Tu Wai-ming: Walking among summits of classics

An Interview with Prof. Tu Wei-ming of Harvard University: “Chinese culture has three excellent qualities. First, ours is a learning culture. Second, Chinese culture is tolerant. Third, Chinese culture is a culture of dialogue. These are highly important qualities that have been shaped by a few thousand years of Chinese history”.

Tu Wei-ming

Profile of Tu Wei-ming

Tu Wei-ming is Director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University and Research Professor at Harvard University. He is also a member of the International Institute of Philosophy and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was appointed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as a member of the United Nations’ “Group of Eminent Persons” to facilitate the “Dialogue among Civilizations”. Professor Tu Wei-ming has long devoted himself to expounding Confucian classics, examining the Confucian traditions through the lenses of pluralistic development of the world’s cultures. He has worked diligently to contribute to the revival of Chinese culture through creative transformations of traditions.

From 1967-1981, Professor Tu Wei-ming taught the History of Chinese Thought, Chinese Philosophy and Confucian Humanism at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1981, he returned to Harvard to teach, later became Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization. From 1996-2008, he was Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

Tu Wei-ming

Confucius Institute Reporter
Cao Ding and Tu Yuanyuan
Reporter: You have been involved in Confucianism for more than half a century. What brought you and Confucianism together?

Tu Wei-ming: Young people of today have more interests and hobbies and are quicker at changing jobs and occupations than when I was young. In those days, we commonly did not have many choices. I became deeply interested in Confucianism when I was still in middle school. Later it became and has always been the field of my scholarship and my career. When I attended extracurricular lectures in middle school, I had opportunities to meet a few outstanding Confucian scholars, including Mou Zongsan and Xu Fuguan, then professors at Tunghai University in Taiwan. I remember that I was an attentive listener to these lectures. To a large extent, this led to my decision to apply to Tunghai University, a school with only some 600 students, instead of applying to Taiwan University like my classmates did, although it had traditionally been considered the most prestigious university in Taiwan. But, when I was in college, these Confucian scholars were still in their 40s. I did not know at the time that they would become such renowned masters of Confucianism.

Reporter: Confucianism is a system of culture in which we “seek to exhaust the mystery of the small things while broadening the scope of our knowledge”. What is the major area of your Confucianism research?

Tu Wei-ming: To put it simply, my research emphasis is on the prospects for the development of Confucian studies in its third epoch. I particularly focus on the study of the mind, which is called idealism here in Mainland China. If we look at the study of the mind in the context of Confucian discourse, there is no doubt that Confucius was the first ever to develop it. Then came Zisi (grandson of Confucius) and Mencius. The study of the mind is about the body, heart, spirit and the way of Heaven. However, I don’t see Confucianism as a form of abstract idealism. Confucianism has three aspects. The first is its core values, which I think have to do with philosophy of the mind. The second is the study of Confucian classics. The third is political Confucianism. Within Confucianism there is the learning of “managing the world” and taking care of the welfare of the people. My current focus is on the core values of Confucianism.

Reporter: You mentioned the core values of Confucianism. Could you point out which core values of Confucianism are relevant to today’s social development, and should therefore be used by us later generations as a reference?

Tu Wei-ming: This question assumes the importance of the end when evaluating the means. This is called instrumental rationality, which distinguishes between things that are useful to us and things that are not. An alternative thinking says that life is not only about utility, but also about its very meaning. This question of meaning may be insignificant for utilitarian purposes, but it’s very important to us. If we don’t pursue the meaning of life, we will be living like animals.

Back to your question: what are the core values of Confucianism? They are values such as rén (humanity), (rightness), lǐ (civility), zhì (wisdom), xìn (truthfulness), zhōng (loyalty), and xiào (piety). In the 21st century, we have run into many problems. One of the biggest of these is about the spiritual world. Social beliefs are being lost, the spiritual world cannot be brought into full play; there is too much materialism – these are problems we face today. Confucianism not only solve practical problems, it is also devoted to the quest for meaning. To ordinary people, the latter seems not “useful”. However, Confucianism creates meaning, which is the basis for the development of individuals and of a nation. Any society, regardless of its level of economic development, has its own belief system. Such a belief system is an important source of spiritual strength that sustains the development of a society.

Every classic has in its own time reached a summit of wisdom. So, different times are represented by these different summits. Between these summits, dialogues can happen, just as you can distinguish one mountain summit from another.

Let’s take an example. U.S. President Jefferson said: “All men are created equal.” This idea has had a tremendous influence on political and cultural development in the United States. Jefferson owned slaves, so he himself did not live up to this idea, but the theory that “all men are created equal” has never stopped shaping political and social development in the United States – from the 18th century all the way through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, of which Dr. Martin Luther King was the leading figure. Back in Jefferson’s days, this idea may not have appeared to be useful, but it would have far reaching impacts on future generations.

