Ji Xianlin – Thirty Years East of the River…

Thirty Years East of the River, Thirty Years West of the River, by Ji Xianlin; 三十年河东,三十年河西 sān shí nián hé dōng,sān shí nián hé xī

Thirty Years East of the River, Thirty Years West of the River, by Ji Xianlin; 三十年河东,三十年河西 sān shí nián hé dōng,sān shí nián hé xī

Foreword to The Selected Book of Oriental Cultures – by Ji Xianlin

Note: The text is an English translation of a chapter in Ji Xianlin’s Thirty Years East of the River, Thirty Years West of the River (2006)

We are now at a new fin de siècle. The so-called “siècle” and “fin de siècle” are human inventions. Unlike the vicissitudes of the four seasons of nature, which are perennially alternating, and yet unalterable, a “siècle” turns out different; for whence would it have come had there been no “Jesus”? And whence the “fin de siècle” if no “siècle”? How we have come to acquiring this term is, therefore, self-evident. Nevertheless, since the time it was invented, this term has been exerting its potent influence. At the previous “fin de siècle”, namely, at the end of the nineteenth century, there appeared a number of weird phenomena in such ideological fields as literature and art, and even a term like “fin de siècle malaise” was created, a fact that is too well-known to incur any debate or argument about it.
What, then, is the current “fin de siècle” like?
This “fin de siècle” seems no exception to me. There have been political changes in many countries and regions of the globe, too enormous not to be marveled at. And even in the field of ideology there has been no peace. The debates and arguments centering around issues of cultures and civilizations stand out as a major phenomenon. It is not that people care little about cultural issues at usual times, but that sensitivity tends to flare up whenever the fin de siècle approaches. As the present fin de siècle shows, people are suddenly awakened to an awareness of cultural problems, and scholars and men of letters from the East and the West alike begin to take to talking more keenly about cultural issues. Articles thrive and conferences multiply. There is a heterogeneous display of opinions eloquently pronounced and glibly maneuvered, each differing from the other. And, thus, has come into being the so called “culture heat”.
In the midst of such an irresistible “culture heat”, I, a somewhat ill-informed “wild fox” who, though not having the deliberate mind to share the same fervor, have got invariably embroiled in it. I am of the sort of people who feel choked as if by fish-bones in the throat if their thoughts are impeded from enunciation. I have talked about culture at various conferences and in many an article, especially about the association between oriental and occidental cultures and the role that oriental culture will play in the upcoming century and its status, much of which has evoked quite a few strong responses.

Ji Xianlin, the Lingustic Sage

For better illustration, it is not unadvisable to provide a sketchy synopsis of my own attitude toward culture and culture-related issues. In my opinion, over the past few millennia in human history, nations and peoples, big or small, lasting or temporary, have all undeniably made their contributions to culture in the broad sense, though these contributions vary in capacity, nature, content, impact, profundity and endurance. The treasure house of human cultures is built by all the different peoples and nations together, which can be expressed through use of a more literary term, “multiculturalism”. It is a fascist announcement that culture is created by only one single people in the world and, therefore, we should never take that stance.
A most salient feature of culture is that once it is born it spreads itself out in all directions and thus is what we mean by “cultural exchange”. Culture never claims a single fortress or cuts up the territory and inflicts an insular autarchy, posing itself as a supreme No. 1 monarch hereditarily entitled to all treasures and jewelry. Culture is there for all, and it spreads everywhere regardless of skin color and distance. One of the reasons why man has been able to progress with time and acquire an elaborate knowledge of nature, society and his own heart and thus has secured for himself a good life lies with cultural exchanges.
Despite the myriad of differences and distinctive features, cultures appear as systems. Those with similar or close characteristics form a system. In my own taxonomy, cultures, despite their complications, fall into four systems based on their common features, namely, the Chinese, the Indian, the Arabic-Islamic cultural systems, and the Euro-American cultural system that dates from ancient Greece and Rome. And in a broader dichotomy, all human cultures can be divided into two main bodies, with the former three forming the oriental cultural system and the fourth one standing opposite, which we call the occidental cultural system. No third cultural system has ever been created by mankind.
The oriental and occidental cultural systems share common features but also differ from each other in many respects. As both are cultures, so are there similarities, which I will not dwell upon herewith. The distinctive differences between them have their deep roots, I think, in the different modes of thinking. The East is more inductive while the West is more deductive. The existence of such a difference is manifest where analysis is being performed either in social sciences and humanities or in natural sciences. This view of mine has incurred quite a bit of controversy. Some agree with me, some deny my view, some want to discuss with me about it, and still others claim that they will reserve their opinions. In fact, many (including myself as well) have not yet done a thorough study of the oriental and occidental cultures. And there are still some people, who have not fully understood my ideas before they proceeded to debates and arguments heedless of the facts. And therefore, I shall not respond to these people.

