Chinese Wall during autum.

A Brave New World – Globalisation as Europe’s Touchstone

While the world is turning towards the European model, the writer Yang Lian reminds us that the Chinese have held this same view of history for the past two thousand years.

The earth is spinning like crazy – and sometimes it flies off in totally unexpected directions. Who would have thought that communist China, a country in which millions of people starved to death under Mao, would end up acting as creditor and “favourite uncle” to the capitalist world, and that Western countries flailing around in the maelstrom of the financial crisis would be eagerly waiting for China to come to their rescue and help out with their national debt? The same is true of the Arab states. Not so long ago Europe more or less openly viewed them as the enemy with whom they were going head-to-head in a battle of cultures.

During the Arab Spring ten years ago countries have changed their colours almost overnight and suddenly antiquated dictators on the other side of the Mediterranean have disappeared into thin air. Global politics and the economic landscape are changing as quickly as the scenes in a play. Could it be that the Chinese or the Arabs, who have experienced these changes at first hand, now find themselves waking up with a start during the night and wondering “Where am I?”

Turbulent History

On the other hand, the Europeans who are caught up in all this turbulent history are probably asking themselves “What’s happening to the world? Where is all this rapid change taking us?” Or, in other words, how will Europe react when the world looks totally different? Does European culture need to be repositioned? What does our culture amount to today and what are our values?

It seems to me that these are very pressing questions, particularly in light of two experiences that might at first glance appear to be contradictory. The first of these was the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair. China was invited to attend as guest of honour, which on the face of it seemed like a good opportunity to use the diversity of perspectives and forums on offer to give the world an insight into this ancient country, take a peek behind the red curtain of the Communist Party and find out what has been going on in China over recent years.

How will Europe react when the world looks totally different? Does European culture need to be repositioned? What does our culture amount to today and what are our values?

It would have been interesting to see how China has managed to break away from the traditional thinking of other communist countries during the Cold War and has steered a dictatorship to economic success. If all powers are equally greedy and corrupt, why haven’t other places had their own economic miracle like China?

What seems like a contradiction in terms is in fact the result of a range of complex cultural factors which deserve to be looked at more closely. The organisers of the Book Fair should have thought about this and then drawn up a more appropriate programme. But unfortunately, they wanted to “ask the tiger for its skin” as they say in China (thinking they could get Party bureaucrats and dissidents to sit down at the same table), but they just ended up “dancing with the wolf” (and cancelling the invitations to the dissidents because the Party changed its mind). The outcome was inevitable: the whole Fair became a battlefield littered with nothing more meaningful than ideological slogans. “China” just came across as a second-hand shop where all the recycled clichés of the East-West conflict have never gone out of fashion.

A Damp Squib

But what is China really like today? What food for thought can it offer the rest of the world? Unfortunately, these questions were destined to sink without trace. We had hoped to get out the big guns but instead we just set off a damp squib. Real life China was totally ignored in the midst of all the kerfuffle about the pre conceived notion of “China”.

The second experience arose from the 2010 International Literature Festival in Munich. The title of the discussion – which I took part in – was as striking as it was misleading: Present-Day Masterpieces. The very title poses a major dilemma for the modern world: in a world of so many diverse cultural traditions, who sets the criteria for measuring what is a contemporary masterpiece?

The debate revolved around how to construct a ranking system for measuring excellence, and German, European and international ranking systems were set up. My hope was that the cream of European thinkers would turn their attention to what I believed was the real challenge posed by this topic, but I was to be disappointed. Even knowledgeable speakers such as Umberto Eco failed to really address the dubious nature of the assessment criteria. Our discussion forum did little more than underline the tendency amongst European intellectuals towards schematising when dealing with foreign cultures.

China was simply equated with communist ideology and the Arab world with ethnic and religious conflict (at that point nobody could have anticipated the drastic changes which have since taken place). This tendency towards over-simplification even continued during deliberations on Europe. Incredibly, when considering European masterpieces the discussion kept returning to whether or not they were commercially successful.

