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Reexamining the Source of Civilization and Constructing Human Ethics

         By Xu Jialu

            (November 10th, 2012, United Nations Headquarters)


Today, it’s symbolically significant for us to have such a dialogue between Confucius and Jesus Christ at United Nations Headquarters. Established after the cruelest war in the human history, the United Nations is committed to safeguarding human rights, maintaining and promoting the world peace. Over the last half century, numerous politicians and experts have stood here to call for reconciliation and peace, which influence the whole world. Today, international scholars and religionists are having dialogues here with a view to narrowing cultural misunderstanding, promoting a harmonious world and building long-last peace never before in the human history. Politicians talk about politics, while we discuss cultures. However, we all share the same goal. As an old Chinese saying goes, different approaches yield the same result. Although our opinions may not influence government decision-making immediately, yet our voice will exert a much more profound influence than the statements or declarations made here by politicians. A harmonious or conflicting relationship between countries or races depends on whether we can understand culture and inherited ideologies of our counterparts. Even so, culture still serves as the best means and channels to facilitate communications across different countries, ethnic groups and religions. Representing the soul of a nation, culture acts as a base and land for a nation to choose its future at a certain period of time. Increasing understanding of each other’s cultures plays an important role in fostering friendship, deepening the dialogues and building trust between each other. As a part of culture, politics is a cultural form dominated by world views and values.


As recent human history has taught us, different civilizations shall increase communications rather than fighting with each other. Since United Nations unanimously passed the resolution and declared May 21st to be the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development in 2002, many countries have held all kinds of dialogue activities to increase the understanding of different civilizations by scholars and the general public, which fosters friendship between people of different countries. The second Nishan Forum on World Civilizations was held on May 21st 2012 in Nishan, Shandong Province, the hometown of Chinese philosopher Confucius, the event is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of “World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. This event is well received by the society, which encourages us to carry forward. In my opinion, after ten years’ efforts, dialogues between different civilizations shall further enrich their connotations by surpassing the current stage of “we need dialogues” and “we can have dialogues”. After facing crisis after crisis, what should we do and what responsibilities shall different civilizations shoulder? Many scholars have examined these questions and we should also yearn for finding the viable answers to them.  


Today, I would like to deliver my opinions from a different angle which is shown from my speech title “Reexamining the Source of Civilization and Constructing Human Ethics”.


 “Reexamining the source of civilization” is to review fundamental cultural ideologies at the beginning of civilizations, which, to religion, is to revisit the original religious meaning the prophets created. The reason why I think that way is that if we look at the cruel reality and the painful and bitter human development journey, we are often filled with despair and confusion, because we still fail to find solutions to all kinds of disastrous consequences caused by ourselves,. Due to cultural diversity and current prevailing cultural conflicts, the future of human destiny faces many uncertainties. However, if we interpret the original points of human religions with radical historicism, we can find some common anticipation shared by different cultures. And this is a start point for finding solutions. Bearing that in mind, we can, through reflection, debate and exploration, go back to the original intention of sages in Axial Age—an aspiration to having the universal commonwealth and a harmonious world.


First, I’d like to talk something about the Chinese culture.


Until today, many people still believe that the Chinese have no religious beliefs and this misunderstanding has a negative impact on the way the world looks at China. A man without religion is like a horse without a bridle, so does a nation.


Chinese do have religions. Chinese culture is rooted in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Among them, the influence of Confucianism has been the most profound. As we all know, Buddhists believe Buddha, while Taoists worship different gods. Confucianists worship Confucius—the founder of Confucianism and value Benevolence and Protocol virtues advocated by Confucius. Benevolence values universal fraternity as the highest standard. “A man should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good”. Based on Benevolence as an outward expression, Protocol shapes and coordinates interpersonal relations and the relationship between man and the nature. Chinese see Confucius as a holy teacher, not a god. Although most Chinese do not worship universally-accepted personal gods who create everything including human beings, Chinese people do worship Laotse, Goddess Matus and all sorts of other gods, while holding their respect for moral virtues and Confucius. As Confucius proposed that “Work on what is right and respect the spirits, but keep them at a distance”, therefore Chinese, including Atheists, tolerate all religions with a respectful, inclusive and equal attitude. The rulers in all ages also made policies based on such attitude held by the public.


Second, I want to brief you on some ancient Chinese histories. Foreign religions were introduced to China include Nestorianism (a Christological doctrine advanced by Nestorious and known as Oriental Assyrian Orthodox, which was considered a heresy until recognized by Martin Luther in the 17th century), Indian Buddhism, Judiasm, Islamism, Catholicism, and Christianity. From the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), or more accurately, from the first century BC to now, the Chinese government has granted foreign religionists the same rights and freedom as local Chinese, such as the rights to live, travel, conduct business, study, preach and build churches in China. With a long history hard to keep track of, we cannot describe how foreign religions were introduced to China in ancient times in details although we can find some clues from the remained historical and cultural relics. Among them, a small Jewish community in Kaifeng, the capital city of the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), attracts attention of historians and missionaries in the world. In 1163, the first Jewish church was established in downtown, Kaifeng City. Judaism was called “Yicileye” at that time (Chinese transliteration of “Israel”). Relying on their excellent management skills, Jews entered the upper-middle-class in the society back then; sometimes they even assumed government positions through examination. According to the research by Chinese scholars, there once was a Jew named Issac acting as senior official in the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1271-1386) (refer to Jews and China by Pan Guang and Wang Jian).