Ji Xianlin drawing - unknown artist

Ji Xianlin drawing - unknown artist

Perhaps some would say that I, together with my view with regard to the cultural differences between the East and the West, am a product of the contemporary or modern times. I used to have the same thought; however, it is not the case. The French scholar Aly Mazahéri who does Iranian studies dealt a lot with the ancient inventions of China in his monumental work La Route de la Soie, many of which are still unknown to us. I will not deliberate on details here, but I will only quote some pieces of talk between ancient Persians and Arabs about Chinese culture and Greek culture:
Jahez quoted a theory of the Sassanian Dynasty (226—Ca. 640), which says: “The Greeks never invented anything except some theories. They never taught any art. But the Chinese were different. They did teach all their arts, but they indeed had no scientific theories whatever.”
Here is a note by the present author Ji Xianlin: The last statement is not true. China did have theories. What this statement says is similar to Hegel’s idea that there was no philosophy in China, which is a rather lay comment. In the same book, there are statements saying:
After the Sassanian Dynasty, Ferdowsi, Salibee, Al’beruni, and others all attributed the discovery of silk fabrics, steel, mortar, and slurry to Yama and Jamashed. However, we have a firm belief in the origin of silk fabrics and steel knives in China. As to the rest of these discoveries such as slurry — cement and so on, there is a 99% probability that they also originated in China. Seeing things in this way we can appreciate the significance of a Parthian — Sassanian — Arabian — Turkman saying: “The Greeks have only one eye and only the Chinese have two eyes.” Josafa Barbaro had learned such a saying earlier in Persia, in 1471 and 1474. Around that time he also heard the same idea expressed in an abstruse manner: “The Greeks only understand theories, but the Chinese are the people who own the technologies.”
I would like to add more to the theory of one eye or two eyes, that is, I want to point out there are others who introduced the same idea, which must have originated in Manichaeism:
“Except the Chinese who observe with both eyes and the Greeks who observe with only one eye, all the other peoples are blind.”
I quote such sayings repeatedly not to feel the complacency and smugness about the flattery those foreigners heap upon the Chinese and then assume an air of self-importance. To my curiosity, such sayings existed in Persia and Arabia so long a time ago. And we cannot help today but wonder at the acumen and elaborate insight with which they observed. Indeed, at that time in the world, only China and Greece enjoyed a most prominent and magnificent culture. And it is high time that those handfuls of scholars or learners or whatever “-ers” in China who inevitably talk about nothing else but the Greek tradition come to an awakening.
But this is not where my very curiosity lies. What I am most excited about is, as I have stated above, that there is a modern characteristic of recent times to talk freely about the East-West dichotomy. Persian and Arabian legends have all attested to this long-existing division of oriental and occidental cultures. This split is not new, but only grows more distinct in modern times. Secondly, to my relief, I am not the originator of this East West dichotomy of cultures. Those ancient “foreigners” went before me in thinking so. And to my greater relief, the modes of thinking of the East and the West that I talk about are the basis of this dichotomy. The Persian and Arabian sayings, I believe, have proved my view on this. Theories come out of induction and technologies out of deduction.
And isn’t that the truth?
Up till today, even the one eye of the Greeks is already shut. European countries inherited and promoted the magnificent culture of ancient Greece, which in turn made European culture luminous in the world. After the Industrial Revolution, technologies in Europe developed very fast. Accordingly in every nooks and crannies of the globe, there has, ever since, blown a European gust. Therefore the Europeans and the Americans, narcissistically intoxicated, flatter themselves of being “the most favored son of Heaven”, feeling as if they were blessed with a third eye, while ignorantly oblivious of history and their current crises. The Chinese, however, seem to have shut both their eyes over a long period due to both internal and external reasons. Even so, their brilliant ancient cultures have never ceased to shine dazzlingly. There were times when the Chinese felt big about themselves, such as the Qing Empire at its heyday, an empire which, succumbing itself later to the prowess of the fleets and the cannons of the West, fell invariably prostrate at the feet of the West. But, today the Chinese nation, having been jolted awake, is striving to reassert itself among the nations of the world.
