This was an open lecture on political theory and cross-cultural studies at the university.  The title sounded interesting because the background was in the encounter between the Chinese and European cultures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Chinese culture until this period had survived because it had a strong sense of its own identity.  The underlying concept behind this was Wen, originally meaning ‘pattern’ it implied a cultivation of cultural, literary and social structure.  Chinese culture had absorbed those who would conquer it by force.  For the first time it faced a rival who could conquer it through its own Wen.

The Chinese needed to learn European Wen, the European way of cultivating character.

We have problems understanding and appreciating another culture.  The two alternatives are Particularism or Universalism.  Particularism is rooted to knowing and learning within the context of our own society and history.  Engagement and dialogue happen in a third space because it happens between cultures.  We accentuate how the Other are different to us.  We do not read the Other within their own context.

Universalism applies moral facts as above and beyond cultural issues: science, democracy, human rights.  They are assumed to be universal.  I wrote down “manifest dialectic” in my notes.  We forget that progress can reverse.  The questioning from the audience suggested that people had difficulty with this dismissal of universalism.

Wen was suggested as a third way.  Self-cultivation makes a person a citizen.  Seek the benefits of education and transcend the boundaries between Chinese and the Other.  Members of the audience suggested that this was compatable with Universalism values.

I had gone to the lecture considering two images from the Archives collection.  One was the sign of the Canton Villages Mission supported by my sect of New Zealand Presbyterians, the missionary’s hand from heaven brandishes the cross and the Chinese gods and demons and Buddha are scattered, a Chinese scholar looks on, hands raised in surprise.  (Ironically in hindsight, the cross is inverted.)  In the second image, a Chinese image, Thunder God strides through heaven on a cloud of fire-cracker smoke and lightning, the missionaries are pig and deer demons, fallen prostrate before his approach.

I did not raise this contrast in the lecture.  Are we still talking past each other?  Perhaps we need to cultivate our sense of Wen.