New Wine and Old Skins

by on Saturday, 09 September 2006 Comments

(Speech delivered at the meeting of the US Catholic China Bureau, University of San Francisco, February 1999)

"Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins!" (Mk 2, 22)

Is the parable recorded by Mark relevant for envisioning the coming of Peace and Justice, as proclaimed by the Gospel, in the Chinese context? In other words, can Peace and Justice, or, in a broader sense, can the spirit of the Beatitudes accommodate to insights brought by ancient Chinese culture and philosophy? Will new interpretations, new intellectual ventures reconcile the novelty of the Kingdom with the seemingly timeless character of Chinese wisdom?

Obviously, the question goes far beyond what our meeting aims to achieve during these three days. However, putting our present tasks into this broader context might help us to assess the challenges that we deal with, and to define anew what Christians are called to do and proclaim in the present Chinese situation, in its present cultural and intellectual landscape.

When dealing with an issue such as Peace and Justice in the Chinese context we confront simultaneously several tasks, rather different in nature.
- First, we can identify key issues in Chinese society and examine in which ways they are related to basic peace and justice concerns. In other words, we make an assessment of the current situation in China using ethical norms that we define in an either stricter or broader fashion. For instance we might ask: is the present situation of the people who belong to the so-called "national minorities" conform to criteria of economic justice (the way resources are allocated) or formal justice (equality in front of the law)? Do the policies implemented towards these national minorities concretely promote harmony between people of Han descent and other nationalities, or do they generate frustrations and jealousies? In other words, we investigate the "national minorities" policy from specific peace and justice concerns. The same can be done for ecology, human rights, the reform of the state enterprises, etc. Often, the standpoint from which we investigate these issues is a "spontaneous" or "natural" understanding of what justice and peace are about. We focus on social concerns, and concrete situations take precedence on cultural or philosophical issues.

- Of course, the so-called “spontaneous” or “natural” understanding of peace and justice can be challenged as belonging solely to the Western “cultural” worldview. This is why we have also to ask ourselves whether traditional Chinese culture and philosophy embodies approaches to peace and justice fundamentally different from the concepts that were developed in the West or the ones promoted by Christianity (the two being linked but remaining distinct in several ways). The debate is very similar to the questions raised on the universality of human rights or the specificity of "East Asian values." Such a debate is important, insofar as it might determine the relevancy of what Christians want to contribute, and the relationship they develop with Chinese culture.

- The third set of questions is somehow at the crossroad of the two first ones: what is the set of standards and values that Chinese people are able to mobilize today when trying to define a meaningful course of social and cultural development? Are there consensual or, at least, acceptable references for defining within the Chinese context what a peaceful and just developmental process should be? This set of questions is markedly different from the preceding one: it does not focus on traditional Chinese culture per se, but rather on the various interpretations given of this cultural pattern as well as of Western culture as it is now grounded into the Chinese psyche. The question is not to define theoretical grounds for such a developmental process but rather to pragmatically assess the intellectual resources that help to give meaning to what happens in society. This is the approach I am now going to develop.

Harmony and Modernization

I will therefore start from a set of contributions made by Chinese intellectuals when they are asked what a just and peaceful development is meant to be. I will do this as objectively as possible. Only at the end will I raise some questions in order to assess the value and relevancy of their endeavor. The corpus I am working with is basically made by contributions of mainstream intellectuals, working within universities or within Academies of Social Sciences. While these people are very far from being "dissidents" they do want to take some distance from the Party-State or, at the very least, to influence for a change its discourse and doctrine. They represent a kind of "alternative pattern of thought from within." They often say that their contributions aim at nurturing a "culture of peace and cooperation" - hehe wenha, the first he standing for hexie (harmony) and the second he for hezuo (cooperation) or juhe (meeting together). One senses immediately how this can be at the same time both similar to and different from what we could call a "culture of peace and justice".