Based on the historical review above, I can now draw the conclusion that in the long history of five thousand years and in the boundless global space, the eastern and western cultures have taken alternate turns to prevail upon each other, which fact, expressed in an ancient Chinese saying, would be: “Thirty years east of the River and thirty years west of it.” This hackneyed cliché has always been used in the common talk and is not at all my invention. I now make use of this phrase to illustrate the east-west relationship and my view has been echoed both at home and abroad. There is, of course, opposition, sometimes bitterly antagonistic, from my home colleagues. However I still humbly hold onto the verity of this saying, for not only the ancient Chinese philosophy speaks of metamorphoses and Buddhism preaches impermanence, but the Western dialectic also advocates constant changes. I only took this saying to prove my point. At its opening, The Tale of the Three Kingdoms announces: “It is said that universal order comes after long chaos and vice versa and that is how it generally goes.” Isn’t this statement speaking the same evident truth?
But there are both Easterners and Westerners who remain ignorant of this apparent truth, especially people in the West, where a number of them consciously or unconsciously indulge themselves with the idea that their once glorious culture is going to last for aeons. Followers in this belief abound in China. However, they have never come to understand that culture, like everything else in the world, is not long-lasting and must go through the whole process of birth, development, growth, debilitation, and extinction.
But, as a Chinese saying goes: “Truth lies in one’s heart.” One can always tell the right from the wrong and so can the Westerners who take pride in their own culture. Such people were scarce prior to the First World War. But the outburst of World War One awakened many liberal minds. There had even been pre-apprehensions of a world war. The German scholar Oswald Spengler sensed the approach of a world war, which soon truly broke out. From 1917 on, Spengler was writing The Decline of the West, the publication of which caused quite a stir. His basic contention was that culture could be classified into four stages: youth, growth, maturation and decline. Despite that there were still signs of subjective idealism in his inductive method and data collection, he had the acumen and courage to pronounce his foresight of a “decline” of the then blossoming culture, the only one of the eight cultures in world history that still showed vitality. We feel obliged to pay him our homage. However, a tiny maculate spot that spoils his theory is that he did not perceive the existential and communicative relationship between oriental and occidental cultures. (For reference, see The Decline of the West, 2 vols. Trans. Qi Shirong, Commercial Press, 1995.)In the west, in the wake of Spengler, the English historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889—1975) claimed to have been influenced by the former. Both were against “Eurocentrism”, which is where their magnitude lies. Toynbee inherited Spengler’s theory, holding that cultures — “civilizations”, that is, in his terms — must all go through birth and death. And he divided the civilizations in human history into 21 categories, or 26 sometimes. And this is to be seen in his 12?volume work A study of History (1934—1961), in which he excels Spengler in the discussion of the oriental culture. In the 1970s, when he had dialogues with the Japanese social activist Ikeda Daisaku, he gave a full play to this theory of his, placing great hopes on the oriental culture (See Prospects for the 21st Century, International Culture Publishing Corporation, 1985.).
I am not of the opinion that Spengler and Toynbee - and a number of later philosophers and historians from Europe and America who agreed with them and whom I will not quote in detail hereby — are one hundred percent correct. Nevertheless, it indeed is a rare feat, for they have been able to scintillate a few sparkles through the all-pervading murky aura which particularly bleared the minds of the Europeans and Americans. Their opinions, I think, are true in the main. To use the terms of the ancient Persians and Arabs above-mentioned, I am inclined to say that the one eye of the Greeks and their descendents later on gradually turned into two eyes; however, these two eyes, as extremity always results in antithesis, are now about to close. The Chinese eyes, after closing for a while, are now about to open up.

