An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2005

Cultural China: the periphery as the center (1991)

Weiming Tu

Tu Wei-ming, director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy and of Confucian Studies, wrote this essay for the Spring 1991 issue of Dædalus. At the time of its publication, he was director of the Institute of Culture and Communication at the East-West Center in Honolulu and professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard University. He has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1988.

The inscription of the Tang’s basin reads, “If one day you truly renew yourself, day after day you will renew yourself; indeed, renew yourself every day.” In the “Announcement to the Prince of Kang” it is said, “You shall give rise to a renewed people.” In the Book of Poetry it is said, “Though Zhou is an old state, the Mandate it holds is new.” For this purpose, the profound person exerts himself to the utmost in everything.

–The Great Learning1

China, one of the longest continuous civilizations in human history, “may be visualized as a majestic flowing stream.”2  Chinese culture, the generic term symbolizing the vicissitudes of the material and spiritual accomplishments of the Chinese people, has undergone major interpretive phases in recent decades and is now entering a new era of critical self-reflection. The meaning of being Chinese is intertwined with China as a geopolitical concept and Chinese culture as a living reality.

For China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture, the image of the twentieth century as an atrocious collective experience of destructiveness and violence emerges with fulgent salience as we approach the fin de siècle rumination. Stability has often meant a delicate balance for a few years; even a decade of peaceful coexistence evokes memories of permanence. The fluctuating Chinese political landscape, precipitated by external events unprecedented in Chinese history since the mid-nineteenth century, has become so restless in the last decades that not only the players but the rules of the game have constantly changed. For instance, in the eight decades since the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, a succession of different versions of the state constitution were drafted and promulgated in both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Not revisions or amendments, each new version superseded the previous one.3  Indeed, virtually no institution of significance (university, church, press, professional society, or civic organization) has lasted for more than a generation. The two major parties (the Nationalist and the Communist) seem to have endured in form, but they both have been so substantially and radically restructured that a sense of cynicism and uncertainty prevails among their members. The most devastating rupture, however, occurred within the intellectual community.

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  • 1Daniel K. Gardner, Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsueh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 96–97 with minor modifications.
  • 2Herbert Passin, “The Occupation–Some Reflections,” Dædalus 119 (3) (Summer 1990): 125.
  • 3In the history of the People’s Republic of China, four radically different constitutions were implemented between 1954 and 1982. For an indictment against the Chinese Communist Party’s abuse of constitutional authority, see Yan Jiaqi, “China Is Not Actually a Republic” and “May 17th Manifesto,” in Yan Jiaqi, Toward a Democratic China: My Intellectual Autobiography (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming).
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