Traditional Chinese Culture and the Theory and Experience on Harmonious Society

Speaker: Venerable Master Chin Kung AM
Time: 23 May 2013
Venue: UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France

1. Traditional Chinese Culture is a Culture of Benevolence, Love, Peace, and Harmony for All Humankind

The 5000-year long history of the Chinese culture has emphasized wisdom, theories, methods, experiences, and results of cultivation of oneself, managing the family properly, governing a country successfully, and bringing peace and equality to the world. Arnold Toynbee, the famous British historian once said, “In order to solve the social problems of the twenty first century, one must rely on Confucian teachings and Mahayana Buddhism.” The essence of Confucian teaching is “benevolence, honor, loyalty, and forgivingness,” while “sincerity and compassion” are the fundamental teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Among the four ancient civilizations, the Chinese civilization has been able to maintain relative long-term stability and unity. This is achieved in accordance with the ancient teachings of the Five Human Relationships, Five Constant Virtues, Four Maintenances, and Eight Virtues found in the traditional Chinese culture.

Humankind’s diverse traditional cultures have no boundaries. They are the heritage of all humanity. Traditional Chinese culture also belongs to the whole world. These teachings and their guidance have been effective in the past; they can be equally effective for society now and in the future. Such teachings transcend time and space. We have proven their effectiveness in purifying mindsets of people in the town of Tangchi in Lujiang, China. We believe strongly that the promotion of Chinese traditional culture will be a decisive help in ensuring long-lasting peace and stability for our world.

2. Prime Minister Najib’s In-depth Understanding of Traditional Chinese Culture

Traditional Chinese culture has received the full attention of and endorsement by Mr. Najib, Prime Minister of Malaysia. In October 2011, Mr. Najib attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the Malaysian Academy of Han Studies where he gave a memorable speech.

He said, “Among the ocean-like amount of books and knowledge, it is immensely meaningful to have selected Han studies (Sinology studies) as the core area of research, especially since Han study can provide a noble living philosophy for human interactions and help people to respect one another mutually. I think such knowledge is in desperate need in the world today.”

While Zheng He sailed to Melaka in the fifteenth century with his twenty- eight thousand soldiers and three-hundred seventeen ships, he was not there for conquest. On the contrary, he was there on the mission of building friendship between the Ming dynasty of China and the Malay Empire. He held out a hand of friendship and built a long-lasting relationship with the Malay Sultan and the Malaysians.

Mohammed said, “Although the knowledge is as far away as in China, we still have to seek it.” This famous quote taught us to understand how great civilizations developed over hundreds and thousands of years. As leaders and as government officials, we all need to equip ourselves with these value and qualities. That is why we are building the Malaysian Academy of Han Studies in Melaka in order to make Malaysia a ray of hope for all humanity.

I am very happy that in the early stages of building the Malaysian Academy Of Han Studies, it will start attracting scholars from around the world who love to study ancient Chinese civilization and history. At the same time, they will also understand Malaysia and her people. Furthermore, this academy can also be the platform to connect Chinese and Malaysians at a deeper level.

The words of Mr. Najib, the president of Malaysia, are acute and exceptional. They represent the view of people who have insight into Chinese traditional culture.

3. The Reign of King Wen and Wu Thirty-Two Hundred Years Ago

According to Chinese historical records, about thirty-two hundred years ago, in the early stages of the Zhou dynasty’s reign, King Wen, later with his son King Wu, ruled Xi Bo. The two kings ruled their country with virtue, and their country became the model for the other eight hundred territorial rulers. All other countries regarded King Wu as the Son of Heaven and followed his rule, and the Zhou dynasty lasted eight hundred years.

When King Wen was in power, a dispute broke out in two neighboring countries, Yu and Rui, and the two kings went to Zhou to seek King Wen for arbitration on the territorial dispute. After entering Zhou territory, both kings saw the courteous society of Zhou and became ashamed. They realized that “our argument is a shame in the eyes of the Zhou,” and they settled their dispute. From this story, we are able to learn that the rule of benevolence, honor, courtesy, wisdom, and trust had been deeply rooted in the hearts of the citizens in Zhou, and it also influenced their neighboring countries.

4. The Successful Experience Early in the Qing Dynasty

Since ancient times, Chinese saints and sages have always taught with the whole world in mind. Instead of limited thoughts of a single country or race, the idea of justice for all was embraced. The Mongolians and the Manchus both invaded China, yet the Chinese accepted them, and eventually the cultures merged as one. One may ask “When the Manchus entered China, it only had an army of 200,000. How could they successfully rule a population of over ten million, and for nearly three hundred years?” Furthermore, there had been well-known prosperous periods of over one-hundred twenty years. Why? The Manchurian emperors appeased the Chinese people by respecting the Chinese culture. They took the lead in studying the culture more vigorously than anyone else. Emperors in the early Qing dynasty, Shun Zhi, Kang Xi, Yong Zheng, and Qian Long, were all adepts at the traditional Chinese teachings including Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These emperors also acted as examples by inviting virtuous scholars to the royal court to explain the meanings of sacred texts of these different schools of thought to the top government officials. Such deeds gained the support and admiration of Chinese intellectuals and the public. We are able to find the descriptions in Daily Talks on Four Books in the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature, to see the grand scale of those royal classics from the Qing dynasty.

