Europe's path to a new humanism

Updated: 2012-12-10 07:54

By Thorsten Pattberg (China Daily)

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Europe's path to a new humanism

Few people realize the great appeal of Chinese thought in today's Europe. Germany, for example, is de facto undergoing a transformation away from sheer philosophical idealism toward a lofty Confucian pragmatism.

Although Germany is conservative about its deep affection for the Far East (it still doesn't officially recognize "multiculturalism"), it will adapt to China eventually - and I'm not just referring to its 28,000-odd Chinese students, the impact of Confucius Institutes on Germany's cultural centers and Germany's close economic ties with China. I base my argument about the Confucian revolution on three recent developments in Europe: in religion, education and intellectual culture.

In European culture, we see an ongoing secularization. Confucianism or ruxue was never a religion. Rather it was a code of conduct to create a harmonious society - the very kind of peaceful and tranquil society that socialist new Europe now aspires to become. The European Parliament in Brussels, unlike Europe's egocentric national governments, resembles a council of sages - pragmatic technocrats, not charismatic seducers.

Next, look at European education. It isn't complete yet, but the trend is toward the unification of its fragmented educational systems, just as China unified its examination system beginning from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The Bologna Accords from 1999, in particular, means better assessment and thus the promotion of ability, not birth right, as the major mechanism by which the governments should promote individuals into civil services.

This is new territory in Europe. France in the past had its exclusive club, the grandes coles, of the rich and powerful. Germany always had its three-tier school system, comparable to India's caste system. Generally speaking, in Europe the upper class and the rest never met in education in a lifetime.

The Confucian tradition, according to Peking University professor Tu Weiming, holds that all human beings have the potential to become sages or shengren. This is a bit like the Buddhist notion that all humans have a Buddha nature; it should open up attractive ways for personal growth and self-cultivation for the New Europeans.

Shengren are very different from European thinkers; they embrace the critical spirit of learning and mastering from within society, embrace social harmony, and thus cultivate a holistic worldview. Chinese wenming (civilization) has no philosophers. Philosophy is a very Hellenic and Judeo-Christian discipline. China instead has its own distinct form of humanism, like in ruxue and daojiao (Taoism).

Over the course thousands of years, China has produced tens of thousands of shengren, junzi (virtuous men), shiren (poets) and sixiangjia (thinkers). Maybe the closest equivalent for Europe would be an intellectual community of sages, gentlemen, scholars and historians.

Next, I noticed the rise of filial piety or xiao in Europe. Europe in the past was notoriously detached both from elderly people and their offspring. Parents were not obliged to pay toward their children's education, and the young were encouraged to "break" with the old. The result was young people in the hands of warmongering governments, and old people left in solitude to die in old age homes. This is very different in China, where the family bond is holy.

This brings us to the greater nature of Confucian humanism, namely the Confucian family value system. As Gu Zhengkun, a professor at Peking University, says, China is a society based on family values, while Europe is a society based on interest groups.

China to this day tries to apply a moral code among its members as if they were, so to speak, a single big family - the Chinese wenming. Europe, on the other hand, was a place of self-centered individuals who joined various interest groups. That is why China could unite already in 221 BC, while Europe till the late 20th century was a scattering of fractious competing nation-states.

In fact, the sure path to European unity doesn't lie in more laws, but in pragmatic ethics similar to that of datong (harmoniousness) or zhongyong (the middle way), and certainly not a continuation of the Christian "sense of mission" to subdue the rest of the world. Although Europeans never experienced a spiritual enlightenment such as Buddhism, the day may come, many hope, when Europeans learn to co-exist with non-European traditions.

If Europe were to unite, it would give rise to a new archetype equivalent to that of the Chinese junzi; a bit like the British gentlemen in the days of the British empire, but only quite. Institutions of the size of entire civilizations do just that; they create new possibilities for human attainment and self-cultivation that go beyond the offerings of small states.

As Ji Xianlin, the linguistic sage of Peking University, used to quote from the Dream of Red Mansion, "A thorough insight into worldly matters arises from learning; a clear perception of human nature emanates from literary lore." This is the Confucian way of Europe: A lofty pragmatism, the love for learning, and a new humanism.

The author is a German scholar at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University.

(China Daily 12/10/2012 page9)