Tu Wei-ming
A statue of Confucius stands at the northern gate of the National Museum of China in Beijing

Reporter: Confucian classics are from a remote age. How should we understand and inherit the thoughts and values of people who lived more than 2,000 years ago?

Tu Wei-ming: What makes a classic a classic is the permanence of its relevance. You can hardly find a modern scholar of Western philosophy who has not studied Plato and Aristotle. Strictly speaking, both men lived in a slave society. So, why do we study them? We study them because they are the wellspring of Western philosophy, a source of wisdom. Theirs is not ordinary knowledge. Ordinary knowledge can go out of date, but wisdom is basically the summit of enlightenment. We can raise perceptual knowledge to empirical knowledge, and then to rational knowledge. If we reach higher, we obtain true enlightenment. Values represented through true enlightenment are usually able to evolve with the times and retain their vigor.

No living culture can develop without mutual reference and integration that result from cross-cultural exchanges. For example, the evolution of Confucianism from Confucius to Mencius and Xunzi was never without exchanges with Taoism and Moism. Later, it was with Buddhism, and now it is with Western culture.

Every classic has in its own time reached a summit of wisdom. So, different times are represented by these different summits. Between these summits, dialogues can happen, just as you can distinguish one mountain summit from another. So, classics will never go out of date. Of course, the classics often say and represent things in ways that are very different from now. Take for example the word lǐ, as in lǐmào [politeness]. The word itself will not become out of date. It is the same as what we call civil virtues and good manners today. Our behavior, including the way we shake hands, all have to do with lǐ. However, the ways lǐ is shown today are completely different from before. Now if you bow to somebody, you are practically going out of the way in showing courtesy. Kneeling has disappeared in China, though it is still practiced in ROK. The representations have all changed, but the essential value of lǐ remains the same. Take another example. The word rén, as in rén’ ài [benevolence] – those with the moral sense [the benevolent] love for others – represents a value that we now call sympathy and compassion. It is of course still profoundly meaningful today.

Tu Wei-ming
In ancient China, teachers told students about the most fundamental and the simplest aspects of life on their first day
at school. Then the students paid tribute to the statue of Confucius before beginning to study. This ceremony is known as the “Begin-Learning Ceremony.” In Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, 280 first-graders from Fuzi Miao (Confucius Temple) Primary School attend the ceremony at the Confucius Temple.

Reporter: You advocate dialogues between civilizations, just like the kind of inter-summit dialogues that you just mentioned. In what ways do you think such dialogues are important for the development of each of these different civilizations?

Tu Wei-ming: Any civilization, if it wants to develop, has to have communication, exchanges and dialogues with other, dissimilar civilizations. The beginning stage of a civilization’s development often had little to do with intellectual elite; rather, merchants, soldiers, and explorers were the first ones to rely upon for bringing one culture into contact with another. It is only after this, and gradually, that civilizations have grown into their own distinctive forms. For example, the Confucius Institute, like the Goethe Institute, set out to promote teaching of the Chinese language abroad, but later on it realized that the Chinese language is not just about language but also about culture. No living culture can develop without mutual reference and integration that result from cross-cultural exchanges. For example, the evolution of Confucianism from Confucius to Mencius and Xunzi was never without exchanges with Taoism and Moism. Later, it was with Buddhism, and now it is with Western culture. So, I say that Confucianism has gone through two phases of development and is now in the third phase. The first phase of its development was from the Qufu culture to the Chinese culture, the second phase was from China to East Asia, and the third phase, the one we are in now, is from East Asia to the world. So, a culture has to be in contact with other cultures in order to develop, and dialogue is the best way to communicate. The most meaningful dialogues are the ones over core values, because only at this level can cultures truly learn from each other.

Reporter: So, do you think that the dialogues between Chinese civilization and the outside world have already started? If so, how are they coming along?

Tu Wei-ming: There has been dialogue for a long time, for sure, but little that can truly be called real dialogue. With the rapid development of the Chinese economy, some people are at once showing admiration and expressing doubts, or even becoming jealous. Many thoughts have turned up, including the “China threat” theory. On the other hand, Chinese culture itself has suffered much damage. Over the past few decades, we have advanced in gigantic strides economically, but have been lacking confidence culturally. So, if we want to have dialogue with other civilizations, we need to have capital. What the Confucius Institute is doing is to accumulate cultural capital. A people that do not confront its own history and culture cannot hope to sustain development for long. This is the predicament that we are in now. However, since we have very rich cultural resources, our vigor is still abundant despite the sickness of our society. We can try to change the current situation.

Once, when I went to an ancient town in Guizhou Province, I saw something very interesting. On my right was a Buddhist temple, on my left was a Daoist temple, and not far ahead of me was a Catholic church. They coexisted peacefully and used one another as reference.

