De Bary lauded as cross-cultural bridge with rich legacy

  • Rachel E. Chung, associate director of the University's Committee and Asia and the Middle East
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Taipei, Sept. 24 (CNA) A blond-haired, blue-eyed American who set out to become a bridge-builder between East and West through an academic career as a Sinologist has become a cornerstone of the bridge itself, a leading Columbia University academic said in Taipei on Saturday.

Rachel E. Chung, associate director of the University's Committee and Asia and the Middle East, told a Taipei audience that William Theodore de Bary, winner of this year's Tang Prize in Sinology, has become "a bridge every person interested in interculturation must cross."

"A Sinologist, he did not assume the boundaries of Sinology either as a regional area or an academic discipline, and it is this legacy" that she urged the next generation of "the de Bary school" at Columbia University, Taiwan and all over the world to carry on.

As a long-time student and colleague of de Bary at Columbia, Chung said the neo-Confucianist de Bary has shown neo-Confucianism to be a methodology as much as a philosophy -- a methodology available to anyone of any civilization, thereby paving the way toward its globalization.

This concept, Chung said, was what she wanted to share with the public, especially at a time when much of the world is looking to see in what ways Chinese culture will become a part of global culture.

What de Bary saw in Neo-Confucianism first and foremost was a rationale and a methodology for a cultural or civilizational renaissance, Chung said.

She recalled that de Bary first encountered East Asian civilizations and neo-Confucianism in particular at a time of radical and often violent change throughout the region.

But he had the insight to adopt neo-Confucianism as a perennial principle that speaks to "global" humanities on its own merit, she added.

De Bary saw neo-Confucianism as addressing the challenges that the West was confronting and would continue to confront with increasing urgency in the years following World War II in terms of questions about basic human moral nature.

Chung said German idealism had spent itself in a destructive end, and in its wake existentialism in tandem with the rise of "superpower politics" was a dangerous mix, as was growing scientism coupled with tendencies to understand freedom as radical freedom rather than the freedom of a cultivated "personhood."

She turned to today's America and the West.

The United States, for example, once called itself the "melting pot" of the world, but in the 1960s and 70s, the metaphor was changed to that of a "salad bowl" based on three rights movements (Women's Rights, Civil Rights, Anti-War) and growing calls to recognize the diversity of voices and experiences.

In the 1980s, "multi-cultural" became the new catchphrase, with less emphasis on a single composite culture and more on respect and consideration for the many distinct and diverse "Others" within America, she said.

More recently even that ideal has been supplanted by the idea of the "global" -- the role of the U.S. as a member of a yet more diverse, decentralized global village.

The underlying question throughout this progression has been one of balancing unity and diversity -- a question ever more important today in the face of Samuel Huntington's influential argument that we are moving toward a "clash of civilizations," she said.

Despite his strong socialist inclinations as a teenager and a young man, de Bary did not see Communism as practiced following its takeover of China or in subsequent years as conducive to the comprehensive nature of human values, according to Chung.

On de Bary's contributions to building a core curriculum program, Chung said, students are advised to approach the issues by reading the classics themselves, rather than reading about them through secondary literature.

"The idea is to have them become participants in the 'Great Conversation' rather than merely those who have studied or heard about it -- participants who not only speak with Plato and Confucius, but with their own peers in small, discussion-based seminars," she said.

The Sources books edited by de Bary and a team of academics were aimed to let each civilization be and speak for itself to new audiences, rather than mediated through a narrative, she said.

She suggested that the globalization of neo-Confucianism as a methodology rather than as a specific philosophy, as shown by de Bary, may be applicable not only in education but also as an example of an exemplary, alternative, non-political approach to universalizing cultures without either losing or imposing cultural identity.

Cultural and identity politics are fast becoming major issues around the world, with or without Samuel Huntington, she said.

Quoting from Yu Ying-shih's lecture after he won the Tang Prize in Sinology in 2014, Chang said that while many Chinese today have renewed confidence in the longevity, strength, and the enduring qualities of "the Chinese way" and are eager to see it become part of global culture, it is imperative for Chinese history and culture to be studied in the context of world history and culture.

"It is easy to see how Prof. de Bary has truly exemplified this approach -- not only in how his own scholarship has ranged widely over the many civilizations of the world, but in the way he pioneered year-long undergraduate Asian core courses in which students read and discuss classics and documents from India, the Middle East, China, Japan, and Korea in relation to one another," she said.

An important effect of this has been to make students aware of the broad commonalities and differences between civilizations.

But it has also shown in historically specific terms how "globalization" has been taking place for centuries, thereby empowering students to consider more rationally its paths in the future.

Cultural practices originating in China certainly spread throughout East Asia, but they were not merely copied or blindly adopted, Chung said, but were were engaged with, selectively adapted, and "interculturated" by each receiving culture in and for its own contexts.

De Bary likewise envisioned a curricular structure where a deep appreciation of one's own civilization or tradition is balanced with the ability to reconsider it critically through ideas and challenges from others.

As yet, however, neither East nor West is in a position of having so interculturated the other, she said.

De Bary, 97, will be presented by his daughter, Brett, at Sunday's Tang Prize award ceremony.