Studying Chinese Philosophy in America{21}

One article on the Most Viewed list on The Chronicle of Higher Education this week that caught my attention is titled Chinese Philosophy Lifts Off in America. The topic is also related to the theme of global perspectives of higher education we are going to discuss in class this week. The article starts with the news on the 40-year anniversary of the Journal of Chinese Philosophy, a peer-reviewed journal that was founded and managed as a one-man show by the Chinese scholar, Chung-Ying Cheng in 1963. The 3680-word article walks the readers through the journey of the development of Chinese philosophy studies in the American higher educational institutes.  It highlights the recent fever in studying classical Chinese philosophy (although the validity to use the word philosophy to describe the ancient Eastern school of thought is argued in the article) not only in the States but also from most of the western countries. In July, leading intellectuals and thinkers,  from both the East and the West,  gathered in the University of Buffalo to attend the 18th conference of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy, although many of them may not have specialized area of expertise in Chinese Philosophy studies but are definitely intrigued by the revived interest to study this ancient oriental wisdom. As noted by a Chinese-born professor, Jiyuan Yu, who is highly regarded for his work in ancient Greek philosophy, that a particular area of interest is comparative study between the ancient Chinese philosophy and the Greek philosophy from which the western philosophical system is mostly based upon.  Preliminary results suggest there are surprisingly more similarities rather the perceived differences. The deep resonance between the Chinese philosophy, represented by Confucianism, and the Greek philosophy, represented by the Aristotle, is epitomized in the concept of virtue ethics, which is also a subject that is gaining attention in contemporary academia.

The article is also very forthcoming in pointing out the reason behind the sharp increase in the number of native Chinese scholars who leave the mainland to study a subject purely originated from China. Traditionally, it is considered as a prestigious path to go abroad, mostly US and UK, to pursue higher education in science and engineering. Apparently, to work in countries which communicate in English and which have laboratories well-equipped with the state-of-art equipment is a very attractive and easily understandable option. However, when it comes to the pursuit of the Chinese philosophy, the reason does not seem to be so straightforward. Private interviews with many Chinese scholars in the States unanimously suggest that, beyond the better scholarly resources, the liberal and innovative academic environment is the most attractive reason that draws them here.  In another article on The Chronicle, reporting on the a possible expulsion case of an economics professor in Peking University due to his outspoken behavior in promoting academic freedom and democratic  changes,  it is noted that discussion on seven topics, including human rights, civil society and the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party, that  are fundamental to any discipline of social sciences are banned in all university classrooms in China.  Personal stories from my friends studying in China also confirmed that ideological and political classes and camps are part of the core curriculum of any major. However, almost everyone takes it for granted that they are purely pro forma. For anyone who has been following the latest Chinese Presidential Election which ended this March, it is clear that why the new President is exercising strong political pressure in the universities, in particular the prestigious and well-regarded ones.  Together with infamous internet censorship, the Chinese universities, even the best ones, do not sound like a good place where original, sophisticated and independent work can be developed.

As a native Chinese, it is a very sad fact to see that our most treasured heritage, now is best studied in a foreign language. It is good that our culture has been shared on a global level (or what the Chinese government is trying to brand as the new soft power), but still I believe that there are definitely going to be things lost in translation. As many similarities as all human being share, it is the unique historical development and the ensuing differences that ultimately define our identities.