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Roger T. Ames: Clarifying and Promoting Chinese Culture

NOV . 02 2021
Peking University, October 22, 2021: Against the backdrop of the beautiful Weiming Lake, there stands the David Packard Pavilion. In one of its cozy apartments lives Prof. Roger T. Ames, a Canadian-born philosopher and Humanities Chair Professor at Peking University. Last month, Prof. Ames received the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest award for non-Chinese experts who have made great contributions to the Chinese society during its recent astonishing development. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presented him with the gold medal as a recognition of his achievements in the interpretation and promotion of Chinese culture and philosophy on a global scale. “I’m very honored. Ever since I was eighteen, I’ve been working in China and (it’s like) coming to the acme of my career,” said Prof. Ames. Instead of regarding the award as his own, he added that this achievement “represents a bunch of people who are trying to do the same thing.” Prof. Ames was also grateful for the nomination provided by Peking University and the help he had received from his colleagues at PKU.

Prof. Roger T. Ames

Growing up in Western culture, while falling in love with Chinese culture

At the age of eighteen, Prof. Ames came to China for the first time as an exchange student and was hugely influenced by his teachers, especially Lao Sze-kwang (Lao Siguang) and Tang Junyi at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. When he began learning Chinese philosophy, he found that Western individualism had its shortcomings when it came to interpreting complex philosophical questions in the real world. Thus he started to develop a great interest in the core values of Chinese culture which was importantly different from his own culture. With the fundamental concepts of yin and yang, Chinese philosophy is driven by a kind of correlative, analogical thinking that brings different aspects of experience together to produce new meaningful events. By contrast, classical Western philosophy is characterized by a kind of categorical “thing” thinking on the opposite spectrum from Chinese ecological philosophy. With the primacy of relationality in this Chinese thinking, all members of human society, no matter which country or continent they reside in, are connected and related to each other in more ways than one. Relations with others is an integral aspect of each individual’s identity. Prof. Ames supported this claim by emphasizing that “categorical thinking has be rejected in the twentieth century internal critique within Western philosophy itself.” While classical Western ontology is referred to as “the science of being,” Chinese “zoetology” made explicit in the Book of Changes is “the art of living.” In contrast with the notion of human beings as something we are, the relations and changes within nature and society over a lifetime are incorporated into one’s narrative, and are integral to an ever-evolving process of “becoming” oneself. In this broader interpretation, individuality is not where we begin, but the achievement of a person becoming distinctive and even distinguished through his or her dynamic interaction with other people in society.

Chinese philosophy, as Prof. Ames has come to understand it, is radical empiricism. “One way of enabling the world to understand China better perhaps is to present Confucianism as a distinctively Chinese form of pragmatism that is unique to China in many of its respects,” suggested Prof. Ames. Pragmatism as a method is a kind of experimentalism that seeks different practical ways to progress forward. In this sense, we could say living, vibrant cultures are necessarily pragmatic, and Chinese culture offers a fresh perspective with family values at its core. “In Confucian philosophy, more fundamental than anything else is family,” commented Prof. Ames, “Family is where one is inspired to give everything.” To some extent, the entire Chinese society is structured like a family. For example, students refer to their teachers as shifu (师父) or shimu (师母), with the two Chinese characters defined as “teacher” and “father” or “mother” respectively, reflecting the core family values Chinese culture builds its foundation upon. One of the key moral imperatives related to family is “family reverence (xiao 孝),” which entailed not only respecting the elderly but on occasion remonstrating with them, and again providing assistance when misfortune occurs. This value is integral to the intergenerational transmission of the living cultural civilization as its values and practices are embodied and passed down from one generation to the next.
Prof. Ames delivering speech

As a leading non-Chinese scholar in the field of Chinese philosophy, Prof. Ames attaches great importance to Chinese and Western comparative philosophy. As he put it, “you need to view the world from as many different perspectives as you can in order to understand something truly.” For example, Laozi and Confucius had different opinions, but they also shared the same cultural foundation that enabled them to communicate and even disagree within their shared culture. Once they are viewed through a cross-cultural hermeneutic, however, from the Chinese perspective we can view the Western suppressed assumptions, and from the Western perspective, those assumptions shared by Confucius and Laozi. In contrast to philosophical investigations in Western universities, Prof. Ames observed that such research is of a kind of comparative nature at Peking University. “Philosophy in Western universities is primarily European philosophy, but the kind of philosophy we do at Peking University challenges cultural chauvinism. Good philosophy, in its breadth, is a global subject,” remarked Prof. Ames.

