Skip to main content

The 3rd China-United States Cultural Forum, Closing Remarks

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The 3rd China-United States Cultural Forum: A Binational Conversation on Bridging Cultures Nanjing

September 8, 2012

On behalf of the visiting American delegation, I would like to emphasize how appreciative we are of the generous hospitality of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and the Department of Culture of Jiangsu Province.  Our Chinese hosts have been most gracious.

Having first come to China in 1979 as a member of the official delegation representing the United States at the normalization of relations ceremony with Deng Xiaoping, I continue to be startled with the pace of change in China and impressed with the steady increase in ties between our two countries.

In regard to this 3 rd China-U.S. Cultural Forum, I am sure I speak for all participants in noting how uplifting and informative the dialog has been.  We have learned from each other and been stimulated by the thoughtful student participants.

Throughout our meetings, formal and informal, there have been references to Confucius and Jefferson.  So let me conclude with an observation about one contrast between the Confucian tradition in China and the Jeffersonian legacy in America.

Confucius argued as a philosopher and ethicist that individuals should not do unto others what one would not want done unto oneself.  This may seem to be no different than the Golden Rule in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which affirms that an individual should do unto others what one would want done unto oneself.  Nonetheless, the difference between stating a proposition in the negative as opposed to the affirmative is reflective of certain cultural tensions between our two societies.

When it comes to the subject of human rights, for instance, Confucius and Jefferson would likely be in full agreement on a case-by-case basis when citizen dignities are abused.  Both, after all, put pen to paper in opposition to excesses of existing authorities.  But several important distinctions exist.  Jeffersonian democracy is rooted in faith-endowed rights that pertain not only to the colonists in one era but are presumed to apply to individuals everywhere in any time frame.  The American Declaration of Independence is not simply a nation-building creed; it is a living set of universal principles.  Accordingly, it is the natural instinct of the sons and daughters of Jefferson to reflect these values abroad as well as at home.  In an American setting, it took a Civil War in the decade following the Taiping Rebellion (which wreaked such tragic havoc here in Nanjing), and follow-on suffrage and civil rights movements to bring full meaning to the pledges we made to ourselves in the Declaration of Independence.  

Confucian doctrine likewise centers on public accountability.  Where Confucius’s teaching might depart somewhat from Jeffersonian thought relates to possible discomfort in advocating social causes in other societies.  The ethical “do not do unto others…” prescription is inherently less intrusive on individuals and societies at large than the theologically based call “to do unto others…”  This philosophical distinction may be complicated by 20th century ideologies, but it is important that we mutually recognize that what may seem arrogant and intrusive to one side may be well-meaning citizen advocacy by the other.

One of our speakers in Beijing, Dr. Scott Stevens, a noted authority on America’s indigenous Indian tribes, described the sacred belt of the Mohawks – a simply designed strap with two parallel lines, symbolizing two peoples of different traditions living amicably in one space, respecting each other’s place.  In some ways the ideal represented in the Mohawk belt may be as Confucian as any American political thought.  Nevertheless, as modern communications, travel and trade make each of us closer neighbors, it would seem that the belt we should strive to wear today would have one line with many interwoven threads rather than two non-touching stripes.  

Another conferee, Dr. Jason Patent of the Nanjing branch of Johns Hopkins University, referenced social anthropologists who have theorized that in human evolution survival of the species required a natural distrust of the other.  According to this theory, man may be genetically predisposed to be wary of categories of people different than his own because they might be dangerous, just as tigers were to his ancestors.  On the other hand, one could just as easily hypothesize that man is thoughtful enough to want to align with similar beings to protect against predators that are more unlike.  Indeed, the origins of civilization may be humans banding together to protect themselves and their offspring against wolves and other predators.  And, if we look further back in evolution, it may be that the fate of civilization hinges on whether all peoples of the earth become psychologically predisposed to consider themselves mutually protective cousins, regardless of whether they accept the scientific assumption that all life forms evolved from the sea, perhaps the simplest organism, a sponge, or from Adam and Eve as various faith systems affirm.  The only clarity is that science is not definitive on the subject of human nature, and religious explanations are varied, though most creeds acknowledge human flaws, indeed sins.    

What human experience tells us is that conflict breaks out between peoples of different backgrounds as well as between those with more similar histories.  The first category might define wars between nation-states or perhaps more geographically expansive groupings of people; the second includes civil wars such as occurred in China and America in the 19th century, various tribal conflicts over the centuries in Africa, and the relatively recent genocides of Hitler and Pol Pot.  It doesn’t take much to spark conflict.  It takes a lot to hold violence in check.  That is why the rule of law and the means to enforce it are so important.

From an attitudinal perspective, the most effective antidote to conflict is greater understanding of other peoples and cultures and what for many is a psychological jolt:  an embrace of the notion that life is more interesting and fulfilling if one comes to respect and interrelate with peoples of diverse background rather than simply those with a similar upbringing. 

Greater understanding and appreciation of the other can only come from a disciplined attention to the humanities and the human condition.  To paraphrase a speaker this morning, history illumines the past with lessons for the future; philosophy clarifies human reasoning; literature reveals motives and aspirations; poets tell us about the heart; and art uplifts the human experience.   In combination, history, literature, philosophy and art are what embellish and give meaning to civilized life.

Broadening mutual understanding is no guarantee that conflict can be avoided, but it reduces the prospect that inevitable tensions lead to war.  This is why appreciation of the humanities and the myriad of cultural distinctions across the world are so critical, particularly for the two countries that will hold the key to whether this century will be relatively peaceful and prosperous.

Thank you.