Family – Nation – World: The Origin and Comparison of Chinese and Western Values
辜 正 坤
Gu Zhengkun, Ph.D., Professor, Institute of World Literature of PekingUniversity
translated by Thorsten Pattberg, Ph.D.
1. The concept of culture: All cultures are legitimate, yet differences exist that may carry some advantages and disadvantages
Each culture consists of certain values, lifestyles, languages and literature, religion, art, political structure, knowledge, and skills etc. The core of each culture is formed by a system of values, more precisely: moral values. Some commentators have argued that culture and civilization are one and the same, yet most scholars would probably agree that there is indeed a difference between the two concepts. Although definitions may vary, the main distinction, I think, is this: a culture refers to the achievements of the human spirit, while a civilization refers to its material manifestations.
All cultures have their legitimacy and should be respected. But just because they are all legitimate, this does not mean they all achieve the same degree of excellence. At some point, a particular cultural achievement may be beyond comparison. For example, the aesthetical value in the paintings of a Leonardo da Vinci or a Qi Baishi. But relatively speaking, other aspects of culture as well as cultures as a whole can be examined according to their strengths and weaknesses. For example, from the point of view of ethics, advocating a spirit of altruism seems healthier than the advocating of a spirit of egoism, which is self-evident. Or, from the point of view of skills, computer technology far exceeds the old calculation methods; this is self-evident, too.
2. Determine the standards of advanced culture
So, how to determine the progressive nature of a culture? Note, that I will use the terms “advanced” to refer to the relatively superior, and “backward” to the relatively inferior elements. “Backward” here does not mean that something is bad or completely negative. The second place finalist in a championship may be considered inferior, but the second place itself is not so bad. There are many criteria that determine whether a culture is advanced or not. The eleven ones listed in the following have their main emphasis on the spiritual nature of culture. (The standards to determine the material accomplishment of civilization will be discussed in another paper.) The criteria are:
1) See whether a culture is able to educate its people and transform them into good citizens. If the people turn into wicked (resourceful in plotting), mean, and aggressive citizens, then the culture is considered nihilistic; if on the other hand the people turn into honest, sincere, and peaceful citizens, there is no doubt this must be considered a culture of highest quality. A good indicator for good citizenship might be the crime rates and the number of prisoners in any particular country: The higher the crime rates, the lower the quality of its culture. The lower the crime rates, the higher the quality of its culture. The former stands for primitive, the latter for advanced culture. Similarly, if the relative number of prisoners is excessively high, that may be because either the law enforcement is exceptionally harsh and inhumane, or the citizens in general show more criminal and violent tendencies. All the same, it lowers the overall quality of that culture.
2) See whether a culture produces skillful persons and virtuous persons. Only having skillful persons but no virtuous ones is considered backward. Nurturing both skillful and virtuous personalities is considered advanced culture.
3) See whether a culture values profit over virtue. Being materialistic without concern for the right of others is considered appalling, while putting virtue before profit is considered noble.
4) See the excessive use of law and red tape (excessive regulation or rigid conformity, redundant bureaucracy). Excessive regulation and bureaucracy often hamper the quality of cultural life. Display a more moderate regulation and less rigid bureaucracy and the quality of culture will improve. A virtuous culture is always considered of higher quality.
5) See whether the martial spirit of its people is strong or weak and whether their military is advanced or not. The stronger a people’s martial spirit, the less advanced their culture. The lower a people’s martial spirit, the more advanced their culture. The more advanced the culture, the less the need for violence and weapons.
6) See whether a culture over-emphasizes freedom or also emphasizes the obligations toward others. Reckless freedom without responsibility for the well-being of other human beings is considered backward. Giving up some personal liberty for the greater good of all is considered advanced humanism.
7) See whether people only work for their own benefit or also for the benefit of all. The former are considered base, the latter are considered noble.
8) See whether a culture prefers confrontation (war) over dialogue (peace). The way of dialogue is usually considered more civilized than the path of confrontation.
9) See a culture’s attitude toward right and tact. Knowing what is right and being tactful makes the ideal character. However, for example only knowing what is right without showing tact is considered quite savage.