When it comes to research on Chinese and Western comparative philosophy at Peking University, he spoke highly of its continuing development. For one thing, many of his colleagues at PKU Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies have had the experience of studying abroad. When they return, they bring Western theories to compare and contrast with traditional Chinese philosophy, thus propelling the progress of academic exchange. Again, students majoring in philosophy at PKU are required to read philosophical texts in the original languages, engaging their subject material at its core and evaluating texts with deliberate accuracy.

A glimpse of Prof. Ames’ Bookshelf

Interpreting and promoting Chinese culture and philosophy in Western countries

As a renowned expert on Chinese and Western comparative philosophy, Prof. Ames has authored Thinking Through Confucius, Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture and Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture among other well-known works. He has also translated many Chinese classics, including The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, Sun Tzu: The Art of Warfare and Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. “When I translate (Chinese texts) into English, I try to understand what is in the mind of the audience. I try to anticipate how they’re going to respond to the language I choose,” said Prof. Ames, “My approach to research on Chinese philosophy is to try to stand on both sides of the looking-glass, and to understand what both sides are attempting to say as a basis that will allow for mutual understanding.” Many of his books have been collaborative works as an object lesson in a Confucianism that is committed to cooperation with other people”.

Prof. Ames has also been dedicated to helping others in addition to conducting his own research on Chinese philosophy. He was proud that in his career at the University of Hawai’i he has been the supervisor of more than 50 PhD students who have gone on as professors in their own right teaching Chinese philosophy all over the world. Furthermore, he has offered a platform for other scholars to express their ideas by being a former editor of two journals - Philosophy East and West and China Review International, as well as the editor of the SUNY series on “Chinese Philosophy and Culture” published by the State University of New York Press that now has more than 200 titles. Aiming to spread the knowledge of Confucianism as an international resource for shaping a new world cultural order, he also became the president of the World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures.

There are many Chinese scholars devoted to the interpretation and promotion of Chinese culture and philosophy, and we must work together to enable a western public to better understand this living tradition. At Peking University, Prof. Ames considers himself as a “bridge” that helps young graduate students – the potential professors of the next generation – to learn a vocabulary and a framework through which they can take the unparalleled tradition of Chinese philosophy at Peking University and make it comprehensible to a Western audience. At Peking University, he is committed to offering Chinese students a method of representing Chinese philosophy to people from other countries as they themselves in their own narratives become international scholars.

Prof. Ames proposed two major reasons why the interpretation and promotion of Chinese culture and philosophy in Western countries has not been an easy thing to do. First, many Western people have come to understand Chinese culture in a distorted way because most of the early translators of Chinese classics were missionaries. By transforming the core concepts of Chinese philosophy to promote their religious mission, they have converted Chinese philosophy into an Eastern religion. Thus, in the bookstores and libraries, Chinese philosophy is shelved under religion rather than philosophy. Again, the framework used in the Chinese academy was imported from abroad in the 19th century when education in East Asia adopted the Western institutions and curriculum, and invented a new language to synchronize Asian languages with Western modernity. As a consequence, both Western and Chinese scholars tend to use a Western framework to theorize Chinese philosophy. This practice has led to, for example, using a language that was created to express a Western conception of the transcendent universalism we find in classical Greek philosophy and Abrahamic theology to express what in fact shared but still pluralistic values. The challenge is to allow the tradition to speak on its own terms and with its own voice to overcome previous mistranslations and to avoid further misunderstandings.
A new book authored by Prof. Ames

Witnessing the development of China and wishing for a better world

“It's just incredible what’s happening.” It has been more than half a century since Prof. Ames came to China for the first time, and a lot of changes have taken place in the country. As a witness of the modernization of China, Prof. Ames admires the tremendous growth unprecedented in human history that China has experienced during a span of less than 30 years. Prof. Ames is most impressed by China’s strategy for poverty alleviation, and sees it as something that all countries could benefit from by understanding the Chinese experience. The large-scale poverty alleviation programs implemented by the Chinese government have helped people to rise out of poverty, setting a contrast with many developed countries in which there is still a strong and unforgiving polarization of wealth.

