Culture Article

Intelligent Reading of Culture Matters when the World is at a Crossroads
Liu Chen
/ Categories: Culture, Literature, Philosophy

Intelligent Reading of Culture Matters when the World is at a Crossroads

Feature photo: Liu Chen is the professor of Public Administration and Cultural Studies. (Source: Liu Chen)

Coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has become a home to global concern. The global health crisis verifies over again, although in a different context, the matter of fact that as borders become porous to everything from infectious diseases to terrorism to cyber criminals, to climate change, the uncertainty, more urgent and more complicated, confronting the whole world has reached new serious and difficult milestone. Then, we have to ask what we can do to step up to the challenges at the critical time?

In answer to this question, Ruth Benedict, one of the most compelling intellectual figures in the twentieth-century American life was an inspiration. She wrote in her famous The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, “One of the handicaps of the twentieth century is that we still have the vaguest and most biased notions, not only of what makes Japan a nation of Japanese, but of what makes the U.S. a nation of Americans, France a nation of Frenchmen, and Russia a nation of Russians. Lacking this knowledge, each country misunderstands the other”.

Looking closely back at history, Ruth Benedict identified the role of understanding of culture in international conflicts and cooperation. Then, what can we do to avoid as much as possible bias, misunderstanding, and stereotype rooted in culture and presented through culture?

It is willingness and commitment to intelligent reading of culture that holds the key. What distinguishes intelligent reading of culture from reading of culture? “Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet”, a documentary aired on BBC in the April of 2020 is a useful example.

 BBC’s “Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet” inspired the Chinese scholars to rethink why intelligent reading of culture is significant to understanding the otherness.

Question to the Chinese scholars started in the reflection upon why it is Du Fu (712-770 AD) who was compared by the West to Shakespeare? For them, Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), China’s greatest dramatist in Ming Dynasty should have got involved. China’s comparative analyses normally emphasize three major points: First, they both played a leading role in their own country’s Renaissance, a revolution either in terms of social development or in light of theater reform. In Tang Xianzu’s time, the court of Ming Dynasty had conducted a series of new policies in favour of liberalism, and managed to put them together to great acclaim. Thriving on the economic growth, and humanistic revival, the popular operas like Shakespeare’s works in the Globe Theatre in the 16th century appeared in China. Tang Xianzu took a lead in the movement; Second, both of them reached the pinnacle of drama, and contributed enduring global legacy. With regard to their masterpieces, Shakespeare is well-known for his four greatest tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. Coincidently, Tang’s Four Dreams, Zi Chaiji (The Purple Hairpin), Nan Keji (A Dream under a Southern Bough), Handan Meng (Dream of Handan), and his most famous Mu Danting (The Peony Pavilion) are widely considered one of the highest points of traditional Chinese opera; And third, the two are master of rhetoric. Shakespeare’s work is like a long, big river of words perfectly in tune with his style. Tang’s Mu Danting would feature a large cast and many scenes playing over several days in his time. Thus, there is no going around it: Tang Xianzu is China’s Shakespeare not to mention that the two great dramatists departed in the same year of 1616.

Yet, BBC’s “Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet” inspired the Chinese scholars to rethink Du Fu’s life, works and times, and explore his profound influence on the Chinese culture from a more complete perspective. In doing so, Ben Johnson’s famous statement on the greatness of Shakespeare that “He was not of an age, but for all time” is inspiring. What the greatness will be eternal that “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)? Only the true, the good, and the beautiful in sheer purity and merciful serenity. As Dante wrote in his The Divine Comedy that “Consider your origin. You were not formed to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge”.

The spirit of the true, the good, and the beautiful in Du Fu’s works rests upon his lifelong love of his Tang Dynasty, and his common people, which differs dramatically from that of Tang Xianzu whose works are focused primarily on love between young men and women. Like most of his contemporaries, Confucianism was essential to Du Fu’s values. Many priorities—focusing on your role assigned when Tang Dynasty is in prosperity, while asking what you can do when Tang Dynasty is in adversity, —were important to his poetry. “Spring Scene”, for instance, described Du Fu’s pain in face of the collapse of his beloved Tang Dynasty. Without pure and vehement love, it was not possible for any writer to write such stanzas which gave people hope when fears were rising, “In fallen states, hills and streams are still there. The city is in Spring, grass and leaves abound”.

Just as importantly, Du Fu refused to accept that man in hardships or sufferings merely had to endure. Instead, his poems worked as the pillars to uplift people from fear and despair. Actually, Du Fu lived in the shadow of poverty, setbacks and turmoil throughout his life. However, the agony and sweat did nothing but to remind him of the power of courage, compassion, and hope. When his small thatched cottage was destroyed by storm, he wrote his most recognized stanzas, “Could I get mansions covering ten thousand miles, I'd house all people poor and make them beam with smiles. Alas! Should these houses appear before my eye, Frozen in my unroofed cot, content I’d die”.

Unlike Du Fu, Shakespeare’s time was a time of glory of the Great Britain. Thus, Shakespeare’s works were full of enthusiasm in spite of the same pity, sacrifice and love as that of Du Fu. In his globally well-known Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “What a piece of work is man. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god”.

In reading so, we might understand that a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the spirit of the true, the good, and the beautiful; a life’s confidence in writing to help people endure and prevail—that somehow identifies why Du Fu is compared to Shakespeare, and why Professor Stephen Owen of Harvard included Du Fu in the very select company of Shakespeare, and Dante as “poets who create values by which poetry is judged”.

The reading of culture, by culture, and for culture and more, it’s intelligent reading of culture. Through intelligent reading of culture, BBC’s “Du Fu” became an inspiration to the Chinese scholars in pursuit of fruitful intercultural communication with the world. In answer to the question that why we compare Tang Xianzu to China’s Shakespeare, while it is Du Fu who is seen more comparable in Shakespeare’s home, it helps we Chinese to think from a more complete perspective. In this sense, we need more works like “Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet” to bridge the large divides the world faces.

Our world is battling the “biggest crisis” since World War Two in line with Reuters’ report. In fears, the belief in the true, the good, and the beautiful holds the key. As a piece of evidence, Joseph Nye, Harvard professor, a world’s leading scholar of international relations, in his most recent book, Do Morals Matter?: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (2019) scores the role of ethics through a penetrating historical analysis of the US foreign policy. Correctly, intelligent reading of culture is not the only thing that matter in developing mutual understanding effectively, but no communication can survive without it.

“Globalization is changing the way the world looks, and the way we look at the world. By adopting a global outlook, we become more aware of our connections to people in other societies. We also become more conscious of that many problems the world faces at the start of the twenty-first century” stated by Anthony Giddens, an eminent British sociologist in his Sociology (3rd Edition). To build upon a house of difference in the age of interdependence, the world needs exercising intelligent reading of culture.

Liu Chen is the professor of Public Administration and Cultural Studies. Harvard Kennedy School Mason Fellow, Postdoctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard. Her research focuses on policy, practice, leadership, and culture and international cooperation.                               

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