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Understanding the Historical Significance and Contemporary Value of the Distinctive Features of Chinese Civilization

By CPC Leadership Group of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-03-11

At a meeting on cultural inheritance and development held in Beijing, June 2, 2023, President Xi Jinping put forward a holistic and systematic explanation of the distinctive features of Chinese civilization — consistency, originality, unity, inclusiveness, and a peaceful nature. Underpinned by the scientific methodology of dialectical and historical materialism and an overarching strategic perspective on the great undertakings of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, President Xi’s profound exposition has granted us a deeper understanding of the laws underlying the development of Chinese civilization by shedding light on its intrinsic characteristics. This understanding bears not just immense historical importance but also significant contemporary value.

I. A profound understanding of the laws underlying the development of Chinese civilization

Over the long course of history, the Chinese nation has, with a spirit of tireless self-improvement and unswerving resolve, traveled a path of development different from that of other civilizations. President Xi has pointed out, “Why was our nation able to survive and develop over the long course of its history? One important reason is our nation’s moral aspiration, ethos, and heritage, which have been carried on for generations.” The five distinctive features fully illustrate the inherent qualities of Chinese civilization.

Chinese civilization is distinguished by a remarkable level of consistency, being the sole ancient civilization to endure without interruption and develop as a nation down to the present day

With history in China encompassing a million years of humanity, ten thousand years of culture, and more than five thousand years of civilization, the Chinese nation boasts a distinctive, deep, and wide-ranging civilization and value system. The outstanding elements of traditional Chinese thought and culture, including Confucian thought, have played a crucial role in Chinese civilization’s formation and uninterrupted continuation over millennia, in the formation and consolidation of a harmonious and united multiethnic country, and in the formation and enrichment of the spirit of the Chinese nation. History has proven that Chinese civilization has the cultural identity and vitality needed to develop itself, respond to challenges, and open up new horizons. A deep-rooted national sentiment and awareness of our history underpin our people’s desire to safeguard the Chinese nation’s great unity and serve as pillars of strength enabling us to steadily advance national rejuvenation regardless of the difficulties and challenges. The consistency of Chinese civilization is by no means the simple consequence of some fortuitous historical phenomena, nor a product of stagnation. Rather, it is the outcome of carrying forward our culture by building on past achievements and signifies the high degree of unity defining Chinese civilization both as a whole and in every specific stage.

Chinese civilization is set apart by its outstanding originality, which is based on discarding the outdated in favor of the new, moving in step with the times, and ceaselessly pursuing self-improvement

Originality is the wellspring of a civilization’s progress. In the absence of originality, a civilization will stagnate. The days of any civilization will be numbered without a capacity for continuous innovation. Indeed, originality is the fundamental reason why Chinese civilization has flourished among the civilizations of the world. As a civilization, we have tended to discard the outdated in favor of the new, move with the times, and ceaselessly pursue self-improvement. Moving with the times is in fact a core tenet of our civilization; dispensing with the outdated enables us to pursue ongoing renewal; and ceaseless self-improvement stands as a defining trait of our civilization. These three qualities have kept Chinese civilization moving forward in a material, institutional, and cultural sense, allowing it to reach one height after another.

Chinese civilization enjoys remarkable unity, featuring great diversity, internal cohesion, and solidarity

The political, cultural, and emotional identification of a nation are a reflection of its cultural identity. The concept of great unity in the country is an important part of Chinese cultural identity. Over its more than 5,000-year history, Chinese civilization has gradually developed the concept of great unity based on shared customs and practices among all regions while still maintaining rich diversity. As a concept dating back to pre-Qin times, great unity became a political reality following the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-AD 220). This principle of governance and institutional design has been widely acknowledged in the political process for thousands of years. The practices of having a central authority lead all areas of endeavor, prescribing a uniform axle length for all carriages, standardizing written characters, and governing conduct with a common set of rules greatly contributed to the stability of China as a unified multiethnic country. Time and again, history has shown that national unity is the prerequisite for national prosperity and development, while secession invariably brings disaster to the people and sends the wheels of history into reverse. Naturally, the unity of Chinese civilization does not imply the eradication of cultural distinctions. Instead, within a politically unified framework, Chinese culture, as the collective creation of all China’s ethnic groups, is manifested in a colorful and wide range of forms.


