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East Meets West - China Studies|Hanwei Shi: What can Europe learn from China's experience?

The World Congress of Chinese Studies-Shanghai Forum was held recently at the Shanghai International Convention Centre, where more than 400 Chinese and foreign experts and scholars talked about Chinese civilisation and China's road under the global perspective.

How can the Chinese road and Chinese experience be imaged in a global perspective? What can Europe learn from the Chinese experience? How can Chinese and Western civilisations enhance their understanding of each other and develop together? In this regard, East Meets West interviewed the guest speaker of the World Congress of Chinese Studies - Shanghai Forum, German sinologist, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Literature and Culture at the University of Göttingen, Hanwei Shi.

German sinologist Hanwei Shi, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Literature and Culture at the University of Göttingen. Photo by: Shu Wang

Hanwei Shi is a German sinologist, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Literature and Culture at the University of Göttingen, and Director and Senior Professor of the Tübingen China Centre.

Hanwei Shi speaks at the Shanghai Forum of the World Congress of Chinese Studies. Photo by: Henwei Zhang.

You mentioned at this World Congress of Chinese Studies - Shanghai Forum that the Confucian tradition is the cornerstone of classical Chinese civilisation. In your opinion, how does Confucianism influence China's modern development?

The Confucian tradition is characterised by respect for tradition and openness to new ideas. Confucianism plays an important role in China's modernisation process, but it is not the only doctrine in China; there are various other doctrines and solutions in parallel. There is a consensus among those who study China's cultural traditions, literature, religion, philosophy and management experience that the multitude of ideas and philosophies of the past are a rich repository of ideas that will shape a prosperous future. Chinese civilisation, with its long history of eclecticism and integration of many cultures, has developed strategies for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Chinese culture has a long tradition of properly discussing etiquette, rules and general norms. This tradition strengthens the ability of the Chinese to cope with an ever-changing environment, to hold on to different options and to wait for the right time to make a decision. In addition, a key feature of the basic Chinese outlook on life and the world is the ability to look at all things in the world with an out-of-the-world perspective and without losing the humour and wit.

On 28 September 2020, a Confucius Ceremony was held in front of the Dacheng Hall of the Temple of Literature in Jinan Prefecture to commemorate the 2,571st anniversary of the birth of Confucius, a thinker, educator, and founder of the Confucian school of thought. Photo by: Yong Zhang.

As one of the top three sinologists in Europe, can you talk about when European interest in China began and what historical stages it has gone through?

From the 16th century onwards, Europe took a keen interest in China, with the Portuguese and Western missionaries arriving in Macau. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Europeans learnt a lot from China; they translated and compiled dictionaries, tried to publish Chinese works in Europe, imported porcelain and tried to make it themselves, and built Chinese gardens and Chinese-style rooms in their castles. Things changed in the 19th century, when China was plunged into a catastrophe of disintegration, with outbreaks such as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement, which made China an object of colonial plunder and led to the demise of the Qing Dynasty. At the beginning of the 20th century, China was labelled as "the sick man of East Asia", and the young people of this period tried to change this status quo, Liang Qichao and Mao Zedong ...... all wanted to save China at that time. Our interest in China (this generation of sinologists) comes from this period of dramatic change in modern China. Just forty or fifty years ago, no one could have imagined that China would have achieved so much as it has today. 

In May 2021, a Beijing Public Transport Group "red bus" drove past the Memorial Hall of the New Culture Movement. Photo by: Qiming Jiang.

What are the current mainstream directions of European research on China? What can Europe learn from the Chinese experience?

China has changed so radically in the last 40 or 50 years that no one would have believed it could have developed so much before. It is because of these developments that Europe's interest in China has shifted from the ancient and modern aspects of Chinese civilisation to a focus on contemporary China. The study of China in Europe has changed from Sinology to political science, from the study of China's complexity to the study of where China is going and how it will change the world. 

In my opinion, this is not open enough, because if you look at China from a broader perspective, you will see some of the problems that exist at the moment, and you will also see opportunities.

In the face of Western civilisation, China has always sought its own path to modernisation. Over the past 40 years or so, China has been deeply involved in global cultural exchange and dialogue. Mutual understanding in terms of norms and values is a core prerequisite for China's participation in global governance.

Europeans are also embarking on a "long march", and we should learn from China, just as China has learned from Europe. In order to maintain the international order, Europe should further strengthen the representativeness of its institutions and make them more professional, so that they remain impartial and play an important role in international consultations and the peaceful settlement of conflicts. On the other hand, the multiplicity of countries and points of view in Europe makes it necessary to promote a consultative process and to gain the support of all peoples as much as possible.

In May 2023, Tianjin University hosted the 13th International Cultural Festival, where international students showcased their youth from different countries and promoted international cultural exchanges. Photo by: Yu Tong.

How do you think Chinese and Western civilisations should improve their understanding of each other and develop together in the current international environment?

It is important for young people to go abroad, to become interested in other cultures, to open their minds and their hearts, and to find their own suboptimal choices, and sometimes the suboptimal choices can be the more successful ones. I know that in China a lot of people go abroad to study and other countries should do better.

Unfortunately, in many countries and regions, such as the United States of America and Western Europe, there are not enough well-educated people, and their numbers are decreasing, and the lack of skilled labour in various fields has become a problem. This involves not only intelligence and historical awareness, but also general education. If the population is stupid, the probability and risk of making bad decisions goes up. That is why I believe that education is very important and that there is a search for a universal virtue.

Xinhua / HuaxiaKailun Sui

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