The Chinese Scholar – Enlightenment through Philosophy, Art and Poetry

A Report on the Event held at the Forum, AcuMedic Centre, 7th December 2013

This interactive, informal presentation introduced famous scholars’ historical contributions as the masters of China’s intellectual and artistic traditions and highlighted their present role in sharing our efforts to solve the problems of global concern.

The presentation was provided by Professor Man Fong Mei, Director of the AcuMedic Centre. For him, this occasion represented a new milestone on his personal journey to introduce Chinese scholarship to the Western world and to accelerate a cross-fertilisation between the Eastern and Western perspectives.

In ancient China, becoming a scholar meant attaining an official position inside the government in order to serve the country (by assisting the emperor). To become the Scholar-Official was the dream of many. To attain such position of responsibility, a person had to devote themselves to learning classic Chinese literature in order to pass a gruelling multi-stage examination. Success at these exams could only be achieved by rote learning classical Chinese philosophical treatises and poetry – a lonely process that demanded approximately 10 years of devotion. The purpose of these examinations was to ensure that the government appointed only those individuals who, firstly, could exhibited high moral standards cultivated through disciplined study of Confucian social philosophy, and, who fully appreciated China’s literary and artistic heritage. It was believed that, when in power, such scholars were more likely to make decisions in the national interest rather for personal gain and that they would strive to honour China’s literary classics.

Subsequently, scholar-officials were deeply versed in the Chinese intellectual and artistic heritage, to the point where poetry, painting and philosophical deliberation were not only subjects of academic study but the means of recreation. Scholars would often meet to debate and to improvisationally exchange in couplets. The scholars’ proficiency in Chinese classics has enabled them to preserve the values and cultural heritage of their civilisation and, where necessary, to innovate China’s artistic and intellectual output. Indeed, various circles of scholars – ‘schools’ – emerged which have made a mark on the history of philosophy, poetry, art and medicine over thousands of years of Chinese history.

Professor Mei mentioned several examples of such innovations: The birth of Impressionist and abstract art can be pinpointed in the works of Chinese scholars who were inspired to capture through painting the motion of natural landscapes; The birth of chemistry can be traced to the Chinese scholars who practised alchemy to create anti-ageing decoctions; The technique of pulse diagnosis used in Chinese medicine was invented by a scholar employed as the emperor’s medical physician, while surgery was pioneered in China by other scholar physicians.

Famous scholars were introduced, as well as Professor Mei’s own favourites, in terms of their contribution as poets, painters, historians, philosophers and medical physicians. Their influence on Chinese modern culture was also explained, with particular reference to the enduring tradition of music and painting amongst the Chinese people of all generations. He introduced various scholars poets – including Li Qing Zhao (1084 – 1151), who is the most influential female poet in East Asia – and highlighted some of their celebrated poems.

Professor Mei used videos, calligraphy and an authentic Chinese musical instrument to communicate the historical background behind these works and some of the sentiments which inspired their creators. He also provided a geographical context to the most famous scholars and their works by drawing on the knowledge gained from the trips to China which he regularly leads, organised by the AcuMedic Foundation.

The purpose of this lecture is to show that, whereas in the past scholarship was confined to the Chinese classical tradition, in the modern era Chinese scholars are exploring Western ideas to define China’s identity in today’s globalised world. Professor Mei used China’s modern history to show how scholars continue to influence Chinese civilisation into the present day, albeit through reinventions of Confucianism informed by ideas from Western political philosophy.

The beginning of this movement started at the end of the Qing Dynasty – around 100 years ago – by Chinese intellectuals determined to rescue China from its unstable existence as a target for foreign invasions. These scholars feared that China’s traditionally insular foreign policy – a product of Chinese governments’ satisfaction with their own resources and culture – have retarded their country’s technological progress and thus rendered it severely vulnerable to a complete colonisation by foreign superpowers and thus on the brink of extinction. Ironically, although gunpowder was invented in China, its rulers’ complacency made the country a target for foreign aggressors who appropriated the very same invention as a all-conquering weapon.

Many scholars – such as Lu Xun (1881-1936) – believed that China’s development was held back by its traditional Confucian values and sought a complete break with the past. Lu Xun expressed this sentiment through short stories, literary criticism and essays. This was a new type of Chinese scholar whose influence came from a critique, rather than a preservation, of Chinese classical world-view.

Professor Mei argued that what is really needed is an integration of the classical and modernist ideas; Eastern and Western philosophies. The 2008 Financial Crisis has highlighted the interconnected nature of today’s world where economic problems can cause devastating hardship in all corners of the globe. There are no more excuses for us to ignore or underestimate the relationships we share with each other.

One of the Chinese scholars who led integration of Eastern and Western ideas was Liang Shuming (1893 –1988) who read works of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, amongst others, worked on updating the Confucian tradition and strove to moderate the manner in which Marxist ideas were implemented in China. Professor Mei highlighted the work of this scholar as an exemplary effort to synthesise intellectual perspectives from China and the West.

In practical terms, an integration of the East and West is already progressing in the field of medicine and healthcare, necessitated by the international rise in cases of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), cancer, metabolic syndromes and psychological disorders such as depression and stress. Integration of Chinese and Western medicines – 5,000 years of clinical history and modern medical technologies – is a most concrete example of an essential synthesis between Eastern and Western civilisations. The AcuMedic Centre has successfully led this movement in the UK since 1972.

Liang Shuming’s Neo-Confucianism, his integrative ethos and other revolutionary ideas are now being publicly debated by China’s leading intellectuals in search of preserving her classical wisdom in a way that reasserts the country as a benign force flourishing on today’s global stage. In a recent meeting with the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) China’s new President Xi Jin-ping pledged to promote medical integration by modernising Chinese medicine and supporting its development in overseas countries in order to cope with the world’s health problems. This is in addition to the comprehensive healthcare and education reforms implemented by China’s new government.

While debates are raging on across the West about the alternatives to the current socio-economic model that spawned a devastating financial crisis and caused unprecedented levels of environmental damage, Professor Mei has reassured the audience that we are not alone at this crucial stage of soul-searching. In fact, China is also deeply engaged in tackling the same fundamental questions and agonising over the newly-adopted modern values which led to her vast material growth and huge environmental costs. It is clear that we are together in this process.

Given the nature of ideas discussed in this presentation, it was fitting that this particular occasion and the AcuMedic Centre provided the setting for the launch of Sir Julian Rose’s book In Defence of Life. The book is a series of essays on a “radical reworking of green wisdom” and features a foreword written by Professor Mei. Sir Rose was in attendance at the lecture and on hand to sign copies of the book which is now available at the AcuMedic Bookshop.

Professor Mei is actively engaged in East-West medical integration and together with the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine has founded the Chinese Medical Institute and Register (CMIR, UK). He is the principal professor of the CMIR and holds visiting professorships with the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine and Guangxi Medical University. He is currently Chairman of the Chinese Medicine Council (CMC, UK), Chinese Medical Institute & Register (CMIR, UK); Executive Chairman, Consultative Working Committee of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS). He is also the Clinical Director at the AcuMedic Centre.

Since opening in 1972, AcuMedic has treated over 50,000 patients using integrated Chinese medicine and acupuncture provided by a team of highly experienced doctors.