Academia, Language, and Imperialism in China (Part Two)

Pattberg Interview with Eric Draitser on Academic Imperialism and Language Issues in China

Pattberg Interview with Eric Draitser on Academic Imperialism and Language Issues in China; photo: Dong Guisheng

This is Part Two of the Interview. For Part One click here.

Eric Draitser: And we are back here on It is my pleasure and privilege to be talking to Dr. Thorsten Pattberg; he is an author and lecturer and his books include The East-West dichotomy, Shengren, and Inside Peking University. Dr. Pattberg, I wanted to come back to this issue of Academic Imperialism and I am very curious to get your perspective on how this has changed. One of the thing that we have seen in the last fifty years – at least in the West – has been a shift in academia from to some degree a reactionary type of mentality to what we call a “progressive liberal establishment”. So how has this changed, if at all, the nature of academic imperialism?

 Empires Wax and Wane

“The principle works. And this is now, I think, what the Anglo-Saxon culture tries to repeat: A concentration on their own cultural circles, taxonomies, and lexicons, and to leave out all the other Chinese, Japanese, and Indian terminologies.”

Thorsten Pattberg: Well, I am not really an expert to talk about the politics in this; you mentioned “geopolitics” in the first half [of this interview], but I think that American imperialism is in full gear. I said “American” but I mean Academic imperialism. It is of course not only American, there is also the German one and so on. Still, it is unstoppable, and I can say that because if you watch TV or read a magazine in America or Europe you want see a single Chinese word, never – they don’t talk about it. You will simple never see anything Chinese, and I will go so far to say that for instance the German media is totally Chinese-free. And this has historical roots and a tradition. Already the most famous German philosophers like Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel actively promoted their dominance over other languages and cultures. And the first German philosopher, Leibniz, even encouraged his fellow Germans to only use German words to express ideas, because this way you can expand let’s say your own language empire; and you suppress the others. And the Germans were very successful if you remember in the 19th and early fifty years of the 20th centuries and then declined of course. But the principle works. And this is now I think what the Anglo-Saxon culture tries to repeat. A concentration on their own cultural circles, taxonomies, and lexicons, and to leave out all the other Chinese, Japanese, and Indian terminologies.

ED: You know, one of the reasons why I was so excited to have you on the program is because there are very few people that I came in contact with that I think really have a good window into the mentality – the perspective or the mindset – of the Chinese and Chinese culture and I think a lot of that comes with the understanding of their language and the study of their culture which I have done only to a minimum degree. In any case, the famous work that some people may have come across from Chinese literal history is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. And, of course, I read it in translation, but in translation are those famous opening lines: “Empires wax and wane, States cleave asunder and coalesce…” That, apart from being a beautiful line, is what people remember because of the nature of empire and what that says about history. So I’m wondering how does the historical understanding of empire show itself in the Chinese mindset today?

TP: Well, I believe the idea of empire is not a Chinese one. The Chinese have their own ideas that are not equal [for example] to the German word for empire. The Chinese have a word for instance “tianxia” which means roughly “all under heaven” and it is slightly different from what the Europeans with their “nation states” would say is an empire. So, there is definitely another idea of humanity; I would even call it a new type of humanity over there in China.

ED: It is difficult for Westerners and even for those of us who are really open-minded to these issues to grasp how Chinese view many of the issues around us. One about the things that I was recently talking about with one of our guests was the fact that the Chinese tend to be understated and to sit on the sideline to a large degree in political affairs, geopolitical and economic affairs, and I think this is also part of the historical tradition, so if you read Sun-Tze (The Art of War) or something like this, they are talking about allowing the opponents to destroy themselves is the strategies of the warriors and something like that. I am always fascinated with the Chinese cultural perspective on some of these issues.

