Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Chinese scholar sees a nation in flux, rooted in history with an eye to the future

wang gungwu

Scholar Wang Gungwu talked about China for the last Bridges to the Future lecture on the 2009-10 academic year on April 28.

While China is becoming an increasingly important player on the world stage and Western nations strive to understand their new global partner, the nation is struggling to find its cultural identity, a leading China scholar explained at the University of Denver’s final Bridges to the Future lecture of the academic year.

Wang Gungwu, chairman of the East Asian Institute and university professor at the National University of Singapore, delivered a talk titled “China’s Quest: A New Cultural Identity” to more than 500 attendees at DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts on April 28.

Gungwu described China as a country torn between its national longing for a unified, holistic identity and its emerging role as a global economic and political power.

Part of the struggle, Wang said, is that Chinese people have no word for “culture” as Westerners understand it. Instead, they see all aspects of national life as a single entity that incorporates their understanding of religion, history, policy, government, art and economics.

“It is that holistic frame of mind I still detect in Chinese leaders down to the present day,” Wang said.

China’s leaders have embraced science and technology as a path to future development, but the country continues in some ways to struggle between the futuristic goals in government leadership and the traditional views of the grassroots.

DU Provost Gregg Kvistad explained why DU focused Bridges events on China this year and how organizers came to select Wang.

“We felt that there is an urgent need on the part of many people around the globe to understand what is going on in this extraordinary country,” Kvistad said. “People in this country simply do not know enough about China.”

To understand how the world will relate to China in the future, analysts must understand China’s ongoing internal struggles to reinvent itself. In a sense, Wang said, China has been wrangling with that concept since the late 1800s through a turbulent early 20th century and a soul-searching period during the World War II Japanese occupation. Efforts to find unity continued through the 1940s with the Communist revolution and even into the economic revolution of recent times, he said.

Leaders are balancing two ideals when it comes to a national identity, Wang said. Should they completely reinvent a culture in the quest for a national holistic identity, or can they take what is ultimately “Chinese” from the past and marry that to hand-picked ideals from the West?

“The quest for a new identity, a new culture, is far from ended. It is going on,” Wang said. “I think we are on the brink of seeing something happen which is still unclear to me.”

Bridges to the Future was created in 2002 to build a framework of programs that stimulate civic dialogue and discussion among Colorado communities. Events are scheduled in each of DU’s three academic quarters. Full-length videos of Bridges lectures are featured on the Bridges to the Future website.

In the 2010­–11 academic year, Kvistad said the program will focus on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the United States moves toward the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

Comments are closed.