Exchanges and Mutual Learning Make Civilizations Richer and More Colorful

Xi Jinping: The Governance of China I Updated: 2021-12-10

Exchanges and Mutual Learning Make Civilizations Richer and More Colorful* 

March 27, 2014 

Civilizations become richer and more colorful through exchanges and mutual learning, which form an important driver for human progress and global peace and development. 

To promote exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations we must adopt a correct approach with some important principles. They, in my view, contain the following: 

First, civilizations come in different colors, and such diversity has made exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations relevant and valuable. Just as the sunlight has seven colors, our world is a place of dazzling colors. A civilization is the collective memory of a country or a nation. Throughout history, mankind has created and developed many colorful civilizations, from the earliest days of primitive hunting to the period of agriculture, and from booming industrial revolution to the information society. Together, they present a magnificent genetic map of the exciting march of human civilizations. 

"A single flower does not make spring, while one hundred flowers in full blossom bring spring to the garden." If there were only one kind of flower in the world, people would find it boring no matter how beautiful it was. Be it Chinese civilization or other civilizations in the world, they are all fruits of human progress. 

I have visited the Louvre Museum in France and the Palace Museum in China, both of which house millions of art treasures. They are attractive because they present the richness of diverse civilizations. Exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations must not be built on the exclusive praise or belittling of one particular civilization. As early as over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese people came to recognize that "it is natural for things to be different."1 Greater exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations can further enrich the colors of various civilizations and the cultural life of people and open up still greater alternatives in the future. 

Second, civilizations are equal, and such equality has made exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations possible. All human civilizations are equal in value, and they all have their respective strengths and weaknesses. No civilization is perfect on the planet. Nor is it devoid of merit. No single civilization can be judged superior to another. 

I have visited many places in the world. What interested me most during the trips was to learn about differing civilizations across the five continents, what makes them different and unique, how their people think about the world and life and what they hold dear. I have visited Chichen Itza, a window on the ancient Maya civilization, and the Central Asian city of Samarkand, an icon of the ancient Islamic civilization. It is my keenly felt conviction that an attitude of equality and modesty is required if one wants to truly understand various civilizations. Taking a condescending attitude towards a civilization cannot help anyone to appreciate its essence, and may risk antagonizing it. Both history and reality show that pride and prejudice are the biggest obstacles to exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations. 

Third, civilizations are inclusive, and such inclusiveness has given exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations the impetus to move forward. The ocean is vast because it refuses no rivers. All civilizations are crystallizations of mankind's diligence and wisdom. Every civilization is unique. Copying other civilizations blindly or mechanically is like cutting one's toes to fit one's shoes – impossible and highly detrimental. All achievements of civilizations deserve our respect and must be cherished. 

History proves that only by interacting with and learning from others can a civilization enjoy full vitality. If all civilizations are inclusive, the so-called "clash of civilizations" can be avoided and the harmony of civilizations will become reality; as a Chinese saying goes, "Radish or cabbage, each to his own delight." 

Having gone through over 5,000 years of vicissitudes, the Chinese civilization has always kept to its original root. As an icon, it contains the most profound pursuits of the Chinese nation and provides it with abundant nourishment for existence and development. Deriving from Chinese soil, it has come to its present form through constant exchanges with and learning from other civilizations. 

In the 2nd century BC, China started the Silk Road2 leading to the Western Regions. In 138 BC and 119 BC, Envoy Zhang Qian3 of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) made two trips to those regions, disseminating Chinese culture and bringing into China grapes, alfalfa, pomegranates, flax, sesame and other products. 

During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), China's merchant fleets sailed as far as India and Sri Lanka where they traded China's silk for colored glaze, pearls and other products. 

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) saw dynamic interactions between China and other countries. Historical records reveal that China exchanged envoys with more than 70 countries, and Chang'an, the capital of Tang, bustled with envoys, merchants and students from other countries. Exchanges of such a magnitude helped spread Chinese culture to the rest of the world and introduce other cultures and products to China. 