Let then first put the question this way: whenever Westerners speak of peace, Chinese tradition thinks in terms of harmony. Harmony has always been and still remains a central concept in China’s spiritual as well as social thought. To be sure, the decades that followed 1949 saw a sharp decline in the use of the term, as political circumstances made the central government emphasize the role of struggle in the process of building-up a new social model. However, Harmony, as a spiritual ideal and a regulating social concept, has been progressively revived and investigated anew. In this line, the emphasis now put on hehe wenhua is an attempt at a conciliation between the traditional social thought and today’s realities.

Such conciliation is not an easy task. Anyone who wants to make use of the traditional Harmony concept meets immediately with a problem: the concept suited well a homogeneous society with clear-cut levels of authority and firm control on external influences. Contemporary societies (be it in China or elsewhere) are characterized by their fluidity, their internationalization, a constant diversification in thinking and norms of conduct, and by the ever-increasing degree of human, economic and cultural interactions. In this context, if Harmony is still to utilized, it certainly has to refer less to a former state of things to which one should come back (a sheer impossibility) than to a new social ideal to be worked out, this throughout diversity, contradictions and exchanges.

This is in some sense what the promoters of hehe wenha try to achieve. There is no fully satisfactory translation for hehe. Its meaning goes beyond "harmony" and this is why I add "cooperation." One could also translate "communitarian culture" but this is a bit misleading as it focuses only on the social aspect of the doctrine, whereas hehe supposedly embodies epistemological, ecological, even aesthetic dimensions. The most comprehensive description of what hehe is meant to be can be found in two volumes, totaling 1165 pages, published by Professeur Zhang Liwen, of People’s University, in 1996. This is complemented by articles published on a regular basis by the journal Zhonghua wenhua luntan of the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. This Academy specializes in promoting and enhancing the hehe concept. Noteworthy is also the article published in Guangming Ribao on January 17, 1998 by Cai Fanglu, since this article is the clearest attempt to put the hehe wenhua concept into the public and political sphere. Although the flourishing of the hehe terminology is very recent, its success relies on previous attempts made by philosophers such as Qian Mu and Zhang Daininan.

Defining a new cultural paradigm

The premises of the promoters of the "culture of peace and cooperation" can be summarized rather easily:

- Hehe is the prominent value of the Chinese humanist culture, encompassing all schools and religious traditions. Hehe wenhua expresses the quintessence of the Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions put together.

- This common nucleus is to be enhanced and interpreted anew in order to answer the challenges that the world confronts as it enters a new millenium. These challenges come from conflicts between man and nature, man and society, man and man, man and his own soul, as well as conflicts between civilization and civilization. In addition, this re-interpretation is necessary to help China to answer the crises brought by the increasing contacts with the West and by modernization.

- Such a task is similar in nature to the one undertaken by the "School of Principle" of the Song and Ming dynasties. New intellectual paradigms are brought forth by new social, political and cultural challenges. In this sense, rather than speaking of hehe culture, Zhang Liwen likes to speak of hehe studies or school (hehexue) as one uses to speak of the "School of the Principle" (lixue).\

- Hehe is a mode of existence. As an efficient wisdom of life, it is a contribution of Chinese culture to the whole of humankind. The hehe school constitutes the interpretation and development of this wisdom.

- The hehe school starts by recognizing the importance and reality of differences, oppositions and conflicts. Be it in the cosmological sphere (the yin and the yang, Heaven and man), the epistemological paradigm (the five agents), the social sphere (the five relationships), differences are subsumed without being annihilated, and, consequently, the process of unification is not different from the process of generating differences. Conflict is the cause of fusion; fusion is the fruit of conflict. In the traditional Chinese philosophical vocabulary, Harmony is seen as the natural fruit of the process of generation and regeneration (sheng sheng bu xi).

- In this respect, Harmony is not a static concept, it means to enter into the process of change, and change is transformation, communication, fluidity

- By accentuating the role of conflict, differences or fluidity, the Hehe school thus criticizes some aspects of traditional Chinese thought on Harmony. It especially emphasizes the role of mediations, of symbolism, in order to go beyond oversimplified expressions of traditional Chinese thought such as "unity of Man and Heaven" or "unity of knowledge and action." Actually the process of renewal of Chinese culture that the hehe schools aims to exemplify has to follow the pattern of thought of this very culture. In other words, this renewal itself has to be a process of "generation and regeneration" going from difference to unity and from unity to difference.