Yuelu Academy, Changsha City, Hunan Province, June 8, 2023. Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, President Xi has toured the country to explore our cultural heritage and trace the roots of Chinese civilization. On this basis, he has put forward a series of new ideas, viewpoints, and conclusions on China’s cultural confidence and strength and the sustainable development of Chinese civilization, thus providing guidance for the creative transformation and development of Chinese culture. On September 17, 2020, while reflecting on a board bearing the words “Seeking Truth from Facts” during a tour of Yuelu Academy, President Xi emphasized the importance of “making sure truth is grounded in the local context.” PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER CHEN SIHAN

Chinese civilization is characterized by exceptional inclusiveness, bringing together a diverse array of elements and maintaining openness to exchanges

Inclusiveness in a civilization reflects a vast, broad-minded spirit and is the bedrock that ensures the abundant nourishment needed for its ongoing development. Chinese civilization came to maturity in a historical environment featuring the simultaneous existence of numerous ethnicities. The history of Chinese development is thus defined by the convergence of diverse ethnic cultures. Chinese culture has always united the community of the Chinese nation around a common history and a shared set of cultural classics, rituals, and ethical principles. From an early period, the Chinese people wholeheartedly embraced Confucian thought and native religious beliefs. Yet that did not deter them from welcoming foreign ideas and religions, which enjoyed ample space for development here. After their localization, these ideas and religious beliefs ultimately enriched the spiritual world of the Chinese people and became an integral part of Chinese civilization. The openness of Chinese civilization enabled the establishment of the Silk Road, the introduction of foreign crops into China, the spread of Buddhism in the East, Zheng He’s voyages to the West, and the gradual dissemination of Western learning to China. These events illustrate that at every level, the Chinese people readily absorbed the best of what other nations had to offer in both a material and spiritual sense. At the same time, the best of traditional Chinese culture spread to neighboring regions and further afield. By embracing the world with virtue, Chinese civilization has fostered a character of tolerance toward all things.

Chinese civilization is distinguished by a peaceful nature, advocating concord between oneself and others, advancing harmony through dialogue, promoting coexistence and shared progress, and upholding peace

Chinese civilization advocates a world of harmony based on a moral order and believes in fostering concord between oneself and others while putting others before oneself, embodying the spirit of collectivism. China is for the promotion of harmony through dialogue and against isolation and seclusion; it advocates coexistence and shared progress and opposes anyone imposing their will on others; it champions the preservation of peace and harmony and stands against the law of the jungle. The Chinese have always been a peace-loving people. Since ancient times, we have believed that harmony should reign between all nations, that all men in the world are brothers, that close neighbors are better than distant relatives, and that a warlike state is destined to perish regardless of its size. China does not subscribe to the notion that a country is bound to seek hegemony when it grows in strength. Aggression and hegemony are simply not in the blood of the Chinese people; rather a love of peace is imprinted on our character. President Xi Jinping has pointed out, “Throughout history, the reason why the Chinese nation has gained status and influence in the world is not militarism or foreign expansion, but the strong appeal and attraction of Chinese culture. Our forebears long recognized a truth: ‘Should those from distant lands be unconvinced by us, we must further cultivate our culture and virtue.’ Explaining the endowments, characteristics, and spirit of the Chinese nation and convincing people with our virtue and our culture are essential to this endeavor.”

II. Understanding the five distinctive features of Chinese civilization and the historical inevitability of the “second integration”

The five distinctive features of Chinese civilization demonstrate a profound grasp of the laws underlying our civilization’s development. As a summary, they demonstrate a profound understanding of the essence of Chinese civilization, reflecting the new heights the CPC has reached in its confidence in our history and culture and in its consciousness of promoting cultural innovation while carrying forward fine traditional Chinese culture. The integration of the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s traditional culture (known as the “second integration”) is inextricably linked to the distinctive features of traditional Chinese culture. As President Xi has pointed out, “Without the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization, where would these Chinese characteristics come from? If it wasn’t for these characteristics, how could we have today’s successful path of socialism with Chinese characteristics?” These five distinctive features thus hold major significance in several respects.

