In 1961, a little boy walked into a Boston art museum and fell in love with paintings from China’s Song Dynasty period. That boy is now an eminent expert on China, a Harvard-educated historian who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and whose career has included posts on high-level U.S. government advisory committees.
He has lovingly kept with him for all these years a catalogue from that Chinese art exhibit.
Professor Arthur Waldron recently had a powerful reminder of what first inspired his lifelong relationship with China. In March, he watched Shen Yun Performing Arts — a classical Chinese dance and music company that tours the world, reviving 5,000 years of Chinese culture.
“I was in tears the whole time,” he says. “The reason was that — after more than 30 years — this reminded me of why I decided to study China. It was not out of geopolitical interests or anything, it was because I was so impressed by the high cultural level of the country.”
Waldron’s story reflects how China’s arts have acted as its ambassador in the West. He has delved as deeply into the culture as any Westerner can, having spent years living in China, learning the language, immersing himself in all aspects of China studies, and even enjoying a 30-year marriage with a woman from Beijing.
He sees what many Chinese people may not be able to, since he looks through a Western lens. But he also sees what many Westerners can’t, since he is so intimate with Chinese culture. His perspective bridges East and West.
Waldron sees a people with a unique moral and philosophical character that is stronger, perhaps, than many Chinese people themselves realize. He sees that the Chinese Communist Party has destroyed much, yet the soul of China endures. He sees that Western academia’s take on China has been shadowed by an ignorance that is gradually lifting.
How China’s arts intrigued the West
Early in his career, Waldron was surprised to find that one of his mentors — Denis Twitchett, a famed sinologist who taught at Cambridge and Princeton Universities — had a similarly enamouring experience with Chinese art in his childhood.
When Twitchett was a boy, he attended the 1935–36 International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London’s Burlington House. It was the first time Chinese art was displayed in a serious manner in the West, carefully curated and professionally presented as high art rather than as trinkets or oriental curiosities, Waldron says. That was Twitchett’s love-at-first-sight moment.
“I’ve always been interested by the fact that I’m not the only one who was hooked by the unexpected — almost brutal — exposure to the greatness of the art,” Waldron says, searching for words to express the strength of that impact. He recalls how he felt like he had been “hit by a truck” in the best possible way when he saw the Chinese art exhibit in 1961.
Waldron says that he was a somewhat unusual child. At the time, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was not a popular destination, especially for boys his age, but Waldron knew practically every display by heart. When he walked into the museum one day at the age of 11, even before he knew precisely what he was looking at (some of China’s best paintings on loan from Taiwan), he knew it was great.
“Great art announces itself to you,” he says. It doesn’t require introduction or explanation. “Really great art just grabs you and pulls you over to it.”
Although Waldron hasn’t focused on Chinese art specifically in his career, he says that China’s art is what made him first realize, “This is a civilization you have to pay attention to.”
Western misconceptions and the Chinese regime’s infiltration of academia
When Waldron started graduate school in the 1970s, it was common for Westerners to see China as “backwards” because it didn’t have a Classical foundation like the West. It didn’t have a clear line of progress like the West did, from the Greeks and Romans up through the Industrial Revolution.
Since a lot of its ancient building was done with wood, which has decayed, it doesn’t have as many architectural remnants as ancient Western culture — nothing like the Acropolis of Athens, for example.
But China’s ancient culture, founded on classics such as the writings of Confucius, is easily as great, says Waldron. China may not have the Acropolis, but many of its treasures are kept in the hearts of its people, who have historically cherished learning and self-improvement, in many ways to a greater degree than societies in the West.
“One of the tragedies of the current regime is that it stopped teaching the Chinese classics,” he says. “[The communist regime has] altered the writing system, so the ordinary Chinese cannot read anything except what’s written by the Communist Party.”
Waldron has himself read all of Confucius’s works in traditional Chinese. He says that, on occasion, a Chinese student in one of his classes will cause a scene, trying to undermine his teaching of the classics and the traditional perspectives. The communist regime often wields power over Chinese abroad, especially embedding its people in American academic institutions as a way to promote its ideologies and version of Chinese history.
“There will be some PRC [People’s Republic of China] kids in the audience, who are basically under surveillance,” Waldron says. “They’ll start shouting at me and saying I’m besmirching or insulting Chinese civilization.”
Though many Chinese have been educated by the same communist regime that attempted to wipe out traditional elements during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, Waldron sees that the influence of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism has remained deep in the Chinese people.
The communists are good at destroying, he says. But the moral and philosophical foundations of Chinese culture have weathered the assault, and he sees their vitality especially in Shen Yun. Shen Yun was founded in New York. It is banned in China because it embodies many things the regime has sought to destroy.
He says there is a great difference between “China” and the “Chinese Communist Party,” though the Party would try to use those names interchangeably. “The thousand people who run China, the Communist Party, is a drop in the ocean of the Chinese population, who have no say whatsoever in how they’re ruled,” he says.
Some Western academics have followed the Party line. In the ’60s and ’70s, many of them saw Mao Zedong — the Party’s chairman and leader of the Cultural Revolution — as China’s saviour. Now, many turn a blind eye to the problems in China. “People don’t say what they really think. They convince themselves in some way that this is going to go away, that this is going to change.”
But as the regime’s intentional manipulation of Western academia becomes clearer and its crimes are continually brought to light, Waldron says a change is happening. “The Chinese secret police just thought we Americans were so stupid, there’s nothing we would balk at. We’re like a bomb with a very, very long fuse. Now it’s gone off.”
Waldron says he’s not exactly banned from China, but not exactly welcome either. He draws attention to the problems there, especially in terms of human rights. “I will answer [journalists’] questions straight, and if I don’t get a visa, I don’t get a visa.”
“This is one of the most hideous crimes; it’s right on par with Hitler.”
When he spent a lot of time there in the 1980s, it was a period of relative freedom. “It was, in many ways, more open than now, although China is far more advanced in terms of infrastructure and comfort of hotels now,” he says. “I think that very few people understand how unfree it is, or the subtlety and cruelty of the unfreedom there, because the Chinese don’t put the organ transplant hospitals right next to the Ritz Carlton.”
The organ transplant hospitals are part of the regime’s systematic murder of prisoners of conscience, particularly practitioners of a spiritual meditation practice called Falun Gong. These prisoners are killed for their organs.
“It’s not a question of whether this is true or not; it’s a fact,” Waldron says. “If you look at the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in China, this is one of the most hideous crimes; it’s right on par with Hitler. Why we don’t say more about it, I don’t know.”
But Waldron says Falun Gong is a perfect example of the traditional values of China that remain strong today, despite persecution by the communist regime.
He explains a fundamental understanding in Chinese culture: “The cultivation of the individual is the key to the improvement of society.”
It’s not about external rules; it’s about improving oneself internally. When individuals become more virtuous, the whole society benefits. This internal cultivation is a central principle in Falun Gong, along with its three main tenets — truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
“There’s a real tension between the fundamental humanity of Chinese culture and the police oppression and wide use of torture and execution… of today’s China,” Waldron says. His message to Chinese people today is, “Have great confidence in the solidity of traditional Chinese culture. Have no confidence whatsoever in communism, because it doesn’t work and it’s going to go away eventually. Have great confidence in the creative abilities of the Chinese people if they are set free; have confidence in the legacy that you have inherited from the past.”
And, finally, he says to the Chinese, “Thank you for everything that I have been able to learn from you and your civilization.”
Text by Tara dos Santos Photography by Bill Xie