Karl-Heinz Pohl on Confucian philosophy and Chinese aesthetics

By REN GUANHONG / 07-07-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Karl-Heinz Pohl is a German sinologist and a professor of Chinese studies at Trier University in Germany. PHOTO: COURTESY OF POHL

As a German sinologist and a professor of Chinese studies at Trier University in Germany, Professor Karl-Heinz Pohl has long been devoted to the research of Chinese intellectual history, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as intercultural communication and dialogue between China and the West. His publications include Cheng Pan-ch’iao: Poet, Painter and Calligrapher (1990), Aesthetics and Literary Theory in China: From Tradition to Modernity (in German and translated into Chinese, 2006), etc. He also translated Li Zehou’s The Path of Beauty into German.

In a recent interview with CSST, Prof. Pohl shared his studies of Confucian philosophy and Chinese aesthetics, and suggestions for intercultural dialogue between China and the West.
CSST: What do you think are the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western intellectual and value systems?
Pohl: A fundamental difference is the “concept of man.” The concept of man in the European/American West is that of the individual. From its Latin origin, the word means: the ultimate “indivisible”—just as an atom used to be imagined. This “indivisible” stands alone and has certain rights by nature. It is therefore an “atomistic” view of human beings: we are all atoms, the last indivisible units that stand alone. The image of man in China, especially that of Confucianism, is that of man as a “relational being.” We can only live our humanity by having and cultivating relationships: first as children of parents, then as parents of children, brothers and sisters, relatives, friends, compatriots, etc. I think this is one of the main differences between China and the West.
CSST: How do you understand Confucianism? Are there misunderstandings of or prejudices against Confucianism in Western academia?
Pohl: I have just made clear the conception of man in Confucianism. In addition, the family has an important position in Confucianism, as does decent or ritually correct behavior (礼) towards one another—which is not supposed to be a mere externality, but an expression of genuine “benevolence” (仁). Although it was highly revered in Europe during the Enlightenment (17th–18th centuries), Confucianism fell into oblivion after the French Revolution or was only received negatively (as it was by the Chinese intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement, namely as the hallmark of an ossified social system). Today, no one in the West actually understands anything about Confucianism. In this respect, it is important that people like Tu Weiming have re-emphasized the positive sides of Confucianism. Through his work at Harvard University, he has done a lot to convey a new understanding of Confucianism, at least among those who are interested in China, namely that Confucianism also has a spiritual dimension and could well have significance for today’s world. I myself am very influenced by Tu Weiming. My last visit to China was to attend the symposium on his 80th birthday in Beijing in 2019.
In my eyes, Tu Weiming has brought back to light the side of Confucianism that had completely faded away for a long time, namely that Confucianism is a tradition not only of wisdom, but also of a high ethical standard, and that it also has an almost spiritual tradition, namely in the emphasis on xiuyang (修养), or self-cultivation, that this is basically the core of Confucianism—and not a social hierarchy and all, which is commonly associated with it. The latter has also been part of Confucianism, but it is a part that is no longer needed in this form today. Confucianism is not a dogmatic teaching where one would say: you must not change anything. Confucianism is a rich cultural resource, and one can certainly ask what of this resource is still interesting and important today, and what can rather be forgotten.  
CSST: It is generally known that Western aesthetics has deeply influenced modern Chinese aesthetics. Does Chinese aesthetics inspire the West in some ways?
Pohl: Aesthetics was initially also a Western import for China. However, if one understands aesthetics as philosophy of art, then the Chinese intellectuals understood early on that this discipline was very much in line with their own cultural tradition. When they began to engage with Western culture at the turn of the 1900s, Chinese intellectuals found that the West was shaped by religion (Christianity), whereas China was shaped by aesthetics. Aesthetics was thus understood as the functional equivalent of religion. So someone like Cai Yuanpei could also demand “Aesthetic education instead of religion!” Lin Yutang said (in My Country and My People): “Poetry may well be called the Chinaman’s religion.” 
The Chinese language or script has an aesthetic dimension through the characters alone—and through calligraphy—that is completely unknown in the West. Calligraphy is related to painting and poetry, which also has a very different and distinct appeal in China. The aesthetic peculiarities of Chinese poetry, namely the formal characteristics, are unfortunately lost in translation. So the appreciation of Chinese poetry is very limited [in the West]. Despite this limitation due to the loss of aesthetic features, Chinese poetry, when it was discovered here around 1900, exerted an enormous attraction on European and American artists. Thus, the American Imagists around Ezra Pound were influenced by it. In Europe, Gustav Mahler wrote a great symphonic cantata in his “The Song of the Earth,” based on the texts of poems by Li Bai, Meng Haoran, Wang Wei, and others. Although these translations were reinterpretations that were very distant from the actual originals, this work represents a first attempt to build a cultural bridge between China and the West. It is a great work and deserves more attention. 