This is a very dubious criterion. After all, how many masterpieces of literature, art or philosophy have ever been instant bestsellers? If a masterpiece is to be measured in terms of its commercial success then should we be downgrading the works of Kafka and Joyce?

What is China really like today? What food for thought can it offer the rest of the world? Unfortunately, these questions were destined to sink without trace.

In my talk, I tried to argue in favour of making the artistic and intellectual maturity of a work the only criterion for assessing what makes a masterpiece. Irrespective of how many different cultural systems are involved in the assessment, a masterpiece has to demonstrate that it is quite unique in every respect. My arguments were based on classical Chinese poetry. It is often suggested that the dazzling tradition of these poems is based solely on the fact that they are “classics” of Chinese culture. But this is nonsense, for surely their beauty arises from the profoundness of their art and their thinking.

Source of Inspiration

As examples, I looked towards the poet Qu Yuan, who lived and wrote 2,300 years ago in the state of Chu, and the great poet of the Tang Dynasty, Du Fu, who lived 1,200 years ago. I explained how the experience of exile which I share with both these poets has acted as an inspiration for the content and form of artistic works throughout the ages, and how the aesthetic realm of poetry can engender great profundity of thought. As exiles, we really belong nowhere in the world, and the degree of reflection provided by poetry allows us to consciously become “active others” and highlights our sense of distance - not only from other cultures but also from our “own” culture, which is ours in name only. By calling upon all available cultural resources, we may finally find an answer to the troubles that are presently weighing so heavily on so many people.

As a poet who lives in Europe, but who still uses the Chinese language, every minute of my life plays out between these two very different cultures. My reflections on Chinese as a literary language and my explorations of Chinese poetry have taken me on a journey through its ideas and technical forms. The connection between my work and China’s reality and its meaning for the modern transformation of the Chinese tradition could be said to have been a “nightmare inspiration” and has led to a fundamental conflict with Europe. By this I mean that I cannot get a handle on a culture which does not look to find its way forward from the inside out. We have to explore our own depths before we can start to chart the depths of others. And this should, of course, be the way that Europeans try to understand other cultures.

European intellectuals have a tendency towards schematising when dealing with foreign cultures.

The two negative experiences which I mentioned earlier have left me with the impression that European culture still has some catching up to do in this respect before it can begin to react to a globalised world with that great sense of caution that is typical of its tradition of thought. Europe has still not seriously attempted to overturn its own ways of thinking in order to gain new perspectives and widen its horizons. First of all, Europeans have to assimilate the realities and cultures from “elsewhere” into their own ways of thinking, which in turn will give them a greater understanding of their own difficulties. My use of quotation marks is deliberate here, because in reality there is no “elsewhere” in today’s world. Apparently “distant places” are in fact to be found within ourselves. In terms of mind and matter, every human being is a hybrid.

“China” is very close to us - as close as the trainers on your feet, which were probably made by the modern slave labour of the 21st century. The miraculous transformation effected by global conglomerates means that they can turn in almost unimaginable profits thanks to the gap between the wages of Chinese peasants and European prices. Global capitalism binds us together like Siamese twins.

Bizarre Reflection

Today’s bizarre world is reflected in the way Western politicians visit China and feel obliged to utter a few platitudes about human rights and democracy, not so much because they really think it will bring about any change in China, but because they are obliged to pander to the media and their voters at home. Once this hot air has been got out of the way, they can get down to business. These embarrassing contortions just provoke a wry smile from the Chinese government. As long as the orders continue to add up, European countries are happy to swallow the bitter pill of the Chinese state’s oppression of dissidents. This kind of inconsistent behaviour on the part of the Europeans serves to throw them into just as poor a light as the Party, which is merely sticking to its principles.

Whichever way you look at it, an ability to understand and react appropriately to other countries relies on a capacity for self-analysis. First of all, this means looking at oneself in a self-critical way. Does Europe have any concept of the awkward position it is in?

