Written by Véronique Bonnet, professor of philosophy and general culture at the lycée Janson de Sailly for students preparing business school entrance exams.
“When I was young, I read a book by Alain Peyrefitte entitled When China wakes, the World will tremble, that was written in 1973 and inspired by a quotation from Napoleon. “Would you say this has become a reality today?” I ask the day's guest speaker, Yang Guang, in the internship room for the NEOMA BS "Leaders@The Next Generation", organized in partnership with APHEC at Nankai University, Tianjin. “Yes, of course,” replies the economics professor, who had previously mentioned reform and openness as components of the Chinese economic model.
On reflection, this was probably not the right question. China was more likely to be working than sleeping, or maybe going through a phase of sleep maturation, leading projects that would be certainly achieved thanks to the means they were being allocated. Could the ensuing awakening be triggered by the principles of reality, rather than the principles of pleasure that are often so crucial in the West? As Yuping Yang, a Chinese teacher from the NEOMA BS Confucius Institute, put it during a visit to the Shi family's luxurious residence in Tianjin's Yangliuqing district: "There are so many Chinese people, but not all of them can live in such palaces." A similar conclusion to the one previously expressed by Haiyan Zhang, Professor of Commerce for Asia and China and Director of Strategy and Management at NEOMA BS, in a talk on the investment strategy and dynamism of the new silk routes that are reviving traditional routes: "China has no choice." Was this pragmatic approach planned? The 19 students and 8 professors who were invited to China to take part in this Summer Immersion Internship programme, found themselves confronted with this ever-present pragmatism in a variety of ways.
In this article I would like to express my own feelings as a teacher invited to take part in an experience of discovery. These are certainly not the opinions of an expert, since I am neither competent in history, nor geopolitics, economics, nor in a whole range of other subjects. Over the course of the two weeks I felt that I had been presented with an opportunity to stand in somebody else's shoes and look at things from their perspective. This involved me trying to ignore my Western and more direct approach to what matters and my undoubtedly fragmented and subjective idea about where China is heading.
As a prep.
School philosophy teacher, my first year course on general culture covers a brief history of Western thought, from the 6th century BC to the present day. The landmark dates include ancient Athens and Rome to the three monotheistic religions, Renaissance humanism to the emergence of the notion of subject and the ideals of the Enlightenment to today’s digital humanities. The course covers a wide range of areas - epistemological, aesthetic, political, technological. However, it seemed to me that this trip to China would allow me to follow the recommendation of François Julien and look at Western notions from an oriental perspective. Indeed, exploring our own concepts and the future from alternative viewpoints makes good sense. The oriental approach to action advocates using energies, rather than disrupting the order of things that in turn leads to a rupture and interrupts the natural process. This basically means "doing nothing so that nothing is not done", which is essential to understanding notions of 'opportunity'. The Greeks refer to windows of opportunity as "kaïros", like aiming a timely arrow at a weak Achilles heel. Similarly, notions such as inter-operability can be better understood from an oriental perspective. For example, using energy to turn an opponent's own strengths against themselves, such as when Perseus turned Medusa's own gaze against her using his shield as a mirror. So, these are the impressions of a non-Chinese woman in China who would like to provide some food for thought.
To help understand the economic strategies of contemporary China the following percentages are given at the conferences on economics and geopolitics - 21% of Chinese assets are in Latin America, only 6% in Europe. 4/5 of these European investments are in Luxembourg and the Netherlands for tax reasons, and a lot of Chinese capital is in Poland and Portugal due to low labour costs. During these two weeks, China as an investor and an entrepreneur was evident not only on the graphs we were shown, but also on every street and in the tiny shops, where we witnessed small family businesses cutting hair, making takeaway meals, sewing and repairing, both day and night. China not only invented the wheel, it also created a thriving spirit of initiative and resourcefulness for these start-ups. Getting things done and integrating new environments by finding the most appropriate solution.
