Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

In 1998 it was still possible to publish a book with the title Can Asians Think?, at least if you were Singaporean. I don’t think anyone would ask that question now. But at a time when Asia is returning to its historic place in the global economy, another question is still useful: 'How do Asians think?'

With increasing Chinese pride in their 5000 years of history (and perhaps as a way to create meaning for a population caught between communism and the market), Confucian concepts are returning to their place in the mainstream of Chinese culture.

This comeback in China and other Confucian-influenced countries provides an entry point for Western observers to try to understand part of the thought-culture that makes up a common mental map for many Asians.

A delegation from the International Confucian Association visited Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane this month to help build knowledge of the Confucian cultural ethos. Professor Lee Cheuk Yin of the National University of Singapore presented this as being in Australia's self-interest: 'to do business with the Chinese without an understanding of their thinking and culture spells death knell and failure.' Professor Tian Chenshan of Beijing Foreign Languages University urged Australians to attempt to pierce the 'cultural veil of misunderstanding': 'China is not mysterious if you understand the mentality.'

Those interested in learning about Confucian thought have a clear curriculum to study. For centuries there was an agreed common cultural curriculum based on the four books and five classics that were the basic texts for China's civil service examinations. It was the equivalent to the Bible in Western culture.

The most valuable areas to investigate to build understanding are the organising concepts in the Confucian worldview. For example, the five human relationships (ruler and minister; father and son; brothers; husband and wife; friends) form a sort of metaphor map which help navigate relationships. The moral values of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness form a standard to which one can aspire and by which to judge others’ behaviour.

There are also some key concepts that may condition thinking on international relations. Professor Lee described the Confucian conception of the path from self to family to state to world. In effect this treats the whole world as an extension of family. This suggests a primary focus on what is closest as the basis for engaging with the world. This accords with a strategy of developing China first, which will then change the world, and differs sharply from US exceptionalism.

Another useful organising principle is the idea of harmony. As Professor Wen Haiming of Renmin University described it, 'ancient Chinese wisdom focuses on the human living harmoniously in the world.' He contrasted this with the Western idea that humans are rulers of the world, a view he sees as doomed to failure because it entails a fight against nature. In this view, ecological crisis is also a crisis of Western civilization.

In looking at questions of culture, there are two fundamental errors to be avoided. One is to ignore the issue of culture entirely, thus tacitly assuming that everyone thinks the same way regardless of language, location or history. A moment’s reflection should show that this must be false.

The opposite error is to conclude that culture is fixed and immutable, thus assuming that a culture’s past will entirely determine its future. In fact culture is malleable and protean. As Dr Ngoc Tho Nguyen of the Vietnamese University of Social Sciences and Humanities put it, 'there is no fixed way to use the wisdom of other countries.'

In Vietnam, there has been a mixing of Confucian and indigenous traditions, and even in China, there is no one Confucian culture. It has changed and adapted so that what is being revived as traditional in China will respond to the needs of today. For example, the Chinese tributary system is unlikely to be resurrected in exactly the same format, but understanding the assumptions about the world that led to this system can be useful in anticipating the likely behaviour of a strong China, as David Kang does masterfully. As former Australian diplomat Reg Little put it, 'China doesn’t have a theory. It has a range of practices that are constantly evolving.'

The author of When China Rules the World, Martin Jacques, who was also in Australia last month, tells us that one consequence of China’s rise will be that core parts of Chinese culture will become part of the common culture. Zheng He’s voyages will be as famous as those of Columbus, the Yellow Emperor as well known as Napoleon.

Australians may not be learning Chinese classics by rote in early childhood at the Four Seas Confucian Academy, but we can make an effort to develop some cultural literacy in the various traditions of Asian thought. Time to educate ourselves.

Photo by Flickr user JayPLee.