Sinology and Simon Leys

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:30 pm

New York Review of Books Classics has re-printed Simon Leys’ The Hall of Uselessness: Selected Essays. This makes him the first Sinologist to crack the NYRB Classics list as one of the masters of world literature, this despite the fact that the original book of these essays only came out in 2011. Leys write about all sorts of things, from Orwell to Cervantes to Zhou Enlai, but his chief claim to fame, at least for me, was his caustic criticism of westerners who had been taken in by the Maoist myth.

Why read this book? Well, he writes well, both in the sense of being able to describe things and in the sense of knowing exactly when to stick the knife in. From the piece on Zhou En-lai

Alone among the Maoist leaders, Zhou Enlai had cosmopolitan sophistication, charm, wit and style. He certainly was one of the greatest and most successful comedians of our century. He had a talent for telling blatant lies with angelic suavity….Everyone loved him. He repeatedly and literally got away with murder. No wonder politicians from all over the world unanimously worshipped him…

..no interlocutors ever appeared to small, too dim or too irrelevant not to warrant a special effort on his part to charm them, to wow, them..He was..the ultimate Zelig of politics, showing tolerance, urbanity and a spirit of compromise to urbane Western liberals, eating fire and spitting hatred to suit the taste of embittered Third World leaders; displaying culture and refinement with artists; being pragmatic with pragmatists, philosophical with philosophers, and Kissingerian with Kissinger.


Most China scholars don’t write like that, but Leyes is not a China scholar, he is a Sinologist, and while he is certainly a scholar he is rightly sceptical about the modern academic world. You can see this pretty clearly the essay on Said’s Orientalism. In this essay Leys was trying to figure out if Said’s work had any relevance for China folk. This is a topic that has been hashed out a bit. Said did not make it clear what the “east” was for him, and while ome East Asia folk use and talk about the idea others don’t. What is Leys’ take?

Edward Said’s main contention is that “no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim the author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.” Translated into plain English, this would seem to mean simply that no scholar can escape his original condition: his own national, cultural, political and social prejudices are bound to be reflected in his work. Such a common-sense statement hardly warrants debate. Actually Said’s own book is an excellent case it point: Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition (here perceived through the distorted prism of a certain type of American university, with its brutish hyper-specialization, non-humanistic approach, and close, unhealthy links with government.)1

In general East Asia folk seems to be less afraid of getting the Orientalist cooties than Middle East people, and and Leys helps explain why. Part of Orientalism is worrying that you are essentializing the “timeless East” and while Leys has no patience with anyone foolish enough to lump everything from Syria to Shandong into an “East” he points out that ”Western sinology in its entirety is a mere footnote appended to the huge sinological corpus that Chinese intellectuals have been building for centuries to this day.” Although Leys does not point it out, if you want essentialization of Chinese culture 漢學 is a good place to look, and if you want to understand China Chinese scholars are the first people you should talk to.

For Leys the study of China is not part of euro-american empire2 or ‘othering’, but part of humanistic education. “Chinese should be taught in Western countries as a fundamental discipline of the humanities at the secondary-school level, in conjunction with, or as an alternative to, Latin and Greek.” Actually, if we wanted to put good old fashioned Classical Studies back in American High Schools I would guess making them Chinese classical studies would be the way to do it. More likely to be useful in Shenzhen.

While I like reading Leys his flavor of Sinology sometimes leaves me cold. In his essay on Confucius he claims that the Analects was written withing 75 years of Confucius’s death and shows a single voice. He compares those who claim that the text was compiled over a much longer period to those scholars who question the Gospels, and here he enlists the novelist Julien Gracq.

Gracq first acknowledged the impressive learning of one of these scholars as well as a devastating logic of his reasoning; but he confessed that, in the end, he still found himself left with one fundamental objection: for all his formidable erudition, the scholar in question simply had no ear-he could not hear what should be so obvious to any sensitive reader-that, underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style which derives from one unique and inimitable voice.

I think he is wrong there, both about Jesus and about Confucius, but far worse is the footnote to his claim that in the Analects “there are very few stylistic anachronisms: the language and syntax of most of the fragments is coherent and pertains to the same period.” The note reads “On these problems of chronology and textual analysis, see E. Bruce Brooks, The Original Analects (Columbia University Press, 1998)” This is a pretty serious failure of scholarly courtesy, first in erasing Brooks’ co-author, but more importantly enlisting him in support of the claim that Analects is a coherent text.3 What’s the point in reading books and citing them if you are just going to make up things about what is in them? I would like to think it is possible to be both a scholar and a sensitive reader, but Leys is not helping me here.