I will not describe further this attempt to build up a culture of "harmony and cooperation." First, the presentation given by our authors is often extremely repetitive. Second, we are more interested here in the meaning of such an attempt than in its actual elaboration. What I intend to do now is to raise a few questions on the relevance of this new form of a culture of harmony for today’s China. This will lead us to specify what might be the Christian viewpoint on that matter.

The framing of tradition: from Harmony to Equality

- Part of my summary might remind one of the irritating controversy on Asian values. However, the big difference between what I will call the "New School of Harmony" and the diverse attempts at building up a specific body of Asian values is that the former makes a frank attempt at being universal in scope. Not only is the Western contribution to the new face of Chinese culture recognized and appreciated, but also the Hehe school aims at framing an epistemological, moral and social body of assumptions that might be of value for all humankind. Whatever the obvious shortcomings of this attempt, what strikes me is that it underlines the universalization of Chinese thought, and this trend is in my view a very positive element, that by itself bears on the long run fruits of peace and justice.

- Similarly, some may smile at the pretension to situate such an attempt vis-a-vis the intellectual achievements of the School of the Principle. However, this attitude of continuity and criticism at the same time reminds me of an observation made by Professor De Bary: "If there has been one aspect of Confucian tradition most seriously underestimated in the West, it has been its capacity for self-criticism and self-renewal.” It seems to me that this capacity reaches beyond the Confucian tradition. In this respect, the living relationship that Chinese thinkers hold with their predecessors should not be seen only as an obsession with "national culture", as it is sometimes suspected by Western scholars, but as a vehicle for nurturing critical thought and renewal. In this light, intellectual pursuits in today’s China (be it the one just analyzed or similar projects) are indeed building up the requisites for a culture of peace and justice relevant and appealing for the Chinese mind.

- These positive aspects should not hide the ambiguities of the attempts presently made for reviving the Chinese social and philosophical tradition. An examination of the literature on hehe wenhua shows immediately that "harmony" is invoked for justifying the "one country, two systems" approach or the reunification with Taiwan. However, even if the hehe school has benefited from appreciative comments made by some leaders, Qian Qichen for instance, the calls for an official approval of the label and its meanings have been rebuked, at least to my knowledge. Central to the development of hehe wenhua popularity has been the discussion about Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations." Though at first heavily criticized, the book became very popular among Chinese intellectuals. It upholds the idea that Chinese culture is one of the dominant cultures of the present world, with a universalistic appeal. For sure, Chinese interpretations of Huntington’s book stress the fact that, contrary to other world cultures, Chinese culture is not contentious by essence. The main merit of the book, for its Chinese reader, is that, volens nolens it emphasizes the necessity to gather all people of Chinese origin within the same cultural sphere, and its describes such a process as an ineluctable one.

- If we translate the "New School of Harmony" worldview into the "peace and justice" approach proper to the Christian-Western tradition one will immediately notice that the stress is on peace rather than on justice. Actually, for many leading Chinese intellectuals, implementing justice will appear as a difficulty, as a task almost contradictory with the one of realizing harmony. The difficulty is not openly analyzed in the books and articles that I use here. I discussed it in several occasions with intellectuals influenced by the hehe model. The idea usually stressed is that peace is an ideal reached through violence: what is generally called "justice" is actually the violence within the peace process. Justice is a means, not an end. My interlocutors sometimes stress the fact that, even when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party, its ultimate ideal was most of the time presented under the label of da tong (the great harmony) rather than under any explicit concept of "justice." In order to avoid misunderstanding, let me specify that I refer here to "justice" in its "social" meaning. "Justice" understood as "personal righteousness" (as also its first meaning in the Bible) has always been enhanced by the Chinese philosophical tradition, especially by Confucianism. There might be a natural path from "righteousness" to the upholding of social justice, but such a theoretical development depends very much on the overall social and intellectual structure and did not happen in this form within the Chinese world.