When it comes to relations between China and Western countries, Prof. Ames also had his insights, “We should anticipate that if someone does not understand something, and it has the potential to affect them, they become afraid of it. So, with China’s sudden rise, it has startled a developed world dominated by liberal values.” Since China can no longer be ignored, in trying to anticipate the future, they read China’s growth through their own histories, a history of imperialism. Perhaps the most fundamental problem is the asymmetry in understanding between China and the rest of the world. Chinese people have long been out in the world, and have brought their understanding of it home. But there have not been many Western people who have done the same. “This asymmetry is really a problem.” The example he gave is how every Chinese bookstore and library is full of translations of the contemporary avatars of Western culture and civilization, but the great thinkers of China are poorly represented within the Western world. The lack of knowledge about China has led to misunderstandings. In our best efforts at globalization, he advocates we should use “our differences to make a difference,” looking for relational equity and an achieved diversity which are such important ideas in Confucianism.

When asked if the Chinese approach to an inclusive, shared global governance grounded in Chinese culture and philosophy would work and make the world a better place to live in, Prof. Ames answered “I hope so.” To take the Belt and Road Initiative as an example, he underlined the cultural element of such initiatives that must set the standard for what is working and what is not.

Prof. Ames is also concerned that we were living in an era of crisis. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is just the first among many problems, with issues such as global warming, environmental degradation, population explosion, international terrorism, income inequities, proxy wars, massive refugee immigration, and so on, coming right behind. During this era of crisis, the world will require all human civilizations to work together and move forward in a new direction. He allowed that Confucianism cannot solve all the problems, but it must have its place at the table. One of its most important contributions is that it offers an alternative to Western individualism. The fact that East Asian countries and particularly China have been successful in the fight against the epidemic is due to an alternative understanding of what it means to be a person in community derived from Confucianism.
Prof. Ames being interviewed

Prof. Ames’ close ties with Peking University

“I’m a walking advertisement for Peking University.” In 1985, Prof. Ames came to Peking University for the first time. Six years ago, he relocated to PKU and became a teacher and researcher after his retirement from the University of Hawai’i. He has happily embraced PKU with its rich tradition of Chinese culture and philosophy. “You can’t understand modern Chinese history without understanding Peking University. Peking University has been an important player in an ever-evolving Chinese history,” remarked Prof. Ames, “Students at Peking University have a sense they are responsible for China’s future.” When historic events have happened in China, with examples such as the May Fourth Movement students at Peking University have stood up. At our current turning point of history, he stated that “while Peking University is quickly become one of the world’s leading seats of learning, at the same time it has to retain its own identity, its own history, and its own tradition.”

Prof. Ames at Peking University

Over his extensive teaching career, Prof. Ames regards his teaching experience to be somewhat different at PKU from other universities at which he has taught mainly due to cultural factors. Western students tend to be more independent, while Chinese students are perhaps more concerned about their responsibilities. “The classroom culture is different. Chinese classroom is more like a family.” He also spoke highly of the students at Peking University for their diligence and their foreign language skills. Prof. Ames have always aimed to bring the culture of a Western classroom to Peking University, “When I come here, I teach like I would in Hawai’i.” For him, teaching is a form of learning. Prof. Ames explained the essence of teaching by telling us that when he taught in Hawaii, at the end of a semester, he asked his students “Who learned the most in this seminar?” On hearing his question, all the students proceeded to point at the most brilliant student in the classroom, but he surprised his students by saying that it was in fact he who had learned the most, and the brilliant student would have to wait her turn. Prof. Ames believed that “The teacher has to be the best student in the class.” It must be this attitude that has made him one of the most popular professors among students at Peking University.

As a professor of Chinese philosophy and a translator of many Chinese classics, Prof. Ames has made an outstanding contribution to the translation, research and promotion of Chinese culture and philosophy as well as Chinese and Western comparative philosophy. When asked about his future plans, Prof. Ames quoted the words of his late friend and one of his former collaborators, David L. Hall, “If you live your life right, what you want turns out to be just more of the same.” With all humility, Prof Ames, will continue to shine a light on the cultural exchanges between China and the world, and continue with his excellence as a world-renowned professor to influence generations of young scholars yet to come.

Written by: Zhou Siyan
Edited by: Rose Li, Zhang Jiang