Because I was born in a developing country, the People’s Republic of China, I was taught the aphorism, “落后就要挨打”, meaning the laggard gets bullied, so I learned how to arm myself with knowledge, money and social skills. But in the U.S., schools teach kids respect, love, cultural diversity and all other moral virtues. In the classroom, students are encouraged to show their personal potentials and talents, embracing the uniqueness of individual, just like in the Renaissance, when people studied humanism, paying particular attention on individualism, including discussing personalities, developing personal genius and achieving personal virtuousness (McKay, 413-414). In the book, Humanists and Reformers, Bard Thompson points out that “with the Renaissance, came an increased sense of individuality and a celebration of uniqueness and individual self-determination” (Thompson, 2). Humanism focuses on the individuality of human beings, celebrates cultural and academic diversity and uniqueness. I do agree that humanism is cherished by human beings, but how are the people who struggle for warmth and yield from the harvest able to have the desire to achieve personal morality and prominence? Humans must learn to survive before aspiring to humanism.
As I travel between mainland China and the United States, I find an economic pattern that seems to directly influence the moral civilization, particularly in the level of cultural diversity and individuality. In the past century, mainland China has suffered from crises including multiple revolutions and party turmoil, and the government during the warfare was dictatorial. But as the Chinese economy recovers from the crises, Chinese people have become open minded and shifted the focus of education from survival to the development of personal interests and genius. The society has begun to encourage diverse voices and ideas. I find humanism only emerges under a thriving economic environment.
The Renaissance followed this pattern as well – economis success first, studies in the humanities second. Florence, the culture center of Renaissance, must have achieved great economic success (McKay, 408). Julie Sikkink, a faculty member of history department in Oregon Episcopal School, explained to me that secular humanists originated in the wealthy society,
especially in cities like Florence and Venice. She insisted that it was the prosperous Florentine economy caused Florentine to pursue individual talents and political power, and eventually devised Humanism (Sikkink). She convinced me that, “Italy, in the start of the Renaissance, became wealthy from trading,” and then “when people are not only interested in survival, they wanted to pursue culture.”
Italy’s geographic position seemed to be the key to its economic success. Locating at the intersection between East and West Europe, North and South Europe, Italy links together Byzantium and the Arab world. Florence initially imported luxuries from Levant, Arab. But by the end of fourteenth century, it began to export its own designed luxuries, including silk, ceramics, soap and glass, back to Levant and the rest of the Europe (Goldthwaite, 30-31). The important geographic advantage provided Italy the early opportunity to recover from trough in the late medieval world.
Based on my knowledge, geographic advantage is usually the key to the cultural development, especially in a developing country like China. Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, three biggest and most international cities in mainland China, all locate close to the east coast and enjoy the advantage of trading. They are the centers of modern Chinese culture, latest science technology, and politics. But in the west and central China, somewhere hidden in the bleak mountain regions, people are ignorant, their communication with the outside world is limited, and corrupt customs, like male chauvinism and “pig cage drown (Jin ZhuLong)” were remained. Every time I saw news about the lives of people in extreme poverty, I could not help myself from meditating on the conflict between poverty and humanism, and ways to solve the problem. I remember one time after watching Touching China together, my father sighed, “humanism might help, but it does not solve the problems caused by poverty. It can change some people’s lives but does not change a society.”
McKay, John. A History of Western Society. 9th. B. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Print.
Sikkink, Julie. Personal Interview. 2.2.2012.
Thompson, Bard. Humanists and Reformers, A History of the Renaissance and Reformation. Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1996. eBook.
Goldthwaite, Richard. The economy of Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. eBook.
Late Medieval Trade Route – http://lapasserelle.com/online_courses/accounting/images/medieval_trade_fairs.jpg
GDP per capita of Chinese Provinces 2010 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GDP_per_capita_of_Chinese_provinces.PNG