A full affirmation of the historical status of China’s traditional culture

The five distinctive features of Chinese civilization provide a cogent summary of Chinese history and strongly affirm the contemporary value of China’s traditional culture. By facilitating a new understanding of this culture, they will undoubtedly provide a significant boost for the “second integration.” While Marxism is a scientific theory, no prepackaged solutions exist to address the issue of whether and how Marxism can be integrated with traditional Chinese culture. Globally, the issue of navigating the relationship between tradition and modernity has posed difficulties for numerous countries. The tumultuous fate of the Chinese nation in modern times profoundly affected the historical trajectory of Chinese culture. Some attributed the backward and beleaguered state of modern China entirely to its culture, prompting them to dismiss traditional culture outright and call for total Westernization. Conversely, some others disregarded the evolving times to stubbornly cling to the past. The fundamental problem with these polarized viewpoints was that their analyses and treatment of traditional culture lacked scientific theoretical guidance. Since its founding in 1921, the CPC has actively guided and promoted China’s advanced culture while working to keep the best of China’s traditional culture alive and strong. The CPC has always placed great value on traditional Chinese culture and worked continuously to adapt Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of the times. In doing so, it has applied the truth of Marxism to invigorate ancient Chinese civilization. Notably, since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, President Xi has elevated our understanding of traditional Chinese culture to an unprecedented level by integrating Chinese socialism with more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization. This has seen us following a path of China’s socialism that is endowed with greater and more extensive depth and broader cultural underpinnings. As a result, traditional Chinese culture is shining with even greater radiance in the new era.

A well-conceived summary of the important elements of traditional Chinese culture

Numerous important elements within China’s traditional culture have collectively shaped the distinctive features of Chinese civilization. These distinctive features have, in turn, established a crucial foundation for the “second integration.” Chinese civilization has evolved by building upon past achievements and discarding outdated elements to welcome innovations. In spite of dynastic changes, the continuity of Chinese culture always prevailed, with its consistency, originality, unity, inclusiveness, and peaceful nature manifesting in diverse ways across various historical periods. After the Opium War of 1840, Chinese civilization endured unprecedented trauma; the country faced severe humiliation, the people suffered untold misery, and our civilization was cast into darkness. Yet even this did not spell the end for Chinese civilization. Modern China has explored numerous paths, but Marxism has proven to be the best fit for China’s realities. President Xi has pointed out that “Although Marxism and the best of traditional Chinese culture have different origins, they are highly compatible.” Traditional Chinese culture espoused a naive materialism grounded in the physical world, a rudimentary dialectical view based on the opposition and transformation of things, a pragmatic mindset of combining knowledge with action, the grand aspiration of pursuing the common good for all, and a people-centered view that focused on the people’s role in history. All these concepts are aligned with the Marxist worldview, dialectic approach, perspective of social development, and view of the people. As such, they offer rich intellectual and cultural nourishment for the "second integration."


Terracotta Warriors in Pit No. 1 at the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, Shaanxi Province, April 26, 2023. The world was stunned by the discovery of the Terracotta Army in 1974. The underground army, composed of thousands of life-sized, vividly realistic clay soldiers, each with distinct facial features, seemed to rush forth from history, marking the start of archaeological research at the Qin tombs, which still continues today. When a museum opened here in 1979, the terracotta warriors and horses, bronze chariots and horses, and other symbols of Qin civilization gained worldwide renown. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER LIU XIAO