5. Tangchi as an Experimental Town in a Modern Setting

In November 2005, I set up The Lujiang Centre of Cultural Education in my home town, a small town called Tangchi, in Lujiang County, Anhui Province, China. A Confucian traditional textbook, Guidelines for Being a Good Person (Dizigui) was used as the core guiding principle to assist with the government’s promotion of moral education for the people. A group of thirty-seven teachers were trained first. They all learned Guidelines for Being a Good Person, and, more importantly, they practiced and applied the teachings in it when they went out in teams to introduce and impart these teachings of filial piety, sibling love, benevolence, and love to the local people. Within a few months’ time, great improvement was witnessed in the local social trend, which proved that the “intrinsic nature of humans is full of goodness,” and that people can easily be taught to become better. It proved that the teachings of saints and sages are still effective in modern society. In October 2006, thanks to the recommendation by the Thai ambassador to UNESCO, and in conjunction with World Fellowship of Buddhists (WBF), the PLLCA gave a three-day presentation and an exhibition at UNESCO headquarters, showcasing interfaith harmony and the results of our experimental town of Tangchi in relation to the teaching of Guidelines for Being a Good Person. We received positive recognition and acknowledgement from the UNESCO secretary general, ambassadors, and other peace workers. The event also proved that “all religions can cooperate in harmony” and that “people can be taught to become better.”

6. The Renowned Period of Prosperity and Peace—The Tang Dynasty, an Era of Multiculturalism

(1) A Multi-faith and Multicultural Society that Coexisted in Prosperity

The Tang dynasty in China was an era of multi-faith harmony and multiculturalism that coexisted in wonder and in prosperity. One of the emperors, Li Shimin, was a man of great magnanimity. He embraced and encouraged all. He humbly learned from each religious teaching and the teachings from various saints and sages. His actions inspired a whole generation of people to learn from saints and sages. Not only was he a benefactor of Buddhism, he was also a patron of all religions. He truly valued all religions, and he tried to maintain and protect them. Each religion was embraced and treated with equality. He regarded the virtuous and learned practitioners in each religion as the national teachers, and he consulted with them often.

In the ninth year of Li Shimin’s rule, on the arrival of Christian priest Alopen, Emperor Li Shimin ordered Prime Minister Pang Xuanling to greet Alopen at the outskirts west of the capital. In the twelfth year, Emperor Li Shimin ordered the building of a Persian Temple by Imperial Decreed and permitted the preaching of its religion. Another church was built in Yi Ning Fang in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty.

Islam was also introduced to China during the Tang dynasty because of interactions with Arabian countries. At that time, Prophet Mohamed was still alive and Waqqas, his disciple, went to Guangzhou and spread the teachings of Islam. The Tang government showed great acceptance and respect to the Muslims. The then emperor also assisted in building a mosque by imperial decree for the settlement of the Muslim soldiers who came to China.

The Tang government treated all religions equally, as it knew religions were the good education of wisdom and experiences given by God and saints. Such teachings will teach and transform the public so the government can help the people live in harmony and, thus, help stabilize the society in peace. Dr. Toynbee once said that if he could choose to relive his life, he would abandon twentieth century London for China’s seventh century Chang’an.

(2.) The Book that Leads to Stability and a Better World—The Governing Principles of Ancient China

The most significant achievement during Emperor Li Shimin’s reign was the compilation of the book on governance: The Governing Principles of Ancient China (Qunshu Zhiyao).

The Governing Principles of Ancient China was compiled at the imperial decree of Emperor Li Shimin at the beginning of the Zhenguan Era, (599-649). He ordered his advisors, among them Wei Zheng and Yu Shinan, to select essential passages that provided insight into how past emperors governed the country. The passages were to come from the historical records, the Six Classics, the Four Collections of History, and texts from the Hundred Schools of philosophy. From these, the advisors were to extract the most important passages related to (1) cultivation of oneself, (2) managing the family properly, (3) governing a country successfully, and (4) bringing peace and equality to the world. The resultant compilation is The Governing Principles of Ancient China, with excerpts from 14,000 books, 89,000 scrolls of ancient writings—500,000 words in all that covers sixty-five categories of books dating from the era of the Five Legendary Emperors to the Jin dynasty.

