Musicians from Kazakhstan play traditional instruments during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Silk Road International Expo in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, on May 13, 2016 (XINHUA)
The Asian civilization dialogue conference to be held in Beijing in May will explore the importance of cultural exchanges and mutual learning.
Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the conference aims to promote exchanges and dialogue among different civilizations and development models. The participants include state leaders, heads of international organizations and representatives from various fields of humanities.
"We should encourage different civilizations to respect each other and live in harmony so that exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations will become a bridge promoting friendship among the peoples of the world, an engine driving the progress of human society and a bond cementing world peace," Xi said at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2014.
A prominent issue facing the changing modern era is how to build a global civilization system in the context of deepening economic globalization. The international community needs to deeply ponder the issue of civilization so as to find the right direction for the future development of human society.
A relative concept
To this day, there is no clear definition of the word civilization. According to A History of Civilizations written by Fernand Braudel, the word first appeared in the mid-18th century, meaning the process of becoming civilized as opposed to the state of barbarism.
The concept of civilization has an absoluteness that shows that the social governance system of human beings has developed to a certain extent. However, since civilization is the opposite of barbarism, its connotation is relative. That is, a specific form of civilization usually carries the limitations of its times. It may be a civilized society compared to the society before it, but it may very well be a barbaric society in comparison to the society that comes after.
While inspiring the Japanese to learn from modern Western civilization, Yukichi Fukuzawa, a famous Japanese intellectual, also pointed out that the wars initiated by Western countries are barbaric acts. Therefore, he suggested, when learning from Western civilization, Japan must make innovations instead of being satisfied with what it learns. But ironically, Fukuzawa, along with many others in the country who were inspired by his ideas, learned from the elements of barbarism displayed by Western civilization and embarked on a path of militaristic aggression and expansion.
Even today, Western civilization tends to use force to solve problems and exercise power politics in the international arena. This is the biggest problem human civilization has encountered in its development.
Civilization is the targeted progress of human beings. The essential nature of a specific civilization refers to the material and spiritual wealth created by humanity for its own survival and development, which is a representative feature of human beings.
As a unique accomplishment of humanity, civilization began with the manufacturing of tools, indicating that humans had begun to break away from their natural existence to become intelligent creatures seeking self-existence. The historical progress of humanity parallels the development of civilization, while the manufacturing of tools reflects the improvement of human cognition and creativity.
Along with a material one, human beings also created a spiritual civilization, the focus of which is social construction. The development of civilization consists of material production capacity that satisfies the needs of human beings and the social construction ability that leads to harmonious and happy lives. The two aspects complement each other and propel each other in the direction of harmony and happiness. Thus, the essence of civilization is the continuous progress of human beings with pursuing happiness as the core. There is no inevitable conflict among different civilizations; instead, there is a driving force for mutual integration. The factors that lead to conflict are precisely based on the reality that we are not that civilized.
Learning from others
Historically, the development of human civilization has been uneven. This imbalance is not only manifest in the difference in time, but also in geographical distribution. The relative isolation of some geographical environments and language barriers have led to cultural differences, which is a manifestation of civilization. In spite of this, there is almost no civilization that is isolated from the world or that can rely solely on its own development. Absorbing and learning from foreign cultures is an important step in the development of various civilizations.
The European alphabet was created by ancient Egyptians, traveled through Greece and Rome, and finally was introduced to the rest of Europe. Learning what already exists is much easier than creating something new; this simple truth shows that a civilization that is willing to develop is also willing to learn from others. Therefore, mutual learning among different civilizations is a natural occurrence, but something that may be more common in Asia.
For example, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), China sent Xuanzang, an eminent Buddhist monk, to India to study Buddhism. Japan dispatched envoys to China to learn Chinese culture during that same period. This shows Asian countries conducted cultural exchanges in a civilized way in history. Of course, the true meaning of civilization is not simply copying from others, but re-creating after learning.
An Indian yoga teacher with her students at the Yunnan Minzu University in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan Province, on April 27, 2017 (XINHUA)
Downside of interventionism
In many other cases, however, interaction among civilizations was achieved through conflict. The spread of modern Western civilization relied mainly on conquest by force. The Western conquest of the world has brought two innovations, namely, globalization and modernization. For Asian countries, traditional cultures are thus challenged. Almost no Asian country has rejected these innovations but they have been challenged as to how to synergize them with their traditional cultures. The difficulties in these cultural synergies lie to some extent in differences in cultural structures, but mainly in self-centered Western interventionism, which deprives people of the right to construct their own civilizations and turns the process of mutual learning into a kind of obedience, which is harmful for all.
After World War II, with the establishment of the United Nations, the construction of human civilization entered a new stage of economic cooperation based on sovereign equality, cultural diversity and social development. However, the Cold War led to estrangement and rivalry among some countries in Asia.
With economic globalization after the Cold War, the cooperation momentum in the Asian region was enhanced. But mutual recognition is still obstructed by several factors. The clash of civilizations and values as well as geopolitical conflicts in the international community have posed many problems for cooperation among Asian countries.
The common issue facing Asian countries is how to develop their own countries. The process of modernization is not merely about economic development, nor is it a simple process of upgrading the superstructure, which may involve a cultural transformation as well. Since modernization features Western civilization at its core, it still contains the barbaric factors Fukuzawa once pointed out.
Asian countries need to absorb the essence of human progress, discard the dross, carry forward the fine traditions of their own civilizations, and walk their own path of mutual learning and re-creating. Promoting dialogue among Asian countries is a joint effort to re-create civilization and build a bright future for all.
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a senior expert on international studies
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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