A profound grasp of the Chinese governance wisdom

The five distinctive features offer a sound understanding of and practical guidance for the “second integration.” As President Xi has pointed out, “Given the rich foundations of our more than 5,000-year-old civilization, only by integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities and with its traditional culture can we pioneer and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This systematic conclusion is drawn from our explorations of Chinese socialism. The prerequisite for integration is mutual compatibility, and the result of integration has been advancement for both sides, leading to a new, organically unified cultural entity. Integration has reinforced the foundations of our path, created new space for innovation, and fortified our cultural identity. The “second integration,” therefore, is not merely an intellectual exercise but has practical implications. From a very early stage, Chinese civilization developed its own unique governance concepts and institutional practices, which have been passed down for generations. All this lays bare a unique historical phenomenon: despite its many dynasties, with some even coexisting, China managed to avoid discontinuity and fragmentation in its governance system. Instead, it demonstrated a high degree of homogeneity, endogeny, and continuity. It is imperative, therefore, to fully grasp the significance of the five distinctive features of Chinese civilization and to ground all theoretical and institutional innovations for the future in the great historical and contemporary endeavors of the Chinese nation.

III. Understanding the contemporary value of the five distinctive features to better shoulder the new cultural mission in the new era

As President Xi has stated, “Only with a full understanding of the history of Chinese civilization can we spur the creative transformation and innovative development of China’s traditional culture, promote the progress of socialist culture with Chinese characteristics, and build a modern Chinese civilization.” As a high-level summarization of Chinese civilization, the five distinctive features are of great practical value in advancing the development of socialist culture with Chinese characteristics and a modern civilization.

Understanding the consistency of Chinese civilization and firmly following the path of Chinese socialism

President Xi has noted, “The consistency of Chinese civilization determines on a fundamental level that the Chinese people must follow their own path. Should we neglect to see China through the prism of its long and uninterrupted history, we will be unable to understand China’s past and present, much less its future.” The consistency of Chinese civilization is a feature of China’s national conditions. China today is the product and inheritance of our history. President Xi has stated, “No two political systems are entirely the same, and a political system cannot be evaluated conceptually without consideration given to its specific socio-political context, history, and cultural traditions. No one political system should be regarded as the only choice, nor should we just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries.” He has also pointed out that “In designing and developing the political system of a country, it is imperative to focus on the integration of history and reality, theory and practice, and form and content. We must take into account our national conditions and realities, carrying on our long-established heritage and remaining mindful of the political experience we have accumulated and political principles we have established over our past course of development, while at the same time responding to current demands and focusing on current issues. We must not break with history and simply replicate another political system out of the blue.” Chinese socialism represents a dialectical unity of the theoretical logic of scientific socialism and the historical logic of China’s social development. As President Xi has stated, “It is inevitable that China, a country with a unique culture, a unique history, and unique fundamental conditions, should choose a development path featuring its own characteristics.” This is the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is the path we must follow in building modern Chinese civilization.

Understanding the originality of Chinese civilization and adhering to the enterprising spirit of upholding tradition without clinging to the past and respecting ancient wisdom without reverting to archaic thinking

President Xi has said, “The originality of Chinese civilization fundamentally determines the Chinese nation’s enterprising spirit of upholding tradition without clinging to the past and respecting ancient wisdom without reverting to archaic thinking as well as its fearless character of facing new challenges head-on and embracing new things.” In Chinese philosophy, the concepts of “constant” and “change” are considered to be dialectically unified and mutually reinforcing. The consistency of Chinese civilization, therefore, is characterized by constant innovation. It features both still waters of great depth and magnificent surging waves of advancement. Over thousands of years of history, China has created an unparalleled institutional culture, nurturing a rich store of ideas concerning state systems and governance. Throughout China’s history, institutional arrangements have remained stable over long periods, yet within this constancy, a continuous element of innovation has been present, enabling adaption to the changing times. This dynamic has aided in the promotion of both civilizational development and orderly social mobility. The CPC has kept the great innovative spirit of the Chinese nation alive and thriving. Indeed, contemporary China is undergoing the most extensive and profound social transformation in the country’s history, as well as the greatest and most unique process of practical innovation in human history.

