Mixing humanities and politicsFormer Korean Ambassador to China Lee Kyu-hyung, who retired last week, published a poetry collection. He has written poems about his foreign service experience as well as daily life.
The introduction is written by Li Zhaoxing, former Chinese foreign minister. At the end of the introduction, the current title of Li caught my attention. Since his retirement, he has been in charge of the Translators Association of China. Having served as a diplomat for 37 years, he is now pursuing a career in literature. Li has published two poetry collections, and in the introduction, Li did not hesitate to hide his pride. “It is only natural that differences exist between countries and people. That’s why we need communication. And poetry is a great means of communication as it expresses vision and emotions,” he wrote.
Switching from politics to literature is not a surprising career change for high-ranking government, party and military figures in China. Peng Zhen, one of the Eight Immortals of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and former chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and Geng Biao, a former member of the Standing Committee of the CPC’s Central Military Commission and the direct boss of President Xi Jinping in his government career, led the China International Culture Exchange Center upon retirement. The center supports China’s public diplomacy through cultural exchanges.
A high-ranking diplomat with years of experience in China says Chinese leaders seem to consider themselves cultured people pursuing literature, history and philosophy rather than politicians. They identify with Wang Anshi and Su Shi, the politicians who were also calligraphers, poets and painters. In ancient Chinese dynasties, even military officers were intellectuals who wrote poems and did calligraphy. They perceived politics as an extension of literature, history and philosophy, and upon retiring from their political careers, they retreated to their studies and explored the worlds of literature, history and philosophy.
Hua Guofeng had been considered the heir to Mao Zedong, but when he was pushed back by Deng Xiaoping, he pursued calligraphy. Jiang Zemin is considered to be well-versed in traditional music, art and calligraphy, spending most of his personal time reading and writing. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also known as a literary enthusiast and is especially fond of Tolstoy. Conversations between leaders can reveal more about their knowledge of the humanities. In China, when the calligraphy style of a high-level leader is revealed, online bulletin boards light up with discussion.
President Park Geun-hye and President Xi’s summit garners special attention as it is to be held amid tension on the Korean Peninsula. The talks will address many urgent issues such as the North Korean nuclear threat, repatriation of defectors and the potential for a free trade agreement. However, the approach to the meeting between the two leaders should be different from the Korea-U.S. summit. Park may feel pressure, but she needs to win the heart of China with conversations about literature, history and philosophy. If she fails to address the political culture of China - where leaders are evaluated by their knowledge of humanities - she cannot expect positive chemistry with the Chinese leader.
* The author is the Beijing correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Cheong Yong-whan