During the early 15th century, Zheng He4, a famous navigator of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), made seven expeditions to the Western Seas, reaching many Southeast Asian countries and even Kenya on the eastern coast of Africa, leaving behind many stories of friendly exchanges between China and countries along the route. 

During the late Ming and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the Chinese people began to access modern science and technology through the introduction of European knowledge in the realms of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, geometry and geography, which helped broaden the horizon of Chinese people. Thereafter, exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese civilization and other civilizations became more frequent. Naturally, there were conflicts, frictions, bewilderment and denial, but the more dominant features of the period were learning, digestion, integration and innovation. 

Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was brought to China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with the indigenous Confucianism and Taoism, and finally became Buddhism with Chinese features, thus greatly impacting the religious beliefs, philosophy, literature, art, etiquette and customs of China. Xuan Zang5, an eminent monk of the Tang Dynasty, who endured untold sufferings as he went on a pilgrimage to ancient India for Buddhist scriptures, gave full expression to the determination and fortitude of the Chinese people to learn from other cultures. I am sure you have heard of the Chinese mythological classical novel Journey to the Westbased on his stories. 

The Chinese people enriched Buddhism and developed some special Buddhist thoughts in the light of Chinese culture, and helped it spread from China to Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and beyond. 

Over the last 2,000 years religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have been introduced into China, nurturing the country's music, painting and literature. China's freehand oil painting, for instance, is an innovative combination of its own traditional painting and Western oil painting, and the works by Xu Beihong7 and other master painters have been widely acclaimed. China's Four Great Inventions – papermaking, gunpowder, printing and the compass, brought drastic changes to the whole world, including the European Renaissance. Its philosophy, literature, medicine, silk, porcelain and tea have been shared by the West and become part of its people's life. The book Travels of Marco Polo provoked widespread interest in China. 

I think some of you might be familiar with the terracotta warriors and horses8 of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), one of the eight wonders in the world. After his visit to the site, President Chirac of France remarked that a visit to Egypt would not be complete without seeing the pyramids, and that a visit to China would not be complete without seeing the terracotta warriors and horses. 

In 1987 this national treasure was listed as one of UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage Sites. Many Chinese legacies are ranked as World Cultural Heritage Sites, and World Intangible Cultural Heritage Sites and are listed on the Memory of the World Register. Here, I'd like to express my heartfelt thanks to UNESCO for its contribution to the preservation and dissemination of Chinese civilization. 

Today, we live in a world with different cultures, ethnic groups, skin colors, religions and social systems, and all people on the planet have become members of an intimate community of shared future. 

The Chinese people have long come to appreciate the concept of "harmony without uniformity."9 Zuoqiu Ming10, a Chinese historian who lived 2,500 years ago, recorded a few lines by Yan Zi11, prime minister of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) in Zuo's Chronicles (Zuo Zhuan)12: "Harmony is like cooking thick soup. You need water, fire, vinegar, meat sauce, salt and plum to go with the fish or meat. It is the same with music. Only by combining the texture, length, rhythm, mood, tone, pitch and style adequately and executing them properly can you produce an excellent melody. Who can tolerate soup with nothing but water in it? Who can tolerate the same tone played again and again with one instrument?" 

On the planet, there are more than 200 countries and regions inhabited by over 2,500 ethnic groups with a multitude of religions. Can we imagine a world with only one lifestyle, one language, one kind of music and one style of costume? 

Victor Hugo once said that there was a prospect greater than the sea – the sky; there was a prospect greater than the sky – the human soul. Indeed, we need a mind that is broader than the sky as we approach different civilizations, which serve as water, moistening everything silently. We should encourage different civilizations to respect each other and live in harmony, so as to turn exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations into a bridge promoting friendship between peoples around the world, an engine driving human society, and a bond cementing world peace. We should draw wisdom and nourishment and seek spiritual support and psychological consolation from various civilizations, and work together to face down the challenges around the globe. 