10) See whether the society is governed by virtues people or the mob.
11) See whether (and how) advancements in science and technology are employed as peaceful means to develop human society as a whole or used as means to advance oneself on the cost of others. The former is preferable to the latter.
3. Chinese and Western geographic environment, social structure, and relationship
Since life first occurred on earth, our existence and our culture always depended on and related to the natural conditions surrounding us. Once all relevant factors come together, in different degrees, those conditions will interact upon us. We engage in certain activities, the construction of society, coordination, adaptation, organization and all kinds of other evolutionary steps. So the first visible proliferation of culture and civilization correspond to a large opening game. Of the many factors that drive the development of human culture – I outlined a total of nine, but will not discuss them all there -, a very important one is geographical:
I consider the statement that geography and environment are the main driving force behind the development of human culture an intriguing proposition. The key is to determine how a certain geographical condition can have any specific impact on the development of human culture. First, although there are many environmental factors at play, I consider the following three most important: geographical terrain, climate, and natural resources. Second, in my understanding, we should divide the influence of the environment on our cultures into two main categories: vertical and horizontal influences. In general, considering the whole of human culture, the impact of horizontal factors is stronger. The impact of so-called horizontal factors matter most when one considers the longitudinal perspective of historical development, but if one looks from the angle of the vertical development of culture, the horizontal factors seem to gradually matter less.
That is, the importance we give to the horizontal development of culture (in scope and breath) in comparison to the vertical development of culture (length and depth) in history seems to be inversely proportional. The more we look back in time, the greater the impact of the environment on cultural development seemed to have had, especially on ancient culture.
However, the closer we look at modern culture the lesser seem the influences of environment. Of course, the overall impact of environmental factors on our cultural development never completely disappears; it is just that the extent and significance generally decreased (while horizontal factors seem to have greater influences). Third, the birthplaces and specific geographical conditions of Chinese and Western culture respectively influenced to a certain extent the development of two different cultural modes and two different social structures (the Central Plains were the birthplace of traditional Chinese culture, the Mediterraneanwere the birthplace of Greek and Roman culture). The Central Plains offered the kind of terrain, climate, natural resources and other life conditions that inevitable encouraged the formation and reproduction of an agricultural societies based on close family ties and social structures. On the other side, Western culture, as represented by early Greek and Roman societies, enjoyed the Mediterranean topography, climate, resources and other life conditions that favored the establishments of commerce and trade and a production-based society with a social structure that consists of closely linked interest groups (military groups).
4. The family is humankind’s strongest social unit and ideal social formation
As the different geographical environment caused different kind of social structures in east and west, this may also explain the different social models and cultural outlooks that developed in Chinaand the West respectively. Thus, China’s family structure is the key to understand Chinese traditional and mainstream culture and its value system. Likewise, Western interest groups (military groups) are the key to understand Western traditional and mainstream culture.
In other words, the Chinese family structure deeply and thoroughly permeates all of Chinese society, from traditional Chinese philosophy, politics, and economics, over ethics, aesthetics, the legal system, architecture, and medicine, to sports, social conduct, and even military organization etc. Traditions like Confucianism and Taoism are just two inevitable outcomes ofChina’s family-based social mind. And in the case of foreign religious doctrine such as Buddhism (especially the Mahayana branch), the reason why it found its way into China and greatly spread its influence over Chinese cultural identity is largely due to the fact that Buddhist fundamental principles compliment traditional Chinese social structure.
Similarly, Western interest groups (military groups) dominated the development of Western society, from Western philosophy, politics, and economics, over ethics, aesthetics, the legal system, architecture, and medicine, to sports, etiquette, and many others, even the structure of its military. The development of Western rationalism and the worship of science and technology, for example, were the inevitable outcome of the traditional Western social structure. And if a foreign doctrine, for example Christianity (which originated in the East) made its way into Western territory and found such ardent support and acknowledgement that was due to the fact that Christianity’s fundamental principles, slightly modified of course, complimented traditional Western social structure and the interests of its (military) groups.
