Conversation as a taste of harmony
By David Gosset
At the end of his life, Jacques Delille (1738-1813), known for his translations
in French of Virgil and Milton, composed The Conversation, a long poem
whose preface begins with a penetrating observation which also stands as a
A group of intelligent and polite persons gathered to
discuss and instruct each other through the communication of their ideas and
feelings in a pleasant conversation, always seemed to me the best illustration
of the humankind and of social perfection.
time when misunderstandings between cultures are rampant, when walls of fear,
prejudice and hatred divide the members of the human family, it is urgent to
intensify the dialogue between
civilizations. Under the new leadership of its Director-General Irina Bokova,
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
declared 2010 as the "Year for the rapprochement of cultures". In this context,
the concerted reflection and action of Europe and China can be highly
If, from 2003 to 2005, commentators were busy elaborating on a Sino-European
convergence confronting the American neo-conservative moment of hubris and its
unipolar fantasy , the first year of the Barack Obama presidency was marked
by discussions about a Sino-American G-2. However, rising tensions between
Beijing and Washington over climate change, trade, the Internet, Taiwan and
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, are now weakening the excitement about the
G-2 mirage imagined by former national security advisors Henry Kissinger 
and Zbigniew Brzezinski  on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the
diplomatic ties between China and the US.
Overreaction to relatively isolated events can generate appealing catchwords
but analyses that tend to re-bipolarize the global dynamics cannot obliterate
the centrality of the European Union (EU), US and China in an increasingly
pluralistic world. Within this triangle, China and Europe have developed two
rich and balanced visions of the world congenial with their respective
historical experience as civilizations. On the long term, the cultural
dimension, a permanent factor among ever-varying interests, is the keystone of
the overall Sino-European relationship, one of the most significant resources
for a constructive triangulation between the EU, US and China, and beyond, a
world of equilibrium. The framework to best handle the 21st century's
complexities is not one of the various forms of globalism, but the
Sino-European understanding of universalism.
In The School of Athens adorning the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, Raphael
(1483-1520) represents his vision of the ancient Hellenes' intellectual life.
The animated debates among thinkers and scientists, the intense dialogue
between the painting's two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, produce a
striking effect of movement and epitomize the Renaissance's spirit.
A contemporary of Raphael, Ming dynasty painter Shen Zhou (1427-1509), founder
of the delicate Wu style, depicts in Literary Gathering at Wei's Garden ,
a majestic nature where, on the foreground, scholars have convened under the
roof of modest pavilion. On the left a servant is on its way to bring a guqin,
a seven-stringed zither, to one of the literati while other scholars are having
This exquisite scene by Shen Zhou is a variation on one of the main themes of
China's artistic tradition, the "yaji", commonly translated as "elegant
gathering" or "literary gathering". Xie Huan whose works were collected by Shen
Zhou, painted Elegant Gathering in the Apricot's Garden  and later
Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) created another famous Literary Gathering .
The Chinese practice and representation of the "yaji" can be compared with the
"salon" phenomenon, which from the 17th to the early 20th century has been at
the center of Europe's social transformation.
Obviously, The School of Athens and Shen Zhou's "yaji" belong to
two different aesthetic climates separated by technique, form and style,
however, a common source of inspiration, the art of conversation, suggests a
meaningful comparison: the two masterpieces are an invitation to appreciate the
internal polyphony which has been at work both in the construction of Europe
and in the making of China. A monolithic and immobile Chinese world of total
conformism can only be found in imaginary constructions or in unperceptive and
Despite different historical rhythms, distinct sequence of development, China
and Europe have gradually emerged in a context of a very high internal
diversity, and have, because of the same centrifugal forces, often abruptly
sunk into fragmentation. The Greek, Roman, Christian and modern moments of the
European history do not correspond with the Chinese dynastic successions, but
beyond their idiosyncratic evolutions, the same effort of synthesis has been
inspiring the two civilizations.
While Europe put more emphasis on the particular (cities, kingdoms,
nation-states), China aimed at the universal, the rich notion of "tianxia",
"all-under-Heaven", whose political expression has been the empire or the
dynasty (wangchao). As the great Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao (1873–1929)
The Chinese people have never recognized the nation (guojia)
as the highest form of mankind's organization, claiming always that a higher
form must exist, a suzerain (zongzhu) of all nations, that which we call
all-under-Heaven (tianxia)… This type of broad-minded cosmopolitanism
(shijiezhuyi) has been the nucleus of Chinese political thinking for the past
several thousand years. 
China mirrors Europe's
historical-philosophical reality, which, despite innumerable narratives
centered around the nation-state as the point of reference, has endured. In
1932 English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) noted: "The European
civilization is not an abstract intellectual concept ... it is a concrete
social organism which is just as real and far more important than the national
unities of which we talk so much."  However, the two civilizations went
through - and still have to manage - a complex pattern of tensions between
diversity and unity.
Interestingly today, in Eurasia's Far West, the European Union is advocating
"multipolarity" while China, at the other edge of the Eurasian megacontinent,
is promoting the ideal of a "harmonious world" (hexie shijie), a notion
which will become an important legacy of Hu Jintao, China's president. When he
visited France as vice president in 2001, he explicitly referred to the notion
of multipolarity in an address at the French Institute for International
Relations. "Multipolarity constitutes an important base for world peace and the
democratization of international relations is an essential guarantee for that
peace," he said. As president, Hu used the United Nations' 60th anniversary
summit to define the concept of "harmonious world" as a combination of
multilateralism, cooperation and "a spirit of inclusiveness where all
civilizations coexist harmoniously and accommodate each other".
