井底之蛙

12/17/2008

Confucian liberalism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:03 pm

CDT has some information on Yang Shiqun, the Chinese professor who has been accused by two of his students of saying counterrevolutionary things in class and is now in big trouble. It is a very interesting case. As China Daily points out, counter-revolution has not even been a crime in China since 1997. So it is not entirely clear what the charges against him might be. Of course this is China, so he can easily get in trouble even if it is not clear what he is charged with. Dr. Yang himself blames two of his female students for denouncing him1 and has apparently been somewhat unnerved by the attacks of the 五毛党 on the internet.

But what did he do wrong? Apparently the students were unhappy with his criticism of Chinese culture and government, which they seem to be conflating. CDT has a copy of what is apparently one set of his class lecture notes. It is somewhat ironic that he is being turned in in part because of his attempts to turn students into real intellectuals. As he puts it.

An intellectual is not someone who has read lots of books. He must possess the spirit of independent thinking and originality.

An intellectual is a critic of the society he lives in, and an opponent of the established value system. Like Socrates, he takes it as his mission to criticize his contemporary society and its values.

It’s not rare that an intellectual goes against his era for the truth he believes in. He even dies for it sometimes.

He sounds quite the modern liberal, and in fact he is and I hope all comes out well for him.

On the other hand, the rest of his lecture seems to indicate that he has more in common with his students than he may think, and this makes it a nice window into modern Chinese liberalism. His students were apparently complaining about his Ancient Chinese literature class, and they seemed to be conflating criticism of traditional Chinese culture with criticism of the government. There is an Asian term for the idea that the culture, people and government form a unitary and timeless whole, but that word is koukutai and it is not something one would expect either Chinese liberals or Chinese nationalists to be big on. (Yes, there were various versions of National Essence thinking in China in the 30’s, but given that the Thought Police are getting involved I think Kokutai is a better term)

Professor Yang seems to share the idea that there is a timeless Chinese culture, and that Chinese students of today cannot be true intellectuals unless they understand it, which you learn from studying ancient Chinese literature. You can learn various lessons about the Chinese from this study, such as..

“Peace and stability are valued above all in Chinese culture”
“The Chinese are a practical people”
“We Chinese people don’t have profound spiritual pursuits”
“The Chinese and the Jews are two tragic peoples. The former has a body without a soul. The latter has a soul without a body.” — Quoted from a Jewish writer.

Yang wants students to “analyze in-depth the cultural genes of the Chinese society”(深入解剖中国文化基因) This actually -is- counter-revolutionary, in that he thinks there is a timeless essence of Chinese society that can’t be changed, which is in direct opposition to what the Communist revolution was all about and, for that matter, the May 4th movement.2He is I think, in a Western sense, anti-liberal, in that Liberalism is built around the idea that politics and culture are made by people and can be changed by them more or less at will. (When in the course of human events, etc.) He certainly does not see culture as constructed. I find it sort of odd that in his powerpoint he uses examples of Western intellectuals like Socrates and Sándor Petõfi rather than Chinese dissenters like Fang Xiaoru or somebody who would seem to fit better with his type of Confucian liberalism.

UPDATE: He’s no liberal, but here’s something on Guo Quan, who is also in trouble with the authorities in Nanjing.

  1. and if he thinks pointing out they are female will make lots of people on the net assume that they are spoiled brats whose opinions are not worth taking seriously, it’s working. []
  2. Yes, to some extent he is calling on students to help challange this ancient and unchanging culture, and in that he does sound like a May 4ther, but what little I have seen of his thought makes him seem very National Essence for a modern liberal. []

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