HO Chi-Ping, Patrick (何志平)


The recent rise of China has been a cyclical development of this ancient civilization.


Image Source: Internet

Indeed, in the last 5,000 years, the Chinese has recorded at least four periods of prosperity. The first in the Zhou Dynasty (BC 1042-996) in which the Chinese feudal system of administration was introduced. The second in the Han Dynasty (BC 180-141) when Emperors governed with non-interference, farming, peaceful development, and were not only able to repel the invasions of the Mongols from the north, but were able to dispatch envoys to forge the first contacts with the West, and opened up the Silk Road for trade.  The third was in the Tang Dynasty (AD 627-649) when China’s GDP was about one third of the world’s, and students came from Japan and neighboring countries to study in China. The fourth rise of China occurred in the Ming Dynasty (AD 1403-1435) when Admiral Zheng He and his powerful fleets were sent to sail from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, to Africa and, arguably, even to America, some 71 years before Christopher Columbus.

The Chinese people are a peace-loving people. Whereas Julius Caesar said “I came, I saw, I conquered”, the Chinese said “I came, I saw, I made friends, and I went home”.  Not one battle was fought, not one colony seized, and nobody was enslaved.


Image Source: Internet

Throughout history, China, made up of 54 different races, has always subscribed to the principles of tolerance, forgiveness and self-commitment. With such a breadth of mind, China has been able to embrace the world, digest and absorb foreign cultures and ways of thinking without being insistent of its might and assertive of its power. What was successful and operative in the Han Dynasty could still be adopted for use in the Tang and Sung Dynasties. The Chinese cultural core values were adjustable through centuries to be made applicable to the time and provide solutions to the problems at that time.

In the 14th century, the Renaissance delivered Europe from the darkness of the Middle Ages, freed minds, stimulated innovation and creativity in literature, art, science and technology and hastened the birth of individualism, capitalism and colonialism.


Image Source: Internet

The Industrial Revolution, together with the advancement of seamanship, empowered the West to stretch its influence around the globe and starting in the 15th century, the West “knocked” on the ancient door of China.


The First “Knock” on China’s door

 The first-ever attempt by the West to open up China began in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, during which Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, visited China. Not only did he come to preach Christianity, but also spread the Western knowledge of mathematics, medicine and astronomy, enriching hugely China’s knowledge in science and philosophical thinking. At the same time, Western priests admired the Chinese culture and values. Ricci once sighed that the ideals of The Republic of Plato defining justice and order of the city-state, and just man, had already been realized in China.

Joachim Bouvet, who was a French priest and Sinologist, is worthy of notice. In 1688, after Bouvet had arrived in Peking as a French royal mathematician, he took over as Emperor Kangxi’s teacher of western studies. He made a thorough study of the Chinese Classics and concluded that a certain period in the Chinese history does not belong to the Chinese only, but to all of mankind.


Image Source: Internet

From the Book of Changes, Yijing (易经), Bouvet felt a close correlation between the Chinese primitive eight trigram and the Western binary numeral system proposed by Leibniz. In 1701, he wrote to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German philosopher, creator of infinitesimal calculus and regarded as the Aristotle of the 17thcentury, showing the diagram of the Fuxi 64 Gua Sequence and Pixel. Leibniz was surprised at the discovery of the proof of his self-invented binary numeral system in Yijing from China.

Indeed, all digital products evolving from the binary numeral system that we are using today could have been embedded with the wisdom of Yijing.


Image Source: Internet

This was the first attempt by the Western civilization to come into contact with China mediated through religion, philosophies and sciences. In the late Kangxi era, however, mandarins were still enthralled in their own cultural refinement and did not feel challenged at all. Following a lengthy dispute over religious protocol between China and the Vatican, the door for cultural exchange was callously closed, leading to a state of mutual isolation.


Second “Knock” on China’s door

In the 18th century, Britain’s Industrial Revolution, America’s War of Independence and France’s Great Revolution dramatically changed the face of Western civilization. Modernization of human society became an irresistible historical trend, but the Chinese – still complacent at that time in national peace and splendor — were completely unaware of the misfortune about to befall them.   Western countries, aiming to enrich themselves with natural resources through their military supremacy, forcibly expanded colonialism to the East.   .


Image Source: Internet

For a long time, China’s Foreign Trade had focused on exporting tea and agricultural products, fine silks and porcelain, which the West purchased with silver. Following the Industrial Revolution, Britain, desperately trying to recover the huge amounts of silver it had paid China, flooded China with opium and so were able to plunder over one and half million kilograms of silver in the following four decades.

In response, and painfully aware of the hazards of opium, the Chinese Government decided to prohibit opium smoking, seized the drug, and destroyed it. In 1840, Britain, prompted by the British opium merchants, invaded China and launched the First Opium War.

China then, as the main Power in the East, enjoyed about one-third of global GDP, and had military forces of 800,000. The British had just 7,000 men in their expeditionary force. China lost the war.


Image Source: Internet

Hardly had the Qing Government negotiated grossly unequal treaties with Britain and the other invaders than the Second Opium War had started in 1860, when China’s GDP was 1.6 times that of Britain. China lost again.

Beset with troubles internally and externally, the Chinese Emperor, in 1860, ordered that the advanced military technologies of the West must be learned.

