China 30 Years On: From Monochrome to Colour

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my first visit to China. In 1988 I was staying in Guanzhou, about to embark on a solo journey to Beijing, when I was approached by a man from the Chinese Tourist Agency. He invited me to join the ‘first international cycling tour of China’. And so, I found myself moving from the youth hostel to a very smart hotel where I joined an international group for a 3 week tour of China by bicycle, train and coach.
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Thanks to the efforts of my host, Professor Yonghui Ma a bioethicist at Xiamen (pronounced ‘Shaymin’) University, an equally fortuitous happening occurred this week. I was invited to join another international group for the ‘the Global Humanities Festival’ on the theme of ‘Challenges and Duties of Humanities: Asian and Global Commitments’.

The Global Humanities Festival

Festival participants were treated to an abundance of academic and cultural riches. Scholarly talks were given on topics as diverse as the role of the humanities in our local and global communities, on what we can learn from classic Chinese texts, on the meaning and implications of ‘liberal education’, on the maritime Silk Road and on the ethics and emerging technologies. We had guided tours of the local South Putuo Temple, of Tan Kah Kee College, of Daimei historical village, of Gulangyu Island, and of medieval Quanzhou.

We also had a wonderful concert with aspects familiar (an extract from ‘the Merry Widow’) and exotic (local music and instruments such as clay vossle flute, Chinese zither and dolcimer). The university choir was nothing short of sublime. The leadership of Professor Hsiung Ping-Chen, President of Asian New Humanities Net (ANHN), the hospitality of Xiamen University and other centres we visited and the openness of participants contributed to making the Festival an inspiring experience.

A Chinese Version of the ‘C’s’

All of the talks I attended are worthy of reporting but Blog good practise permits highlights only. Professor Simon Ho, from Hong Kong, gave a talk on ‘Humanity Qualities and the Role of Humanity Education’. Professor Ho detailed five ‘C’s’ as humanistic ‘qualities’: critical thinking, creativity, caring attitude, character and community engagement.’

My nurse colleagues in the UK will be very familiar with a similar approach to nursing values (6 C’s of NHS England – care, compassion, competence, communication, courage and commitment and the seminal work by Simone Roach who detailed 5 C’s of caring: commitment, conscience, competence, compassion and confidence).

Some years ago, I wrote about the ‘tsumani’ of values that nurses and other professionals had to negotiate. The discussion as which values and why does and should continue.

So a question for you: which list of values do you think is the better fit for professional life – Professor Ho’s qualities? Or the 6 C’s?

In another engaging talk, American Professor David Schaberg gave his rationale for reading Chinese classics. He talked of the value of these ancient stories, of the morality underpinning them and of their role in helping us to close distance – both culturally and across time. He talked of the value of considering that these early figures ‘are more like me than I thought’.

Closing the distance…

Recently, I listened to a Radio 4 programme about identity in Northern Ireland. The programme presenter referred to ‘them’uns’ and ‘us’uns’. By ‘them ‘uns’ (them ones) he meant people who are different to ‘us’ and by ‘us’uns’ (us ones) he meant people who are like ‘us’.

Having been brought up near the Northern Irish border and having worked in Belfast during ‘the Troubles’, I knew exactly what he meant. In that context, people like us and people different to us related primarily to religion, culture and political sympathies. Catholics, on the whole, could be counted on to favour a United Ireland and to promote Irish culture and language. Protestants, on the whole, were loyal to the Union with the mainland of Britain and committed to enacting the legacy of Loyalist traditions.

Scholarship on inter-sectionality, referred to in Blogs from Alabama, challenges the ‘them-un’s and ‘us-uns’ mentality. We are not just one thing or another but rather a complex mix of ingredients such as race, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation, age and, of course, geography.

When I first came to China 3 decades ago, I was struck by the lack of colour. People’s uniform clothing, for example, was generally in dark colours. This time – and on a recent visit to Shanghai – I am struck by the vibrant colours and panache of people’s clothing, most particularly of women.

China is also, as I’ve been reminded, not one thing or another but rather a fascinating mix of culture, history, politics and philosophies. A mix that requires insights from, and engagement with, the humanities. It is not hard, then, to see the value of the Global Humanities Festival which I have been privileged to experience this week.

In the coming week, I will be leading seminars in the Xiamen University School of Nursing on the themes of ‘Dignity in Care’ and ‘Writing for Publication’. I look forward to having the perspectives of those who attend. I’ll tell you how it goes next week.