A Chinese Perspective on Dialogue Among Civilizations

A Chinese Perspective on Dialogue Among Civilizations

Throughout history, conflicts have been carried out in the name of competing civilizations, rulers, and religions, each apparently striving to remake the world in its own image. And now at the beginning of this new century, these kinds of conflicts are escalating; wars and rumors of war seem to be stirring throughout the world. People generally have little idea of what is going to happen, and governments and religions have little to offer them now, since they, too, are entangled in a web of unprecedented challenge and confusion.

Human history is often seen as a history of war and peace, but this is the surface manifestation of a deeper process: the expression of polarized energies that underlie visible events. From our ordinary point of view, we can only perceive the cyclic results of these underlying processes in terms of pain and joy, death and life, defeat and victory, collapse and rise. In our lives, and in the lives of our nations, we are like fish swimming through underground rivers, constrained by boundaries we cannot see as we move toward ends we cannot predict.

To understand civilization and the course of human history, we need to learn to see a more complete picture, one that includes these powerful, underlying forces. Only in this way will we be able to bring stability and balance to a world whose existence grows more fractured and precarious every day.

Human societies seem to have progressed from small groups into larger ones: extended families, villages, and clans developed into towns, city states, countries, and empires. Family members may fight with each other, but when the family is attacked from the outside, they tend to unify. The same is true on a larger scale. Internal conflicts usually transform into cooperation when faced with external forces. The principle that governs such unions is that the fighting parties unite along lines of a higher-order similarity, which can harmonize their differences — or allow the expression of harmony that potentially exists between them.

What can provide this higher-level order and allow this potential for harmony to manifest? A single world religion? A political One-World-Order? Some re-discovered humanism? For any of these to prevail, would some sort of force be necessary? In China, the period of warring states ended when the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) prevailed over all the others — who could not successfully cooperate in defense — not by making alliances, but by being the best at conquest. But the Qin Dynasty, ruthless and effective as it was, hardly outlasted the death of the first Qin Emperor. So we can see that unification by force alone provides little motive to maintain the unity when other options arise.

We need to look to a higher order to find a sustaining motivation. The human race lives under the same sun and moon as all other creatures on earth. All are subject to the same universal patterns of nature. These natural patterns are the basic, shared heritage of all creatures. Human societies are like colonies of insects living within a garden. If the garden is destroyed, none of the colonies has any place to live. In other words, the key to finding a common and harmonious life lies not in searching for something that can enforce unity or harmony from the outside, but in finding something that can bring into realization a unity and harmony that are already present within, beneath the surface of conflict.

The ideal of living in harmony with nature is an old one, but what does it mean and what can it contribute? Over several thousand years, through keen observation of the changes in nature and human society, sages in China developed a framework for describing the patterns common to all kinds of transformation. These are known as Yin-Yang Theory and Five-Element Theory. The former describes static configurations of polarities in nature; the latter describes the patterns of dynamic transformation and the interactions between modes of change. Over the long course of Chinese civilization, these two concepts have come to permeate every aspect of Chinese life and art, and to form the basis for its traditional natural, social, and political sciences. China, among the oldest living continuous civilizations in the world, still maintain strong presence. This fact owes much to the prevalence of this traditional approach, and to the understanding that human life is as much an expression of nature and natural patterns as any other kind of life.

Yin-Yang Theory states that every phenomenon is the manifestation of diametrically opposed forces called Yin and Yang. These terms can be applied to any polarized qualities: war and peace, discord and harmony, sorrow and joy, change and rest. At the highest or most abstract level, they can be seen in terms of Manifest and Unmanifest. In any polarized situation, the forces have the same dynamic relationship: they restrain each other, enhance each other, and transform into each other. This is expressed in the well-known Tai Ji diagram, which shows the relationship between Yin and Yang in a circular (rather than linear) form. The diagram applies at any level of existence or analysis: an atom, a strand of DNA, a cell, a person, a house, a country, a planet, a solar system, or a galaxy. This diagram also shows that the transformation is gradual and smooth, not sudden or abrupt. Rather than an instant reversal, there is always at first a subtle insertion of the complementary force or energy. There is always a process of seeking dynamic equilibrium. But when the disparity between the polarized energies goes to its extreme and the system becomes unbalanced, then the resulting adjustment tends to be forceful and can have a grave impact on all living things within the system.

