Tu Weiming

The Dialogue of Civilizations

Tu Weiming was professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard University until 2010. At that time he became Lifetime Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. A leading expert on Confucianism and neo-Confucianism, he is a proponent of “the theory of Cultural China,” an attempt to understand what it means to be Chinese within a global context. Professor Tu participated in the Center’s first luncheon seminar on intercultural understanding, held January 1994. Later that year, in July, he sat down with Center staff to discuss his work and various topics in global ethics. 

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Why is the “dialogue of civilizations” important, and what is your own interest in this subject?

We are now confronted with two seemingly contradictory forces, both of which define the human condition for the twentieth century. The first is globalization. Westernization evolved into modernization, and all civilizations, large and small, old and new, have been affected by this process. The assumption was made that cultural and even religious differences would lose their significance because the globalizing process would homogenize everything. This assumption is now being challenged by the other major trend of thought of the twentieth century: The search for roots. This trend, in contrast to the first, could be called “localization,” or a quest for a sense of primordial ties and rootedness.

Because of these two seemingly conflicting tendencies, I am interested in how diversity could be celebrated without its leading to the negative consequence of “pernicious relativism,” and without losing sight of the so-called “hegemonic discourses” that overwhelm various kinds of voices.

Being very much rooted in my own tradition, I look at it from the Confucian point of view, but I’m well aware that this is only one of many possible ways to do so. One of the ways I’ve been involved in looking at it myself is to examine the interaction between “axial age civilizations” (major religious traditions) and “primal” or “indigenous” traditions. One conclusion drawn form several conferences held on the subject over the last four years is that axial age civilizations can learn much from primal traditions-for example, an intimate relationship with the environment, a dense human relatedness, a sense of the spirituality of matter, and so on.

Tu Weiming

Please tell us about some of the issues you are exploring in your most recent scholarly work.

Related to dialogue among civilizations is my sense that the time is ripe for us to reexamine the Enlightenment mentality, which as a defining characteristic of the modern West is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, some of the most cherished values defining the global community are linked to those of the enlightenment: rationality, human rights, liberty, equality, due process of the law, the dignity of the individual. Ways of doing things defined as modern involve rational discourse, openness, pluralism, respect for the individual, freedom of speech and of ideas, and so on. On the other hand, the Enlightenment mentality has been a drive not only to explore but also to subdue and conquer. Two great values of the French Revolution, for example, liberty and equality, are often in serious conflict, especially since the pie has stopped getting bigger and bigger. The third value of the French Revolution, fraternity, dropped out of the picture altogether for a long time because of people’s fear of a Jacobean kind of collectivism.

Then there’ the issue of how to establish community, and given that all societies are hierarchically structured, what is to be done to make the hierarchy fair and open? On the whole, in other words, the mentality of the West, and especially in the US, is still very inward-looking, based on self-interest and forms of domination. This in turn leads to the stance of “the West and the rest”how is the West to defend itself against the rest of the world? The first idea is to unite all of the Christian societies, ignore Africa and India because they’re not very strong, and worry about two areas: China (and by implication the Confucian world) and the Islamic world. To me this is an unhealthy and uniformed view (Buddhism, for example, is not even brought into the picture). But this view is helpful in that is does indicate that there can be no peace without religious tolerance, and that the United States cannot just dictate its own terms to the Islamic or Confucian worlds.

Given that interreligious dialogue is most difficult, how do you think it could be successfully implemented?

One thing to do is to broaden the scope of the dialogue. We need something more ecumenical than: How can the Catholics and the Protestants talk to each other? But a complicating factor in the broadened dialogue, between Christians and Muslims, as one example, is the existence of asymmetrical relationships in the world-some ethical religious traditions are still too powerful and dominating. So the role of religion has been highly ambiguous, which makes for a complex situation.

One quality that is essential for any kind of religious dialogue is trust. If a partner becomes at all suspicious, the dialogue breaks down. Therefore, the agenda must be agreed upon, the terms must be defined, all open-mindedly. In other words, I think it’s kind of a continuous conversation-it cannot be done just once, but must be built over time.

Religion itself is also something that cannot be avoided when conducting dialogue. Because religion is one’s ultimate concernit is what you are, what motivates your actions. What I believe strongly I must articulate, but I don’t want to impose it on you. It’s a lifelong process, to learn about religions, or basic value commitmentsit cannot be accomplished in a short time.

Does this relate to the question of a “global ethic”?

Absolutely. If we celebrate culture through diversity, how can we afford not to talk about core values? A lot of philosophers don’t want to talk about religion because they believe that “My core values are not your core values.” But after discussion, who knows? Your religion may not accept the ideal of the sanctity of the earth, for example, but does that mean we can pollute it? Theologically you may not accept it, but as a human being in the world today you may have to. These issues are not easy to address, but they need to be addressed.

An attempt was made to formulate a global ethic at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago last year [1993]. The effort to have the broadest participation in formulating a global ethic is praiseworthy, but, in a long and arduous process, this requires the active involvement of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in the initial stage before the agenda is set. These are serious matters that need to be discussed openly. We must take the transforming power of edifying conversation seriously. It seems that the decision, perhaps for the sake of efficiency at the expense of a sense of community, to come up with a prepared document composed by a small coterie of scholars in isolation, if not secrecy, was ill-advised. The fear of making any specific reference to one tradition rather than another limited the document’s ability to address human flourishing in a rich and varied way. There is perhaps a much more sophisticated means of employing the minimalist approach to a global ethic.