I and other scholars have fundamental disagreements about this: Although many commentators have discussed to varying degrees the social structure of Chinese society and the problems of its family-based humanism, yet often the family social structure in ancient Chinais seen as somewhat backward and thus earns a lot of negative criticisms. I am just the opposite; I think the traditional family social structure in ancient China was one of the greatest social arrangements of the Ancient world, and is the most ideal social structure of all. That was the reason, in fact, why Karl Marx identified primitive society as a communist (collective) society, its social patterns were almost without exception those of a strong family unit at its base.
5. The family social structure is the key to identify and explain advanced cultures and those that are backward
Of all human relations, kinship is the closest and most intimate relationship. A family based on blood relationship is the strongest bond and most natural relationship. Despite the fact that family frictions are sometimes inevitable, nevertheless relatively speaking the intimacy that a family offers to all its members, the sincere love and selfless devotion to one’s kin, is without doubt the closest of all relationships a human being will encounter in his life. Therefore, the values that are generated within the family unit are the purest and in line with our human nature and our basic moral values. Family is the ideal human relationship. A logical inference is that the ideal family is able to produce a high set of moral standards and values that are worthwhile to follow for all of humankind. Such thought is expressed in those popular idioms such as “the world family” (天下一家, tian xia yi jia) or “close like a family”.
As for justice and fairness, other relationships can also be fair and just; yet only within the family social structure shall we find the maximal possible amount of justice and fairness. That is because from a moral point of view all members of a family recognize all other members as their own people, their loved ones. Under normal circumstances then, the distribution of duties and benefits among the members of the family household will be relatively reasonable and fair. Moreover, the highest authority in the family structure is often held by the parents or the elderly, the most respected persons. They will be responsible for the division of property, and in charge of the distribution of power, conflict mediation, and will make arrangements with the heads of other families. They will also show greater impartiality when dealing with members of other social groups.
It must be noted that as the complexity of the social situations in a large-scale society increases the overall fairness in the distribution of rights and benefits will definitely vary. But as long as the members of that society acknowledge that they are one big family, then the original values of the family-based social structure can be advanced onto society and passed along and carried forward into the future. Only the family social structure is genuinely able to produce the maximum amount of harmoniousness, agreeableness, cordiality, appropriateness, loyalty, praiseworthiness, peacefulness, integration, complementation, reconciliation, and warmness, etc.
Traditional Chinese society is a classical family-based social structure; therefore it was able to set forth such unique value concepts as ren仁、yi义、li礼、zhi智、xin信、wen温、liang良、gong恭、jian俭、rang让、zhong忠、xiao孝、lian廉、chi耻、yong勇, etc.
Those value concepts are not at all just the contribution of one man, Confucius, but are indeed at least five thousand years old. It was the family social structure of the Chinese people that managed the distribution of rights and benefits, power and position, the settling of disputes, and permeates all other aspects of social life as well.
Western culture, with its social structure based on interest (military) groups and characteristics, has its certain limitations: In a Western (democratic) society, we find a number interest groups vying for power and fighting over majorities in order to increase their power and privileges. And it is really all about power. Whichever group is the most powerful (privilege, finances) will be able to exercise its power and bring forward its own version of fairness that will immediately constrain and restrict the status quo of all others groups. In a culture based on power cliques, each clique will promote its own interests. A conflict of various interests of those groups will inevitably lead to pro-action: any way deemed appropriate to break the dispute will be considered: The most common way to end the dispute is achieved through war-like activity or the toppling of regimes. A strategy of political and power games ensures the protection of their benefits or at least of their legal interests of the group now in power. Naturally, the interest groups who made the laws and regulations will treat the laws and regulations as sacred (because they protect them). The laws will help the interest groups to maintain power and increase their profits and privileges that in turn will help them further to compete against each other. This all has consequences for the mode of culture: It promotes a system of values that include courage, wisdom, justice, prudency, freedom, democracy, self-reliance, individualism, etc.