“They [the Westerners] don’t want to learn anything fromChina, it seems, which is rather tragic…”

TP: Yes, they are very passive, maybe this is what you want to say. Historically speaking they were very passive we know that. I remind again of the great German philosopher Georg Hegel who wrote about the philosophy of history and coined many phrases about the Chinese passivity, one of the goes along the lines of the Chinese being destined to be dominated [by the West]. Of course, this is rather sick to say it; but it is still the prevailing notion in academia too. They [the Chinese] have their own ideas about everything and the study European and now American cultures avidly; they are keen on improving themselves and they do take in some of our ideas about for example democracy, human rights, and philosophy. These are all new concepts that came to Asia from the West, and they study them. But what do we study Chinese, what do we take from them? And I think there is a certain kind of pessimism in China, a sort of hopelessness; it’s like: They don’t seem to learn at all in the West” is the kind of expression I hear from Chinese scholars. They [the Westerners] don’t want to learn anything from China, it seems, which is rather tragic because surely there is a lot to learn from other cultures especially from such beautiful ones as the Chinese one is.

Western ‘Civilization’ Versus Chinese ‘Wenming’

ED: Absolutely, and one of the things that always strikes me too is the fact that when people talk about China and the rise of China it is almost always, even if it is unintentional or unconsciousness, it is always in a sinophobic way, like “the Chinese are growing in power” or “the Chinese are culturally growing” etc., so therefore we need to grow even faster so that we can continue to be Number One – that’s essentially the American mentality. But I would say that extends to Europe as well, so let us say the Western civilization.

TP: Yes, this is how it works. And I am glad that you mentioned this word “civilization” about which I wrote as well. The word civilization is also a Greek concept and it is applied now to all the others. The Chinese have their own idea about “civilization” – they call it wenming. A wenming is precisely not what the Greeks and later Europeans understood as “civilization” which is basically a materialistic society and about interests groups competing which each other, summoning your supporters from the city class which later developed into democracy and so on… all this [comes to mind] when we talk about “civilization” in the West; we talk about architecture, we look at theories and technologies and all this. The Chinese wenming is very different, it is all about an artistic people, a people of thought, a people that mastered the arts… yet here again I have never seen this word, wenming, published anywhere in Western media like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, they would never mention [the existence of] it.

ED: You know, it is so fascinating that you say that, correct me if I am wrong but the idea that “civilization” in the Western mindset is in association with physical growth and expansion to more complex systems incorporating technologies and things like this, whereas wenming, the Chinese idea really refers more to the cultivation of the mind and the spirit, and so civilization in that sense really refers to the development of the individual and the society.

Western ‘University’ Versus ‘Chinese Daxue’

TP: That is a very nice definition that you gave there, it is true, and there are many more examples. Take for instance the Western concept of a “university”. Again, it is a Greek concept so we stay in the realms of the Hellenic tradition. The modern idea of a university is to create experts: that was not always the way, of course, but this is how it is perceived today. The Chinese have their own idea about this institution – they call it the “daxue”. For example, Peking University, this name, is the English name for this institutions so that the foreigners can find its address. The Chinese themselves however call the Peking University “Beijing Daxue”. And “daxue” means higher learning or something like that, but it is not derived or a direct translation from the Greek word “universitas” but it derives from an ancient Confucian text like the Lun Yu or “The Analects of Confucius”. No, wait, what am I talking about, I wanted to talk not about the Lun Yu but about the second most important text in the Confucian tradition: The Daxue. The text’s very opening line is already an expression of this “self-cultivation” or “cultivation of the self and the mind” that we were talking about earlier. And this is precisely the spirit that we find in today’s “daxue” those Chinese institutes of higher learning. So, again, this is all completely different from the Western story of university, and we should write about this more in the Western discourse aboutChina.

Cognitive Differences between China and the West

ED: Absolutely, and another thing that you are mentioning it, it strikes me now and that is about a class that I took in Chinese at Oregon University, and from the Western perspective what we would always do is we would do a formal analysis of this hanging scroll or whatever it was that we were looking at. But what I took away from that was that for the Chinese people in particular those who made it and are looking at it today the concept that comes to mind is the concept of filial piety, the way that older members of the family are respected and that the scroll itself, the work of art itself, the meaning of it and the value of it is not in its formal characteristics, its technical side, but rather in the emotional or spiritual aspect that it embodies.