Understanding the unity of Chinese civilization to resolutely uphold national unity, oppose separatism, and forge a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation

President Xi has noted, “The unity of Chinese civilization has seen its various ethnic cultures coming together to create a cohesive whole and remaining tightly knit even in the face of major setbacks. It determines the Chinese people’s common belief that China’s territorial integrity must always be preserved, the nation must never be allowed to descend into turmoil, our ethnic groups must always remain united, and our civilization must never be interrupted. It further determines that national unity will always sit at the heart of China’s core interests and that a strong and unified country is vital for the future of all our people.” Over China’s several thousand years of history, unity has been an underlying historical trend, the direction of development, and the desire of the people. The unity of Chinese civilization stems from its unified economic and cultural foundations. As a distinctive feature of Chinese civilization, unity is a precious historical legacy. It has played a positive role in our history. It is also of great practical significance for promoting the development of socialist culture with Chinese characteristics and building a modern Chinese civilization today.

Understanding the inclusiveness of Chinese civilization, bringing together a diverse array of elements, and maintaining openness to exchanges

President Xi Jinping has pointed out, “The inclusiveness of Chinese civilization determines the Chinese nation’s historical orientation toward communication, exchange, and integration, as well as the harmonious existence of diverse religious beliefs in China. It also defines the willingness of Chinese culture to embrace and draw on other cultures.” Amid this inclusiveness, Chinese civilization has demonstrated continuity, originality, and unity. Inclusiveness has served to continuously expand the open-mindedness of Chinese civilization. Inclusiveness is a form of convergence. The Chinese nation has always viewed other civilizations with an open and tolerant attitude and has developed a unique national spirit of exercising restraint toward oneself and engaging in open exchanges with others. Its inclusiveness can thus also be regarded as a form of coexistence and openness. From a macro-historical perspective spanning thousands of years, opening up has always been an underlying theme and general trend of the Chinese nation. Since ancient times, based on the concepts of “harmony under Heaven” and “harmony between all nations,” the Chinese nation has engaged in interactions and cultural exchanges with foreign peoples with confidence and generosity. This resulted in the creation of the vast and enduring Silk Road, characterized by the ringing of camel bells over thousands of miles, and the grandeur of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), marked by the gathering of people from various nations in their traditional national attire in the capital city of Chang’an.


Actors perform “The Light of Liangzhu” prior to the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games Flame Lighting Ceremony at the Liangzhu Archaeological Site Park, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, June 15, 2023. In July 2019, the archaeological ruins of Liangzhu City were inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List during the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee, signaling international recognition for the more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization the site has helped reveal. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER JIANG HAN

Understanding the peaceful nature of Chinese civilization and working to safeguard world peace, contribute to global development, and preserve international order

President Xi has declared, “The peaceful nature of Chinese civilization determines that China will always work to safeguard world peace, contribute to global development, and preserve international order. China will continue to promote exchange and mutual learning among civilizations without seeking cultural hegemony. China will never impose its values or political system on others. It is committed to cooperation rather than confrontation, and it will never form small groups on a partisan basis.” Chinese culture espouses unity between all things. The maxim that “the benevolent man treats all things as one with himself” embodies a view of the universe that determines the Chinese people’s worldview of peace, harmony, and concord. In the relationship between humanity and nature, Chinese culture believes that “harmony generates vitality.” In interpersonal relationships, Chinese culture holds that “harmony is precious.” In people’s relationship with themselves, Chinese culture emphasizes “a state of equilibrium and harmony.” Nevertheless, Chinese culture does not advocate harmony without principle. Instead, it calls for harmony in diversity, not only embracing variety but respecting differences. Given the peaceful nature of Chinese civilization, China is well-equipped to provide Chinese wisdom for advancing world peace, promoting global development, and maintaining international order. Pursuing dialogue rather than clashes, exchanges rather than isolation, cooperation rather than confrontation, negotiation rather than coercion, and construction rather than destruction—these should be the norms of peace that humanity follows today, as well as the basic laws that guide our efforts to build a global community of shared future.

Every civilization is rooted in the soil of its own people. It coalesces the historical wisdom and intellectual and cultural pursuits of its respective nation or nations, possessing its own intrinsic value. Traditional Chinese culture forms the root of the Chinese nation. It is the cultural cornerstone for achieving national rejuvenation and the cultural foundation that keeps us on a firm footing amid global cultural interactions.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 18, 2023)