Tianjin's assembly lines for Airbus or state-of-the-art computer components, do not exclude the persistence of what would be incorrectly referred to as "small trades", such as cleaning and services. It is important that everyone has a job, a pension in line with salaries and access to health care. And that children can go to school. When we arrived and were welcomed by Tianjin's equivalent of the local education authority, for whom the worrying question of the gap that exists between the education services provided to provinces, cities and the countryside still needs to be addressed. In the high schools we visited, we were asked a lot of extremely pertinent questions about the teaching methods, the multi-disciplinary content, the social dimension and free access of our preparatory courses.
The trays on which the various dishes are placed together really make you aware of what other people are doing. Gradually, we learn to turn the tray only when no one else is using it. We allow ourselves to be confused by such customs before considering their validity. The hot water served with ice cream, the morning mixture of broth, garlic, spices and soya paste, apparently so difficult for Chinese visitors or inhabitants to find in the West. But what gifts should you take back from China? I looked for an abacus I wanted to give to friends who are also maths-lovers. I found three at the market in Tianjin's ancient cultural shopping district. An exciting find, but alas unfit for use due the years of calculation that had worn them out. So, I left them for other potential buyers who would appreciate them for their unique charm. Near to the Bird's Nest stadium on the Olympic site, I finally found some that were new and in working order, packed up in small boxes with instructions for use.. I had started out looking for them without knowing what they were called in Chinese. At the campus supply shop where a shrewd colleague finally drew a picture of the sought-after object, whose function I was unsuccessfully trying to mime. That is how I learned the word I needed. During a night out in Tianjin, I went into a supermarket that looked more like a grocery and drug store. I uttered the word and sketched a V-shape in the air with descending and ascending arm gestures. The lady at the cash register, certainly appeared surprised, but she understood me. She kindly explained that she didn't have one. The people I made contact with always listened kindly with a friendly smile.
Both in a literal and a figurative sense. At the foot of the Great Wall, you can either follow a steep and more difficult path, which presents a true sense of accomplishment for those who decide to take it, or an easier, less spectacular way. Alternatively, you can decide to stay at the bottom of the wall and contemplate the expression of power the triple roof and the figures who guard the gates symbolise: the lion watching over the world and the lioness watching over the lion cub.
In the former French district of Tianjin stands a house made of porcelain, where the statues of ancient idols continue to receive pleas and money. In a high school in the same district, I was enthralled to contemplate the wonderful ancient lemonwood-bound manuscripts, treasures I would never read, but now know exist. An inventory of tree species in the Emperor's gardens. The book of Transformations is undoubtedly the source of many allegories and other stories, both in the past and in the future. At the Hanban Confucius Institute in Beijing, the traditional paper-cut animals - wild boar, dragons, tigers - somehow lead us down an introspective trail towards a distant past. The alleys of the Summer Palace, the courtyards of the Forbidden City, the perspectives of Tien An Men Square, all provide a unique opportunity for us to retrace past footsteps in some kind of intimate and challenging game that History can sometimes play on you.
This warm and memorable visit proved to be extremely intense in terms of both theory and practical experience. Now, when I say hello to my Chinese colleagues, I bow my head slightly. When I hand out my business card, I present it by holding it in both hands. I have also developed a liking for pure and simple boiling water in the morning. The signs above certain shops and restaurants are less indecipherable to me. They look familiar. I don't have all the keys yet, but I have made a promise to myself to collect more. I'm looking for clues to help create this desire. I know that the Chinese equivalent of x, which refers to an unknown in a mathematical equation, is 'tian', the sky. That our + and our - signs were difficult to adopt, the first designating '10' and the second '1'. I am satisfied with the idea that, for dates, the Chinese language goes from the largest to the smallest, the year, then the month, then the day. And that a wood is represented by doubling the tree sign, and a forest by tripling it. A language with such logical syntax is extremely appealing and certainly worth spending time on.
The morning of the return flight to Paris, I found myself emerging from the Saint-Germain des Prés metro station and the Saint-Michel boulevard appeared so boxed-in compared to the wide avenues of Tianjin and Beijing that now seemed so natural. This led me to wonder what the Chinese, coming from these great cities, could possibly be looking for or feeling here. The past? Romance? Something new, solid, ineffable? If our entry ticket to the Chinese dream is based on a curiosity for the five tastes (salty, bitter, sour, pungent and sweet) and the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal and earth), what does China dream of?