SPEAKING FREELY Time for Chinese culture to strike back
By Thorsten Pattberg
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
BEIJING - In the Year of the Dragon, China surpassed the United States as the world's biggest trading nation. In this Year of the Snake, China should rise up to the occasion and promote Chinese knowledge.
The main challenge to the Chinese nation, as I see it, is not just
to compete with the Western countries for freedom, economy, and material resources; the true challenge is to write "world history" Chinese again; and the only way to do it is by promoting Chinese terminologies.
As Confucius once said: If names are not correct, speech is not in accordance with the truth of things. Yet internationally almost none of the correct names for Chinese thoughts and ideas have survived the onslaught of Western biblical and philosophical translations. Western words for Chinese concepts have distorted the reality of things.
China is not the first nation to rise in modern times, but the only one who doesn't have an alphabet. So far China has relied on two (Western-introduced) Romanization systems, Wade-Giles and Pinyin. Although some Chinese concepts like yin and yang or kungfu have been adopted by Western writers; yet there seems to be no language policy on behalf of the Chinese that actively promotes the usage of Chinese terms abroad, certainly not in the sciences and the humanities for that matter.
Nor is there popular assertiveness, I think, to use Chinese terms in China's national English-language publications. Yes, China promotes Hanban, the "Confucian Institutes" which were founded in all major cultural centers throughout the globe, but those teach Chinese; they do not promote Chinese terminologies. They are not even called Hanban abroad.
This is the reality: The West invented a lot of things; but not everything. I haven't seen a single rishi, buddha, or shengren in the West (for now); yet Chinese students are taught by Western history books that there are "saints" and "philosophers" all over Asia.
I am often perplexed by the readiness of many Chinese colleagues who give away literally all Chinese originality to foreign translators: What is this, a qilin? Well, let us call it a "unicorn" shall we? And what is that, a long? Well, let us call it a "dragon" then! The xiongmao only breeds in China, yet for all we know it's now a Western panda.
Of course, your mythical creatures are harmless losses. But China lost virtually everything in the social sciences: wenming? - a Chinese world for civilization; daxue? - a Chinese word for university; shengren? - a Chinese sage or philosopher. But these are not the same. Chinas has been put into the position where it calls its political theory abroad "Socialism with Chinese characteristics." If all Chinese historians hope to appeal to Western authority by simple annotating "Chinese" to Western ideas - "Chinese capitalism", "Chinese philosophy" etc - then why should foreigners intervene in China's voluntary cultural decline?
China should care about her "cultural property rights" like she cares about her lands and seas. Being the inventor of an idea, and the owner of its name, has great advantages. The Germans call this Deutungshoheit meaning having the sovereignty over the definition of thought. Let us make no mistake: The West today knows China only on Western terms; not on Chinese terms.
The Islamic world with its ayatollahs and imams, its bazaars and kebabs; and the Hindu world with its dharma and karma, its yoga and avatars and so on, are far ahead of the Chinese world when it comes enriching English as the international language. But the future of global language, of course, is not today's English; it will have to adopt tens of thousands of non-European concepts more on top of it.
We cannot make all Americans and Europeans learn the Chinese language; but what the Chinese can do is to instruct the Western general public about important Chinese key concepts. As of today, not even the most educated Westerners have ever heard about ren, datong, tianxia, or tian ren he yi.
Western people are curious like all the people of the world. If someone gave them Chinese taxonomies, they would look them up, familiarize with them, and internalize them. They would stop calling a junzi a (British) "gentleman", or a (German) "Edler"; instead they would call a junzi just this: a "junzi".
To put "culture" back in a more economic perspective: Nations should compete for their terminologies like they compete for everything else.
Thorsten Pattberg is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Peking University.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.