If the two great value systems, Chinaand the West, are viewed from the distance, we recognize both their legitimacy and their beauty. That they appear so different is due to the fact that they evolved in different geographic locations under different environmental and cultural conditions thousands of years ago. If however we come closer and compare the two values systems of Chinaand the West, we realize they both really have strengths and weaknesses. First, in Chinese family society the concept of ren仁 (benevolence) takes the top priority and commands the remaining values. The original meaning of ren is 1) a person and 2) love. Ren thus is a person, is love. Hence bo ai zhi wei ren (博爱之谓仁) or “profound love is ren“. Expressions like ren zhe ai ren仁者爱人, ren zhe ren ye仁者人也, or yi ren wei ben以仁为本and yi ai wei ben以爱为本 all actually mean “people-oriented” or love-based”. We could speak then of a profound humanism in China. To take the concept of ren ai 仁爱 as the supreme moral guidance to govern a country, is without doubt a great human achievement. Taken aside the rulers’ actual ability to conform to the principle of ren仁ren, it still is the most reasonable and most natural human principle of all. The principle of ren has been held up in China as a national policy precisely because its home country is one large family. The family is the miniature of the country; the country is the expansion of the family. Therefore, the love in the family union between parents and siblings is exemplary for the love of the entire country’s family community. Thus, the saying of Confucius fan ai zhong, er qin ren泛爱众,而亲仁 or “Love the people, and show benevolence”.
We now turn to the Western social structure and value system. Western society has put great emphasize on four particular (Christian) cardinal virtues: prudentia (prudence), fortitude (fortitude or courage), temperantia (temperance), and iustitia (justice or righteousness). The appropriate adjectives are: prudent, brave, temperamental, and righteous. In Catholic catechism, three are added, so seven virtues: caritas (charity), industria (diligence), patientia (patience), humanitas (kindness), humilitas (humility), castitas (chastity), and temperantia (temperance). Viewed in isolation, all those virtues seem good and desirable. However, if we compare them with traditional Chinese values, we shall see that Western virtues may fall short: for example, Western prudence and fortitude are often carried upfront, whereas in China ren仁 (heartedness, benelovence) and yi义(decency, uprightness) are carried upfront. As mentioned earlier, to take ren ai 仁爱, love for the people, modeled on the close relations displayed in a family-based social structure, seems to be a far more desirable standard and ethical pursuit of mankind than, for example, Western emphasize on chastity or fortitude. The Western virtue of prudentia (prudence) is of course an important value, yet only if commanded by an underlying goodwill and spiritedness becomes it exemplary. The same is true for fortitude, which requires the right condition under which one should be brave; otherwise braveness may turns into foolishness. In China, Pi Fu’s courage has often been ridiculed. In Taoism, the brave character has been subject to exclusion. Hence Laozi’s saying “He whose boldness appears in his daring is put to death” (勇于敢则杀). Many instances of courage will end up injurious and of no good end. That is not to say that Chinese tradition rejects courage altogether; on the contrary it is part of the five characters in Confucianism: zhong忠、xiao孝、lian廉、chi耻、yong勇 (loyalty, filial piety, honesty, shame, and courage). But only if braveness is guided by zheng yi正义(righteousness) it becomes a just thing. It also appears that among the five Confucian characters, courage comes last, while in the West fortitude is carried more prominently, upfront, in the face. The three additional cardinal virtues in Catholic catechism, humilitas (humility), industria (diligence), and humanitas (kindness), sound very attractive as well. Unfortunately, they are often neglected. Humanitas is very similar to Chinese ren. Yet, this kind of compassion seems to carry less weight in Western value mainstream. There was a time when Western scholars even criticized this kind of kindness, as it was said it encouraged laziness and was detrimental to economic behavior. (It seems that the opposite of kindness, the cardinal vice invidia (envy), is now the driving force in economic behavior, but this on a side note).
The Chinese have universally put the collective first (altruism) and one’s own benefit second: The collective takes center-stage in the east. The west is different; it takes the self at center-stage and advocates a rampant individualism (egoism). When comparing both cultural modes, I think the former is superior.