Due to time limit, I will not elaborate on the relationship between China and foreign religions. I would like to highlight one point. Since ancient times, there have been many theoretical arguments among Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Actually, the internal fractional strife has never ceased within all these three religions. However, China has never had a religious war. A Chinese saying - “A gentleman uses his tongue but his fists” best describes the relationships among them. Thanks to arguments, these three religions have complemented their own weaknesses by learning from each other’s advantageous doctrines and ritual procedures. Thus, all of them have made unprecedented strides. For example, Buddhism accelerated its localization process; Confucianism strengthened its research on metaphysics and virtue internalization; and Taoism formed its own theoretical system by learning from Confucianism and Buddhism. These three religions reached their peak in the Tang (618-907), Song and Yuan Dynasties particularly. Among them, the achievements of Confucian philosophy were the most distinctive, which is still a hot topic in today’s sinology and Chinese philosophy research.


Since ancient times, Chinese people have tolerated different foreign religions as they find common ethical values in different religions. On a basis of seeking common ground while reserving differences, we obtain a win-win situation.


As I talked said previously, Chinese tolerated, accepted and absorbed foreign religions in the history. Inheritinged this tradition, the Chinese wholeheartedly stand for settling the disputes in this chaotic world through the dialogues and, firmly object to against use force. 


Now, let’s return to the title of my speech Reexamining the Source of Civilization and Constructing Human Ethics.


Today, ethical values advocated by civilizations are unexceptionally unprecedentedly suffering from unprecedented damages. Actually, misunderstanding among different civilizations is worsening to varying degrees. One of the key reasons is that people only focus on the surface layer of civilization, such as different religious objects, life attitudes and artistic presentations, while the fundamentals lying in different civilizations are ignored. Such core values were completely accumulated at the original development stage of all civilizations.


Life and death, this life and after life are always a central themes for all civilizations. For example, the concept of Sanskrit had emerged in Indian civilization before establishing the establishment of Brahmanism (e.g. Upanishads Chapter I), and “Sanskrit” refers to a self, god, spirit, truth, intelligence and happiness (e.g. Vajrasuchka Upanishad). These concepts had been absorbed by Brahmanism and Buddhism. The god belief in Hebrew civilization was from Bible & Old Testament. Moses met God and received the commandments from God. God created man in after his own image. God represents a spirit of infinite power and goodness. Confucian values virtues on a basis of Ren (Benevolence), which is the highest spiritual level. Sage is the highest spiritual pursuit that no ordinary man can reach it. Confucius said, “At seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” This actually is a reflection of this that spirit. “Goodness” and “Love” are ultimate goals for of all religions. Either in awe of god or fearing in fear of for going to hell after death, people abided by the rule of law and controlled led their desires armed with self-discipline. So, it’s either simple or complex for people to solve the confusion on life and death, this life and after life when all religions were created.


Compared to ancient people, more and more people now only care for material comfort. Compared to spiritual pursuit, material comfort is more comfortable and easier to obtain, but it is also more superficial. In the name of god’s will, self-discipline and the rule of law are discarded. People become fearless and pursue for material benefits by all any kinds of means. This is the fundamental root cause of all kinds of social issues, environmental problems and country conflicts in the current world today.


If each nation could rationally review its national history, ideological history or religious history and look for the truth of life and the universe promoted by its original belief, people will truly find happiness. More and more people will be inspired to pursue for goodness, and give up their current lifestyle featured as nervous, tired, empty and dangerous. This is an inevitable journey for returning the nature of human beings


In our current world, ethics is classified by wealth rather than nationality or religion. The rich have rich ethics, while the poor have poor ethics; the stronger have stronger ethics, while the weak have weak ethics. When different ethics meet together, civilization conflict called by Prof. Huntington will be inevitably occurred. Therefore, it’s time for intellectuals working together to discuss how to construct common ethics for all humans. Ethics is an issue cared by all countries and all peoples while without any disputes. So, I believe that constructing human ethics will be positively responded in the world. 


Although both ancient and modern scholars interpret the meaning of goodness differently, goodness is a shared content for all beliefs regardless of nationality. Hence, it should become a content of common ethics for the future human beings. 10 days ago, Mr. Du Weiming, a former professor of Harvard University established the “World Ethics Center” at Peking University. I was pleased lucky enough to be invited to attend the opening ceremony. Scholars from different countries present at this the ceremony appraised this establishment by Peking University. I believe that some friends present here today may be interested in this news. The establishment of this center reflects a trend of the world’s ideology circle. Intellectuals from different countries shall fulfill their duties of studying and constructing universally-accepted ethics. In this regard, I believe, the experience of Chinese people over the last several thousands years will provide a reference for the world. Spinoza, Kant and other great philosophers devoted their life to investigating human ethics and moral reasoning. In the 21st century, we are looking forward to establishing universally-accepted ethics and contributing to human peace and happiness.


There is no doubt that the construction of human ethics starts from begins with communication. In ancient agrarian and pastoral ages, our ancestors explored a communication channel across in Asian countries and across Asian and European lands by with their feet and horseshoes. At that time, the relationships between Europe and Asia and among Asian countries was defined as friendly and harmonious. Now, we have advanced transport and telecommunication facilities. Such convenient transport and telecommunication facilities are far beyond our ancestor’s imagination and fairy tales. People’s communication shall pay more attention to its connotation and quality. Although time is changing, the essence of communication is unchanged at all. I believe that constructing human ethics will become a highlight of scholar communications in the future.


One day, people will eventually detest such ethics and politics that drive the whole nation into an antagonizing, dangerous and fighting situation. A new world dreamed by Jesus Christ, Sakyamuni and Confucius will finally come true.



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