How can religion, and “friendship” as another word for religion, contribute to creating harmony among different peoples?

I think by linking it to the global ethic. That is, given the human condition, what are some of the values that are absolutely necessary for human survival, which is presumably a precondition for human flourishing? Then, a sense of trust, a sense of compassion, a sense of friendship, or interconnectedness.

For example, Vaclav Havel’s July 4th speech in Philadelphia was basically about interdependence. It was a lecture to the United States, because the US believes in interdependence, as long as we’re on top. Clinton was surprised to find that Europeans do not consider him to be very significant. The United States is no longer that significant in Asia, either. American policy-makers and American and European intellectuals in general need to be sensitized to a different form of modernity from what has been know previouslyand this is very difficult for them to understand or accept.

But what is the difference? Now the leaders in Singapore, Malaysia, and China, for example, are very confrontational towards the West; this has been perceived by the media in the West as an effort somehow to hide their own authoritarianism, their own inability to deal with human rights issues internationally, and their willingness to commit brutal acts against their own citizens. Surely this is not a good example of the Eastern way versus the Western way. So we need to find different approaches

On the other hand, there’s the question of the imperialistic mentality. For example, I think the worst mistake we made towards Vietnam was to say, “We’ll give you money, even send people to help you, but we don’t want to know anything about your culture, your history. We don’t need to understand you. We don’t even like you.” Thus anyone we helped or who accepted our aid lost their limited credibility amongst their own people, because they’d sold themselves for money, power, influence. But how can you truly help others if you’re not willing to understand them? I don’t think it works.

Do you agree that we need to find new terminology to express our religious spirit, and that Havel is a good example of someone who does so without using religious terminology?

I would say that it’s not just a new way of talking about it-what is “ethically and religiously significant”-but really the emergence of a new kind of leadership. This is actually part of my work on the Confucian tradition.

What kind of people will eventually be significant in carrying a message into the twenty-first century? People are trying to define them in many ways. Certainly we call them “intellectuals.” They are not professionalsnot just lawyers, doctors, scientists, university professors. They are not simply members of the media, because an increasing number of people in the service sector are what has been called “symbol analyzers.” But we’re looking for a group of people who are professionals by their own standards-they have to have a profession of some sort-and these people must be inspired by ethical/religious questions. Otherwise they are not even interested in dialogue, they are not going to publish their ideas, they are not going to communicate with us.

So these people are ethically/religiously inspired, but come from many different religious traditions, and an overwhelming majority of them, increasingly, will not be tied to any organized religion. They will not define themselves in terms of organized religion, but will consider themselves religious because they are grasped by something profound. They are socially engaged, though not necessarily activists per se. This group is what the Confucians traditionally called, for lack of a better term, “scholars,” or the “literati.” This group will play a major role, and respond to the things that Havel talks about, in the “new language.”

Have you found this group of people?

You’re trying to reach them here at your Center too, right? I think they’re emerging all over the world, and are internationally connected. But there’s no term for them. For that reason I agree that “a new language is needed.” That language must be socially engaged, politically relevant, and religiously significant. It may not be tied to any organized religious tradition, but it ought to be rooted somewhere. People of different religious traditions who speak a language with these characteristics will be able to communicate with each other, whereas religious bigots cannot. But I’m not just talking about the liberal-minded tradition, because that can also be extremely parochial and unwilling to learn from others. But people who are truly ethically and religiously concerned will be open to spiritual traditions outside of their own. Of course a real challenge is to reach the tough-minded people who are religiously insensitive or “unmusical,” who think of security only in terms of military hardware, for example, and have them feel, “There’s something here we have to open our minds to.” One way to do this is to deliver the spiritual message not in a vacuum but in the context of the harsh realities. Show the tough-minded leaders that you are aware of their problems as well. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

There’s a Chinese proverb about being willing to wait a hundred years to purify a river.

To purify, a hundred years sometimes is too optimistic-three generations is too short.

How did the Chinese people develop such patience?    

Well, they’ve had nothing else except patience. I’m serious. Many of the peasants in their communities have had nothing to rely on but their own endurance. In Chinese, the character for “endure” (ren) is very powerful. You have a knife on top, and the point of the knife on the heart below. So it’s not a passive surrender. There’s a positive waiting, but that waiting requires a great deal of mobilization of energy, and you’re willing to sacrifice a great deal for the future, not for any kind of short-term gain. From the Buddhist point of view, it’s the accumulation of good karma, which will eventually prevail. From the Confucian point of view, it’s the accumulation of what is translated as “commiseration,” or “humanity (ren). Ren, or humanity, means not being able to endure the suffering of others. Because I cannot bear the suffering of others, I’m willing to create a “field” of humanity that may extend outward. There’s almost a hydraulic sense to this humanityit must be accumulated to a level high enough to allow it to flow far and water the land. Inability to endure the suffering of others, then, becomes a necessity for humanity to spread.

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