I think that Chinese culture has three excellent qualities. First, ours is a learning culture. As you know, the first sentence of Analects says: “Is it not a pleasure to learn and practice from time to time what is learned?” The word xué (to learn) actually has the same meaning as the word jué as in juéwù (to arrive at true enlightenment). The book Shuowen Jiezi (Explaining Simple Characters and Analyzing Compound Characters) says: “Learning means enlightenment”. Confucianism puts a lot of emphasis on self-cultivation. Many parents now worry about their children, about the society, about its general lack of trust. Such worries are themselves a source for constructive and developmental strength. This, I think, is a very positive thing. Second, Chinese culture is tolerant. We used to talk about three teachings: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Now we should talk about at least five teachings, since Christianity and Islam are also part of Chinese culture. I have, through personal experience, been deeply impressed by the Chinese tolerance of religions. Once, when I went to an ancient town in Guizhou Province, I saw something very interesting. On my right was a Buddhist temple, on my left was a Daoist temple, and not far ahead of me was a Catholic church. They coexisted peacefully and used one another as reference. Third, Chinese culture is a culture of dialogue. Chinese people are fond of chatting. As you know, people of Sichuan like to sit in a teahouse and talk together. The Chinese chat is without any apparent purpose; it is no more than light-hearted exchanges between people. It is idle pooling and channeling of feelings, information, and thoughts. However, it has created a lot of cultural resources. This is very similar to what has been known as the coffee shop culture in France. The salon culture in France was closely associated with that country’s Enlightenment movement. If the Chinese tea culture continues to develop, people will be in a much calmer state of mind than they are in now. So, a culture that learns, that is open to dialogues, and that tolerates other cultures – these are highly important qualities that have been shaped by a few thousand years of Chinese history. Now we are still in the process of shaping this culture. I hope that the Confucius Institute not only relies on government support but also on nongovernmental forces in order to forge a new image for Chinese culture. I am not fond of words such as “brand” and “soft power”. I think we should say “cultural attraction”. Real exchange happens when the things that we value are shared – and shared with heart-felt admiration. This is the kind of “core-value dialogue” that I have always emphasized.

Tu Wei-ming
Confucius Temples were built across China to commemorate the great Chinese philosopher and educator. This is the temple in Confucius’ hometown – Qufu, Shandong Province.

Reporter: We have set up more than 300 Confucius Institutes in over 90 countries and regions. Some people have called this, quite interestingly, “Confucius going on a second journey around different states”. Did you have any advice about the future development of the Confucius Institute? What is your view of the prospect for Chinese culture going around the world?

Tu Wei-ming: The Confucius Institute is now 5 years old. At the outset, it was conceived to be similar to the Goethe Institute. Language teaching itself contains many cultural elements. Also, most of those who can truly propagate a culture over the world are language teachers. Chinese teachers are our ambassadors of culture. Chinese restaurants, too, through gourmet foods, bring elements of Chinese culture to the rest of the world. Because language itself contains culture, the Confucius Institute later began to help learners of Chinese gradually acquire some understanding of Chinese history, Chinese philosophy, Chinese literature, and other aspects of Chinese culture. Later, it was found out that Chinese teaching should vigorously pursue upward and downward extension at the same time. Before, it was only for undergraduate students. Now, downward extension includes middle school students, through Confucius Classrooms. There may be further extension in the future, but this is already a good basis. Language teaching, cultural education, elite studies – these should all work in close coordination in order to strategically mobilize forces in various areas.

When I talk about “Cultural China”, I think that although we have a very rich folk culture, the cultural basis of our intellectual elite is relatively weak. So, I think that if the Confucius Institute can develop in the long run, it will be able to make great contributions in this area. It will make strenuous effort to enable young scholars from different countries to become actively involved in shaping the culture of the Confucius Institute. Leaning Chinese is not just about learning the language itself; it is also about being able to blend into a cultural world. Perhaps because Chinese people are tolerant, enjoy learning, and are willing to engage in dialogue, most people consider it a real great pleasure to have the company of Chinese people.

The Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland is the first in the United States. Its director, Liu Quansheng, is a very good friend of mine. He is also an outstanding physicist. He used to work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced studies. With his status, his participation has helped this Confucius Institute obtain a very high status at the University of Maryland. People like him, Chinese American, because of their cultural identity, are willing to devote themselves to the well-being of Chinese culture. How could you have imagined a physicist becoming an outstanding Confucius Institute director? What the Confucius Institute represents is a cultural cause, a public cause for all educated people in Cultural China. As a public cause, the Confucius Institute takes more than the independent support of scholars in the humanities; it requires participation of outstanding experts from the entire overseas Chinese community. In addition, apart from sending language teachers, the Confucius Institute should also look for creative intellectuals in other fields with a sense of mission about Chinese culture.

Reporter: One last question: what is your favorite sentence from the Confucian classics?

Tu Wei-ming: I like this from the book of Zhong Yong (Central Harmony or Golden Mean or The Doctrine of the Mean): “Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can then fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can then assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.” [Translated by Wing-Tist Chan]

And many others, too, but if I had to choose one sentence, it would be the one that sums up the core value of Confucianism: “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else.”


Confucius Institute Magazine 13

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 13. Volume 2. March 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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