Creative Misreading in Cultural Exchange

In recent years, the history of cultural exchanges between China and the West has become a topic attracting more and more attention. “West” of course does not only refer to the “West” as we understand it today, but also refers to the West in a broad sense, that is, an exotic land outside China. This is not only a revival of a branch of history, but also contains a strong problem consciousness in this era, that is, what is the uniqueness of our culture. Interestingly, this uniqueness is mainly due to the contrast with the West.
This strong problem consciousness does not mean the arrival of a clash of civilizations. It is better to understand it as follows: it represents a desire in people’s hearts to continue to be answered. In the surging modernization process, which of our cultures should not be changed, or even if they need to be changed, they must do so in their own way?
Under this background, the standard for measuring a book on the general history of cultural exchanges between China and the West cannot be separated from two points. First, it is rich in information and detailed in argumentation, that is, it takes a lot of effort to remove the false and preserve the true at the real level. As Rong Xinjiang, professor of history department of Peking university, said, it is difficult for today’s people to understand the whole picture of the history of cultural exchange between China and the west as they understand the ancient political history of China, because the former has systematic official history and general history books that can be reviewed. The latter will have to carefully comb through Chinese documents, cross-check and search from foreign documents, and also include cultural relics handed down from ancient times and unearthed.
The second is in-depth thinking on the natural level. As French historian Paul Werner said, there is no such thing as an all-encompassing “holographic” history. History writing is firstly historians’ choice of events, and weaves these events into a meaningful sequence. Even if it is the same topic, different authors have their own different choices, thus showing their individuality. This kind of personality does not represent “willfulness” in historical writing, but is actually the depth of understanding of “meaningful sequence”.
The famous historian Zhang Guogang’s “General History of Sino-Western Cultural Relations” is an excellent work that perfectly combines these two points. Taking 1500 as the boundary, the book is divided into two volumes. Before 1500, it was the name of two Chinese: from Zhang Qian to Zheng He. After 1500 there were two western names: Matteo Ricci and Macartney. This arrangement has both historical considerations and thoughts on the fate of different civilizations, which is quite meaningful.
A vision of long history

As long as the field of vision is long enough, the sense of meaning of many arguments will be greatly diminished. This is probably a very important reason why human beings are human beings-human beings do not just care about the present like animals, and the length of time is meaningful to human beings.
No matter how many entanglements there are between different civilizations today, no matter how many entanglements there have been between different civilizations in history, as long as you lengthen the time, the significance of exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations to human progress will become more and more prominent. On the historical stage of cultural exchanges between China and the West, there are two-way exchanges and interactions from east to west and from west to east.
The exchange of civilizations and mutual learning had already started magnificently long before Zhang Qian. Millet and rice were first cultivated in China, while wheat cultivated in the west was introduced to China along the Tarim River and Hexi Corridor. Bronze technology comes from the west, but compared with bronze tools in western Asia, Chinese bronze ware is more used as ritual vessels in major ceremony activities such as sacrificial ceremonies. it has made localized innovations in metallurgical technology, and Chinese bronze technology and articles have spread to the west in turn. Iron smelting technology also came from the West. By the Qin and Han Dynasties, China’s iron smelting technology had become unique. Even Pliny in the Roman world praised Cyrus (China) for his iron and steel.
Thousands or even tens of thousands of years are long enough for a country and society. Even if we had high-tech means to discover the truth of that year from archaeology, we could not restore the scene at that time. Fortunately, human beings still have imagination. We can imagine how these material and cultural exchanges went through in those days. When we Chinese saw the seed of a new crop, or saw a new wheeled carriage, or a bronze tool that we had never seen before, what kind of scene it would be.
No matter how many entanglements there are between different civilizations today, no matter how many entanglements there have been between different civilizations in history, as long as you lengthen the time, the significance of exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations to human progress will become more and more prominent.

We can take those clearly recorded events as a reference, that is, envoys sent by dynasties in history. The dynamic mechanisms behind exchanges and mutual learning among different civilizations vary greatly. As far as the situation of Chinese dynasties is concerned, political diplomacy is the first starting point for sending large-scale envoys. The advantage is to leave a record. Think of the Western Han Dynasty’s westbound diplomatic corps that took several years to 1989 to make a visit. Once you go west, you will be separated from your parents or loved ones or children for ten years. You have to admire the spirit of exploration and courage of those who go west.
For the growth of Chinese civilization, we must not greatly underestimate the role of cultural exchanges and mutual learning because of its long history and the inextricability of many things. The Chinese, including all human beings, benefit from cultural exchanges and mutual learning, and creativity often occurs after interesting collisions with heterogeneous civilizations.
With this long-history perspective, our state of mind will be much calmer for our own civilization. We will neither deliberately elevate nor belittle it. The “Four Great Inventions” in 2019 were “hot searched” because a university teacher was reported by students. Apart from what happened to this teacher, as far as the “four great inventions” are concerned, there is sufficient evidence to prove that this is indeed a great contribution of the Chinese people to the world. At the same time, the four great inventions themselves are a process of learning from each other and continuously improving. For example, the compass, Arab compass technology is transmitted from China, and from the perspective of time sequence, the compass used by Europeans should be transmitted from China, but how Chinese compass navigation knowledge is transmitted to Europe is still a mystery.
There is no doubt that after mastering the compass navigation knowledge of the Chinese people, the Europeans made a major innovation and transformed it into a dry compass with a stable structure using a universal bracket, thus preparing important conditions for ocean navigation. However, by the end of the 18th century, when steam engines were used in sea-going ships and armored ships in the middle of the 19th century, the magnetic compass lost its function due to the strong vibration of the turbines and artillery and the interference of the ship’s magnetic field. As a result, western countries have made a new type of magnetic compass and attached anti-magnetic equipment through continuous reforms. This equipment is based on the traditional European drought compass and absorbs the technology of Chinese floating needle. It combines the advantages of Chinese and western compasses to perfect the magnetic compass. Therefore, Mr. Zhang Guogang stressed: “The appearance of the liquid compass once again shows that the exchange of Chinese and western cultures plays an important role in the development of human civilization.”
I think there should be such a high level of understanding for any debate like the four great inventions, that is to say, it is really important to understand how Chinese and western civilizations communicate and learn from each other, and it is unnecessary to excessively elevate oneself or belittle oneself.
Misreading is also a creative transformation