Although in the early stage of Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up reform, when China was about to establish its market economy based on socialist principles, in order to meet the necessarily requirements for the opening up, some Chinese intellectuals greatly publicized on Western individualism, and eulogized the seemingly selfless spirit of the far left. This kind of behavior in this particular period of time in history is part of the required strategy, thus is understandable. However, if a conscientious intellectual really believes that a selfish moral character was preferable to altruistic moral virtue, he could as well be advocating that the Chinese people go back to the jungle and turn into beasts.
Chinese traditional values are a great achievement: advocating a world community, peace, seeing the greater picture, restraining the strong and empowering the weak, holding up an anti-war doctrine and a non-aggression policy, etc. If we compare this to Western traditional values such as eternal competition, natural selection, survival of the fittest, and the militant nature of its policies and behaviors, the advancement of traditional Chinese culture in terms of its humanity and moral qualities is quite superior.
Thus, the traditional Chinese value system – despite entering a new era that will bring further refinement and improvement – is still and by far the world’s most advanced system of morals in the world. We may even say that the kind of value system established in traditional Chinese society consists of optimal ethics that ought to be the final result and the pursuit of all mankind. As mentioned earlier the original Marxist “communist societies” and their social pattern without exception were social structures based on the family unit. In such a social structure, the members of a large household collectively produced, collectively managed, collectively consumed – there was no private property. The only drawback was that the original communist society, due to its low productivity, could not create enough material wealth. According to this reasoning, once a society is capable to produce enough material wealth and to make material wealth even surge, mankind should reconsider its return to a form of communism, to a kind of tian xia yi jia天下一家 or “world family”, to share prosperity and follow the same universal social form.
6. Comparing Chinese and Western values: obligations and freedom
Western value system gradually came to emphasis the concept of freedom. Almost everyone familiar with Western history is may remember Rousseau’s dramatic line: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” After Rousseau put forward this token of wisdom, thousands of scholars cited it without proper analysis. Freedom in today’s world has almost become a sacred good. The pursuit of freedom itself as an ideal is of course a good thing. However, people tend to forget that is just this: an ideal. As Rousseau asserted, the reality is that life is freedom’s yoke. If only freedom, this word, is emphasized without stating the relevant conditions under which a particular freedom enfolds itself or were to be exercised, than freedom becomes an empty and meaningless slogan. It may even be outright deceptive. By relevant conditions I mean certain aspects such as: how can a society protect its citizens, under various circumstances, and how can it ensure the people’s well-being and provide the basic needs for their survival. If a person constantly faces the risk of unemployment, the risk of illness without being able to afford the hospital; or if a person is of average intelligence but is deprived of all opportunities for a better education; or if people cannot afford to eat and are left homeless…so even though he or she has freedom to curse and swear in the streets: of what benefit is to him or her the freedom to criticize the authorities in the media? For the empty stomach, bread is more important than freedom. Of course, some aspects of freedom in association with other values, such as many initiatives regarding human rights in modern Western society, are worth learning from.
