Emanuel Pastreich: Can culture be used for consensus in NE Asia?

September 14 , 2018

Emanuel Pastreich, a non-resident senior researcher of CCG

There have been multiple efforts to find common ground in Northeast Asia between China, South Korea and Japan over the last 20 years. For the most part, the focus has been placed on promoting trade, removing barriers to investment, and holding meetings between ministers, vice ministers, CEOs and technical experts.

It is natural to think that the effort to promote integration and cooperation between the three countries should take place at the highest levels. The problem is that more often than not it is assumed that “highest” refers to highest rank.

But might the term “highest” be used in a different sense? Could it be that we need a “high-level” discussion between China, South Korea and Japan not in the sense of institutional hierarchy, but rather in a cultural or philosophical sense?

There have been moments like the signing of the Magna Carta, or the school of Confucius, that have been transformational and opened the doors to a new age of intellectual and cultural engagement.

We don’t mean academic conferences that bring together scholars for presentations of specialized papers on culture, philosophy and history. Such activities have a value, but they are at a distance from government, from diplomacy and from the experiences of common people.

China has a tremendous opportunity to affirm its commitment to internationalism, encourage closer cooperation in Northeast Asia and put forth an inspiring vision for what is possible going forward by starting a discourse between the three countries that is inspiring and that will set the groundwork for a mutual exploration of the potential locked in the three traditions. To do so requires seriousness in our discourse, in our writings and in our speech that has been lost over the last 40 years.

First we must grasp our historical position. You can barely find anything that is traditional in the big cities of South Korea, China and Japan. Whether you are looking at clothing, or architecture, or fast food, or even value systems, superficial reflections of a commercialized West have taken over Northeast Asia.

That process took two centuries. Ever since the Opium Wars showed the tremendous technological prowess of the West, the cultural discourse in Asia has permanently tilted toward the European tradition. But the Opium Wars were not won because of the superiority of Western culture, but rather because the West rapidly embraced a coal-based industrial society that brought with it tremendous advantages, but which has also completely dehumanized us by making technology the standard by which we judge people and progress.

Now we see that fossil fuels are destroying the Earth and that the scholars of South Korea, China and Japan who refused industrialization and favored a sustainable agricultural-based economy were right and the Europeans were completely wrong.

We need to start a discussion on the value of the traditional cultures of South Korea, China and Japan that involves not just history experts, but also scientists, policymakers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens. We can together consider how the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism offer fresh approaches to living our lives, and suggesting new directions for innovation in governance, education, and the preservation of the environment.

Identifying the best of the past discourse on government, on the economy, and on political ethics from the traditions of South Korea, China and Japan will offer us access to tremendous visions of what is possible in the future.

Equally important is bringing South Koreans, Chinese and Japanese together to assess the potential of past cultures to avoid most ideological conflicts and emphasize common ground.

The riches are tremendous. South Korea, China and Japan share thousands of years of sophisticated governance which was based on sustainable agriculture and which emphasized ethical rules. But the most important point is that we are not looking to Asia’s rich past for entertainment, we are looking for solutions to the overwhelming threats that we face today such as climate change, unsustainable development and the collapse of industrial society.

The creative review of Asia’s common heritage at this critical historical moment could be a moment similar to the constitutional convention of 1787 in the US. Leading scholars and thoughtful political figures gathered to discuss how the best of Greek and Roman ideas about governance could be reinterpreted to form the basis for ethical government in the modern age. That constitutional convention, because of the profundity of the discussion and seriousness of the intentions, set the stage for a new conception of democracy which would inspire generations of activists to press for political reform in the French Revolution and thereafter.

The efforts of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in drafting the US Constitution built on an earlier such effort: the European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, are noteworthy.

Renaissance thinkers in Italy and France during the 15th century seized on the best of ancient Greece and Rome and creatively reinterpreted it as a means of injecting vitality into a moribund civilization. They found transformative power in that past culture that helped them push toward new horizons. Looking back was not nostalgia, but rather an opportunity for innovation. China can lead the way in promoting such a transformation of the civilization in Northeast Asia.

About Author 

Emanuel Pastreich, a non-resident senior researcher of Center for China and Globalization(CCG), president of the Asia Institute.