This is an invaluable book, which if used in the present time, would allow us to examine and learn from our ancient history; and if passed down to our descendants, it would help and plan for our children in the future. Emperor Li Shimin was extremely pleased with the broad coverage and the concise nature of the compilation, and read the book daily. He said to those in charge of the compilation, “I owe it to you, my ministers, who have equipped me with knowledge of the past, so I would not be in doubt when confronted with various issues.” The compilation had obviously contributed to the subsequent peace and prosperous period of the Zhenguan Era. This treasure is invaluable for all who are involved in the political arena.

The ancient cultural teachings of our ancient saints and sages can bring lasting stability and peace to the entire world. The most critical factors are for the learners to truly comprehend this traditional culture and eliminate doubt and have faith in it. Traditional culture and the teachings of the saints and sages is the natural outpouring of our true nature. These teachings transcend space and time; they are everlasting. The key to effective learning comes down to two words: sincerity and respect. Without sincerity and respect for the teachings of the saints and sages, even if one read through every page of all the sacred texts, one would study in vain without real benefit. Confucius, the great sage who was well known to be a polymath, when talking about traditional culture and values, stressed that he only “retold ancient teachings and he did not create anything new” and he “believed in and favored the ancient teachings.” These famous words expressed his sincerity and respect within. That is why he attained such a high achievement. He has been regarded as the “Most Venerated Sage Teacher” and is the “Role Model for Teachers Throughout All Ages.” Confucius was a role model for us all in learning sincerity and respect.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, in his speech on the Three Principles of the People (“Principle of Nationalism 4th Lecture”), said, “The advancement in science and material civilization in Europe only happened in the last two hundred years or so. When it comes to the essence of political philosophy, Europeans can still turn to China for answers. Many people have come to appreciate how German scholars have contributed to the general knowledge of humanity. At the same time, German scholars are devoting their time to study the philosophies of China as well as Buddhism from India, to help us understand and remedy the inherent bias in the field of science.

The Governing Principles of Ancient China is the essence of Chinese political philosophy and can serve not only as an important reference book for leaders of all countries to make political decisions, it can also remedy the bias of modern science.

The ancient Chinese have passed down their wisdom, principles, methods, experiences, and results on the governing of a country. Such a wealth of experiences has been accumulated over thousands of years and endured the test of time. The Governing Principles of Ancient China is invaluable and meaningful, especially for our modern world. Should all, including leaders at different levels, in various political parties, and of different countries, be able to bilaterally learn from these books and deeply understand it and implement its teachings, the day will soon come when a harmonious society and a world with equality and peace will be realized.

Teacher Tsai Li-Hsu form Malaysia’s Chung Hua Cultural Education Centre, has published selected sayings from The Governing Principles of Ancient China and named it The Governing Principles of Ancient China 360 and translated it into English. This new selection is also known as The Governing Principles of Ancient China. On the Chinese side, Professor Yu Li, from the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and her team of researchers, has also published Connotation in Modern Chinese and Collection of Commentaries, which explains the book further.

7. The Tool for Studying Traditional Chinese Culture

The complete treasure of the traditional Chinese culture lies in the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature, The best way to study the Chinese culture is to read the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature directly in Chinese, which requires the command of traditional Chinese characters as well as classical Chinese (wen yan wen) the traditional written language. Classical Chinese, a great invention of the ancient Chinese, is different from Latin-based languages in many ways. In Chinese, the written language (classical Chinese) is different from the daily spoken language. While the spoken form of the language evolves with the passage of time, the written form remains the same. Hence, the linage of the language system does not change, and thousands of years later, today’s Chinese descendants can still read and understand the writings of the ancient past, and learn from their wisdom and experiences. The Chinese characters are symbols of wisdom. They are a heritage of humanity. Unfortunately, a change started to take place early last century and the Chinese started to use the vernacular style, or the plain language, and in the 1950s, simplified Chinese characters were implemented in China. The new generations in China cannot understand classical Chinese, nor can they read or write the traditional form of the Chinese characters. It is an extremely saddening fact that the cultural treasures passed down by our ancestors are being buried in front of our eyes. We sincerely hope that classical Chinese and the traditional forms of the Chinese characters, the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature, and the Abridged Version of the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature can be registered in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection List. Furthermore, we wish UNESCO could promote the global study of classical Chinese and Chinese traditional culture.

Learning Classic Chinese is not difficult. I have met students of Sinology in the U.S. and the UK. Some had a good command of it in three years. Having grasped classical Chinese, one would hold the key to the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature and easily tap into 5000 years of wisdom and experiences as if they were one’s own. What opulent wealth! Through the learning of traditional Chinese culture, one could become a wise person, an able person, and even a saint or sage, and one could contribute greatly to the long lasting peace and stability of our world.