Sometimes, in the midst of all the bad news, I forget that, for all our problems, I’m proud to be Chinese. Tied perhaps with the Jews and the Armenians, Chinese people are the most resilient nation in the world, and no conquest has ever extinguished our culture. Even when our language has undergone many changes, we’ve continued speaking our own language without it taking second place to Mongolian or Manchu. What Horace said about Greece is even truer, time and again, of China: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (‘captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror.’).
The Chinese ethos
The need Chinese people have is not for greatness to be demonstrated but for greatness to be vindicated. To put it in terms reflecting older thought, civilization (classically identified with the organism known as China) need not prove itself: it need only be affirmed by the favour of heaven and enfold the nations in its irresistible greatness, without assertion, without debate, without arms. Heaven and earth are themselves witnesses.
Chinese pride exceeds French pride by an order of magnitude.
This is why, knowing the genius – that is, the fertile nature – of our civilization and our people, we feel the injustice of the past two centuries. We feel the rude downward glances of Europe and Japan, not because we fear our inferiority but because we know that their attitude is groundless. We remember the poverty our parents and grandparents suffered, and we remember being torn by war and famine, and we hold it up next to the deep memory of our great cities, cities at which Marco Polo rightly marvelled, cities that were beautiful for their culture and their music and their learning. We feel the pain that an old people feels.
It is hope itself – for Chinese people are sure that China will always recover her glory – that makes us believe in China’s greatness. Our reservoir of culture is deep and vast, and our nation is numerous, and we know that not even centuries of subjugation can make us a conquered people. Chinese continues to be spoken, Chinese history goes on as it has, and Chinese literature continues to speak across the many centuries. Civilization itself will not be murdered no matter how strong the forces that conspire against it.
But this is also the origin of nostalgia: we know our assets come from the long history, and memory, of suffering and achievement. At the same time, this is a cycle. The traditional myth is not the Western Enlightenment myth of unimpeded progress whose ‘truth is marching on’ as time goes on and people become more advanced. Glory involves the resurrection of the thing that has died, the thing from the past, not the erection of a new and bigger monument.
God and glory
Yet it’s hope also that makes me believe that the Chinese nation can become stronger, more noble, more glorious than it ever has been before. With a history as long as China’s, with its ups and downs both long and deep, nostalgia can become hope for the future. My longing toward the past reaches far back, back to the two trees of Eden, and it brings me to the greater city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem. My hope is that China will rejoice in the glory of the Lord when her people have taken down their idols in exchange for fealty to the One whose Name is everlasting and true, the God who was never worshipped through creations of stone and metal.
It is in surrendering our figurative pride in circumcision and the Torah of Moses, in acknowledging the God of Abraham as the author of civilization and the Saviour of Man, that we will be taken up into the honour and majesty of 上帝 (the Emperor on High), who gave his Son, his holy Wisdom, his very likeness, to suffer ignominously for another’s dishonour and then to be raised to the head of a Kingdom that will have no end.