The Cyclops in ancient Greek mythology - Metaphor for the one-eyed West?

The Cyclops in ancient Greek mythology - Metaphor for the one-eyed West?

Most of the Europeans and Americans who have closed their eyes know nothing about the East and they do not even have an iota of wish to know about it. I have heard say of late that there are still some in the West who believe the Chinese still bind their feet, wear pigtails, smoke opium pipes, and take concubines. And to top it all, some scholars and men of letters even do not have the slightest idea who Lu Xun is. Isn’t it shocking that in a world that is becoming smaller every day and in this era of information explosion those “civilized” Westerners should be so ill-informed and muddleheaded! Reverting to the Chinese, and we find things are completely the opposite. We virtually worship all that is Euro-?American. Hamburgers, KFC, Pizzas, and the fabricated California Beef Noodles. Anything, if labeled with foreign words, turns glamorous and shines; and multitudes of people fall over each other to get it. Even some names take on a foreign savor, individual as well as business names. As to cosmetic products, import goods have established their authority, while goods made in China have also crowned themselves with foreign appellations, to add to them a massive consumptive luster. Not strange that very patriotic mind is stricken with pangs and shame, condemning such an adulatory fad and behavior of fawning upon things foreign. However, in a dialectic dichotomy, there is also a positive side to such practice. Sunzi (Sun tzu )said: “Knowing both oneself and the enemy keeps one victorious in a hundred battles.” As far as the East-West issues are concerned, we practically know the West like the palm of our hand, but the West vision about the East, as I have pointed out above, is a murky confusion. It is then self-evident who would hold an advantageous position should there be any conflict in the future between the two.
Lu Xun once upheld a “take-in” attitude toward the western culture. This principle is by no means out of fashion today. We took in in the past and today we still take in. As long as we do not take in scum and dregs of the Western culture, it is a good thing to do, and good will it be to the construction of our nation.
However, according to what I have talked about earlier, we should as well promote the “give-out” practice alongside the take in and further, we should focus on the give out. For the well-being of the entire mankind and their future, we have the obligation to do so, but by no means shall we export scum and dregs to the West. We should introduce our culture to other nations even if they are still not ready to accept it. A verse in “Great Verses of the Kingdom” in The Book of Odes says: “When one throws to me a peach, I return him with a plum.” Western culture has benefited mankind a lot. We Chinese, and we easterners, are grateful peoples and we shall never take in anything for nothing.
What, then, shall we return them with? What shall we give out to them? That which is to be given out must be the quintessence of our oriental cultures. There should be a clear aim in our giving out. Our aim is to help solve the “crises” born by the occidental culture, as I mentioned above. It is too abstract if I just say the word “crises”. To be concrete, we should use the word “malpractices”. Over the past centuries, a lot of malpractices have appeared in the Western culture ,which have brought about serious problems, the most prominent of them being environmental pollution, air pollution, ruin of the ozone layer, ecological imbalance, extinction of species, population explosion, thriving of new diseases, shortage of fresh water, and so forth. Such problems, if not redressed, will jeopardize the future of human beings. The rise of these problems is intimately connected with the analytical mode of thinking of the Western culture. The Westerners have been ceaselessly and unyieldingly conducting analyses of Nature that provides the necessities for human survival, and hence their call to “conquer nature”. “What can heaven say about this?” However, “heaven” — great Nature, is capacitated with a punitive spirit. The punishment we receive is seen in the form of the above-mentioned serious problems.
There is a remedy, I believe, for all these. Namely, we must change over to new ways, or rid the evil and embrace the good. And only the Easterners can fulfill this task. The fundamental mode of thinking of oriental cultures is deduction, whose philosophical version is the synthetic idea of the “oneness of Man and Heaven”, best illustrated in Zhang Zai’s West Inscription (Xi Ming), which says: “Chien (Heaven) is the father and Kun (Earth) is the mother; and I am the miniscule infant who dwells whole in the middle. Therefore I am that which infuses Heaven and Earth with my body and that which follows Heaven and Earth with my spirit. And all people are my siblings and all things my counterparts.” in Indian philosophy, The idea “Seva-nagri” (the universe and I are one and the same) utters the same truth. In general, oriental cultures hold man as the friend, not enemy, of nature and hence there is no “conquest” whatsoever. We can ask nature for what we need for food, clothing and housing solely on the basis of our knowledge of nature and our love of it. And only in this way can we guarantee a sure future for mankind.