This goes farther than just sloppy scholarship. Leys wants to uncover the real Confucius under the distortions of “Imperial Confucianism [which] only extolled those statements from the Master that prescribed submission to the established authorities.” This seems wrong to me and more importantly leaves you uninterested in the period from the Han to the present when the ru were always intertwined with the state. Leys’ condemnations of the dupes of Maoism are always fun to read, and lord knows he was fighting the good fight4 when he took them on. While he has some real insights on the period, he is not a very good guide to the Mao era, which for him was grotesque and alien. Grotesque certainly; In “The China Experts” he skewers Edward Friedman, Han Suyin and Ross Terrill.

Perhaps we should not be too harsh on the these experts; the fraternity recently suffered a traumatic experience and is still in a state of shock. Should fish suddenly start to talk, I suppose that ichthyology would also have to undergo a dramatic revision of its basic approach. A certain type of “instant sinology” was indeed based on the assumption that the Chinese people were as different from us in their fundimental aspirations, and as unable to communicate with us, as the inhabitants of the oceanic depths; and when they eventually rose to the surface and began to cry out sufficiently loudly for their message to get through to the general public there was much consternation among the China pundits.

Leys gives us lots of examples of China pundits (mostly Terrill) swallowing the most absurd nonsense about how the Chinese loved Chairman Mao. The problem of course, is that the Chinese did love Chairman Mao. You can’t start a Cultural Revolution memoir without explaining your youthful loyalty to the red, red sun of Chairman Mao, and you can’t treat Mao period as something alien to China. How can you write about people becoming disillusioned unless you can explain how they became believers in the first place?  Leys’ China is as much a place to find Simon Leys as a place to find Chinese people, (just like Europeans used to do with Greece and Rome) and while I like reading him on Said or Terrill, I suspect he would not be as helpful for reading Mark Edward Lewis or Elizabeth Perry.

  1. Yes, I am quoting a lot, but Leys is a hard guy to paraphrase. []
  2. Almost the only mention of East Asia in Said is an approving comment on the Concerned Asian Scholars, who he praised for their condemnation of American imperialism in Asia while for Said they ‘failed most scandalously in their moral responsibilities toward China and the Chinese people.’ []
  3. Which seems the obvious way to read that note for me. []
  4. at some risk to his reputation in academic circles, which does not seem to have worried him []


Mixing water with water

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:37 pm

Here is a dialogue (from the Zuozhuan) I used in class this week.

The Duke declares “It is Ju alone who is in harmony with me.”

Yanzi replied, “Ju is in fact the same [as you]. How can he attain to harmony?” The ruler said, “Are harmony and identity different?”

Yanzi said, ‘They are different. Harmony is like a stew. Water, fire, jerky, mincemeat, salt, and plum [vinegar] are used to cook fish and meat; they are cooked over firewood; the master chef harmonizes them, bringing them into equality with seasonings, compensating for what is insufficient and diminishing what is too strong. The gentleman eats it and thus calms his heart. With ruler and subject it is the same. When there is something unacceptable about what the ruler considers acceptable, the subject reports the unacceptable to perfect the acceptability. When there is something acceptable about what the ruler considers unacceptable, the subject reports the acceptable in order to eliminate the unacceptable. In this way administration is calm and without interference, and the people lack the desire to struggle. Thus the Shi says:

There is a harmonious stew.

We are careful and calm.

We advance silently;

There is no struggling.’

The former kings adjusting of the five flavors and harmonizing of the five tones was for the calming of hearts and the completion of administration. Sounds are just like flavors. The single breath, the two forms, the three genres, the four materials, the five tones, the six pitches, the seven notes, the eight airs, the nine songs: these are used to complete one another. The clear and the muddy, the small and the large, the short and the long, the presto and the adagio, the somber and the joyous, the hard and the soft, the delayed and the immediate, the high and the low, the going out and coming in, the united and separate: these are used complement one another. The gentleman listens to it and thus calms his heart. “When the heart is calm, the virtue is in harmony. Thus the Shi says:

The sound of his virtue is unblemished.’

