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On the Concept of Wenming (Civilization) in Pre-19th Century China and Europe

By? Liu Wenming

Published in Journal of Capital Normal University,Vol.196, No. 5 (2010), pp. 130-137.

Full text in Chinese


The Chinese word Wenming(文明, civilization) first appeared in Yijing (I Ching, or The Book Of Changes) of Zhou Dynasty, in which says: “In nature we see in the sky the strong light of the sun; the life of the world depends on it. But this strong, essential thing is changed and given pleasing variety by the moon and the stars. In human affairs, aesthetic form comes into being when people are civilized by a lucid beauty of tradition(Wenming)which exist strong and abiding like mountains. By contemplating the forms existing in the heavens we come to understand time and its changing demands. Through contemplation of the forms existing in human society it becomes possible to shape the social world.” Here Wenming as a verb means “civilize”, “cultivate” or “educate”. The word Wenming was also used in Shangshu (Documents of the Elder ), in which described the King Shun was “very wise and civilized, like sunshine lighting everywhere”(浚哲文明). So the meaning of Wenming refer to “to civilize people” and “civilized virtue like sunshine lighting everywhere”. Such meaning was more explicite in poet Du Guangting’s(850~933)words: “placate and civilize the remote people with civilization”. In fact, the word “civilization” imply another word “barbarism” in these documents. “Civilization” in Yijing was opposite to “nature”, in Shangshu it opposite to “unwisdom”, and in Du Guangting’s poem it opposite to “barbarism”. So “civilization” in ancient China was a category opposite to “barbarism”. Huaxia civilization(华夏文明) came into being in the process of differentiating the barbarian foreigner from the civilized China during the time form the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. The concept of civilization in ancient China to some degree imply the idea of Sinocentrism until 19th century when Qing Dynasty lost the war fighting against England.

The concept of civilization in Europe historically changed from sixteenth to nineteenth century; it originated from the word courtoisie in late Middle Ages and took the form of civility in Renaissance times, then the noun civilization was constructed in eighteenth century France and at last became a modern concept in nineteenth century. In this process, the European cognition of civilization and the identification of their own civilization were enhanced by the interaction between the civilized self and the barbarian other, and the ladder of civilization was changed from space difference into time sequence, and by this way the concept of civilization was constructed on the base of European expansion and their experience. In the meantime the concept of civilization developed from a kind of up class’s self-awareness into European ideology, which is a thought of Eurocetrism.

So in China and in Europe before 19th century, the concept of civilization came into being and developed in the process of interacting with the “barbarian others”, and in the interaction Chinses and European both developed a self-identity and a kind of superiority to “barbarian others”, that means Sinocentrism and Eurocentrism. But these similarity between China and Europe had different meaning to “barbarian others”. In China, cultural factor in the interaction between Chinese and the others was more important than economic factor. On the contrary, economic factor was at least as important as cultural factor in the interaction between European settlers and the others, hence conflict between them became inevitable, that was why Zhenghe’s and Columbus’ exploration had different consequences.