Debate: When China helps us better understand European identity

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“I miss the ancient parapets of Europe”, Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat”

“Make Europe?” It already exists. What we must do is construct our perspective. Umberto Eco once said that “the language of Europe is translation” and it is true that geographical Europe, with its 35 official languages and 225 secondary languages, has always been considered a myth by Eurosceptics and a dream by those strongly in favour of Europe.

It is in this fault line that the Brexit campaign operates. In the Telegraph on May 15, 2016, Boris Johnson declared in an extremely provocative manner:

“The European Union is pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate… While bureaucrats in Brussels are using ‘different methods’ from the Nazi dictator, they share the aim of unifying Europe under one ‘authority’.”

Later, he adds:

“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods. But fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void.”

The idea of Europe was born of the tragedy of war. In his address to the International Peace Congress on August 21, 1849, Victor Hugo exclaimed:

“A day will come when your arms will fall even from your hands! A day will come when war will seem as absurd and impossible between Paris and London, between Petersburg and Berlin, between Vienna and Turin, as it would be impossible and would seem absurd today between Rouen and Amiens, between Boston and Philadelphia. A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood, just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces are merged together in France. A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what this parliament is to England, what this diet is to Germany, what this legislative assembly is to France.”

A common cultural heritage

The two world wars helped to revive the idea of Europe. Stefan Zweig praised the idea of a cultured, humanistic and pacifist Europe to which he gave Erasmian traits. Following the 1923 publication of Paneuropa by Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, a conference was held in 1926 in Vienna . More than 2,000 delegates from 24 nations came together, including the first chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer. At the conference the idea of a Europe of 300 million souls was developed. Russia was excluded for being too oriental, as was Great Britain, for being too focused on its empire.

Time has passed. The euro crisis, the migrant tragedy… Some are saddened that Europe is in crisis. Others deplore and sometimes delight in the fact that Europe no longer exists.

Let’s leave aside this discourse about the “dream” of Europe. Let’s jettison this utopian approach which is synonymous with efforts to attain a goal or bitter disappointment at not achieving it. Instead, let’s adopt a clinical approach. Europe quite simply exists. European identity is much more powerful than any national identity. What is it all about?

On the occasion of a lecture delivered at the University of Zurich on November 15, 1922, Paul Valéry described Europe as the result of Greek cultural heritage, Roman law, and Christian unity:

“Wherever the names of Caesar, Gaius, Trajan and Virgil, wherever the names of Moses and Saint Paul, wherever the names of Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid have had a simultaneous significance and authority, that is where Europe is. Every race and every land that has in turn been Romanised, Christianised, and intellectually trained by the discipline of the Greeks is absolutely European. Some have received only one or two of these traits. Thus, there are some traits, which are quite distinct from race, language even, and nationality, that unite and assimilate the countries of the West and of the centre of Europe. The number of notions and ways of thinking that are common to we have in common to them is much greater than the number of notions that we have in common with an Arab and a Chinese… ”

China as a mirror

Just like a mirror, China makes it possible to understand Europe. This is the experience of François Jullien as described by Paul Ricoeur:

“His claim, which I will not dispute but will rather take as a working hypothesis is that the Chinese is the absolute other of the Greek – that knowledge of the interior of the Chinese is equivalent to a deconstruction from the outside, from the exterior, of Greek thought and speech.”

Now let’s listen to François Jullien:

“By staging a face-to-face encounter between Chinese thought and European thought, I brought them to the point of considering themselves with respect to each other and of reflecting in each other. That is, to probe in the other its own theoretical biases, its hidden choices based on which its system of thought developed. In short, to go back to its unthought. Each thus de-constructed itself through the other. I call ‘unthought’ that based on which one thinks and that which consequently one does not consider: that onto which one’s thought is built.”

The concepts, not from Chinese culture, which is diverse, but from Chinese “language-thought” in the sense in which Jullien intends it, throw into relief a vision of the world that is totally different from that which issues from Greece, from Europeans. Let’s start by the de-construction of ontology: “for you know this major fact that Chinese language does not say "Being’ in the absolute sense of "I am,‘ to be or not to be; rather it indicates only the predicate.”

It is not that the individual does not exist in China but as Yuzhi Ouyang reminds us in his thesis, “Traditional Chinese Culture and Contemporary Western Culture”:

“China has contempt for the individual. Individualism is such a fundamental given in Western culture, such a fundamental element in the Western system of values that Westerners sometimes forget its importance. For the Greeks, including even the Stoics, the goal of life was the perfecting of the individual. Salvation, the goal of Christian faith, is also individual. It can be said that in Western culture, from its beginning, the individual has been the prime feature. By contrast, in Chinese culture, from its start, it’s the community that has been valued.”

Similarly, the concept of love between men can be put in relation with ren which Ouyang describes:

“'Ren’ encourages action even as it remains sensitive to relations between persons. Consequently, ren led the Chinese always to position themselves in relationships. Confucius defined five principal ones: father/son, sovereign/minister, husband/wife, older brother/younger brother, and friend/friend. When there is a conflict between the community and the individual, the individual always submits to the community.”

François Jullien developed his thought along three key notions:

  • The Greek concept of beauty, which is not found in China. There is no nudity in Chinese art. Nor is there any incarnation of Being, ousia or parousia. “In China, the body is rather a practically shapeless sack of breath-energy whose circulation should be followed in minute detail (as in acupuncture).”

  • Chinese thought privileges hearing over sight. “To say ‘intelligent’, one says ‘hearing-seeing’ (cong-ming); hearing comes before sight. For sight seeks in the world what is ‘thrown’ before it and obstructs it: its ‘ob-jet;’ but hearing gathers like a cone. That’s why one must lend one’s ears to the silent transformations that discretely make their way, continuously and globally, without warning.”

