Civilizations: Clash or Fusion?
by Our Guest Writer Wang Jisi
and Staff Reporter Zou Sicheng
A recent transnational debate titled ``clash or fusion of civilizations'' has attracted
attention of many Chinese scholars, who have been interested in the topic for over a
century. Their discussions touch on such subjects as modernization, traditions and Asian
The debate was touched off by an essay entitled The Clash of Civilizations?, published in
1993 in Foreign Affairs by Professor Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard University. In the
article, Huntington presented the following views: After the end of the Cold War, global
clashes result from clashes between civilizations centering on different religions or
beliefs, instead of ideology or state-to-state economic and political confrontation; states
belonging to a civilization rim would unite in the clash, and the Confucian and Islamic
civilizations may join each other to form confrontation between the West and the rest of
Huntington also suggested that those who envision such a trend and respond to it would
be invincible in the next century.
Huntington's assertions evoked widespread international response, attracting more
criticism than agreement. Chinese scholars were particularly interested in the interactions
between Chinese and Western cultures.
Clash or Fusion?
In fact, the debate on the relationship between Chinese and Western civilizations has
been going on since the mid-19th century, when Westerners forced their way into China
with warships. Faced with a national crisis, Chinese intellectuals began to think about how
to relate to Western culture. Their recommendations included ``total repudiation,'' ``total
Westernization,'' or partial acceptance as a midway, that is, ``take Chinese culture as
substance and Western culture as form.''
Since the late 1970s, China has followed an open door policy and, as a result of Western
culture pouring in again, the debate has resurfaced.
According to some scholars such as Li Shenzhi, president of the China Association for
American Studies and Professor Tang Yijie at Beijing University, at a time when
increasing economic contacts between countries are breaking down national boundaries,
different civilizations clash and merge with each other at the same time, but overall,
fusion looks more prevailing. In the world history, there have been many such cases as
the Chinese culture absorbing Indian Buddhism. Some suggest that it is possible to build a
universal civilization if the West learns from others.
Others, such as Professor Zhang Rulun at Fudan University, disagree. They contend that
the fusion theory is based primarily on a single economic mode, whereas the real world is
diverse and irregular. Even though human organizations in socio-economic development
may become similar, the cultural life will not. They argue that historically, Christianity
grew out of Judaism, and Confucianism drew on Buddhism, but they could not fuse into
one. They note that even today, as cultural contacts become more frequent, the sense of
identity has grown ever stronger.
Still, others argue that it is premature to come to the conclusion of clash or fusion when
globalization is far from a reality. According to Jin Canrong of the Institute of American
Studies, clash and fusion are usually intermingled with each other. Fusion is a long-term
result, but clash is usually visible.
Jin Junhui of the China Institute of International Studies and others argue that clash is
not and should not be the principal factor between civilizations. They contend that the
clash theory ignores the increasing economic and cultural contacts between countries and
the ``either friend or enemy'' logic is a vestige of the Cold War and is harmful to
Resurgence of Asian Values?
Some scholars paid little attention to whether or not differences between civilizations
might lead to clashes. Instead, they are concerned with which civilization will get the
upper hand in the upcoming rivalry between civilizations.
The rapid economic growth in East Asia in recent decades, in contrast with the
sluggishness of Western economies, has led some people to conclude that Confucianism
is reviving. Some even predict that the table is turning and the East will replace the West
in the next century as the dominant civilization to deliver the world from the crises
besetting human beings today.
Others note that historically, civilizations rose and fell along a East-West axis line -- from
Asia to Europe, then from Europe to America, and next, from America to Asia again.
These views can be understood more as a protest against the domineering Western
civilization than as an expression of confidence among Asians who have newly achieved
economic prosperity. Western colonial rule aside, Asian nations have been particularly
offended by the view that the Western model has become the standard for the whole
world to copy in the wake of the Cold War.
It is important to realize that despite Huntington's efforts to safeguard Western
civilization and Asian claims that the 21th century will belong to Asia, the history of
human progress has been written jointly by all civilizations. East Asia's economic success
today is not merely a renewal of ancient Asian cultures, nor is it a simple copy of modern
Western civilization, according to Zhu Jun of the China Institute of International Studies.
Rather, it is a brand new culture incorporating both Eastern and Western traditions.
Therefore, some scholars questioned whether East Asian economic growth is really
related to its cultural traditions. Some clearly reject the thinking that one civilization is
superior to another and refuse to introduce ideological and nationalistic elements into the
One of the issues related to the argument whether civilizations are mutually fused is
whether modernization means Westernization.
It is easy to answer ``no'' to this question, and Huntington's answer is definite:
Modernization is not equal to Westernization as is clear in Japan, Singapore and Saudi
However, this question is far from settled. Many people in East and Southeast Asian
countries unconsciously agree to this proposition. Meanwhile, many in the West believe
that modernization in other countries means emulating the Western economic, political,
and social systems and values.