Traditional Western values take freedom as an end in itself: an abstract individual sort of freedom, while Chinese traditional values emphasis more on people under real life obligations. Obligations and freedom, this pair of values, are very difficult to balance. It is a dilemma: A human being must take on duties and responsibilities, but would rather prefer to indulge in carefree life without any obligations. We may even criticize Rousseau’s proposition that man is actually not “born free”. In my opinion, even before people are born they were unable to choose their place of birth, the time, his or her parents; thus, people are destined to be un-free. If born into a house of the wealthy and well-to-do, then life will grant great opportunities and good fortune; whereas if born into a poor household, then hunger and misery will prevent one of large opportunities. In rural China, when a child is born, he or she is almost destined to become a farmer; only a small percentage of the rural population may be offered the opportunity to do anything out of a life-long farmer’s fate. People are not born free, they are without freedom, but are given tasks to fulfill their obligations! People have the obligations to adjust to their environment they were born into. They must pursue their life with the means given to them and the conditions presented to them by their environment. For example, they have to support their parents, obey the elders, care for the young and old, fulfill all the duties they were instructed to do by society, and they must become as self-reliant as to be able to contribute to their own brothers and sisters’ livelihoods, and so on. Only a complete selfish person would give up his own family and his social obligations for them and indulge in a carefree lifestyle without responsibilities and call life free of shackles. Freedom is often just this: an excuse to avoid one’s obligations in life and in the world. Yes, freedom is a kind of enjoyment, but it is conditional, and conditions are always limitations. Only its limitations give meaning to any definition of freedom. Understanding this, and we now understand why the ancient Chinese had a set of rituals to regulate our behavior. Each individual’s obligations and duties were systematically regulated. This is rendered in the Chinese character li礼 (ritual, social conduct). The people’s exercise of freedom can only be carried out under the condition of li; and only then freedom gets its particular value and significance. How many works of literature in the Western world, even in poetry, are much alike and sing in praise of freedom; or worship the freedom from all fetters; or present naughty and perverted children who desperately try to get everything they want like toys and food. Yet, only modest obligations and modest freedom is desirable; careless indulgence in irresponsible behavior will harm others and lead to one’s self-destruction. Even the beasts and birds of the jungle know that they have to care for their offspring! On the other side of the spectrum, this should be mentioned, is, of course, a social structure that over-emphasizes on the obligation part of society and restricts – intentionally or unintentionally – the freedom of its citizens to a great extent and thus harms their basic human rights. This is also something one should consider.
7. Chinese and Western configurations and cross-references toward political and economical despotism
Democratic tendencies in the construction of Western political power systems, whether in the past or present, are undeniable; yet people tend to overlook a key problem: that this tendency of political democratization has not brought the appropriate democratic distribution of economic wealth and property. Rather the contrary, the emphasis on the sanctity of private property, which is an essential part of the economic distributions of wealth and possession, has caused a form of economic dictatorship. This has stirred Western society into a very peculiar situation: within the framework of democracy is now embedded an economic dictatorship. The symbiosis of dictatorship and democracy is a yoke structure of complementariness: mutual interaction, mutual insurance, alternation, and co-existence. On the surface it is mimicking a political democracy. But beneath it lies a despotic economic system that wants all its critical goals to be met. The democratic nature of economical competition is a cover-up for un un-checked phenomena: that of the economic tyranny of property.
In traditional China, we just see the reverse of the problem. For thousands of years, the Chinese government has authoritarian tendencies on the surface, but this tendency of political despotism on the surface did not bring about the same degree of economic tyranny of wealth possession and property. On the contrary, the emphasis was on the family social structure and the need of farming communities. As a result, the political despotism on the surface, often in the form of political absolutism, contributed to the democratization of the economical structure and played a crucial role in the distribution of property, and also protected it.
Thus a pattern emerges:Chinaand the West developed dual political and economic yoke structures of autocracy and democracy. The symbiosis of autocracy and democracy is reversed inChinaand the West, yet in both cases autocracy and democracy complement each other: mutual interaction, mutual insurance, alternation, and co-existence.
In the contemporary West, there are still interest groups (such as political parties) that have hereditary tendencies. However, the basic realization of personal power is now non-hereditary, because campaigning breaks the likelihood of the hereditary form. However, the contemporary West is still strengthening the individual economic autocracy and sanctity of private property. The protection of private property combined with free and unrestricted economic competition has led to an economy controlled by a few very powerful and privileged autocrats (who can hire and fire anybody anytime at will). Citizens feel increasingly insecure about the way the world is heading.
Economic despotism or economic competition free of tyranny, what is preferable? Obviously, the latter one is more preferable: free competition; however, people tend to ignore the existing economic tyranny over assets, and instead only think of the freedom of economic competition. In other words, the freedom of economic competition betrays a serious problem: the economic tyranny of property. During the last three decades, China has specialized in the study of economics. Yet the economists who research Western economic liberalism hardly go beyond the question of freedom of economic competition and hardly report about the despotic nature of property tyranny. The so-called free competition in that economy is not about real freedom. To give an allusion: It is like putting Spartacus and other slaves and wild beasts into an arena to fight for freedom: the winner is to survive, the losers die. This is called survival of the fittest, it seems free and fair. People easily overlook that slavery and the conditions under which people are forced to risk everything in an attempt to destroy one’s opponents is in itself a great injustice. Letting men fight against beasts is even more unjust. Today we have the rich and the poor fighting on the playing field of economic competition that is supposed to be a fair match and a fair ground. But it really is very unequal from the very start: ownership and start-up capital is the key to participate in that competition. So this is the well-cooked theory of free competition the Western scholars born out of a privileged and rich class have thought up for us, an economic theory which makes the act of fighting a just form that justifies the great injustices at the root of all the fighting.