The first Westernization Movement saw the initiation of new industries to improve military hardware. A new navy and land forces were established. More schools were built and the students were sent overseas.

The disastrous Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894 when China’s GDP was five times that of Japan. And China lost the war.


Image Source: Internet

Throughout the recent 2,000 years of Chinese history, GDP of China ranked first globally. Even following the two Opium Wars, in 1840 and 1860, when China lost to the British, China’s GDP constituted one-third of the world’s total volume. When China lost the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, China’s GDP was five times higher than that of Japan. China then realized that its GDP represented prosperity and not proportionate national strength. China was big and prosperous, but not healthy and strong.

Ever since 1840, for more than 100 years, after being brought to its knees at gun point by the West, China was awakened, suddenly realizing that it had to catch up with the Western world, and has since strived successively to strengthen its military, economy and political developments. The Self-Strengthening Movement in 1861 attempted to introduce military reforms but failed. In 1898, the Hundred Days’ Reform, aimed to set up a constitutional monarchy, was crushed by the Royal Court after one hundred days. Sun Yat-sen was successful in overthrowing the Ching dynasty ending Imperialism in China in 1911, but the reformed governing structure that was put in its place did not last long. The May Fourth Movement which took place in 1919 was a cultural revolution in nature with adoption of Western values of democracy and science for strengthening the country. China, taken to task by the West, began to question whether the traditional core values of its ancestors were still applicable to manage the cogent problems of the modern time.


Image Source: Internet

Such a debate leading to the reforms and self-renewal movements that followed throughout the various stages of China’s modernization process in the last century, embraced the ideals of inheriting the past and ushering in the future. Even into the formative stages of the new People’s Republic after 1949, China has been preoccupied with one major task- modernization through a series of process of self-reflection, self-renewal, and self-fortification trying to re-endow the traditional core values with new meanings and applications.  Because of the unfavorable international environment and domestic limitations, repeated reforms and movements failed to provide a forlorn and war-torn China with all-round modernization. The traditional cultural core values, however, which had, for many times, been on the verge of being forsaken and denounced, had provided the very necessary cohesive spiritual force to hold and bind the Chinese people together through these periods of trial and tribulation.


The Third “Knock”

The third “knock” on the door of China came in the 1970s.

In the midst of the cold war and international events, in 1972, US President Richard Nixon visited China, offering an olive branch to China to integrate into the global economic system of the era. When Deng Xiaoping came into power, China began walking down the path of development of a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristic. With rapid economic advancement, China moved towards a moderately well-off society.

Image Source: Internet

Over the past 40 years since Nixon’s visit to China, the Chinese people have created one miracle after another as the country basically resolved the problem of feeding its 1.3 billion populations. The wish for a moderately well-off society has begun to be fulfilled.

This was perceived as the third attempt of opening up China by the West. Unlike the previous two attempts, China was introduced to Western social systems and concepts of market economy and international trade. Nixon’s visit kicked off a string of multifaceted social contact between China and the West. This was of vital importance to China’s modernization as it was conducive to integrating such an ancient giant civilization into the modernized international system.


China’s Three “Knocks” on the Door of the West

Looking back in history, Chinese has also knocked on the Western door at least twice. In the Han Dynasty 2,000 years back, we had the first Silk Road set out by Zhang Qian offering trades and peace; and in the 15th Century, we had the second Silk Road at sea championed by Zheng He bringing trades and peace.

The 21st Century will see us embarking on the third Silk Road: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiated in 2013. This is the third “Knock”, and indeed a loud bang, on the door of the West, offering dialogue, and friendship.


Image Source: Internet

The two previous Silk Roads traded tea, silk, spices, exotic fruits, jewelry and gold. The 21st Century Silk Road trades for, apart from creative ideas, innovations, and creative talents, it trades values. It offers peace.

This modern Silk Road travels through the inner workings of the human minds and the human hearts driven by a desire to captivate the advantages of peaceful competition and cooperation in this globalized world.

This modern Silk Road merges creative markets and aligns policies to form alliances in exploring the commonality among cultures and community values.


Image Source: Internet

This Silk Road sees ordinary people of different countries sharing common aspirations and dreams that life is celebrated through cultural pursuits, and our people are enchanted by the arts, enlightened by cultural differences and enriched by social diversity.

This Silk Road teaches people to learn with mutual respect that despite our different backgrounds and upbringings, there are some fundamental values we all hold dear, some basic principles we all respect, and certain core understanding we all embrace.


Different Past, Common Future

Peoples of the East and peoples of the West are two very different peoples in terms of historical backgrounds and cultural core values, and that speaks volume of the importance of dialogue in facilitating mutual understanding. Dialogue is the only means through which disputes could be settled and mitigated. We each have a different past, but together, we have a common future.


Image Source: Internet

Today, we live in a time of considerable uncertainty. How do we hold onto our innate culture on the one hand, and keep abreast of the times while preserving harmonious coexistence on the other? This is an important question and a challenge of the highest order facing all of us and the entire world today.


(This paper was adapted from the opening address delivered in the “Sino-US Colloquium IV” organized by The China Energy Fund Committee, at the Carnegie Library in Washington, DC, USA, on September 27, 2013 )

Edited by Fang Fang

Proofread by Wang Yan