Nicolas Berggruen on the Importance of Building Bridges Between Cultures

The following is an abridged interview between Chineasy's ShaoLan and Nicolas Berggruen

ShaoLan: In this episode, we are going to learn how to say “culture” in Chinese and we will speak to a very special guest, Nicolas Berggruen. Hi, Nicolas, how are you?

Nicolas Berggruen: I am happy to be with you.


Nicolas BerggruenNihao

ShaoLan: I know you are a big advocate of promoting cultural exchange, especially through your Institute’s exchange programs between American, British, and Chinese universities. Why is this so important to you?

Nicolas Berggruen: I think culture determines how we function as a society because it defines us more than anything else. In a world where people communicate and travel between countries, it is necessary to understand a country’s culture in order to better understand the people. This is because a country’s culture—their roots and their practices—is what defines a people. 

ShaoLan: Culture is also a very important concept in Chinese tradition. Wenhua is the Chinese word for “culture”. Wen means literature or language and hua means transformation. We can imagine that in ancient China, people believed that we could live through language by transforming the symbols, the philosophy and the literature into a way of life and worldview. Many people living in a specific way informed by literature is what forms a culture. Therefore, I think it is interesting that you said culture defines the way society functions, because, although it is a Western definition, I believe it coincides with the Chinese definition. 

Nicolas Berggruen: I am not surprised, but I want to add that culture also includes the idea of change and of transformation. Our experience of culture is one where we encounter new ideas that impact older ones. Culture and ideas are never stagnant but in constant change and adaptation. This change is what defines our culture and the way it reacts to those changes is how our society expresses itself. The reason why we’ve engaged with China, Europe and the U.S. on a cultural level is because by learning the ways societies function and their cultural roots you gain a better understanding of their politics and practices. Understanding a society’s culture is fundamentally the best way to understand their values.

ShaoLan: I understand that you have been very active in many countries, as you were born in Europe, traveled the world, and are now settled in the U.S. You have also been very active in China, where you have made many visits and local friends. In fact, you are very influential here. What is your perspective on the differences between the West and China?

Nicolas Berggruen: The differences are enormous, and fascinating, and also quite beautiful. In the West where I grew up there is true respect for and emphasis on promoting the individual by celebrating the differences between people. In Eastern cultures, especially in China, there is respect for the community as a whole and for the family. These are not as valued in the West. So you see the differences. There is a sense in China and in other Eastern cultures that harmony and stability is very important, while the West is more interested in change and progress, in transformation. In some ways, there is a sense in the West that dissonance leads to progress, while in the East the concept is that harmony leads to happiness. 

ShaoLan: I can see that exchange happening at a rapid speed. As you mentioned earlier, in Chinese culture there are deep, philosophical notions like slow is fast, weak is strong. However, at the same time, we can also see that China is very interested in transformational technologies and manufacturing to create enormous economic growth. These are ideas they picked up from the West. I hope there is a convergence going on and that the West is learning from the East, as well.

Nicolas Berggruen: While there has been cultural exchange, I don’t know if there has been a convergence. I think, as you mentioned, China, because of its tradition of harmony, was a stable culture for a long period of time. Now, China has made an effort to accept change in its own way, without necessarily acknowledging that things are changing but, simultaneously, I think that China has been much better at incorporating Western practices than the reverse. I would say the West is curious about Eastern practices, including those of the Chinese, but it really hasn’t incorporated them very much. China, on the other hand, continues to practice its traditions but has also incorporated the Western practices.

ShaoLan: I hope that either through the Berggruen Institute or through my Chineasy we are able to help the Western world understand Chinese language and culture. This is because I think a lot of the challenges you have described are due to the language barrier. If you look at the 1.3 billion Chinese, more than half of them are learning how to speak English and reading English literature and newspapers. But the number of people in the world learning Chinese, maybe 100 million of them, are still a fraction of the global population. Perhaps your efforts, and those of Chinesasy, can help people understand China’s culture in a much more significant way.

Nicolas Berggruen: I think you are helping a lot and making it easier and interesting to learn the Chinese language and culture. 

ShaoLan: Nowadays, people want something fast and they want it to demonstrate value. But it’s hard to teach cultural understanding; value is not something you can demonstrate through exams. What is your frustration in promoting cultural exchange?

Nicolas Berggruen: I agree that learning about a new culture takes time. You could say that Chinese culture and Western culture, in their deepest sense, haven’t changed in 2000 years, so you can see how much there is to learn. It requires real effort, it requires time and it requires putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. It’s never easy. Learning another culture’s language is very powerful because it is how you can learn how other people think. 

ShaoLan Hsueh is an entrepreneur who has created a visual-based learning system for learning the Chinese language called "Chineasy." ShaoLan Hsueh was born in 1971 and raised in Taiwan. She received a Master of Business Administration from National Chengchi University in the 1990s, before moving to the United Kingdom where she obtained a MPhil from Newnham College, University of Cambridge.