TP: Yes, that is true. You know, most of the cultures on this planet have developed the entire range of mental capabilities, but some of them have excelled in certain disciplines better than the others. And the Chinese certainly excel at some form of the arts like calligraphy and that has also to do with their language because they have the hanzi [Chinese characters]; so they simply can do with their language what we in the West with our Romanized languages [alphabets] cannot do – because we have letters no symbols. I wanna give you a little example. I visited Germany a couple of months ago and walked with Chinese friends over a ‘middle-age fair’. They do this [kind of things], and I guess you do it in America as well. It’s like 14th century Germany, you know, it’s all about barbarians, drinking, presenting weapon skills, dancing and all this. But what we noticed, we were talking about civilizations right (of course, the word civilization came much later in time, but it is similar in German language: Zivilisation), there was not a single book presented on this middle age fair, and there wasn’t presented any form of calligraphy or other let’s say the mind disciplines. No, it was all about physical activities. This is very striking in difference to some form of ‘middle age fair’ in China which, as we mentioned earlier do not have a material concept of civilization but a spiritual concept of wenming, you will see a lots of books and scrolls, and jing or sutras, Buddhist paintings, theatre and all this. This is what we would call a wenming after all.

ED: Yeah, one of the things that come to mind is Deborah Brautigam’s book The Dragon’s Gift which some of you may have read about China’s penetrating of Africa economically. I am not getting in all of that, but one anecdote that she told in the beginning of the book had to do with Chinese explorers who had gone to Africa – I don’t even know when that was, perhaps the 14th century – but what they did was instead of bringing back say gold or jewels or diamonds or whatever, they brought back samples of animals, you know, giraffes and other indigenous animals of Africa that could not be found in China. And that story at least to me strikes a cord because again it gets to the Chinese concept of civilization or wenming; the idea that they want to know, that they want to grow intellectually. So what they gained from Africa and their explorations is not raw materials or wealth but rather knowledge.

Chinese Long and Western Dragons

“If you write a book about Chinese “dragon” you are already using Western ideas about a dangerous creature that we all should be worried about.”

TP: I never studied this in particular and I am not familiar with the history; of course I’ve heard about it, and there a lot of controversities. In general, they were never as aggressive as the European powers, that is for sure. The never controlled the globe like the British empire did, evidently. Now I want to come back to the book you mentioned about the Dragon…something. I wrote an article entitled ‘Long Into the West’s Dragon Business’. The word “dragon”, etymologically speaking of course is a Western concept. The Chinese dragon is very different; it is called the “long”. The “long” is friendly; it is a wise creature; it is a good creature. And also, it doesn’t resemble the typical Western dragon, you know, pear-bodied, spying fire, destroying villages, that sort of thing. No, the Chinese “long” is a very different animal from that, so again look at our cultural prejudices. If you write a book about Chinese “dragon” you are already using Western ideas about a dangerous creature that we all should be worried about. And of course we have our dragon slayers; I remind you of the German Siegfried or the Northern Beowulf; so in our traditions the dragon is a fierce creature that needs to be slain.

ED: You are absolutely right, and if you were to follow US politics you will hear countless examples, Mitt Romney would be a good example, essentially exposing that same mythology, namely thatChina is kind of a monster that needs to be slain. They use the usual demonization of “currency manipulator” or “wage under cutter” or whatever they wanna say. But you are right, the embodiment of the dragon being that it is evil and must be slain.

TP: I am just a linguist, so don’t wanna go to deep into the aspects of geopolitics, but it must be true: We do have these prejudices and the first step to enlightenment is to acknowledge that we have prejudices, that we are limited beings. Back to the philosophy of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the “Limits of my language are the limits of my world”. So as long as our discourse about China is solely in our language, we don’t learn anything new at all.

ED: Well said, I couldn’t say it better myself. On that note I want to give you the opportunity to say something about yourself or your book or anything that you want to say to people where they can follow you, please go ahead.

TP: I write my ideas in articles and published some book. So please check them out and please also visit my new website

ED: It was a real pleasure.

TP: Thank you very much!

This interview took place on Dec 16th, 2012, and can be streamed and downloaded on here. (c) 2012-2013 Eric Draitser