What we will present to the West is such essence of our culture, the principal substance of what we give out. Will they accept the “plum” we send them? In fact, we haven’t ever given away our presents on a large scale. Even we Orientals ourselves, Chinese included, do not know we have such treasures, and never admit these treasures as ours. We have held the West in blind worship and followed them to wage wars against nature, and we also have similar malpractices. If we demand immediate acceptance of our ideas by the West, isn’t that too hasty? Nevertheless, if man ever pays a little heed, he will discover that in every country in the present world, more and more people are growing aware of and devoting more energy to redressing the above —mentioned malpractices, whatever their motives or philosophical grounds. Japan Economic Newswire (Nihon Kezai Shinbon) this year published an article by Takaki Yukyo, saying that the focus of scientific research of the 21st century will be on “the strategies of human survival.” This is indeed an honest utterance. As far as I am concerned, what it says about scientific research covers two respects, namely, the liberal arts and the sciences. The author elevates the importance of scientific research to the high plane of “human survival”, which is irrefutably a sagacious remark and is thus worthy of our most effusive accolade. As for those commonplace articles that send out alarms at the population explosion and deplore the birth of new diseases, as well as those admonitory calls for people to beware of environmental pollution, destruction of the ozone layer, ecological imbalance, shortage of fresh water, etc., there are so many of them that they are seen almost every day. Mankind has become wiser and the future for mankind is no longer dark. Every liberal-minded person in the world, I believe, will feel relieved and inspired by this. And I, as a doddering man well-nigh in his nonagenarian years, cannot help but rejoice over this new human awareness, as well.
I have been rattling on so much above and let me add a word or two of completion to clinch my point. At an international conference, I made a speech entitled “Only Oriental Cultures Can Save Mankind”. What I have been talking about above boils down simply to such a brief statement. As to what the 21st century will bring us, a century that is now at our threshold, in what way the occidental culture is to evolve, what concrete, rather than empty roles, oriental cultures will play, and whither goes the future of mankind — all such questions still await historical evidence to present answers. I once read a joke about a nearsighted man guessing at the words on a plaque. And for now, the new century has not yet arrived and the plaque has not been hung up and we do not know for sure what words are inscribed on it. And no matter how sharp we brag our eyes are and how far we can see, we are all myopic before the plaque is hung up.
In such circumstances, the most important task for us, I believe, is to study, to know. We have been accusing the West of not knowing oriental cultures, not knowing the East, and not knowing China; nevertheless, do we ourselves know China?
An honest man would frankly acknowledge that we Chinese do not know China so well, nor the East, nor oriental cultures. To be frank, this is a voiceless tragedy.
The only way to know is to study, and to study there first has to be materials.
As far as we intelligentsia are concerned, to study materials is primarily to study writings, or books. Looking around the world, in such a time when there is still a market for “Eurocentrism” and when some people in the West have not yet opened their lethargic eyes, we find a scarcity of books about the East. Those books, if any, many of them have prejudice and are not in the least objective. This shortage of books applies to the West and the East alike. Even if we have the yearning to study, there are no books. Of course, circumstances vary with different countries in the East and the number of books published in each country also varies. But generally speaking, books have been scanty. Books about some smaller-sized countries are practically non-existent. And a few eastern countries almost hardly arrest any international attention. They are surrounded by a hazy and nebulous mist, with a fickle glow that suggests their mystic existence. And this is anther voiceless tragedy.
For this very reason, we who do not take proper measures of ourselves, or rather, we who have seriously measured our own capacity, offer to compile this unprecedented voluminous set of books The Selected Books of Oriental Cultures. Although our current team is not big enough because of historical reasons, although we are still insufficient where the academic foundation is concerned, we have confidence in our subjective initiative. We will “brace ourselves up in face of the overwhelming waves” and we mean to fulfill this task in earnest. What people in the world, the eastern people, and the Chinese people need is what propels us forward. We cherish a sincere hope that a mutual understanding can be reached between the eastern and the western peoples. And it is our pursuit also in publishing this set of books to make both the eastern and western peoples grow wiser. Our team consists of different ages but our requirements on the work done by each member are of a universal high level. We hope to promote the level of oriental cultural studies in China through this project and cultivate a group of committed minds, which is a double target of this project.
We are against “Eurocentrism” and racial discrimination. However, we do not advocate a “Centrism of the East” either. If by chance we say or think that in the 21st century the East will take the lead, that is based on our observation and prediction of historical development, but not on any “-ism”. In this spirit, we hold the dozens of eastern countries all as equals. We treat every country on an equal footing, regardless of size, history, status and population. And we neither elevate nor belittle any one country; nor do we hold any one of them in contempt or in worship. Every eastern nation is granted an equal status in our series.
However, as a matter of fact, countries differ from one another and availability of source materials varies. Therefore, some countries take up more space and some less. And this is purely the way things are and has nothing to do with discrimination whatsoever. We sincerely hope that in the arriving 21st century, China will open both her eyes, and the West will also acquire one more eye. With wide and bright eyes, we will study together, trying to achieve mutual understanding.

Ji Xianlin (季羡林; August 6, 1911 – July 11, 2009) and Wen Jiabao

Ji Xianlin (季羡林; August 6, 1911 – July 11, 2009) and Wen Jiabao

It is our firm belief that as long as we make such efforts, nations will understand one another more and there will be a better prospect of peace and welfare for all human beings. We firmly believe, no matter how long it requires, the day will be with us when universal peace and the world of oneness will finally come true.

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