“Now Ju is not like this. What you, the ruler, consider acceptable, Ju also says is acceptable. What you consider unacceptable, Ju also says is unacceptable. If you were to complement water with water, who could eat it? If the zithers and dulcimers were to hold to a single sound, who could listen to it? This is how identity is unacceptable1)

I like this quote a lot, because it gives you a nice introduction to the world of classical Chinese thought. It is in the form of a dialogue between a ruler and a philosopher. The ostensible point is that a virtuous advisor, Yanzi, is putting down a toadying suck-up (Ju). More importantly it goes well with the common idea of resonance; that the patterns that govern the natural world are the same as those that govern the human world. Thus the sage is like a great cook or a great conductor, (or a doctor) harmonizing everything and thus bringing about tranquillity. Tranquillity of course being the goal. We have quotes from the Book of Songs, a contrast between the small man and the gentleman, the former kings, a list of examples with numbers  This is one that I like well enough that I actually print it out and give it to them.

Original text

十二月,齊侯田于沛,招虞人以弓,不進,公使執之,辭曰,昔我先君之田也,旃以招大夫,弓以招士, 皮冠以招虞人,臣不見皮冠,故不敢進,乃舍之仲尼曰,守道不如守官,君子同之,齊侯至自田,晏子侍于遄臺,子猶馳而造焉,公曰,唯據與我和夫,晏子對曰, 據亦同也,焉得為和,公曰,和與同異乎,對曰異,和如羹焉,水火醯醢鹽梅,以烹魚肉,燀之以薪,宰夫和之,齊之以味,濟其不及,以洩其過,君子食之,以平 其心,君臣亦然,君所謂可,而有否焉,臣獻其否,以成其可,君所謂否,而有可焉,臣獻其可,以去其否,是以政平而不干民無爭心,故詩曰,亦有和羹,既戒既 平,鬷假無言,時靡有爭,先王之濟五味,和五聲也,以平其心,成其政也,聲亦如味,一氣,二體,三類,四物,五聲,六律,七音,八風,九歌,以相成也,清 濁大小,長短疾徐,哀樂剛柔,遲速高下,出入周疏,以相濟也,君子聽之,以平其心,心平德和,故詩曰,德音不瑕,今據不然,君所謂可,據亦曰可,君所謂 否,據亦曰否,若以水濟水,誰能食之,若琴瑟之專壹,誰能聽之,同之不可也如是 Original here



  1. Schaberg, David. A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Asia Center, 2001. p.231 (from Zuo []


What Do Lin Yutang and Lin Biao Have in Common? They Were Both Memory Holed

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 2:17 am

Global Voices, a quite useful and smart blog, on January 30 posted Two Versions of Mao’s China: History Retouched as Propaganda, which has an set of uncanny “before and after” photos of the sort we’ve become all too familiar with. It’s not surprising to see Lin Biao being airbrushed out of posters and photos after he went from being Mao’s “closest comrade in arms and successor” to falling (literally) from grace.

But a set of photos further down the page caught my eye. The original 1927 version (the one on the bottom) shows Lu Xun (front row right), his wife, brother, Sun Fuyuan, another friend, and Lin Yutang (back row center), but in the second version, dated 1977, Lin and the other friend have been artfully “disappeared.”

Lu Xun With (1927) and Without (1977) Lin Yutang

Lu Xun With (1927) and Without (1977) Lin Yutang

I’m afraid that for too long Lin Yutang was also airbrushed out of Western accounts of China before the 1949 Revolution. Until the work of Qian Suoqiao, now of Hong Kong City University, Lin couldn’t get much scholarly respect. Since Qian is a friend, I should write a little more about his heroic contributions at some point in the future, but for now, let’s just appreciate the irony of the two airbrushed Lins. (more…)


Thurify yourself

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:49 pm

One of the things we have read for the May Fourth class I am teaching is Liang Qichao’s On the Relationship between Fiction and the Government of the People (論小說與羣治的關係)1  It is a good reading if you want to explain to students why May 4thers cared so much about literature, and also why everyone should care about literature.

As a good Confucian Liang of course sees no need to explain that literature can have a transformative effect on someone’s mind and morals, or that this can be connected to the stability of the state. Claiming that fiction (rather than, say, poetry) can do this will take more proving for his audience.

He claims that people enjoy fiction, of course, and it is easy to get them to read it. Besides being enjoyable, it lets us experience things outside our own lives.

