Modern values, ancient roots
By Laurence J. Brahm  ·  2023-06-04  ·   Source: NO.23 JUNE 8, 2023
Young girls break out their finest kungfu skills during a Chinese cultural event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on May 27 (XINHUA)

The past 40-plus years of reform and opening up have earned China global respect in terms of economic development. The country has adopted its own development model through accumulated experience and has not tried to follow any one path of any other nation.

In other words, China's experience is unique to China. Likewise, it supports each nation following its own traditions in evolving its own systems—both in economic and governmental terms.

China has made enormous strides in economic development, poverty alleviation, the promotion of ecological progress in the fight against climate change, as well as the sharing of its developmental approach with other developing countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative, first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes.

The truth is that, for a long time, a handful of countries in the West have aimed to define universal values. But these values should include a broad mosaic of standards that are inherent to each country and culture. Different cultures have different values for reasons that are inseparable from their own heritage, landscape, culture and traditions.

Living by a code

In considering China's own values for a new era, we must look to China's deep-seated traditions and the wisdom that has guided this country and its people through thousands of years of history, leading it to become the country it is today. While Chinese culture is so rich and its history so complex, the international community often finds it difficult to understand its values.

To help the world understand Chinese values, one way to gain more perspective is through the culture of Chinese kungfu. Everyone loves a Bruce Lee movie. Through the lens of kungfu, we can clearly articulate a set of nine values that represent universal values. These values, however, stem from China's multilayered cultural heritage. In some ways, kungfu is a common language that can bring people together.

Kungfu is a mirror of Chinese culture. Everything, from traditional medicine to calligraphy and tea art, can be understood through the kungfu looking glass.

The code of kungfu has always been about perseverance, loyalty and righteousness, a respect for one's brothers and standing up against the unfair odds in doing what is right for others. Training enhances awareness, a harmony with nature, balance as well as the ability and will to accept change. A kungfu master is the last person to use violence.

And now the time has come to share these values with the world. If we all practiced martial arts and the teachings embedded within, then our world just might become a place of greater shared understanding and mutual respect—with a little less violence.

Core to self-cultivation is the ancient Chinese concept of Tian Di Ren, which literally translates as "Heaven-Earth-Humanity." One age-old saying goes, "Humanity exists between Heaven and Earth." Simply put, this means humanity must understand, respect and work within the bounds of natural phenomena arising between Earth (yin) and Heaven (yang) to exist.

Moreover, people are all made up of yin and yang elements. Humanity is connected to the universe, or basically just a derivative of the universal order.

A matter of principle

The aforementioned nine kungfu principles that can be understood as Chinese values are represented by nine Chinese characters and can each be considered universal values in their own right. These nine characters are:

Ren, which embraces determination. The character is written as a knife over a heart with a dash indicating blood. This means perseverance requires personal sacrifice and determination over vast periods of time.

Zhong, which translates as "loyalty" and encompasses respect. This involves Confucian concepts of devotion to the lineage, one's master or teacher, and a deep mutual respect toward fellow practitioners or disciples of the lineage. Moreover, such standards of loyalty and respect are to be projected beyond the martial arts school or lineage into society.

Ping, which means "balance." Achieving physical balance is a foundational stage of martial arts development. Cultivating internal balance is the desired outcome of all martial arts training. Balance goes beyond solid footwork. It requires synchronizing the yin and yang elements within oneself and then projecting that sense of balance onto those around you.

Yi, which signifies "change." The ability and will to accept change allows us to achieve non-attachment. It's all about recognizing the impermanence of all things.

Zhong, which is the character for "center." We practice martial arts to achieve the centering of body and mind which in turn guarantees we don't lose our balance. By centering our mind, we can remain calm and peaceful within, as well as clear-headed when making decisions. Buddhism emphasizes always taking the middle ground and not being drawn to extremes on either side.

He, which means "harmony." In practicing martial arts, we seek to achieve both physical and mental harmony with our own body as well as our natural world.

Wu, which is a core Taoist concept. Taoism is the indigenous religio-philosophical tradition that has shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. It is based on the writings of the philosopher Laozi (ca. sixth century B.C.), who advocated humility and religious piety. The Taoist term wuwei literally translates as "to do nothing." But this translation does not do the concept justice. Wuwei does not really mean non-action; wu could best be translated as "flow."

Kong, which is a core Buddhist concept and translates as "emptiness." It insinuates a synchronized body-mind spirit distracted by nothing. No attachment. No distractive thoughts. No negative or positive. This state of mind, or no mind, does not mean there is nothing; nothing is everything.

Wu of the term wushu (martial arts), which is commonly translated into English as "martial." This is an incorrect translation. The character wu consists of two characters: zhi, meaning "halt," and ge, an ancient term for weapons. Wu literally means to "halt the use of weapons." Or better: nonviolence. Wushu, then, literally means "the art of preventing violence."

These values offer us a way to understand how Chinese people, through principles of perseverance, loyalty, seeking balance, understanding the nature of change and responding accordingly, seek a middle ground that leads to harmony. If we then add the seamless flow of achieving unbroken development and the peaceful contemplation of emptiness, we understand why China upholds nonviolence at a time of global volatility. Much of the country's own development has been experiential and it has achieved everything through the enormous devotion of its people and their perseverance. And so, only when people keep working on their goals over a longer period of time, will Chinese modernization become reality. 

Kungfu is a mirror of Chinese culture. Everything, from traditional medicine to calligraphy and tea art, can be understood through the kungfu looking glass

The author is an international lawyer, political economist, author and chief economist at the New Earth Institute. This is an edited excerpt from an article first published in International Talent magazine

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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