- There is however a related concept central to part of the Taoist tradition, and this is the one of "equality" (pingdeng). This is first a philosophical concept, referring to the equality of nature of all sentient beings, a concept that Buddhist thought further developed and reinforced. Equality is also an existential concept, strongly linked to the one of "simplicity", rusticity", “parsimony.” The concept of equality that can be grasped in the Laozi and other works is very much linked to the nostalgia of a state of things where one was not led astray by exotic flavors, charming music, exotic clothes. The concept became fully political in latter Taoist-inspired upheavals.
This is an interesting reminder. China lives in an age of growing inequalities, waste of resources and ostentatious consumption. There is presently no serious challenge to this model of consumption. Should such a challenge come to light, it would for sure borrow from this Taoist tradition, which, after all, has solid roots in history. In other words, one way to give more consistency and credibility to the "communitarian" or "harmony" model would be to dare to develop further the tradition to which it belongs. Community values could very well include a criticism of the consumption paradigm, a call to more simplicity and equality in society. In other words, including the "justice" dimension within the communitarian model might be a way to overcome the ambiguities of its present stress on "harmony." This would be also the way to start an historical and, in some way, spiritual reassessment of the so-called modernization process of the last twenty years. This might be the test that the hehe school is not ready to undergo yet.
- In other words, it is not the call to Tradition that is problematic, this is rather the way this tradition is framed. Indeed, interpretation is renewed, a certain degree of self-criticism is allowed, but within textual boundaries, within the limits of a given set of concepts and questions, such limiting the relevancy of what this Tradition might really have to say to society today. It is surprising for instance to see how the political statements of the Laozi, that might be read as a devastating analysis of today’s China, are watered down to the benefit of an "ontological’ reading that loses much of the strength of the text. The Chinese tradition might very well include a good number of new wineskins into which new wine could be poured. The problem is that, most of the time, only the old ones, already worn out, are put into use.

Towards a Christian challenge


My task tonight is almost ended. It was to point out some of the resources and ambiguities of the Chinese tradition as it is interpreted today. Others will now discuss what can be the Christian input when it comes to issues of justice and peace in China. I will myself enter directly into this discussion tomorrow night. It seemed to me that starting, even briefly, from the perspective developed by contemporary Chinese intellectuals could be stimulating for our debate, and this is why I choose to discuss hehe wenhua in the first place.

However, I wish to conclude by an appreciation of the so-called Harmony school from a viewpoint directly inspired by the Christian culture. What strikes me when I read this literature is its underlying denial of what History is about. The intellectual attempts at reviving the Chinese tradition are made by extremely decent people, who want earnestly to put forth a contribution that might help their children to live in a more peaceful, more humane, fairer, gentler society. They implicitly draw lessons from recent history, and they see in the revival and re-interpretation of their own culture a protection against the coming back of Barbarian upheavals. At the same time, they end up with extremely abstract models, explaining how conflict produces harmony and harmony produces conflict through the process of generation-regeneration, this in a way that totally eviscerates the flesh and blood of what the Chinese people have suffered. Abstraction here is a process of "des-historicization" of reality. Abstraction here is meant to witewash tragedy. The negation of history that this kind of cultural interpretation presently conveys covers up the experience, the voice of the real people, it forbids the coming out of voices that would give its real meaning to what China went through during these times of change and of maturation. What Christian tradition can contribute is the claim that what happens during the actual course of history is important and meaningful, that peace, justice, harmony or equality are pursuits that can only happen in time and space, through a process that mixes failures and achievements. Christianity stresses that what happens to the smallest of the men and women living in this world is important and meaningful. It goes as far as to say that the final meaning of history is precisely to be found in what happens to the smallest among ourselves. Yes, Meaning appears in the course of events seemingly unimportant when compared to the majestic process of cosmic change. When deprived of any eschatological perspective, Peace and Justice run the risk of remaining mere abstractions. For sure, Christianity has to appreciate and to better understand the overall process of generation and regeneration, the wisdom of mediation and maturation, the paradigm of change and growth, and in that respect it has very much to learn from Chinese culture. But, more than anything else, Christianity has to keep aflame the hope that generation, maturation, change and growth are eventually meant for a harvest, a bountiful harvest coming from the seeds of peace and justice that are sown here and now.


Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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