..human nature is such that it is often discontented with the world. The world with which we are in physical contact is spatially limited. Thus, apart from direct physical or perceptual contact with reality, we also often desire to touch and perceive things indirectly; this is the life beyond one’s life, the world beyond one’s world. This sort of vision is inherent in both the sharp and the dullwitted. And nothing can transcend the power of fiction in molding the human into more intelligent or duller beings.  Thus, fiction often leads us to a different world and transforms the atmosphere with which we are in constant contact.

It was through fiction that the May Fourthers met Nora Helmer, and Young Werther and it is nice to have Liang make this point for me. Fiction goes beyond this to have various powers to transform the individual.

The first power is called thurification. It is like entering a cloud of smoke and being thurified by it, or like touching ink or vermillion and being tinted by it. As mentioned in the Lanikavatara Sutra, the transformation of deluded knowledge to relative consciousness and of relative consciousness to absolute knowledge relies on this kind of power. When reading a novel, one’s perception, thinking, and sensitivity are unconsciously affected and conditioned by it. Gradually, changing day by day, it makes its effect felt. And although the effect is momentary, alternating interruptions and continuations, over the course of a long period of time the world of the novel enters the mind of the reader and takes root there like a seedling with a special quality. Later, this seedling, being daily thurified by further contact with fiction, will become more vigorous, and its influence will in turn spread to others and to the entire world. This is the cause of the cyclical transformation of all living and non-living things in the world. Thus, fiction reigns supreme because of its power to influence the masses.

My students did not know what thurification () meant, so I had to explain it.2 This point fits in with a lot of stuff on the impact exposure to fiction  has on one’s world-view, a point that goes back, for me, to Orwell’s Boy’s Weeklies. The stuff you read creates your world-view in ways that you are not always consciously aware of. Thus if you read lots of British Boys Weeklies of the 1930’s you soak up a lot of old imperialist attitudes without realizing it.3  If you were a regular reader of the satirical and irreverent Mad Magazine of the late 70’s then…..Obviously the May 4th crowd wanted to transform the people, and reforming fiction was able to transform not only the masses, but non-living things as well!

While fiction can transform you without you knowing it, it can also do so more consciously.

The second power is known as immersion. Whereas thurification is spatial and hence its effect is proportional to the space in which it acts, immersion is temporal, and its effect varies according to the length of time it operates. Immersion refers to the process in which a reader is so engrossed in a novel that it causes him to assimilate himself with its content. When one reads a novel, very often one is unable to free oneself from its effect even long after having finished reading it. For instance, feelings of love and grief remain in the minds of those who have finished reading The Dream of the Red Chamber, and feelings of joy and anger in those who have finished reading The Water Margin. Why is it so? It is because of the power of immersion. It follows that if two works are equally appealing, the one that is longer and deals with more facts will have the greater power to influence the reader. This is just like drinking wine. If one drinks for ten days, one will remain drunk for a hundred days. It was precisely because of this power of immersion that the Buddha expounded on the voluminous Avatamsaka Sutra after he had risen from under the Bodhi Tree.

I have not yet experimented with drinking for ten days and seeing if it keeps me drunk for 100. Perhaps the undergrads can try that one. I have, however, lived in novels and been influenced by them. So have my students. They are selling IUP Quiddich t-shirts at the bookstore, I assume because some of our students wish they were going to to Hogwarts instead of here. Nor has fiction done for me what the Bodhi Tree did for Gautama, and transformed me into the God of Gods, Unsurpassed doctor or surgeon, or Conqueror of beasts, although I suppose I could lay some claim to Teacher, if not Teacher of the World.  So the idea that one’s reading turns one into a new person makes sense to us as well, and is in fact the foundation of Liberal Education.

Of course in some respects Liang is not a modern Liberal.  While he does not quite call for banning books he is not one of those (like almost all American teachers) who sees reading as either good or a waste of time, but certainly not something that could hurt you. There is a long tradition of condemnations of bad literature in China, and Liang is part of it

Nowadays our people are frivolous and immoral. They indulge in, and are obsessed with, sensual pleasures. Caught up in their emotions, they
sing and weep over the spring flowers and the autumn moon, frittering away their youthful and lively spirits. Young men between fifteen and thirty
years of age concern themselves only with overwhelming emotions of love, sorrow, or sickness. They are amply endowed with romantic sentiment
but lack heroic spirit. In some extreme cases, they even engage in immoral acts and so poison the entire society. This is all because of fiction. ……One or two books by frivolous scholars and marketplace merchants4 are more than enough to destroy our entire society. The more fiction is discounted by elegant gentlemen as not worth mentioning, the more fully it w ill be controlled by frivolous scholars and marketplace merchants. As the nature and position of fiction in society are comparable to the air and food and indispensable to life, frivolous scholars and marketplace  merchants in fact possess the power to control the entire nation! Alas! If this situation is allowed to continue, there is no question that the future of our nation is doomed! Therefore, the reformation of the government of the people must begin with a revolution in fiction, and the renovation of the people must begin with the renovation of fiction.

