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Dictionary of Misunderstandings Europe-China

Authors: Zhao Tingyang, Huang Ping, Alain le Pichon and Tinka Reichmann


About twenty-three centuries ago, a cultural event took place in Egypt, in the form of a meeting, colloquium and seminar, which definitely changed and marked the history of mankind. It was the meeting of the seventy Hellenised Jewish scholars, gathered in Alexandria by King Ptolemy II. This meeting between two so profoundly different cultures, Greek and Jewish, at the end of their work, and in the form of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible, was to definitively transform Greek thought and culture, and constitute the conceptual basis of Judeo-Christian civilisation, giving Western cultures, for two millennia, their foundation, their form and their inspiration.

History has endorsed the fact that every well-developed civilization most likely had such transcultural experiences that result in a richer composition of cultural resources. Early China has proved to be transcultural from its known beginning. The archaeological findings of the neolith period indicate China had learnt how to utilize many resources from the Middle East, such as bronze, horse and wheat. Wheat became so important, that the picture of it had been turned into the earliest pictograph that represents “future”, for the wheat foretells the harvest. Two other significant events had deepened the transculturality of China: The “journey to the west”, actually to India, led by a famous monk in the Tang dynasty (618- 907), had brought back the best collections of Buddhist works; and the “westernization” of China in the last two centuries, with China learning about the sciences and modern technologies. Among notable European-Chinese encounters, the adventure of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) should also be included, as he introduced Christianity into China.

The project of the Dictionary of Misunderstandings, conducted by Chinese and European scholars, proceeds from the same spirit and constitutes a homage to Umberto Eco, thus fulfilling one of his most cherished wishes in realizing a project which he considered to be of major importance in our time.

The question of cultural misunderstandings is a seminal topic that has underlain the International Transcultura Institute since its beginnings in 1988. At that time, the main objective was to promote reciprocal anthropology between European and non-European researchers and thus broaden concepts and methodologies in trans-cultural studies and in doing so, renew the conceptual field of human sciences. Over the years, through different activities promoted by the Transcultura research network, it has become more and more evident that diverging interpretations of a situation impede mutual learning and positive interactions, often leading to disagreements between people, countries and leaders. Accordingly, Transcultura has increasingly been engaged with the question of misunderstandings, as they are not only related to a lack of knowledge of the meaning of words but also to the concepts that are implied therein.

The challenge is to put the differences of cultural concepts into perspective so that they are not only accepted or respected as such, but so that they are also enriched by mutual knowledge and understanding. Over the years, Transcultura has developed an approach to selecting key-concepts of cultures as well as studying and discussing them through an equitable and respectful academic exchange.

A decisive turning point and a milestone in this development was the debate initiated at the Transcultura Congress on Mutual Knowledge held at the European Parliament in November 2001 where numerous delegations from China, India, Africa and Iran debated and formulated the concept of a Cross-Cultural Encyclopaedia of Key Words. The aim was to gradually build up an editorial keyword basis for conceptual debate between knowledge cultures. This challenge was taken up by the Indian delegation and led to the Goa-Pondicherry-Delhi Itinerant Seminar on Cultures of Knowledge (2007), establishing the methodological principle of a “third party view” in a reciprocal knowledge triangulation (here India-China-Europe).

In a Transcultura seminar at the University of Bologna in 1997, Umberto Eco, co-founder of Transcultura, advocated for the coexistence of differences between cultures and a reciprocal respect one for another. He invited his public not to try to minimise the differences but to deepen their knowledge on them and achieve a state of reciprocal comprehension. His writings on language in cultural history (The Search for the Perfect Language 2000) and his experiences as a translated author (Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation 2003) were formative contributions to Transcultura. Even if translation is considered to be impossible from a strict philosophical and semiotic point of view, Eco accepts translatability if there is no expectation of finding perfect synonymies. Otherwise, neither the Septuagint nor any other translations would have any legitimate raison d’être.

In the lack of absolute synonymy, the only solution is to know profoundly the cultural belongings, accept the differences between them and fill the gaps with metalinguistic resources in dynamic processes of dialogue and co-writing methods resulting in a “syntext”, as Zhao Tingyang proposed to name it, based on the concept of trans-subjectivity (le Pichon 2020), meant to overcome the intersubjective conflicts and to create “transcultural focal points”.