In recent centuries, Europe and the United States have played a leading role world
affairs, and international exchanges have been largely oneway, leading many Western
nations to believe their economic, social and political systems are suitable for the whole
world. This explains why some Western countries are so aggressive in exporting their
social system, developmental model and values to other countries.
For centuries, Asian nations suffered from economic backwardness. They took the task of
catching up with the West economically in recent decades and had no time to consider
other issues. When a number of Asian countries accomplished industrialization in just a
few decades whereas it took the West hundreds of years to industrialize, the world has
discovered that Asian people have found something different from the model of Western
What is noteworthy is that the economic success has given rise to an awakening of Asian
people's cultural identity. They have begun to reconsider whether the Western social and
political model is suitable to them, and whether they should develop their own social and
political development models.
In recent years some Asian countries have introduced the concept ``Asian value.'' A
definition of Asian values is given by Singapore as the following: Society and the state are
more important than the individual; the foundation of the state is families; the state and
society should respect individuals; harmony rather than conflicts can preserve social
order; religions should peacefully coexist and supplement each other.
Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew believes that the economic growth of
Asia will spark a revival of Asian civilization and eventually will prove the superiority of
Asian values. The advancement of ``Asian values'' by Asian nations is aimed at
preserving the cultural identity of Asians and resist Western influences in the process of
Some scholars and politicians in other Asian countries have emphasized a global
perspective. President of the Republic of Korea Kim Young-sam pointed out that to meet
the 21st century, it was necessary to orient Asians can march into the new century with
confidence in their heritage while respecting other cultures.
These views are shared by Chinese scholars, too. They believe that tradition does not
necessarily interfere with modernization and conclude that Asia cannot simply copy the
Western model. As it turned out, the Western model is not the only way to modernization.
While the debates on Huntington's controversial theory will continue for quite a long time
because a consensus is hard to reach, they have shed light on international studies by
highlighting the role of civilization and culture in world politics.
The second half of this century has seen a resurgence of cultural and political confidence
in Asia as a result of the rapid economic growth in the region.
In the meantime, Western countries are experiencing a decline of influence in the world,
which is compounded by a diminishing cohesive force within the Western alliance after the
end of the Cold War. Along with that, the integrity of Western civilization is threatened by
the multi-ethnic culture brought by immigrants.
Huntington's theory suggests a sense of frustration and anxiety among many Westerners
toward the rise of Asia. It also reflects a growing uncertainty and lack of confidence about
the future of Western civilization.
The theory, therefore, is an attempt to explain the dilemma facing the West. By stating
that the clash of civilizations will dominate the post Cold War world politics, Huntington
hopes his theory will help line up the different fractions of American society, and even the
whole West, to fight an imaginary enemy.
By introducing civilization and cultural factors into the research of world politics,
Huntington's theory proves to be of academic value. Nevertheless, it is unreasonable to
see civilization as a more important factor than all the others, such as race, nationality
and economic interests.
It is indisputable that there are huge differences between civilizations, which occasionally
engender frictions. Nevertheless, it is misleading and dangerous to magnify such frictions
into world political clashes and wars.
In a sense, Huntington's thesis is more a political essay than an academic report, given
that he has written it to advise the US government. The paper offers nothing new. What
he advises the government to do has already been undertaken by the United States:
Strengthening Euro-US relations; integrating Eastern Europe and Latin America into the
West; maintaining relations with Russia and Japan; containing militarily China and the
Islamic world; and supporting pro-Western forces in other civilization rims, etc.
It should be noted that Huntington's theory has elicited oppositions even in the United
States. Politicians, from the president down to diplomats, have either denied any
connection with Huntington's views or directly criticized them.
The reason is that no US leader can afford to antagonize so many nations by publicly
supporting Huntington. Nevertheless, some out-of-power politicians are giving Huntington
It will be dangerous if the clash theory finds its way into policy making. The recently
bandied notion of a ``China threat'' is based on assumptions similar to Huntington's.
``It should be closely observed as to whether the `clash of civilizations' theory will have
some impact on the policy making of Western nations,'' says Jin Canrong in one of his
articles. He also notes, ``If the non-Western nations were so misled by the theory as to
choose clash, Huntington's unfounded hypothesis would turn into a tragic reality.''
In a diversified world, it is only natural that different civilizations should co-exist. Chinese
researchers have been stressing complementarity among different cultures, which should
draw on each other's strong points so as to promote common progress.
As peace and development have become the mainstream of the world, all nations should
show tolerance and respect for each other, and make progress together, they urge.
As an official Chinese document, Outline of Patriotism Education, states, ``Patriotism is
not narrow nationalism. We need not only to inherit and develop the fine heritages of the
Chinese people, but also to study and absorb the civilizations created by other nations,
including capitalist nations. Only by so doing can the Chinese people make their due
contributions to world peace and human progress along with other nations.''
Return to Vinnie's Home Page
Return to Asian Values Debate