The economic genius indeed goes only to a small amount of capital profiteers; but on the economic playing field they are only a few of them; they the exception, not the norm. In this kind of economic competition, most members of society and the population at large have little chances to win and succeed.
8. Patriotism and Nationalism
If we say that the strong tendencies in Chinafor an agricultural culture will inevitably restrain commerce and instead emphasize a life in peace and harmony, than we may also say that the strong tendency for business culture in the West will inevitably suppress the mercantilist agriculture and promote the martial spirit, plunder and war. In an agricultural-based society live and work is shared in one household, this develops into small families, and small families into big families, then to the establishment of a country, and later to jia guo家国, the homeland. That land will have a government that corresponds to the people’s preferred cultural mode, as a matter of course. Similarly, flexibility, risk and strong business will inevitably lead to the disintegration of the original family, tribe, and replace them with the interest of gangs and will foster gang development that caters for the interests of the power cliques which leads to the development of parties of interests that form a country, the bang guo邦国. This is the nation state, and its government, too, will correspond to its people’s cultural mode.
The political system and form of government reproduces the ancient family value system of this country. This form of government is incompatible with the Western-style party political system. Confucius once said: “君子群而不党，小人党而不群The gentlemen form a group, the common men form parties”. This thinking actually reflects the form of government in ancient Chinawhich is the natural imitation of China’s family tradition. In a large family, the members will nurture the values of ren ai仁爱 as the guiding principle of conduct. When maintained over time their behavior gradually evolves into a set of rules and rituals known as propriety: li礼. Thus is could be said that traditional China was the home country of a government exclusively guided by propriety. The idea of one great family under different circumstances will show two characteristics: First, under the government of a country governed by propriety, every member of that society will universally acknowledge that they are one family, that they have ancient genetic relationships, this kind of idea. So, naturally, they will have a strong mentality of equal-mindedness. Too much equal mindedness in turn makes people prone to a mentality of self-righteousness. And this self-righteous attitude under certain conditions will coerce the government; disrupt the peace of the community, and disunity the state. Second, in times when people are in crisis, they will express the same high degree of national unity like a big family does. And this will result in a strong nationalism. To prevent such a messy situation, this form of government needs to strengthen its cohesion, to become stronger and legitimate. At the same time, the regime must subject itself to the family characteristics in order to prevent an over-concentration of feudal power. Society must self-regulate itself by the strong ethics among its family members (the people): hence the idea of: 民为邦本,本固邦宁 or “if the people are the foundation of the nation, the nation will stand firm”, that will be propagated by our traditional elite group of intellectuals. This is in accord with Mencius’ ideas on the task of the intellectuals and the thought of the people. The thought of the people in this respect is a Chinese-style democracy. But it is implemented not by competitive elections, but relies on a ruling group composed of worthy members that have achieved the highest virtues. One may call this Chinese-style democracy a de zhu zheng ti德主政体, a government ruled by virtue.
The classical nation state is different. The political system of the nation state is the embodiment of the values put forward by its various interest groups. That form of government is incompatible with the Chinese family-based political system. The nation state’s political system is a number of gangs, various power cliques who compete against each other; thus the results (good of the people) will always be compromised. Under such a government of clashing interests of its various groups, individualism will be promoted that keeps the community divided. Over the time and gradually a set of rules and regulations will crystallize itself that guides and protects the interests of the interest groups further, this is called the “law”. Hence the common notion that Western nations are governed by the rule of law.
