Continuing the Discussion: Cultural Universalism in China: A Consensus Among Different Traditions and Civilizations

in Continuing the Discussion

TONG ZHICHAO
STAFF WRITER AT SAIS NANJING

ALL ancient civilizations have strong universal elements in their
cultures. For instance, in ancient Chinese civilization, we have the
concept of “All-under-Heaven” (Tianxia), which means one should first
see the world before his or her own state. Moreover, there exists an
overlapping consensus among different traditions and civilizations.

When C.S Lewis wrote his masterpiece “The Abolition of Man”, he argued
that the objective value expressed in Chinese “Tao”, Indian “Rta” and
Western “the Way” were actually connected; they expressed virtues that
every human being needs to lead a good life. In the same way, I do not
agree that cultures are so different that the acceptance and
identification of universal values is unachievable.

What is sad about our modern era is people actually try to emphasize
cultural differences instead of paying attention to what we hold in
common. You can appreciate your own culture in two ways: you can love
it because it is your culture and not that of others, or you can adore
it because it conveys the truth, like the objective value expressed in
Tao, Rta or the Way.

These two approaches result in people having entirely different
attitudes towards their culture. Take China for example: if you really
adore traditional Chinese culture because you believe that the Chinese
way entails the universal truth, then you should not be so angry when
South Koreans argue that the Dragon Boat Festival is theirs. After
all, if South Koreans want to celebrate the festival, it means that
the tradition you cherish in your country contains a universal truth
which is accepted even by people from another country.

However, sadly many Chinese actually have negative reactions towards
the “South Korean Dragon Boat Controversy.” Their embrace of Chinese
culture then is not an acknowledgement of truth, but an emphasis on
“this is ours.” Even if the universal truth underlying the Dragon Boat
Festival is admitted through the recognition of this tradition by
people from another country, Chinese citizens are still unhappy
because they feel they have lost ownership of this tradition.

Sure, one may say that we need both (conveying the truth and “this is
ours”) to sustain our cultures, but unfortunately in contemporary
society it seems the concern for ownership has caused the universal
truth and value in our traditions to completely disappear before our
eyes.

I do believe that not only the disagreements in our discussions
regarding universal values and cultural pluralism but also many
cultural and identity conflicts around the globe today can be traced
back to this under-appreciation of the universal element shared by
different cultures and civilizations.