without action, and human nature being good are harmonious with communist ideals. This is to say that there is a cultural foundation for the popularity of Marxism in China.

I explored the relations between Laotzu’s concepts of the principles of nature and morality and the peasants’ uprisings that dotted the ancient Chinese history. Laotzu said that the people believe they are the ultimate force in a country. This is similar with the government’s call today for officials to stay close to the people and liberate their mind. Chuangtzu’s argument for inaction at the top and action at lower levels runs in the same vein as the idea of vertical distribution of work.

Citing the less quoted poems of ancient Chinese poets Li Bai and Li He, I pointed out that they were concerned by the dogmatization of the fine cultural traditions that leads to cultural stagnation. They saw the problems that were looming as traditional Chinese culture remained static for a long time without the pressure of challenges. Echoing the argument that traditional Chinese culture took a downward turn in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, I identified the classic piece, Dream of the Red Chamber, as a signal of an all-out crisis, including a cultural crisis, of the Chinese feudal society, which prepared the ground for the Chinese people’s revolution in the 20th century. After the Opium War, there was an anxiety and cultural crisis in China, resulting naturally in the reflection and criticism of tradition in the May Fourth New Culture Movement. This movement, and the introduction of Marxism, saved traditional Chinese culture. The triumph of the revolution, the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the country’s reform and opening-up gave birth to the concept of cultural confidence. The creative and innovative development of our culture is critically determined by how traditional culture fits into the modern socialist society. Difficult though it is to reject the dross in our cultural tradition, the Communist Party of China, the country, and the people find it their historic mission and a daily necessity. I don’t believe that learning from Europe and the United States since modern times undermined our cultural confidence. I find all cultures have their limitations. Learning a culture is different from importing goods. The things learnt do not get consumed, but enrich the host culture once they are integrated. It is the thing with culture that whoever learns benefits, and whoever creates gets recognized by history and humanity.

In the books, I also explored some cultural phenomena, arguing that there is strong potential for greater prosperity. The people have enormous power, and our tradition is a valuable source. I warned against simplifying our tradition into a few symbols or fabricating something out of it to produce some catchy statements, to entertain, or to be sensational. It is critically important to dive deep into our culture and pursue excellence.

Cultural confidence is not a simple question. It requires discussion and continuous learning. This is also the pleasure of being a member of the cultural community.