Europe's and China's historical experiences partly explain the paradigms of
"multipolarity" and "harmonious world". The two visions are, mutatis mutandis,
the European and Chinese contexts enlarged to the world. They are also the
reinterpretations of two traditional philosophical ideals which are, for the
beginning of the 21st century, of a great relevance.
Globalism is not congenial with the two Eurasian civilizations. It is to
"multipolarity" or the notion of a "harmonious world" what an arrogant
monologue is to a genuine conversation. However, as America's dominant and
persistent representation of the world, the fiction of an integrated global
village is highly consequential. Wrongly assuming an integrated international
system in which the US is in a position of moral and material superiority,
Washington can act according to an unipolar fantasy or feel obliged to
Despite the obvious dissimilarities between Fukuyama's post Cold War essay The
End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Friedman's bestseller The
World Is Flat (2005), they introduce a world where growing
techno-economic interdependence leads to political, cultural and intellectual
convergence. However, globalization is a paradoxical process where connectivity
does not entail the fusion of cultures but, to a certain extent, underlines
what differentiates them.
If the 21st century complex international reality is not a post-historical
uniform and integrated system, it does not mean either that, in reference to
Huntington's terminology, civilizations have to clash, they have to co-exist
not as distant objects of curiosity but as close neighbors. In such a context,
the Sino-European disposition toward complexity, compromise and negotiation is
more apt than the American posture of self-proclaimed leader of the world.
In a reinterpretation of the Greek concept of cosmopolitanism, Ghanaian author
Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests that universality and difference does not have to
exclude each other.  To a certain extent, the making of Europe has been, on
the scale of a relatively small continent, the attempt to realize the ideal of
cosmopolitanism. In the 18th century the European society was a concrete
reality: its elites spoke French  without abandoning their particular
identities. One can still peruse 182 letters that Pushkin (1799-1837), the
founder of modern Russian literature, wrote in a flawless French ! The
European Union continues Europe's effort to balance universality and
difference. In the words of the Lisbon Treaty, which now structures the ancient
continent's political life, the 27 EU member states agree that "the European
Union shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall
ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced". (Article
China's intellectual tradition developed with the concept of "Da Tong"
or "Grand Union" its own version of cosmopolitanism. One of the most
stimulating texts on the "Grand Union" can be found in the "Li Ji", the
Classic of Rites, one of the five classics . The "Grand Union"
refers to a moment of conciliation where "the public and common spirit rule all
under Heaven" . It remains China's highest political ideal. After his visit
to Europe in 1919 and a direct contact with the Western realities, Liang Qichao
had regrettably to admit: "One has to recognize that it is as yet too early to
hope for the Grand Union, and that for the time being nations will not
disappear" . But Liang Qichao, as a genuine Chinese humanist, did not
relinquish the universal when he added in the same context: "We hope that the
talents of every individual in the nation can be expressed so that they can
make the greatest possible contribution to the betterment of universal
In the Analects Confucius presents a gentleman who values more the
universal than the particular, while the inferior does exactly the
opposite. But the Analects precise that harmony does not mean
assimilation or uniformization.
The European cosmopolitanism and the Chinese "Grand Union" envelop the
necessary balance between universality and difference, their modern
expressions, "multipolarity" and "harmonious world", indicate the path toward a
world of equilibrium.
A true world civilization would burgeon from constant dialogue, exchanges and
cross-fertilizations between the ancient traditions, and far to flatten their
depths or to reduce their differences, it would mature owing to their
experiences and wisdoms in an endless conversation. Such a conversation, in
Delille's words is "the best illustration of the social perfection", and would
certainly have a taste of harmony.
In its immortal calligraphy Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion
Wang Xizhi (303-361) improvised:
A cup of wine, a chant, enough to put
us in the mood of a free and subtle conversation.
1. La Conversation, Jacques Dellile, 1812, Preface : "Une societe de
personnes spirituelles et polies, r้unies pour s'entretenir ensemble et
s'instruire, dans une conversation agr้able, par la communication
mutuelle de leurs id้es et de leurs sentiments, m'a toujours paru la plus
heureuse repr้sentation de l'esp่ce humaine et de la perfection
2. Follies of Power – America's Unipolar Fantasy (2009), is the title of
a remarkable book written by American intellectual David P Calleo, a work which
is in itself a clear evidence in the words of Professor Calleo that "the United
States has a healthy tradition of self-criticism that, with luck, rouses itself
to spare the nation from egregious folly".
3. "The Chance For a New World Order", Henry A. Kissinger, International Herald
Tribune, Jan 12, 2009.
4. "The Group of Two that could Change the World", Zbigniew Brzezinski,
Financial Times, Jan 13, 2009.
5. Weiyuan yaji tu
6. Xingyuan yaji tu
7. Yaji tu
8. The League of Nations and China (Guojia lianmeng yu zhongguo), Liang
9. The Making Of Europe, An Introduction to the History of European Unity,
10. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, 2006.
11. When Europe Spoke French, Quand l'Europe parlait fran็ais,
2003, Marc Fumaroli
12. Pushkin, Lettres en fran็ais, 2004, Edition established,
presented and commented by Bernard Kreise.
13. The Book of Changes (Yi Jing), The Book of Odes (Shi Jing), Classic
of Rites (Li Ji), Classic of History (Shu Jing) and The Spring
and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu).
14. Classic of Rites, Li Ji, Li Yun.
15. Liang Qichao, Record of My Impressions on A Tour of Europe (Ouyou xinying
lu). 16. Confucius, Analects, 2:14 : junzi zhou er bu bi, xiao ren bi er
17. Confucius, Analects, 13 : 23 : junzi he er bu tong, xiaoren tong er
18. Yi shang yi yong yi zuyi changxu youqing.
David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and
Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.