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

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

A Binational Conversation on Bridging Cultures Beijing

September 6, 2012

Minister Cai Wu, Madam Zhao Shaohua, distinguished conferees and guests:

In this conference addressing broad questions of culture, I would like to begin by paying deep respect to our hosts.

In the development of civilization, China has through the ages played a uniquely innovative role. Chinese inventions have advanced commercial and agricultural enterprise.  Chinese scholars have embellished philosophical thought.  Chinese artists and artisans have stimulated the creative instincts of the soul with poetry, landscapes on paper and silk scrolls, and ceramics of various kinds and dimensions.

It is here in China that paper was first processed and the printing press first used.  It is in China that the compass, the rotating gimbal, and gunpowder were first developed.  It is in China that the hoe and the plow first knifed through the soil to spur growth of seeds into plants.  It is in China that forging capacities were advanced centuries before the industrial revolution in Europe to produce sophisticated brass cooking pots.  It is in China that assembly-line techniques were used, millennia before Henry Ford used the approach to building cars, to craft efficiently and attach, among other things, arms and legs to the torsos of the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an.  And it is in China where philosophical movements from Confucianism to Daoism, from theories of statecraft of Sun Tzu to theories of economic development of Deng Xiaoping, have flourished and influenced millions beyond its borders.

As for my country, America has a young (at least in a post-colonial sense) but vibrant history. We have been blessed with the most generous foreign aid ever given a society – moral values springing from the Holy Land and points East: the creeds of Moses and Christ, Buddha and Mohammed, mixed with the philosophical ideas and ideals emanating from ancient Greece and the Enlightenment in Europe: Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Locke and Hume, Hegel and Spinoza.

America has also been munificently gifted with the skills, energy, and cultural traditions of immigrants from all corners of the earth.  This mixture of faith-based commitment, independent thinking, and human energy has made possible the forging and subsequent refinement of the first government whose revolutionary legitimacy springs from the bottom-up, from individuals self-evidently born with inalienable rights.

Through our short history we have faced a series of challenges, internal and external, one of which in the middle of the 20th century brought us to Asia in alliance with the Chinese people to fight together fascist aggression.

We are proud of our achievements in science and technology, from Edison to Einstein, from the digital computer to smart phones.  We are proud of the diversity of our arts, the regional paintings of Grant Wood and the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, the humor-laced writings of Mark Twain, and the traumas, large and small, depicted by Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, who like Mo Yan, one of China’s representatives to the Second China-U.S. Cultural Forum, captured the pathos of life by placing fictional characters in an invented city.

China and America have different cultures, but that doesn’t mean we cannot respect each other’s creativity and social achievements and, more importantly, human condition, even if public differences become stark.  Governmental policies, after all, are fleeting and reversible.  Culture, on the other hand, is vastly larger and more sustaining than government.  Governance is a component of culture, not vice versa.  Culture is the ocean – the circumstances – and nations are like ships attempting to navigate culture’s tumultuous waves.

Differences between nation-states, their peoples and vested interests, inevitably heighten from time to time.  But if people have respect for each other’s culture and for the mutual challenges individuals of all backgrounds face in the sea of life, the chances that differences will cause conflict vastly diminish.

This is why conferences and studies in the humanities – history, literature, philosophy, and related disciplines, including the language arts and comparative religion – are critically important.  So are people-to-people exchanges.

A myth of our times is that relations between countries are exclusively a function of government policy and that diplomacy is simply a government-to-government dialog.  Actually, it is businessmen and businesswomen, unelected people of goodwill – be they artists or scientists, athletes, students, or scholars in the humanities – who are often more integral to defining the tone of relations between states than public officials.

Representatives of governments understandably dwell on power and security issues, especially in a fractured world.  Cultural engagement, by contrast, is more about the centrality of values and the breadth of the human spirit.  And, importantly, in the business world it is about probing common interests and promoting mutual advantage.

If people are to develop mutual respect, values must be brought to bear on a human scale. Without humanization – handshakes of understanding – there can be no more than minimal trust, minimal security for family or nation.

Like a circus performer walking on a suspended tight rope, the life of peoples and countries in the  21st century is a balancing act.  In a world of escalating change, balancing quandaries grow rapidly in number and consequence.  To illustrate, I would like to reference three particularly sensitive quandaries of our times:

  1. the balance between competition and cooperation in trade. For constructive relations to be sustainable, mutual advantage must accrue to countries as well as companies.
  1. the balance between localism and globalism. One of the preeminent American legislators of the 20th century, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, was fond of asserting that all politics is local.  A fast strengthening corollary deserves attention: all local politics is affected by global events.  When politics, including trade-driven concerns, becomes globalized, foreign policy comes to be a localized consideration, rather than the near exclusive province of governing elites.  In one way or another, public sentiment in cities and rural hamlets must be factored into policy considerations.
  1. the balance between freedom and order externally as well as internally in the affairs of the state.  In many parts of the world this balance is increasingly precarious.  No country escapes the necessity of choice-making and the ramifications of the judgment calls of others.

Geopolitics at the moment is characterized by a hardening of attitudes and a sharpening of religious and historical differences.  The human factor – foibles and conflicts of interest, for instance – can never be underestimated in governmental decision making.  But leaders, no matter how well-intentioned, can make mistakes that carry monumental consequences, especially when challenges lack precedent.

It is in this sobering context that the bilateral relationship between China and the United States demands the constant attention of policy stewards.  If this relationship is ill-managed, the likelihood of conflict and economic trauma will be great.  On the other hand, if the relationship is managed prudently, the benefits in terms of economic prosperity and world peace will be commensurate.

Accordingly, with important exceptions, the case for restrained rhetoric and caution in statecraft fits best the world in which we now live.  Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or one country.

Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition.  Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, care should be taken about being certain of very much. To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes.  That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why shared learning and shared experiences are so important in a civilized world.

Thank you.