  • “The Chinese strategist operates by silent transformation, that for which it ‘does not act’ but lets the situation mature: when the situation is brought to maturation, there is need only to gather (li in Chinese). Properly speaking, there is no ‘aim’ (skopos in Greek) methodically determining in advance ‘goals’ (telos) to achieve by detaching them from the processual nature of things even if it means tragically forcing destiny.”

As Claude Hagège notes, China plays the role of a great theoretical operator:

“It was necessary to put oneself in the position to study Greek thought from the point of view of another system of thought, the Chinese.”

The detour through Chinese thought allows us to see the peoples of Europe who feel so different from one another although they are united by a metaphysics, a sensibility, values and a relationship to the world. These all function like cement that is much stronger than the centripetal forces which essentially amount, as Rabelais would say, to Picrocholean wars.

Constructing Europe from culture and values

Where then does the difficulty of creating the conditions for a juridical and institutional Europe come from? Perhaps from a problem of method. One recalls the famous apocryphal sentence of Jean Monnet, the founding father of the European Union: “If I were to do it again, I’d begin with culture.” (The sentence is actually a rhetorical play indicating what Hélène Ahrweiler believed Jean Monnet might have said and not what he actually said.) What is interesting is the success of the “citation” which was never corrected because it obviously touches a sensitive chord.

Europe was built much more on economics and politics than on culture and values. The conscious or unconscious model of its promoters has always been that of the United States, the United States of Europe as a counterpart to the United States of America. Victor Hugo exposed this idea in 1849:

“A day will come when a cannon will be exhibited in museums just as an instrument of torture is now, and people will be astonished how such a thing could have been. A day will come when these two immense groups, the United States of America and the United States of Europe, will be seen placed in presence of each other, extending the hand of fellowship across the ocean, exchanging their produce, their commerce, their industry, their arts, their genius, clearing the earth, setting up colonies of people in the deserts, ameliorating creation under the eyes of the Creator, and uniting, for the good of all, these two irresistible and infinite powers – the fraternity of men and the power of God!”

However, if it’s so much habit to reunite Europe and the United States within the larger concept of the West (see, for example, Samuel P. Huntington), an essential difference nevertheless remains.

Huntington, in effect, gives prevalence to the notion of religion as he defines civilisation. He cites Christopher Dawson (“The great religions are the foundations of the great civilizations”, in The Dynamics of World History) and considers that “of Weber’s five ‘world religions’, four – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism – are associated with major civilisations” (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order) as he explains why Buddhism and Judaism are excluded. But Europe is not Christian.

As the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Europe invented a new religion, the religion of Man.

“In early modern Europe, murderers were thought to violate and destabilise the cosmic order. To bring the cosmos back to balance, it was necessary to torture and publicly execute the criminal, so that everyone could see the order re-established. Attending gruesome executions was a favourite pastime for Londoners and Parisians in the era of Shakespeare and Molière. In today’s Europe, murder is seen as a violation of the sacred nature of humanity. In order to restore order, present-day Europeans do not torture and execute criminals. Instead, they punish a murderer in what they see as the most "humane’ way possible, thus safeguarding and even rebuilding his human sanctity.”

The United States is further removed from the notion of secularism. While the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, underlined by John Quincy Adams’ declaration 10 years later that the government of the United States was not founded on the Christian religion, it is hard to imagine “In God We Trust” on our euros or our political leaders ending their speeches with the phrase “God bless Europe.”

Europe’s essential contribution, since the Enlightenment, has consisted in placing Man, rather than God, at the centre of the universe. To be sure, this humanism was born of the Christian religion itself. The apprehension of the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost in a dynamic, and not static, vision is breathtakingly modern: god incarnates himself in Man to become the Spirit. He throws off his divinity, become mortal in order to become immaterial. This Christian genius, this sublime vision prefigures that of making Man the supreme value of our societies.

It’s this additional step that Europe took. Europe learned how to rid itself of religion by sublimating it. No matter what the Eurosceptics claim, Europe has a soul: its humanism.


Alas, headwinds have started to blow. In the east and the centre of Europe, illiberal democracies have emerged: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, etc. Alain Finkielkraut devoted a show to this phenomenon. His guests explained that these are stateless nations built on cultural identity that oppose not only political liberalism but also social liberalism (gay marriage, abortion, and multiculturalism). These countries see themselves – more in a conflict of paradigm rather than of civilisation – as the last defenders of a conservative Europe (family, nation, Christian values). They oppose our religion of humanity, for it worries them. Thus, these countries reject the migrant quotas that Brussels wants to impose on them not because of a desired nationalism but for symbolic reasons. They refuse a multicultural future because they believe multiculturalism has failed and throws their identity into question. Against the backdrop of a constitutional state in retreat and resurgent antisemitism, a divorce is being finalised within Europe.

Fellow Europeans, let’s find ourselves in the Enlightenment that gathered us and that has recently divided us. Let’s try to borrow the Chinese approach. Let’s try the strategy of silent transformations. Perhaps we will have to abandon the idea of building Europe and focus instead on that of recognising European identity. Perhaps, we will have to let go of giving Europe a shape and instead work to reveal its true contours. The advantage would be to unite around that which exists rather than imagining that which does not exist or exposing its utopian character.

While our economic interests may diverge and our political approaches may differ, the base of common values is far more stable. Rather than dream of a Europe with a thousand different norms, let’s open our eyes and witness the beautiful and triumphant but especially much more realistic Europe of humanism, the Europe of the constitutional state, and the Europe of culture. Like an unheard apparition.

Translated from French by Derrick D. Allums.

This article was originally published in French

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