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Traditional Roots of Modern China: How an Ancient World View Drives Contemporary Policies

All-Day Program

Saturday, November 4, 2017 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Code: 1M2931

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Traditional junk boat sailing across Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong

Chinese civilization—encompassing history, cosmology, and elite and popular cultures—has long fascinated the West. Since the 18th century, Americans have looked at China with admiration and derision, as a font of obscure and practical wisdom, as a nation of refinement and barbarism, and as a source of enlightened pacifism and radical violence.

Although the United States viewed China as a threat during the Cold War, throughout most of the history of bilateral relations Americans have held a benign view of the Middle Kingdom and have sought to aid and inspire its development. After the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, American engagement was essential to China’s rise. Now, however, China has risen: The People’s Republic is now the only nation with the potential to challenge America’s international standing and change global practices in ways that harm American interests.

From a Chinese viewpoint, there is no contradiction between the traditional Han civilization that attracts Americans and the contemporary nation that may alarm them. There is only continuity: The values that nourished China’s ancient greatness also underlie its modern political, economic, and social institutions. That worldview drives current policies, and if it is sometimes incompatible with Western liberalism, China does not see it as their problem, according to China scholar Robert Daly.

In an absorbing seminar, Daly traces the nation’s 21st-century drive for wealth, power, and status to the beliefs, geographic influences, and social and cultural practices rooted in the earliest dynasties.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  Pangu’s Bones: How Geography Shaped Chinese Culture

How did China’s position at the southeast corner of Eurasia shape its agro-bureaucratic state? How did cycles of stability and disaster give rise to folk culture and Confucian thinking? How did one of the world’s most dynamic and diverse regions produce the myth of an eternal, unchanging China?

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The Struggle for Harmony: Qi and Chinese Attitudes Toward Nature

An introduction to Chinese cosmology, with a focus on Taoism; the action of Qi in architecture, poetry, painting, calligraphy, food, and medicine; and the conflicts and harmonies between man and nature in the Chinese tradition.

12:15–1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own.)

1:30–2:45 p.m.  Culture, Technology, Wealth, Power

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, China’s relative social stability and cultural cohesion made it the most innovative nation on earth, one in which technological developments drove economic and military might. In the 19th century, China was shocked to discover that its technology was inferior to that of the West and Japan, and that this weakness made it suddenly vulnerable. Now, China is again a manufacturing and technological powerhouse.

3–4:15 p.m.  Three Ways To Look at China

When we speak of “China,” we refer to one fifth of humankind, to a history and culture, and to a nation-state. Distinguishing among these distinct meanings is difficult, but it must be attempted, says Daly, if Americans are to analyze China accurately and respond to its contemporary incarnation in a way that fosters peace and prosperity on both sides of the Pacific.

Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)