In applying Yin-Yang Theory to human societies, we see that governments, regimes, and administrations are the Yang aspect. They are dynamic, outgoing, and continually changing. Societies also have a Yin aspect: this is the culture. For example, throughout history China has faced frequent invasion from the north, and has twice been ruled by northern conquerors — the Mongols and the Manchus. But the conquerors were eventually absorbed into Chinese culture. Regimes and dynasties come and go; China remains. This is the effect of the Yin aspect of Chinese culture, which has always been oriented toward and responsive to the influences of natural patterns. The identity of the Chinese people is based on Chinese culture — not on any regime or dynasty. Even massive efforts in the last century to suppress and eradicate traditional culture, and even specific features like the central place of Confucian thinking, have turned out to be quite unsuccessful at displacing the fundamental cultural traditions. This resilience demonstrates the power of the Yin aspect.

Similar patterns of persistence in the face of conquest can be seen in Europe: the reassertion of local cultures in the face of imperial conquests, and at the same time the integration of imperial patterns as a common cultural heritage that allowed for continuing communication and coordination. Like the Chinese dynasties, European imperial states have come and gone, lasting a few centuries and then being replaced by others. Local European cultures, however, have persisted for millennia, developing according to their own natures.

Human sufferings are often linked to the over domination of the Yang aspects. But such domination is transient. As it reaches its peak, the ground shifts beneath it and something new emerges. At the moment, the United States has reached preeminence. Who can say what its position will be after another century? During the first half of the last century, the sun never set on the British Empire, and until 1940 it was hard to imagine that it ever would. But it is important to note that the British Empire was not taken over by any of the countries that opposed it. Instead, its world position shifted with a corrective adjustment of its Yin and Yang energies.

In thinking about civilizations, it is vital to remember the importance of this balance. And it is especially important to recognize the Yin aspect, since human attention is so easily captured by the superficial energy of the Yang aspect. Under all the pomp of regimes and wars, we should not lose sight of the persistence and true strength of our cultures.

The human tendency to focus on Yang and forget Yin is due to our tendency toward linear thinking. The linear is the fragmentary; the complete form is circular. In linear thinking, there is a concrete, one-way sequence of cause and effect, a beginning and an end. In circular thinking, the relationship between cause and effect, or beginning and ending, is more flexible. Each cause creates an effect, and each effect, in turn, creates another cause. From a more linear perspective, if we take the garbage out of our house, we think it is gone forever. If we eradicate terrorism from a region, we think the terrorism will be gone forever. But what goes out comes back, one way or another. This is why linear thinking is ineffective, and produces incomplete results, which in turn may cause even more problems. The only kind of effective thinking is based on seeing complete forms, in which there is a simultaneous presence and consideration of both Yin and Yang aspects.

Human beings tend to compromise other living things for the sake of what they see as their own survival. However, all living things and systems in this planet are parts of a single great organism. This has caused enormous problems in the environment. Again, it is the human tendency to linear thinking that has caused this situation. Concern for the well-being of the whole planet has become an urgent matter. People often think the negative impact of environmental degradation is far away, in space or time, so they feel safe ignoring the problem. But on what scale are “far” and “near” measured? A negative consequence, like extinction, that is far away for a human may be very near for a habitat that has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its original population. This is why we have to see both the Yin and Yang aspects of every situation, every system, and every action.

On different scales, any countries in Latin America and in the Caribbean Region have tried to achieve greater political, economic, and military presence, only to find themselves further entangled in poverty and debt. But in a cultural sense, they still have great abundance and many strengths, all of which are rooted in their Yin aspect. In North America and Europe, much of the Yang aspect of domination through money, power, central planning, and grand development will have serious human, political, and economic consequences for years to come. To counterbalance this, we should focus on the preservation and support of our regional and local cultures. We should enhance the strength of the family rather than the force of the state; tribal and local cohesiveness rather than international ambitions; local farming and production rather than massive agribusiness; and ecological conservation rather than resource exploitation. In these ways, Yin and Yang will achieve better balance, and human societal interactions will reflect this restored equilibrium.

Throughout Chinese history, the rise and fall of dynasties has traced the dynamic interaction of Yin and Yang forces — and the Yin has always prevailed, to restore balance and preserve strength. I hope that this perspective on the Chinese culture and experience may have some relevance to the lives of people in Latin America and in the world. At this pivotal point in human history, we have to see the importance of respecting natural patterns and principles. This is the key to the hope of creating and maintaining harmonious relationships among human communities. We need to find our strength in the enduring treasures of culture, rather than in the search for transient domination.

(This article is the written contribution to the Dialogue Among civilization conference held in Caracas, Venezuela in November 13-16, sponsored by UNESCO and latin America Economic System)