The process of individualization brings about certain characteristics: in the nation state system, large family structures have long been disintegrated. The sense of family has been distorted, and the members of the society no longer posses a strong sense of belonging to family. On the contrary, each member now insists on his or her individual autonomy and independence to the extreme that self-interest will be seen as virtuous. The selfish attitude now rationalizes the competition between people. Rationalization will bring about legalization. Legalization requires a sound set of regulations to ensure the fairness in competition. Thus, the nation state is forced to govern by the rule of law, rather than govern the country by virtue. Meanwhile, the universal competition, in particular the competitive business interests, builds up too much tension in the society. This has let to the loss family values and invited the introduction of religion as a substitute for the loss of family-based ethics. For instance, the Christian idea of “brotherhood” is a religious technique to form an artificial bond among the members of any group in the nation state’s society. It guides to a certain extend interpersonal relationships. It is easy to see how Christianity was a natural choice for Western mercantilism. It catered for the needs of the individual-based interest groups, power structures, and the forming of various parties. The competition among individuals reflects onto the groups; the competition among parties is the result. This sort of competition will cause the decentralization of power by contracts. Contract decentralization is aimed at the interest protection of various groups (including royalty interests), while it also limits the central power. The conflict of interest and rival interests within the government play a crucial role for the nation state. The ruling party is in fact not public but a collaborator with some interest groups, and not at all in the sense of what the West describes as democratic, e. g. for the people. The Chinese word Minzhu民主 (Democracy) is a mistranslation of a foreign term. It should not be min民 (the people, as a whole). Because not the people rule, but merely 人多势众的一方选举执政者: those people who win the election rule.
9. Human culture’s highest pursuit and how to realize the most advanced culture
The British scholar Arnold Toynbee had a clear idea of the excellent qualifications and spiritual qualities of the Chinese civilization. He predicted that China’s future integration with the world will be of central importance for all of mankind. Toynbee argued that without unity the human world would commit suicide, and that the nation that was best prepared for instilling this unity was Chinasince it had cultivated its unique way of unity-thinking over two thousand years. Chinahad for almost two millennia maintained a unity, and thus qualified, in his mind, as an important future leader of humanity (see Toynbee, Arnold, Daisaku, Ikeda , Looking ahead the 21st century). Toynbee’s assessment is undoubtedly very intriguing. And I would further note that he was right in saying that the so-called spiritual legacy of the Chinese people, the true human intelligence, is actually strongly connected to the ancient Chinese family social structure. In accordance to what has been said earlier, the social structure of the large Chinese family has advanced a series of values, and those values are destined to play an important part in the pursuit of humanity’s future culture.
All humanity should be one family. And modern genetic research has increasingly convinced us that human beings actually are one family. If a family has always been, then, the use of the family values are inevitable a good choice. PresentChina should embrace the ancient Chinese notion of all-inclusiveness, and make this the principle for all under heaven.
The Chinese should take the concept of the descendants of the yellow emperor, the story of Adam and Eve, and the modern science of human genomes, and they will realize that the Chinese traditional one-family view is coherent and suitable to become the notion for the global community.
At least for now, the world should replace the fractional culture of interest groups with the concept of tian xia yi jia天下一家: the world is a family. And this brings us back to the ancient family social structure and the revival of family values. Let us refresh our understanding of Marx’s original ideas on social construction and communist values. Communist values and the original family values are deeply and profoundly connected. And the traditional Chinese value system provides the most valuable reference and is good enough to provide human social structure an excellent system of values. This exceptionally beautiful social structure and value system can me summarized in three worlds, they are: family – nation – world.
Gu Zhengkun is Professor of Comparative Culture and Translation at Peking University. He is the author of also numerous books, including The Book of Tao and Teh, 150 Masterpieces in Yuan Qu poetry, Studies in Shakespaere, and Chinese-Western Comparative Culture Studies [Zhong Xi Wen Hua Bi Jiao Dao Lun], and so on. Professor Gu is also Chairman of Culture and the Translation Society of Peking University and Deputy Director of Institute of World Literature, Peking University. For his full biography in Chinese, click here.