Professor Jao Tsung-I. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Jao Tsung-I is right; Chinese cultural Renaissance is well under way

Rapid development has spawned a global revival of classical Chinese civilisation studies

Professor Jao Tsung-I is easily the most respected scholar of Chinese civilisation studies, and in recent years he has held the view that the field is undergoing a renaissance.

Now 96, his research revealed some interesting similarities, in terms of historical background and root causes, between renewed interest in Chinese civilisation and the Renaissance that some believe started in Florence, Italy, in the 13th century.

The Romans' Byzantine empire was for centuries recognised as the preserver of Hellenic civilisation and its classics, including the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

The study of these classics - including philosophy, literature and art - was in fact an integral part of Byzantine glory.

But by the end of the 13th century, the Ottoman Turks had swept across Asia Minor and laid siege to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople.

Recognising the imminent danger, many Hellenic works were shipped to the Italian principalities of the West Roman Empire, including Florence.


This led to a renewed interest in the study of the classics. The strong financial support provided by the aristocratic Medici family in Florence led to the Renaissance, and the rest is history.

In Professor Jao's view, there is a similar renewed interest in the study of classics and ancient history in China, triggered by the wave of massive construction across the country over the past decades.

You see, everywhere you dig in China, chances are you will find something of archaeological significance. Thus, extensive construction activities often lead to the unearthing of numerous artefacts and buried treasure.

This resulted in major advances in archaeological research and ancient history studies. It also sparked interest in the Chinese classics, partly because of the socio-political need for a new moral standard - drawn from ancient philosophy - in an era of rapid ideological and economic change.


Thus, if you walk into a typical bookstore on the mainland, you will find books on Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and other classics.

If you turn on the television at night, chances are you will see scholars or professors lecturing about different historical topics.


In essence, the entire nation is looking for wisdom, insights and values from the past to cope with the pressure of modern life.

Many government officials also recognise the value of culture in the building of a modern nation.

Provincial governments are pumping money into the building of modern museums and concert halls. Hence, some of the new provincial museums, such as those in Shanxi , Henan and Hubei , have rich collections. Likewise, museums and concert halls in Guangzhou are world-class.


Such use of state wealth to support arts is similar to the efforts of the Medici family in medieval times. There are of course marked differences between the two eras. But the distinct similarities are what led Professor Jao to believe Chinese civilisation is in the process of a renaissance.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Renaissance for Chinese culture