Collective imaginaries sustain our societies but are impoverished by injustice. The Bell of World Peace and Love reminds us that conscience should prevail and violations of justice should be rectified.
by Michele Olzi *
*A paper presented at the webinar “Educating Human Rights Activists to Understand the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on January 28, 2023, after the International Day of Education (January 24).
Political, religious, and social fields are characterized throughout the whole course of modernity by a central, peculiar element: collective imaginaries. According to French scholar Jean-Jacques Wunenburger, the imaginary is a multilayered object, whose nature is halfway between being real and virtual, spiritual and objectual.
Thus, collective imaginaries might represent a peculiar expression of the community. Feelings, expectations, concepts, values, ideas are represented therein. According to political theorist Claudio Bonvecchio, “humankind—independently from its sociocultural level—uses symbols to process feelings, consciousness, and knowledge for the sake of the single individual and those around him.” Collective imaginaries tends to mostly reflect and represent three social elements: feelings; expectations; and consciousness. All these elements imply a socio-symbolical dynamic, whose impact on the community is remarkable.
The emergence of feelings related to social dynamics (i.e., anxiety, resentment, distress, joy, sense of commonality, hope), or expectations for the future, or the individual/collective consciousness of the populations towards changes and the constitution of a community, are all crucial factors. Every possible form of representation of such elements is not relevant on a symbolic level only. The collective imaginary has a strong impact on the social level. More precisely, the way (significant) symbols and images are ordered, coordinated, and represented into a community also shapes the latter.
According to Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, media shape and control “the scale and form of human association and action.” In other words, if the media exert an influence on the production of significant images, symbols, and the “world of representation,” then their impact on the community is undoubtedly strong.
Therefore, some symbols and images—and the narratives they are associated with—have a specific influence on the community. In particular, the religious, spiritual, and political spheres of the society are also involved in this relationship with the “world of representations.” Some elements of cultural heritage, like monuments, statues, artworks (or artifacts), as well as cultural representations such as novels, movies, comics, play an eminent role in the political, religious, and spiritual life of a community.
A symbol around which powerful political and religious representations revolve is the bell. There are several examples of iconic bells all around the world. It is possible to include in the list: the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA), a powerful symbol of American independence; the church bells of Norwich Cathedral (Norfolk, UK) which do not normally ring—because of religious and historical motivations; and the world’s largest medieval bell, Maria Gloriosa which is located in the higher tower of the Erfurt Cathedral (Germany). These examples imply peculiar situations that are both political and religious. With special reference to eighteenth-century politics in England, British scholar William Tullett affirms: “Ringing and listening to church bells were part of a series of practices of feeling that mobilized, communicated, and regulated the political emotions.”
Although this passage refers to a very specific context, where religious and political parties competed for the use of bells, it is worth to stress the symbolical value of these cultural artifacts (i.e. the bells). The ring of the bell—as well as the bell per se—appeal to the emotional and imaginative part of the human being.
In addition to the examples I offered, other kinds of bells were casted and donated for reasons that transcend religion and politics. The reference is to Japanese Peace Bell which is located in the Japanese garden of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and the Bell of World Peace and Love, designed by the Grand Master (Zhang-men-ren) of Tai Ji Men, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, which was first rang in Singapore in 2000. The Japanese Peace Bell is representative of post-war era initiatives. The Tai Ji Men Bell of World Peace and Love is emblematic of the socio-symbolic situation of today’s society. In traditional Chinese culture, the ring of the bell has both a secular and a spiritual meaning. The Tai Ji Men movement, through its doctrine, practices, and spiritual vision, has empowered and developed the symbolic value of the bell in the collective imaginary of our globalized society.
More specifically, the heart of Tai Ji Men’s spiritual worldview is that the original purity of the human beings, rooted in conscience, has been lost. In order to rectify this loss, Tai Ji Men’s disciples (dizi) are taught a series of self-cultivation, Qi Gong, and kung fu techniques to mobilize the positive energies of the universe and return to conscience. The idea that physical exercises also have an effective impact on the spiritual and mental dimensions is associated to the spiritual connotation of ringing the Bell of World Peace and Love.
To fully understand how the symbolism of the bell has been presented during several public international manifestations, where the two world-touring Bells of World Peace and Love were rung by international leaders from all over the world, it is necessary to examine more deeply another peculiar aspect of Tai Ji Men’s doctrine. The keyword to access the spiritual worldview of Tai Ji Men is conscience. By quoting Dr. Hong, “conscience is the goodness in human nature, which through education and self-awareness can stop evil and spread goodness to benefit our society, country and the world. When conscience is awakened in our hearts and balance is restored, peace will not be far away.”
According to Dr. Hong, conscience is not only the core of Tai Ji Men’s worldview, it is also essential for any possible sustainable scenario of the globalized world. However, conscience should act as a moral compass, to guide other two values of the citizens of the world: namely, “culture,” and “education.” According to Dr. Hong, “culture is like the DNA in genetics.” “Truthfulness, kindness and beauty” help individuals to preserve everything they received through family education, schooling, societal education, and lifelong learning, and endemically morph this heritage into something entirely inclusive, adaptive, and positive. The education of conscience is crucial to the formation of global citizens. Self-cultivation and the world vision of the young generations should abide by the tenets of love and peace, as well as by those of harmony and respect.
A few days after the International Day of Education, it is possible to acknowledge herein, along with Dr. Hong, the “core values of quality education” that all world citizens must receive. In a shape of a triangle, by placing “conscience” at the apex on the top, and “culture” and “education” at the base, a societal-spiritual model for a possible, fertile future world is established.
Collective imaginaries can never be taken for granted. They are damaged and impoverished by injustice, as it happened in Taiwan with the Tai Ji Men case. Therefore, the Bell of World Peace and Love is an artifact that transcends the (socio-symbolical) impoverishment of political and spiritual forces in contemporary collective imaginaries. More specifically, it is the hope that tells us today that this damaged imaginary, where the Tai Ji Men movement is persecuted, may be rectified.
I would conclude with a quote from French political scientist, Raymond Aron, which I find congenial with Tai Ji Men’s teachings on education and peace: “If the sense of rivalry prevails, war becomes inexpiable and civilized diplomacy is eclipsed. If the sense of the community of culture prevails, the temptation of state unification or of organized peace becomes irresistible.”