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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: April 12, 2010 NO. 15 APRIL 15, 2010
On Civility and Civilizations
The European vision of multipolarity and the Chinese vision of a harmonious world indicate a path toward a world of equilibrium



At a time when misunderstandings between cultures run rampant, when walls of fear, prejudice and hatred divide the members of the human family, it is urgent to intensify the dialogue between civilizations. Under the new leadership of its Director General Irina Bokova, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared 2010 as the "Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures." In this context, the concerted reflections and actions of Europe and China can be highly meaningful.

If, from 2003 to 2005, commentators were busy elaborating on a Sino-European convergence confronting the American neo-conservative moment of hubris and its unipolar fantasy, the first year of the Barack Obama presidency was marked by discussions about a Sino-American G2. However, rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over climate change, trade, the Internet, Taiwan and the Dalai Lama, are now weakening the excitement about the G2 mirage.

Overreaction to relatively isolated events can generate appealing catchwords, but analyses that tend to polarize global dynamics cannot dim the centrality of the European Union (EU), the United States and China in an increasingly pluralistic world. Within this triangle, China and Europe have developed two rich and balanced visions of the world congenial with their respective historical experience as civilizations.

The art of conversation

Over the long term, cultural dimensions, a permanent factor among ever-varying interests, is the keystone of the overall Sino-European relationship, one of the most significant resources for a constructive triangulation between the EU, the United States, China, and beyond—a world of equilibrium. The framework with which to best handle the 21st century's complexities is not one of the various forms of globalism, but the Sino-European understanding of universality.

In The School of Athens adorning the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, Raphael (1483-1520) represents his vision of ancient Hellenic intellectual life. The animated debates among thinkers and scientists and the intense dialogue between the painting's two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, produce a striking effect of movement and epitomize the spirit of the Renaissance.

A contemporary of Raphael, Ming Dynasty painter Shen Zhou (1427-1509), founder of the delicate Wu style, depicts in Literary Gathering at Wei's Garden, a majestic nature where, on the foreground, scholars have convened under the roof of a modest pavilion. On the left, a servant is on its way to bring a guqin, a seven-stringed zither, to one of the literati, while other scholars enjoy a conversation.

This exquisite scene by Shen Zhou is a variation of one of the main themes of China's artistic tradition, the yaji—commonly translated as an elegant gathering or literary gathering. Xie Huan, whose works were collected by Shen Zhou, painted Elegant Gathering in the Apricot's Garden and, later, Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) created another famous Literary Gathering. The Chinese practice and representation of the yaji can be compared with the "salon" phenomenon that, from the 17th to the early 20th century, has been at the center of Europe's social transformation.

Obviously, The School of Athens and Shen Zhou's yaji belong to two different aesthetic climates separated by technique, form and style. But a common source of inspiration, the art of conversation, suggests a meaningful comparison: that the two masterpieces are invitations to appreciate the internal polyphony which has been at work both in the construction of Europe and in the making of China. A monolithic and immobile Chinese world of total conformity can only be found in imaginary constructions—or in unperceptive and ill-informed prose.

Despite their different historical rhythms, and distinct sequences of development, China and Europe have gradually emerged in a context of a very high internal diversity, and have, because of the same centrifugal forces, often abruptly fallen into fragmentation.

The Greek, Roman, Christian and modern moments of the European history, moreover, do not correspond with the Chinese dynastic successions. Beyond their idiosyncratic evolutions, however, the same effort of synthesis has been inspiring the two civilizations.

China mirrors Europe's historical-philosophical reality, which, despite its innumerable narratives, is centered around the enduring nation-state as the point of reference. In 1932 English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), for one, noted that "European civilization is not an abstract intellectual concept ... it is a concrete social organism which is just as real and far more important than the national unities of which we talk so much."

However, the two civilizations went through—and still must manage—a complex pattern of tensions between diversity and unity.

Today, in Eurasia's Far West, interestingly enough, the EU is advocating multipolarity while China, at the other edge of the Eurasian Continent, is promoting the ideal of a harmonious world—a notion which will become an important legacy of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

When he visited France as vice president in 2001, for instance, he explicitly referred to the notion of multipolarity in an address at the French Institute for International Relations. "Multipolarity," he said, "constitutes an important base for world peace and the democratization of international relations is an essential guarantee for that peace."

As president, Hu used the UN's 60th anniversary summit to define the concept of a harmonious world as a combination of multilateralism, cooperation and a "spirit of inclusiveness where all civilizations coexist harmoniously and accommodate each other."

Universality vs. difference

European and Chinese historical experiences partly explain the paradigms of multipolarity and harmonious world. The two visions are, mutatis mutandis, the European and Chinese contexts enlarged to the world.

They are also the re-interpretations of two traditional philosophical ideals which are, for the beginning of the 21st century, of a great relevance.

Globalism is not congenial with the two Eurasian civilizations. It is multipolarity, or the notion of a harmonious world—not an arrogant monologue—that ensure a genuine conversation. Nonetheless, America's dominant and persistent representation of the world as an integrated global village remains highly consequential.

By wrongly assuming an integrated international system led by the United States, Washington can act based on unipolar fantasy or feel obliged to demonstrate leadership.

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