I’m sorry, but if you lack consciousness there is a danger that you will be led by the unconscious. The “brave new world” is perhaps just as outmoded as the one described by Aldous Huxley. People are finding themselves the slaves of industrial processes and apathetically living lives governed by inhumanity.

Insular Thinking

Lack of understanding of other cultures of course stems from lack of knowledge, but the reason for this knowledge gap may quite simply be due to excessively insular thinking. There is no sense of needing to open up and understand something “different”. After all, all the trouble stems from out there, whether it’s China, Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq. Compared to these trouble spots, Europe seems to be as comfortable as it has always been, or at least it seems to be peaceful and intact, which is enough to satisfy the prevailing feeling of cultural superiority. And history itself seems to support this feeling, which has dominated Europe since the Renaissance.

The idea of the universal validity of European thought has its roots in the Enlightenment, and the same is true of the political system of democracy and its effects on legislation and freedom of speech. The poverty of the socialist states during the time of East-West conflict served to bolster the West’s feeling of superiority, and of course the end of the Cold War was hailed as a victory for Western civilisation. The tragedy of the 9/11 attacks was turned into a comedy by the annihilation of Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.

And all the recent changes in the Middle East just seem to provide further proof that the world is turning towards the European model. Europe remains the centre of the universe, history continues to unfold around the axis of its value system and hence the future still lies in the hands of the old continent. This is a comforting picture, but I would like to remind you that the Chinese have held this same view of history for the last two thousand years.

They allowed their emotions to run away with them, shouted nihilistic slogans demanding total westernisation, forged their own kind of revolution and fell head-over-heels into the darkest dictatorship of their history.

The biggest difference between Chinese history and Mediterranean history is the fact that Chinese culture has had to face far fewer challenges. Unlike the situation in the “First World”, before the opium wars Chinese culture was allowed to blossom largely undisturbed and without outside influences (apart from a few attempts at conquest made by nomadic peoples, which always ended up with them being assimilated into Chinese culture). This resulted in a “Middle Kingdom” which became increasingly complacent and conservative.

The Chinese cultural system became a rusty spring which had lost its ability to bounce back in the face of new challenges from the outside world. Then the Europeans came along with their own culture (and military might) and pushed down on the spring until the Chinese suddenly found themselves catapulted out of their position of self-confidence into a condition of extreme self-doubt. They allowed their emotions to run away with them, shouted nihilistic slogans demanding total westernisation, forged their own kind of revolution and fell head-over-heels into the darkest dictatorship of their history.

Meanwhile, in European history, or more precisely Mediterranean history, cultures were constantly converging and separating: from ancient Egypt to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, from Napoleon to the Russian tsars and foreign conquerors such as Attila or Genghis Khan. Each clash forced Europe to redefine and reconsolidate its own position. The only constants in the European tradition was provided by the constant stimuli and challenges coming from outside. But then the Renaissance came along, bringing with it individual thinkers who asked the question “What is Europe?” Europe’s diverging cultures sought and found a common denominator; Europe was a success. But my question is: will this success story continue to unfold?

About the Author
Yang Lian

Yang Lian is a Chinese poet currently based in Berlin and won the prestigious International Nonino Literature Prize in 2012. He was born in Switzerland in 1955 as the son of diplomats and grew up in Beijing. In 1979, he joined a group of poets who published the magazine "Jintian". At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he was in New Zealand, where he took part in the protests against the Chinese government's actions. Shortly thereafter, his works were censored in China and Yang Lian was stripped of his Chinese citizenship. Recent publications: Narrative Poem. a book-length poem. Translated by Brian Holton, Published by Bloodaxe Book, UK. (2016), Venice Elegy. a sequence of poems. Translated by Brian Holton. published by Damocle Edizioni, Italy. (2018), Anniversary Snow. a collection of poems. translated by Brian Holton and others. published by Shearsman Books (2019), A tower built downwards, translated by Brian Holton. Published by Bloodaxe (2023).

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.