Finally, Yin-Yang thinking plays a very important role: it promotes a pattern of thinking of balance. One looks for parallelisms instead of opposites. The Chinese characters and Yin-Yang thought have thus led to a special feature in Chinese culture: parallelism (对仗) in poetry or the parallel sayings (对联) everywhere on pillars in temples or on doorposts. These are peculiarities that do not exist at all in the West and are not understood there. Then one could also name Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist elements or backgrounds of Chinese aesthetics. Through Western influence—and perhaps also through the translation of the term “aesthetics” into Chinese as 美学, i.e. “doctrine of the beautiful”—Chinese scholars have been lured onto the track of searching for “beauty” everywhere. However, “beauty” played virtually no role in traditional Chinese art—unlike in the West. More important was the harmonious (Confucian) or the natural (Daoist). In any case, aesthetics plays a different role in China than in the West. Here in the West, it is a sub-discipline of philosophy that is hardly taken notice of anymore. It is something for a few specialists; and books on aesthetics don’t have an influence in society. In China, on the other hand, aesthetics has an essential connection to China’s cultural self-understanding or to a Chinese identity. Something like an “aesthetics fever” (as in the 1980s, triggered by the publication of Li Zehou’s The Path of Beauty) could not exist in the West. Li Zehou also pointed out, that for traditional China, an aesthetics consciousness (审美境界) was the highest consciousness to be attained in life. This is certainly not true for the West.
China basically has a completely different aesthetic tradition than the West. And not only in the field of art, such as painting, but also in literature, in poetry. In China, poetry has always played its most important role as literature. Here in Europe, it was rather the drama, the tragedy, and the epic, beginning with the Greeks, later the novel. In China it was poetry. The fascinating thing about poetry is that it is bound to form, but, as I said, this form is lost in translation. However, if you know Chinese, you can understand and enjoy these poems in the original form. It is a great pleasure to be able to read something like this with all the formal peculiarities.  
CSST: What are the main problems in the intercultural dialogue between China and the West? How do we facilitate effective intercultural dialogue?
Pohl: There is a lot of controversy around the topic of “intercultural dialogue.” Some consider it a pompous thing without substance. Thus, the main question is where and between whom such a dialogue should take place at all and how its results can become fruitful. However, “dialogue” should not be understood here in a narrow sense, but in a broader one, namely as an effort in understanding. First of all, our human relationships to one another are dialogical, i.e., we need the “other” in order to experience ourselves as “ourselves.” This also applies to cultures insofar as one can actually only experience one’s own culture in contrast to another. For example, we only start thinking about our mother tongue when we start learning another language. In this respect, intercultural dialogue should be seen as an effort for understanding that can take place at all levels, between individuals, between politicians, members of religions, in the media. Such efforts in understanding should be based above all on a sense of equality and mutual respect. However, care must be taken that such “dialogue” does not lead to a “monologue,” i.e., that only one side speaks like a teacher and the other listens like a student.
Presently, there is basically no dialogue between China and the West. There are only monologues from the respective side. When a conversation between the two takes place, someone once said, it is like a conversation between deaf people. The West doesn’t understand the otherness of China at all. People here think that people all over the world can only live and be happy according to Western standards. They simply know too little about China. Some Chinese literature and philosophy have been translated over the last 100 years, but only experts (sinologists) know about it, and they are few and have little influence. At school, you learn almost nothing about China. Conversely, it is quite different: Chinese intellectuals, in particular, have studied Europe and its culture (philosophy, literature, art, etc.) intensively since the Opium War [in the 1840s]. So they are familiar with two worlds. Westerners know only one world—the West’s own world. In this respect, the Chinese would actually have an advantage. It’s just not much use to them, because the West, through its military, economic, financial, and cultural power, has managed over the last centuries to make the whole world think and live according to Western standards. 
An intercultural dialogue can only be fruitful if one is first interested in the other and if one is also able to read something about it. However, too little has been translated from Chinese. Finally, because of China’s political otherness, the country and its politics are only portrayed negatively in the media. This negative attitude could be changed through intercultural dialogue, for example, through discussions between Chinese and Westerners on television or in the media, but there are no tendencies to do so here. This is usually very frustrating for China’s friends in the West.