How do you see the Chinese culture

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(The following remarks are primarily intended to be polemical; they are necessarily kept somewhat woodcut-like: On the rough chunk of culturalism, which wants to work out a "Chinese culture" that is supposedly permanently present in the mind of every Chinese out of every chopstick, every unexpected break in conversation, every breach of contract, the also quite coarse wedge of a deconstruction is set.)

For a long time the raison d'être of sinologists consisted of the supposedly radical otherness of China, which has persisted to this day - for example in the form of a continuous "cultural memory" - whose "essence" required extensive knowledge to explain.

This belief has three requirements:

  • on the one hand the idea of ​​a homogeneous Chinese national culture

  • on the other hand, the idea of ​​the continuity of this national culture

  • thirdly, the "otherness", "strangeness" of China.


In China itself Since the end of the 19th and in the course of the 20th century there have been the most varied of attitudes towards the nature of one's own culture, which, despite the many differences, can be summarized in two attitudes:

  • Firstly, the defensive idea that one can preserve one's own substance by merely making technical use of Western knowledge. The advocates of this conviction, however, had difficulty defining the "essence" of their culture to be preserved in view of the advanced dissolution of Chinese traditions. ["Chinese core substance versus occidental technology", 1860-1890ff; "Kulturmorphologie" 1920-1930; "Culture fever" and omnipresence of "Chinese culture" 1984-]

  • Second, the offensive idea that one must once and for all do away with one's own culture, which is seen as an obstacle to modernization. The advocates of this conviction had problems with the creation of a radically new, "modern" identity that opposed the - justified or unjustified - national pride (continued with classical education, religiosity, "Confucianism", "feudalism", "characters"; instead "science" and democracy "or" scientific socialism "). [Tan Sitong 1865-1898; "Fourth May Movement" 1919; Communism, from 1949, especially "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" 1966-1976; "Flusselegie" 1988].

  • Since the 1990s we have witnessed a massive "culturalization" of all political, social and societal areas in China; everything is "culture": chopsticks, computer input methods for characters, a cup of tea, etc., etc. The rediscovered or reinvented "old" is booming. Often even particular details (a local theater style, a local cooking recipe) stand for a universally Chinese being, with whom the world should heal as much as possible. The representations of "Chinese culture" are often characterized by the fact that historical becoming is completely faded out in favor of a synchronous eternity: Few Chinese people know whether a phenomenon praised as part of the "essence of Chinese culture" is a hundred or two thousand years old. Chinese nationalism (which in China is called "patriotism" according to the Soviet model) has elevated culture to politics in the past decade.

  • Both attitudes (which combine defensive and offensive elements) share the idea of ​​a homogeneous Chinese national culture, regardless of whether it is assessed positively or negatively. It is clear that all Chinese debates about the value and worthlessness of "Chinese culture" stem from identity problems that resulted from the loss of China's traditional role in the earlier Chinese system of internationality (since China was surrounded by East, Southeast and Central Asian satellites), with the disappearance of the traditional, power-wielding educational elite and the associated, to this day unsolved problems of state institutions in China as well as with the powerlessness to counteract the globalization of the occidental world and worldview with something "of their own".


Dealing with the term "culture" is necessary: ​​culture in its entirety cannot be reduced to national culture. We do not live in a culture (we are not inmates of our culture), but we live culturally, i.e. in fractal milieus (youth culture, gay culture, culture of the classical / popular etc. music, food culture, wine culture, TV culture, academic culture, political Culture, migrant culture, etc.). Cultural variance is - as is by the way also genetic in a "race" - mostly greater in one nation than between different nations. In addition, every culture - including a nationally defined one - constantly receives influences from "outside" and is thus consistently structured internationally. (As the important historian Wang Gungwu says: "It is doubtful whether there is a single culture known to history or anthropology that had not owed at least ninety per cent of its constituent elements to cultural borrowing"). In no case can "culture" only be equated with an unconscious, homogeneous knowledge of orientation, otherwise we would all be in a childlike state of conventionality. If two conventionalities meet - this does not necessarily lead to a learning process which, in the best case, should start by itself - especially with the components of culture associated with values. It may make sense to critically examine one's own unconscious assumptions about the unfamiliar, but "culture" also includes the entire sphere of conscious creations including the distance to one's own, which in turn constantly transforms it.

The most unfortunate choice is the term "intercultural dialogue"; based on the model of international dialogue, where heads of state negotiate the fate of their citizens or inmates. In "intercultural dialogue", unlike in "interreligious dialogue" or "international negotiations", for example, the question of representation is unanswered: Who actually represents a culture, and with what right?

The inflation of the term culture: The idea of ​​the "leading culture" responds to the idea of ​​the "multicultural", but both concepts suffer from the fact that they use an undifferentiated (unfortunately mostly ethnically based) concept of culture, which refers to the exclusion of the other and thus his instruction in results in a ghetto. The assessment of this other is in turn dependent on the business cycle: What is still seen as fascinatingly "different" today may be the ugly other tomorrow - if the same observations are maintained -.

The situation is somewhat different with so-called high culture, although it is also a fractal milieu. The proportion of those in the population who - critically or uncritically - deal with the content of cultural memory (poetry, fine arts, history, sometimes also science and music) is important for the continuity of high culture. The concept of high culture - often understood as an elitist educational canon - has been criticized by ethnologists in particular since the 1970s, but there is now - especially in circles of former critics - a certain renaissance of the appreciation of high culture (e.g. as a bulwark against "Big Brother culture") and the like).

In any case, all cultures are subject to significant transformations in time and space (e.g. through migration, external influences, internal restructuring).