If you want a clear analysis of the role of literature in human society, some Buddhist references, a denunciation of pop culture that might come from Big Hollywood, with a bit of the Great Learning at the end Liang Qichao is your man.


  1. published in 1902. Translation by Gek Nai Cheng from Denton, Kirk, ed. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 1996. []
  2. Google is your friend. []
  3. For instance, simplistic and outdated stereotypes. From Orwell ” In papers of this kind it occasionally happens that when the setting of a story is in a foreign country some attempt is made to describe the natives as individual human beings, but as a rule it is assumed that foreigners of any one race are all alike and will conform more or less exactly to the following patterns:….

    Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

    Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

    Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail. []

  4. 華士坊賈 I might translate that as ‘alleyway merchants’ or something like that []


“China and Christianity”: Hu Shi’s 1927 View of Nationalism and Rationalism

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 12:34 pm

Over at the invaluable Danwei,  Julian Smisek’s “Hu Shi, missionaries, and women’s rights” (July 15, 2010) does a valuable service in translating Hu’s 1930 essay, “Congratulations to the YWCA,”  which pays tribute to Christian missionaries for helping Chinese women.

Hu, a Columbia University PhD, won a poll in the early 1920s as the most admired “returned student” in China. But his surprising words of praise for the YWCA need to be balanced against his views on Christianity’s future in China. He elsewhere disdained the run of Christian missionaries as uneducated and narrow. They came to China because they could live well for little money, he said, and mission boards were far less careful in selecting China missionaries than Standard Oil was in selecting China salesmen and executives.

Hu’s “China and Christianity” was the lead piece in the July 1927 issue of the North American journal, The Forum. That year saw Chiang Kai-shek purge the Communists and Mao Zedong take to the countryside, setting off a generation of civil war, but the editor introduces Hu as “the leader of an intellectual movement that is permeating the youth of China and is interested chiefly in the things of the mind.” Like the “ancient sages of the East,” Hu “stands outside the current political conflict.”

Here’s the editorial in its entirety:

The future of Christianity in China is a question which should be considered apart from the question of the past services rendered to China by the Christian missionaries. The part played by the missionaries in the modernization of China will long be remembered by the Chinese, even though no Christian church may be left there. They were the pioneers of the new China. They helped the Chinese to fight for the suppression of opium which the pirate-traders brought to us. They agitated against footbinding, which eight centuries of esoteric philosophizing in native China failed to recognize as an inhuman institution. And they brought to us the first rudiments of European science. The early Jesuits gave us the pre-Newtonian astronomy, and the later Protestant missionaries introduced modern hospitals and schools. They taught us to know that there was a new world and a new civilization behind the pirate-traders and gunboats.

Many of the Protestant missionaries worked hard to awaken China and bring about a modern nation. China is now awakened and determined to modernize herself. There is not the slightest doubt that a new and modem China is emerging out of chaos. But this new China does not seem to promise much bright future to the propagation of the Christian faith. On the contrary, Christianity is facing opposition everywhere. The dream of a “Christian occupation of China” seems to be fast vanishing, – probably forever. And the explanation is not far to seek.

It is true that there is much cheap argument in the narrow nationalistic attack which sees in the Christian missionary an agent of imperialist aggression. But we must realize that it is nationalism, – the self-consciousness of a nation with no mean cultural past,– that once killed Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheism in China. It is the same nationalism which four times persecuted Buddhism and finally killed it after over a thousand years of complete Buddhistic conquest of China. And it is the same national consciousness which is now resisting the essentially alien religion of Christianity.