In 1987, 20 exquisite pieces of colored glaze were brought to light from an underground tomb of Famen Temple in Shaanxi, China. They proved to be Byzantine and Islamic relics brought to China during the Tang Dynasty. Marveling at these exotic relics, I was struck by the thought that we should appreciate their cultural significance rather than simply admiring their exquisiteness, and bring their inherent spirit to life instead of merely appreciating the artistic presentation of life in the past. 

* Part of the speech at the UNESCO Headquarters. 


1 The Mencius (Meng Zi)

2 The Silk Road was a trade thoroughfare on land connecting ancient China with South Asia, Western Asia, Europe and North Africa through Central Asia. The name derives from the bustling trade in silk and silk products from China to the western regions. 

3 Zhang Qian (?-114 BC) was a minister of the Western Han Dynasty. He was dispatched by Emperor Wudi as an envoy to the western regions (a historical name specified in the Han Dynasty that referred to the regions west of Yumen and Yangguan passes) in 138 BC and 119 BC, respectively, to seek alliances among local ethnic groups to fight against the Xiongnu, an aggressive tribe. His travels, as far as Central Asia today, tightened the ties between the central plains and the western regions and contributed remarkably to the opening of the ancient Silk Road. 

4 Zheng He (1371 or 1375-1433 or 1435) was a navigator of the Ming Dynasty. He began his service at the imperial court in the early Ming Dynasty and was later promoted to be the Grand Director (Taijian) of the Directorate of Palace Servants. He eventually served as chief envoy during his seven grand sea voyages between 1405 and 1433 when he traveled to more than 30 countries and regions in Asia and Africa, including Southeast Asian countries, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, as well as the East Coast of Africa and Mecca – the sacred place for Islamic pilgrimages (Zheng He was a Muslim.). His expeditions were dubbed Treasure Voyages, which greatly boosted the economic and cultural exchanges between China and other Asian and African countries.

5 Xuan Zang (600 or 602-664), also known as Tang Seng, was an eminent monk of the Tang Dynasty, translator of Buddhist scriptures, and co-founder of the Vijnaptimatrata (Consciousness-only) School. He requested to take Buddhist orders at the age of 13, after which time he learned from many masters who confused him with different ideas, causing him a dream of journey to India – the western regions. His dream came true in 629 (or 627) when he headed to India for the study of Buddhist sutras. After his return to Chang'an, capital of the Tang Dynasty, Xuan Zang committed himself to translating 75 Buddhist scriptures in 1,335 volumes and writing a book, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Da Tang Xi Yu Ji)

6 Journey to the West (Xi You Ji) is a mythical novel attributed to Wu Cheng'en (c. 1500-c. 1582), a novelist of the Ming Dynasty. It recounts the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang Dynasty monk Tang Seng (Xuan Zang), who traveled to the western regions (India) to obtain sacred texts (sutras) with his three disciples, Sun Wukong (Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (Pig of the Eight Prohibitions), and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand), and returned after many trials and much suffering subduing demons and monsters. It is dubbed one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, the other three being Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh and A Dream of Red Mansions

7 Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was a master painter and fine arts educator. 

8 Terracotta warriors and horses of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) were archaeological discoveries from the mausoleum of Emperor Yingzheng (259-210 BC), or the First Emperor of Qin – the first to unify feudal China. They were listed as one of UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1987. 

9 The Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu)

10 Zuoqiu Ming (556-451 BC) was a historian in the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn Period. 

11 Yan Zi (?-500 BC), also known as Yan Ying, was a prime minister of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period. 

12 Zuo's Chronicles (Zuo Zhuan), also known as Zuo's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, is believed to have been written by Zuoqiu Ming. Acclaimed as one of the Chinese Confucian classics, it is one of the three "commentaries" on the Spring and Autumn Annals, along with Gongyang's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Gong Yang Zhuan) and Guliang's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Gu Liang Zhuan).

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