Let's apply the culture considerations above to China:

  1. a - relatively - homogeneous national culture only existed in a few areas, often in those of high culture; The following continuous elements should be mentioned: written language (the so-called "dialects", actually regional languages, have hardly been written down; China was characterized by a large number of mutually incomprehensible languages); Education in canonical literature, poetry and painting (the educated elite, bearer of China's extensive high-cultural heritage, made up around 1.7% of the Chinese population according to estimates by F. Wakeman around 1850); Religion and religiosity (state cult as well as the innumerable folk cults that are now loosely and now closely related to it); Administration and institutions (despite many breaks, astonishing degree of continuity); Family system (also here: relatively large continuity).

  2. On the other hand: the already mentioned variety of languages ​​spoken; the enormous differences in food and cuisine; the highly contradicting spiritual and religious traditions from antiquity to the 19th century; the different characteristics of the living environment created by the climate, geographical conditions and migration movements; China has always received decisive influences from non-Chinese peoples: among other things, from the Indo-European chariot in the late 2nd millennium BC to Buddhism from the 2nd / 3rd century AD. Century AD, on corn, potatoes and tomatoes etc. in the 17th century, on the radical transformation of language, knowledge system, political and social organization under occidental influence since the 19th century (as well as "culture" everyone Characterization: No Chinese hit is conceivable without Western polyphony, hardly a house in China in recent decades has been feasible without the influence of international architectural styles, no literary work has been created without the development of international literature, no political theory has been possible without the West)

  3. Of course, continuity can already be denied for traditional China, which was by no means "immobile"; The centuries-old spread of Han Chinese ethnic groups from north to south, long periods of division, occupation by foreigners, repeated radical redesigns of the educational canon, new religions, new forms of nutrition, the strength and weakness of the central state, and language change ensured constant changes . The last and perhaps most profound turning point, however, began with communism (and its forerunners): The break with traditions was much more radical in China than in the West; In order to have a "general Chinese education", a special degree is required nowadays. The sovietization of China - through the complete reorientation of the curricula at schools and universities - has resulted in an almost total amnesia, which is only selectively mixed up (through misdirected memories of "materialists", "patriots", meanwhile also "race ancestors"). The reform of the characters caused even more historical oblivion. China's "cultural memory" needs to be reinvented these days, especially since it is no longer maintained in Taiwan. In Europe, where there are still medieval architectural ensembles with cathedrals, squares and fountains, where Latin and Greek are still sometimes taught at secondary level, where music from the last centuries can still be heard every day, one seldom makes it clear that by comparison China is today represents a cultural desert.

  4. "Strangeness" is a category that an observer puts forward; Most people - including managers, politicians and academics - go to China (and other "exotic" countries) to see their expectations of foreignness confirmed. If you ask each individual, completely different experiences of foreignness emerge or stereotypes due to a lack of observation. Although in China there is hardly anything reminiscent of the earlier culture, "we see it inside the people" because "culture", especially as a "foreign culture", is currently booming. We should also not forget that we often use the foreign to self-stylize: For years we have had to hear that China has a culture of "relationships" and consensus, while Europe (or the West) is shaped by a legal culture and a culture of debate. Such ideas should not have survived the affairs of the Mitterand era and those of the Kohl era (to name but a few, which prove that personal relationships are fundamental to political business in the West too). Unfortunately they have.


If the "culture of consensus" were so pronounced in China, one would not see beatings in the streets every day. If the "universalistic culture" in the West (in contrast to the "particularistic relationship culture" of China) were so pronounced, then there would be neither party donations - affairs of a CDU government nor the scandal of "Elf-Aquitaine" of a socialist government.

Now we have a few things to hand to answer the initial question:

  • A comprehensive knowledge of "Chinese culture" and therefore also its reduction to a "being" is impossible; The forms of expression since the first appearance of the Chinese script around 1300 BC have been too diverse.

  • The study of areas of cultural life of people of the Chinese language over the long period of more than 3000 years is just as valuable as the study of Egyptology or cuneiform: It contributes to the critical examination of humanity with its past and thus to the constant reflexive renewal of the cultural Memory.

  • For the scientific study of phenomena of the Chinese present, knowledge of the past is important to the extent that elements of traditions are revived or invented or even just discussed. Associated with this is the knowledge of which historical events or contexts are being remembered by which groups (selectivity of historical memory). Furthermore - due to the millennia-old interweaving of China with the rest of the world - when researching the Chinese past and present, a distinction must always be made between what official rhetoric describes as the very essence of China and what "foreign" influence has shaped Chinese practice.

  • For dealing (as a tourist, manager or politician) with Chinese people, first and foremost a good upbringing (which should be able to sensitize us to unfamiliar behavior and manners anyway) is necessary, as well as awareness of one's own goals: the successes of Sony (or whatever other East Asian companies) do not explain the fact that the Japanese managers walk around with us in lederhosen, are cunning connoisseurs of the Nibelungen song, know about the tricks of Bismarck's policy, have studied the values ​​of the Christian West, constantly tell the truth straightforward and bluntly to get down to business by hitting the table (because that's supposedly German); rather, the people on the executive floor have good manners, special training in negotiation and conflict management and calculate according to the laws of the market.

    further reading

    Lackner, Michael and Werner, Michael (1999): The cultural turn in the human sciences. Area Studies in the Upswing or Downwind of Culturalism ?, Bad Homburg, Series Search Processes for Innovative Questions in Science, No. 2.

    Lee, Ming-huei (1998): The 'Confucianism Fever' in China Today, in: Ralf Moritz and Lee Ming-huei (eds.): Der Konfzianismus. Origins-Developments-Perspektiven, Leipzig, pp. 235-248.

    Wang, Gungwu (1991): The Chineseness of China. Selected Essays, Hong Kong: Oxford.

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