“Could the Past be the Focus for Korea-China Exchanges in the Future?”
November 5, 2014
As Korean and Chinese economic exchange becomes more extensive, it is essential that a broader range of cultural and educational programs for collaboration be established that assure a broad range of interaction between individuals and smaller organizations, creating a tightly-knit fabric of ties that will bind the two countries together.
Such exchanges must be carefully organized and should focus on long-term projects. Sadly, many exchanges between Korean and Chinese scholars or government officials are limited to formal meetings or dinners and carry no assurance of long-term relationship building. Actual intellectual exchange, even when there is much for both sides to learn, is often quite limited as well. Therefore, research projects and collaborative initiatives should be in 5-year or ten-year units and be designed in such a manner as to assure maximum direct collaboration (conversation, joint papers, exchanges of opinion) on common projects between Korean and Chinese students, professors and policy makers.
Moreover, the projects that Korea and China develop together must be part of a larger project aimed at creating a new civilization that will lead us in a new direction in an age of economic and environmental crises. To say that the purpose of cooperation must be relevant to the world is not to suggest that cooperation is not grounded in the cultures of the two countries. Rather, we must discover the hidden treasures in these two cultures and introduce them to the world.
Our project is to reinvent civilization itself, to bring together the strengths of the Western tradition in technology and science with the emphasis on sustainability, social harmony, and a long-term perspective that is found in the Eastern tradition.
Above all, research between Koreans and Chinese will search for aspects of the great traditions of the past that can be concretely applied in the current day.
An excellent place to start is with joint research into the topic of government programs and policies from past dynasties in China and Korea to see how they can be applied in the modern era. In light of the fact that Korea and China have produced several of the best administered and innovative systems of governance in world history, such a project for joint research and development offers tremendous opportunities.
Here are a few concrete suggestions for what might be most meaningful.
Good Governance, and Checks and Balances
The use of checks and balances within the government, the use of the examination system, and centuries of policies for managing the relationship between the central government and local government in China and Korea offer tremendous lessons for contemporary governance. Although we do not normally associate democracy with pre-modern Korea and China, a powerful argument can be made that China played an enormous role in shaping what we call democracy today, and that “democracy” is best seen as a convergence of the Greek concept of the citizen with Chinese traditions of civil service and the rule of law.
More specifically, there are numerous approaches to civil service exams, placement, and rotation from China and Korea that could be effectively employed in countries around the world, with some modification, to address contemporary problems of corruption and assure good governance. The various dynasties of Korea and China have remarkable systems for bringing family units into the governance structure, and also for assuring autonomy at the local level. An extensive comparative study of best practices for government from multiple dynasties in China and Korea could be the basis for concrete proposals for government reforms in the current age.
The examination system is particularly appealing as an effective manner of combating corruption in government. Both China and Korea offer concrete examples of how the examination system can be used to introduce a new generation of motivated and dedicated young people in government. As China looks to the future, it is clear that a reinterpretation of the Chinese past will be most effective in influencing future policy, rather than an appeal to so-called “Western” models that are culturally distant and often problematic. An objective assessment of the Korean and Chinese past may be the best approach to innovation.
Diplomacy and International Relations
The diplomatic and security architecture of East Asia seems to be limited by the precedents of Western diplomacy. Too many practitioners of international relations in Asia are quick to assume we are somehow heading back to a Cold War, simply because they do not know any other precedents. They fall back on the Six Party Talks because they do not know that there have been other approaches used in the past. But the Song Dynasty’s complex relations with other nations, or the diplomacy of Baekjae and Goguryo, and previous dynasties offer examples of stable and peaceful relations between the nations of East Asia that are different from the Cold War system and offer peaceful solutions to conflicts. The joint study of diplomatic history by Korean and Chinese scholars can produce new inspirations for how current diplomatic conflicts can be resolved. Overall, East Asia has been far more successful at maintaining peaceful relations between nations than has been the case in Europe over the last six hundred years.
There are also precedents from the status of Ryukyu Kingdom, from the Liao, and from the Northern Wei that could be put to good use as we try to imagine what creative new possible power relations can be established in the future to reduce tension and misunderstandings.
Sustainability and Agriculture
China and Korea offer tremendously valuable precedents for organic farming based on a long-term perspective of soil, water, and human populations. Both countries have a strong tradition of effectively producing food using organic farming that supported larger urban populations with no artificial fertilizers. As the world seeks a way back to stable ecosystems, there is much we can learn and apply from the practices of East Asia. Seoul, for example, was a near-perfect eco-city until the 20th century, using an absolute minimum of energy and achieving near 100 percent recycling. There are many treasures in the past of China and Korea awaiting our discovery.
Education and Research
Traditional China and Korea offer many innovative and effective approaches to education for children and adults, many of which can be used in the current age to improve our education systems. Traditional approaches to reading, to memorization, to the practice of composition, and to scholarly debate from different ages of China and Korea can inspire new educational innovations.
Moreover, traditional Confucian education made ethics central in education to a degree that has been lost in modern society. Such an awareness of the ethical implications of learning should be reintroduced into our education system.
The Seowon academy system (Shuyuan in Chinese) of Korea and China, evolving along different trajectories, offers suggestions as to how the university can be re-invented so as to make it again a center for scholarship, serious debate on issues of our age, and ethical behavior. Moreover, the individualized approach to student evaluations in traditional education was far more human than what we see now. Moreover, the life-long commitment between student and teacher makes the traditional approach to education of great value to modern students and teachers.
In a sense, we are talking about both a descriptive and a prescriptive research project for Chinese and Korean scholars, something similar to what happened in Europe in the Renaissance when the best of Rome and Greece were brought into the modern world. China and Korea are not moving back to the past, they are looking for hints of new policies, technologies, and institutions to meet the challenges of the future.
As China and Korea reach a new level of technological and institutional complexity, they are compelled to find continuity with the pre-modern tradition. This research project can provide contemporary policy makers with concrete hints for excellence in multiple fields to be found in the past.