And more formidable than nationalism, there is the rise of rationalism. We must not forget that Chinese philosophy began two thousand five hundred years ago with Lao Tse who taught a naturalistic conception of the universe end a Confucius who was frankly an agnostic. This rationalistic and humanistic tradition has always played the part of a liberator in every age when the nation seemed to be under the influence of a superstitious or fanatic religion. This cultural background of indigenous China is now revived with the new reinforcement of the methods and conclusions of modern science and becomes a truly formidable safeguard of the intellectual class against the imposition of any religious system whose fundamental dogmas, despite all efforts of its apologists, do not always stand the test of reason and science.

And after all, Christianity itself is fighting its last battle, even in the so-called Christendoms. To us born heathens, it is a strange sight indeed to see Billy Sunday and Aimée McPherson hailed and patronized in an age whose acknowledge prophets are Darwin and Pasteur. The religion of Elmer Gantry and Sharon Falconer must sooner or later make all thinking people feel ashamed to call themselves “Christians”. And then they will realize that Young China was not far wrong in offering some opposition to a religion which in its glorious days fought religious wars and persecuted science, and which, in the broad daylight of the twentieth century prayed for the victory of the belligerent nations in the World War and is still persecuting the teaching of science in certain quarters of Christendom.

It’s impressive both that The Forum published a critical piece from an intellectual in China and that Hu kept up with the latest stateside scandals and the novels of Sinclair Lewis. At a time when anti-imperialist tempers ran high, Hu coolly uses cosmopolitan liberal standards which stand above particular nations. His criteria apply to China and the US as well. But perhaps Hu should have known better than to think that rationality could combine with nationalism to save China.


May 4th is irrelevant

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:39 am

May Fourth is here and one of the things that makes the 21st century great is that if you want to read some May Fourth writers you don’t have to go to your local research library, you just have to google. With no effort at all I found Chen Duxiu‘s 1916 essay 袁世凯复活 “Yuan Shikai Resurected” or maybe “Zombie Yuan Shikai”. I was struck by how different May 4th and modern calls for democracy are.1

Chen begins by quoting an essay by Cai Yuanpei, in which Cai points out that while Generalissimo Yuan is still dead in a technical sense, he has returned to life in the sense that all of his backward feudal attributes are being carried on by the rest of the Chinese people. The bulk of the brief essay is a catalog of ways in which the Chinese people (or at least the bad ones, bureaucrats, scholars and gentry) are backward and ends with a call for the good elite (the military and the youth) to rise up and purge China of poisons and lead it out of darkness and into the light. To some extent this essay seems old because some of the concerns seem old (superstition) and some of the rhetorical forms (taking Europe as a model) are not common in China today. The most important difference, however, is a fundimentally different view of China’s problems.

I have not read ever single modern Chinese dissident, but the targets of May 4th are a lot different from modern ones despite the common interest in democracy. For all their talk of going to the people May 4thers were staggeringly elitist by modern standards, or to put it another way they were not yet quite to the modern concept of universal citizenship. May 4th was also explicitly culturalist. What needed to be fixed were the Chinese people and Chinese culture. Vile politicians like Yuan were just the surface froth of a sick society. Modern Chinese dissidents like the Charter 08 group shy away from blanket condemnations of the Chinese people in part because they would be unpopular2 and in part because they don’t see the Chinese people as a problem. China is going great, the problem is with its authoritarian government. (You can see this concern pretty clearly in the brief history of China at the beginning of the Charter.) I think the reason May 4thers get more lip service than long quotes from modern democracy activists is that they really are a part of the past that does not connect well to present concerns. Historians may like to draw connections between May 4th and 6/4, or Charter 08, or whatever, and there are lots of interesting comparisons. If you are a China democracy activist looking for good quotes or a useable past, however, you may find less than you had hoped in the May 4thers.

  1. Chen was one of the major May 4th figures, and Yuan was the first president of the Chinese republic, who betrayed the Revolution by making himself dictator and then, briefly, emperor. []
  2. The Chinese people already have plenty of national consiousness, so if you say anything that may offend them they will fill your inbox. It is a very different world than 1919 []


Need a dissertation topic?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:56 pm

There is a very interesting review of Simon Winchester’s Bomb, Book, and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China (sold in America as The Man Who Loved China) in the LRB. I have not read the book, but it does not really matter, because the reviewer ignores the final 300-odd pages of the book that deal with Needham’s time in and relationship with China, instead focusing on his life as part of the ‘red science’ of Cambridge in the 1930’s and how this led him to China. Given that the reviewer is Eric Hobsbawm he can fill in a lot of blanks about Needham and his background, and I think almost anyone interested in China should read the review.