The collision between Chinese and western civilizations is certainly not limited to material culture. Learning from each other on the material level is both easy to handle and easy to accept, but the reference and enlightenment in the ideological and cultural fields are even more complicated. Because mutual learning of spiritual civilization involves deep cultural identity. For a country or society, a lifelong problem is: who are we? This problem is often highlighted after “they” come. Asking “who we are” is actually asking “what’s the difference between us”.

On the differences between Chinese and western cultures-the word “west” here mainly refers to Europe and the United States, and there have always been many summaries. There is a view close to the established view that the Chinese are “the unity of heaven and man” and the westerners are “the split between heaven and man”. There is even a saying that because the Chinese stress the harmony between man and nature, they maintain the ecological environment, while the westerners stress that man conquers nature, thus destroying the ecological environment.
Obviously, this extended statement does not accord with the facts. Li Ling, a scholar, also disagreed with the conclusion of “harmony between man and nature”. He believes that the difference between China and the West is not that we speak of “harmony between heaven and man” but that they speak of “separation between heaven and man”, but that there are great differences between the two in the relationship between monks and laymen and politics. Long before the separation of politics and religion was implemented in modern Europe, the relationship between politics and religion in China had already been dualized. We were more “secular” and they were more “religious”. If we did not talk about separation and integration, it could only be that they were “harmony between heaven and man” and we were “separation between heaven and man”.

From the perspective of the relationship between politics and religion, I agree with Mr. Li Ling. The importance of understanding this lies in the influence of the west on China in the field of ideology and culture. there are mainly three religions: Buddhism in the western regions in the Han and Tang dynasties, Islamic culture from the song and yuan dynasties to the early Ming dynasties, and Christian culture in the early modern times (1500-1800). Since the relationship between politics and religion in China is dualistic, it is quite inclusive in the face of foreign religions (religious tolerance as a practice, China will at least never lose to the West) and there has been no religious war. However, this does not mean that there is no obstacle to the integration of foreign religions. It is precisely because our separation of church and state is too advanced and it will collide with foreign religions outside or above the secular regime.
The most famous example of successful assimilation due to misreading in the development of Chinese culture is the transformation of Indian Buddhism into Chinese Buddhism.

At this time, cultural exchanges often take a misreading way. In the words of Mr. Zhang Guogang, Ying Shuyan’s misreading is common in cultural exchanges in history, and misreading is also a creative transformation. Because when different cultures meet, each culture wants to show itself completely, and at the same time “to take care of one’s own heart”, both sides in contact involuntarily try to look at each other through their own eyes and try to bring each other under their control.
Then, the most famous example of successful assimilation due to misreading in the development of Chinese culture is the transformation of Indian Buddhism into Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism first entered China, there were significant differences between Buddhist ethics and Confucian ethics, especially Buddhism violated filial piety and constituted a political order other than Confucian etiquette. “Ge Yi” Buddhism is an active integration of early Buddhism in order to adapt to the Chinese way of thinking and values. The famous “24 filial piety maps” are brochures compiled by Buddhists. Compared with Confucianism, this is the extreme expression of filial piety, and even shows the absurd meaning of pushing filial piety to extremes. This precisely shows the urgency of actively integrating the feelings of one party-in this way, Buddhism has to bear part of the “responsibility” for filial piety, which has been severely criticized in modern times.
In the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, Jesuits also tried to use the interpretation of cultural misreading to make the Chinese accept Christianity. Matteo Ricci was the main representative. The so-called adaptation policy was called “Matteo Ricci Rules” by Emperor Kangxi. Matteo Ricci completed his “localization” through four aspects of adaptive measures: in his lifestyle, he accepted the Chinese scholars’ behavior, eating habits, living patterns, up and down inside and out of the dress. In ethics, the Confucian concepts of benevolence and morality are used to explain Christian ethics. When introducing Christian doctrines and performing sacraments, they do not highlight, ignore or modify behaviors that are unacceptable to traditional Chinese morality, such as male priests’ physical contact with female believers. In terms of terminology, “heaven” or “GOD” frequently appeared in ancient Chinese books are used to refer to god. On the issue of etiquette, kowtow ceremony is understood as social and political behavior and allowed to be carried out.
However, there are always strong obstacles to the integration of Christianity. The Holy See and other monasteries ordered an end to this practice for fear of inculcating a Chinese-style Christianity that has lost the purity of Christianity. The Christian culture in China has never produced a new culture that integrates Chinese and Western wisdom like Chinese Buddhism.
One succeeded and the other failed. Today, due to social progress, misreading among civilizations has been greatly reduced. Rao is so, is creative misreading in history still implying something to us?