Roth, “P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

15890Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that all human beings are “endowed with reason and conscience,” a phrase which suggests a Western, individualist worldview. In fact, as Mary Ann Glendon recounts in A World Made New, the phrase appears in the document largely at the instigation of the Chinese delegate, P.C. Chang, who wished to temper Western individualism. The original text referred only to “reason,” which Chang sought to balance by adding the Chinese word, ren, for a Confucian concept which would be roughly translated in English as “two-man mindedness”–benevolence, or empathy. The drafters apparently found it impossible to translate ren in a felicitous way and so settled on “conscience,” which has a rather different connotation. It’s interesting to think about what human rights law would look like today if Chang’s more communitarian concept had made it into the document.

This story is no doubt discussed in a forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press, P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by scholar Hans Ingvar Roth (Stockholm University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the world’s best-known and most translated documents. When it was presented to the United Nations General Assembly in December in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the writing group, called it a new “Magna Carta for all mankind.” The passage of time has shown Roosevelt to have been largely correct in her prediction as to the declaration’s importance. No other document in the world today can claim a comparable standing in the international community.

Roosevelt and French legal expert René Cassin have often been represented as the principal authors of the UN Declaration. But in fact, it resulted from a collaborative effort involving a number of individuals in different capacities. One of the declaration’s most important authors was the vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Peng Chun Chang (1892-1957), a Chinese diplomat and philosopher whose contribution has been the focus of growing attention in recent years. Indeed, it is Chang who deserves the credit for the universality and religious ecumenism that are now regarded as the declaration’s defining features. Despite this, Chang’s extraordinary contribution was overlooked by historians for many years.

Peng Chun Chang was a modern-day Renaissance man—teacher, scholar, university chancellor, playwright, diplomat, and politician. A true cosmopolitan, he was deeply involved in the cultural exchange between East and West, and the dramatic events of his life left a profound mark on his intellectual and political work. P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first biography of this extraordinary actor on the world stage, who belonged to the same generation as Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. Drawing on previously unknown sources, it casts new light on Chang’s multifaceted life and involvement with one of modern history’s most important documents.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: