Address to Congregation by Dean Houmin Yan

Professor Houmin Yan

President, Honoured Guests, Graduates and Colleagues:

Good morning and a very special welcome to all family members here with us today. The theme I am going to talk about today is a big one: the 21st century, and in particular I would like to pose the question as to whether we are living at a tipping point, a time when there is to be a new dawn of civilisation.

But before we move to this grand theme, I would like you to show some appreciation for the very people who are sitting in this hall today, those who have worked very hard to support you over the years and through your time at university – your dear families. Before we go any further, I would like you to give a big round of applause to say "Thank You" to all family members here today.

Driving into the eye of a storm

Two years ago I was driving from Ithaca to Boston in the United States. It was the end of October. The sky was darkening and a storm was threatening: Hurricane Sandy was about to strike New York City, and would cause widespread devastation. As I drove through increasingly strong winds and rain trying to get to Boston before the hurricane struck, I found myself tuned in to On Point with Tom Ashbrook on NPR (that's National Public Radio) on the car radio. The programme was describing the life and ideas of the great American cultural historian Jacques Barzun who had passed away the previous day.

I listened with interest, having read one of his books recently. Barzun, a professor at Columbia University, arrived in America from France in 1919. In the light of the decimation of the French university system during World War I, and his father's wish for him to have a broad liberal education, the young Barzun immigrated to the US. Like many others, he settled in his first port of call, New York City. He was academically successful, developed wide ranging interests in cultural history, and eventually graduated with a PhD from Columbia University.

From the beginning the young Barzun thought big. This was, after all, the era when cars were taking the place of horses on the streets, when planes first flew the Atlantic, when the first great skyscrapers were built, and when New York was becoming the world's first megacity. America was establishing its preeminent position in the world.

From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun believed that academics should write not just for their fellow academics but also for the educated public. He enjoyed a long academic career writing books on a range of subjects: on Darwin and Marx, on Music in American Life; on the great 19th century American President, Abraham Lincoln; on science, and, at the age of 93, his majestic description of the grand sweep of modern history, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.

Dawn to Decadence was to be his swansong. Writing at the beginning of the 21st century, Barzun saw the West in decline, especially in the arts, in education, and in culture. For him the only truly modern decade had been the 1920s. The West was now coming to a stopping point before some radically different ideas came along. Crucially, he no longer saw the West as necessarily central. Globalism was to be the 21st century reality.

The Rule by Virtue Century

I would like to extend today's discussion by looking to the vision of another academic, this time in China, who started writing at a very young age, Dr Chao-shiuan Liu. Dr Liu started writing in his teens, but his early work was not particularly academic. At the age of 17 he started publishing fiction – stories about the martial arts, such as Kung-fu. Moving on to more serious themes, and after graduating in chemistry, he became an acclaimed academic, and went on to hold the post of President at National Tsing Hua University, and then Premier of the Executive Yuan of Taiwan.

Earlier this year, as part of the City University Distinguished Lecture Series, Dr Liu gave a lecture entitled The Rule by Virtue Century – The Missing Element for Sustainable Development. In his lecture Dr Liu identified the ancient Chinese philosophical concept of Wang Dao as the missing element for "Sustainable Development". The three pillars of sustainability are traditionally seen as economic development, environmental protection and social equitability. But Dr Liu adds a fourth: culture. This is the foundation for the other three, not an optional extra. And he suggests that the essence of that culture can be the ancient Chinese philosophical concept of Wang Dao, the Rule of Virtue.

Centuries of achievement

The historian Arnold Toynbee proposed that the 19th century was that of the United Kingdom, the 20th century that of the US, and that the 21st century could be that of China. But, for Toynbee, those earlier centuries were not only about empire. They were also centuries of achievement. He pointed out the United Kingdom's great contributions to the industrial revolution, to democracy, health care, the Poor Law, the Education Act, and so on. In the 20th century, the US continued the drive forward to a modern society with innovations in mass production, architecture, new forms of transport, intellectual property rights, and so forth. As Barzun argued, the "peoples of the West" had "offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere."

Dr Liu went on to talk about the built-in balance to US capitalism. He mentioned the 1890 Sherman Act, an early antitrust law aimed at regulating monopoly capital and introduced to protect the ordinary citizen against the monopolies of the day such as Standard Oil. Today, the near monopoly power of communications companies, and the cycle of the boom and bust economy perhaps calls into question whether regulation of economic systems is strong enough in the West.

The mantle of leadership

So, is capitalist democracy still a model to follow? Dr Liu's point was that to live up to the billing of the 21st century as China's century, China needs to be a great power not just in terms of economy, but in terms of culture. If we don't have a clear answer to this cultural question, China will not assume the mantle of leadership.

To be sure, the updating of the concept of Wang Dao needs to embrace business and economic systems, science and technologies, great nations, and how they can proceed in the most balanced way. But this balance emanates from an individual human quality. I am talking about the way we approach the unknown: new people, new workplaces, and new cultures. Above all, I believe we need a sense of toleration and continuous learning and innovation in today's global village.

Approaching the unknown

In his book, Barzun approvingly quoted Francis Bacon's assessment of the limitations of tradition, and his promotion of the empirical method: "The notion that something is true because a wise man said it, is a bad principle. Is the thing true in fact, tested by observation? The new tool consists in applying this test. Observe closely, record findings exactly, and frame generalities that cover the facts, without colouring from myth, poetry, and other preconceived idea."

So, the thought I would like to leave you with today is: let us approach the unknown with a sense of both inquisitiveness and respect. As you embark on your journey through life, there will be stormy years ahead. But my aspiration is that you always bring with you a fundamental interest in, and respect for, the cultures of others. In that sense you will bring a sense of tolerance to your lives, and also something of the ancient tradition of Wang Dao to our global interactions in the 21st century.

We are saying farewell today, but I sincerely hope that you will stay in contact with us, choose to contribute to our alumni activities through the organisations available at College and University levels, and I look forward to welcoming you back here at the College of Business in the future!

Thank you and, once again, my heartiest congratulations to all our graduates. May you achieve fulfilment and happiness in your life!

November 2014