Mostly interestingly, this concept of trans-subjectivity could be found in a “trans-subjective dialogue” with the Chinese key concept “hua (化)”, translated literally as “melting-and-recasting” or more often translated as “transforming (to fit one another)” (Zhao Tingyang 2020) since in most cases it means a solution to the intersubjective hostility in terms of the mutual adoption of cultures. Trans-subjectivity develops an “effect of reciprocal mirrors”, a metaphor indicating that each culture could mirror the others and reciprocally share their knowledge. Zhao Tingyang defines this concept as follows:

(1) a culture mirroring the other cultures could be interpreted as having the other cultures “being mapped into” the system of its own so that (2) the other cultures could be meaningfully interpreted by each culture as the productive increment of its own system; it therefore requires that (3) the mirror offered by a culture should have the infinite potentiality in offering inexhaustible configurations for other cultures to be mapped out in its own system; and (4) so far as we speak in terms of humanities rather than mathematics, the cultural mapping allows the existence of “reasonable misinterpretations”, since a possible world within a culture cannot be mapped into any other without distortion based upon the fact that a possible world is richer and more complicated than a mathematical system; therefore (5) the cultural mapping processing would likely have a genetic recombination effect in every culture so that every culture would be re-cultured. …..

Why start from Chinese words and concepts?

In the reciprocal game of fascination and repulsion, admiration and fear in which China and Europe have been engaged for centuries, China has had an undeniable advantage over Europe. In spite of a long, fascinating and deliberate history of isolation, it has been able to develop a thorough knowledge of European thought and cultures. Sciences, philosophy, literature, arts: Chinese intellectuals and researchers know very much about the sources, the heritage or the new productions of Western cultures which are published and distributed by Chinese publishing houses, just as the Jewish scholars at the time of the Ptolemies knew very much about Greek culture. In return, with the exception of a few sinologists, the European public, even the educated, knows almost nothing about Chinese thought. The dictionary therefore aims to engage in a profound Sino-European dialogue, deepen the European knowledge of China based on a selection of keywords that those on the Chinese side consider as real milestones, both regarding their fundamental culture sources and their cultural and academic exchange with the West.

The fact is that European and Chinese cultures had little chance to communicate in the past until modern times; both were so independent from one another, and therefore developed very different “epistemes” and “taxonomies” on each side, or in Foucault’s words, interpreted the world, life and values differently, thus constituting the best field work for transcultural misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

While it might be considered a strategic advantage for the Chinese side in a war or in Cold War times – an advantage for those who know their adversary best, a corresponding disadvantage for those who do not – Europe’s lack of knowledge of Chinese thought compromises, if it hasn’t been made impossible, a chance for a genuine harmonious conflict resolution in which both sides have an interest. It also compromises a chance for universal progress in thinking and knowledge.

More than ever, we need, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, to contemplate the past, we need to contemplate the words of the past in their diversity, which requires dialogue, mutual respect and the resulting reflexive and metalinguistic translation based on reciprocal cultural knowledge, in order to understand our future. Not to “linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated”, as Benjamin states, but to gather the words and make the concepts speak to each other.

Following the model of the Alexandria Colloquium and its work wanted by Ptolemy II, as he turned to the Jewish scholars of the Torah to broaden the horizon of Greek thought, we propose to turn to and draw on some of the fundamental concepts of Chinese thought and put these into perspective with corresponding Western ones in order to open up and expand the questions that globalisation imposes on us.

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Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of the European Union to China

Mutual understanding is the foundation of international relations. If globalization leads us to use a common lexicon, we often tend to forget that meanings differ from one culture to the other. Lack of understanding or, sometimes, confusion in meaning, breaks communication.

When China speaks in a foreign language, it uses a lexicon that is more often than never not on par with its own history and culture. It uses words to which it may assign, consciously or unconsciously, different meanings. No dialogue can be effective if interlocutors disagree on the very meaning of what they say to each other.

More than 2000 years ago, Confucius noted the imperative “to assign proper meanings to concepts”, zheng ming 正名. That is precisely what this digital platform offers by attempting to bridge the gap of cultural differences, while respecting the essential value of cultural diversity without falling in the trap of cultural relativism. This initiative aims thus to confront key concepts between Europe and China by designing a methodical guide to handle and solve eventual misunderstandings.

Remarkably, the origin of this project stems back to the 1980’s when a number of dialogues contributed to create a trustworthy network of scholars in Europe and in China. With the renewed support of the European Union, the ‘EU-China Forum on Cultural Misunderstandings’ gathers a group of high level European and Chinese intellectuals who share the awareness that cultural misunderstandings impede mutual comprehension and positive interactions between the EU and China at all levels.

The digital platform ambitions to be a constant, accessible and tangible instrument for uploading contributions and conducting initial debates in preparation of the November 2021 Forum.

The contributions of all participating authors will be included in the EU-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings, published digitally and eventually also in a physical form. It intends to be a meaningful, scientific and literate instrument for the benefit of mutual understanding between Europe and China.

It is certainly my hope that this editorial project of a Europe-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings may constitute a reference tool for further research and exchanges.


Nicolas Chapuis
Ambassador of the European Union to the People’s Republic of China 
May 2021

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