Needham’s ambition as a researcher had long been to create a biochemical embryology that would meld the reductionism of the chemists with the inevitable concern of biologists for organisms and processes as a whole. An anti-mechanistic (he preferred the term ‘organic’) view of science had an obvious appeal for developmental biologists… It pioneered the concept of living things organised in hierarchical levels, classically set out in Needham’s Order and Life (1936). The whole organism, he argued, could not be fully grasped at any one of the lower levels of increasing size and complexity – the molecular, macromolecular, cells, tissues etc – and new modes of behaviour emerged at each level which could not be interpreted adequately in terms of those below or at all, except in their relations. As he wrote in Order and Life, ‘The hierarchy of relations from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and the ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future.’ Process, hierarchy and interaction were the key to a reality that could be understood only as a complex whole. And – though one would not discover this from Winchester’s book – this view drew him towards the country and civilisation to which he devoted the rest of his life.

Hobsbawm is not a scholar of Chinese science,1 so he goes a bit too far in the “holistic China” direction for me, but the review is an excellent addition to the book. If anyone ever writes a dissertation on Needham not as a scholar of China but as a link between the intellectual concerns of the English and the Chinese (maybe Waley would fit here as well) this would be a good staring point.

  1. neither am I []


First, kill all the Legalists

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:21 am

Sam at Useless Tree draws our attention to a really interesting website called 新法家(in English the New Legalist) I’m not quite sure who these people are, but the website is out of Beijing and quite impressive. Sam does not much care for them, seeing them as “nationalists who are appropriating ancient Legalist texts, together with some Taoist volumes, to fashion a neo-traditionalist legitimation for a contemporary Chinese assertion of power globally” That sounds about right to me.

Sam is much bothered by their attempts to tie together Legalism and Daoism, but to me it just sounds like Huang-Lao stuff, as there were lots of links between Legalism and Daoism right from the start. I am also not that surprised to find people looking back to the Legalists themselves, as this was a big item in the early 20th century as people began going through the Chinese tradition looking for the genealogy of a modern nation in the Chinese past. The New Legalists may seem weird, but they have a long way to go before they can match up with Kang Youwei.

Of course these people are looking into the past to find something different than the Chinese thinkers of a century ago. They are finding environmentalism and anti-globalization ideas, along with lots of occasions for nationalist chest-thumping. As Sam points out it is pretty bizarre to see Han Fei as a Green. Still they do seem to be drawing on a pretty wide range of classical thought. According to their mission statement

The Chinese people have built up a unique and comprehensive thought system covering medicine, economics and politics. This system aims at a dynamic balance between different parts of the human body, between different groupings of people within a society, and between human society and nature. All its subsystems follow the principle of “guiding changes towards balance” (from The Yellow Emperor’s Four Cannon ) economically, arranging production and consumption in accord with the change of seasons and with nature’s productive capabilities at the time; and politically, allocating limited resources among people according to their respective contributions to the society1

This actually does sound bit like a lot of the Warring States-Han stuff you would find in Mark Edward Lewis’s work. For me the most interesting part is the twisted Marx quote at the end. A lot of the site has an anti-capitalist feel, or at least a feel that China is best off if it does not totally adapt American culture. Part it seems to be vaguely Maoist egalitarianism and concern for the workers, “end capital’s hegemony in the name of liberty” and part of it an even more vague utopianism that owes something to Mao and also a lot various bits of traditional Chinese thought.

  1. 中国人还在这一伟大哲学的基础上建立起了独特的医学、政治、经济体系——她追求人体内部、社会与自然、社会内部各阶层之间 的动态平衡,她的医学、政治、经济都按“应化之道、平衡而止”(《黄帝四经·道法》)的原则构建——经济上,她按照自然时序与产出能力进行生产和消费;政 治上,她按一个人对社会贡献的大小对有限的资源进行配置 []


Darwin the Confucian

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:38 am

As today is Darwin Day I thought I would post something on China’s reception of Darwin’s work. He tended to be confused with Spencer at first, and Elman gives some examples of how his work continued to be misunderstood for a very long time. Still, it is not surprising that Chinese tended to see Darwin through Spencer. Spencer was big in the West, and for those obsessed with the survival of nations rather than the survival of species Spencer would seem more to the point. Yan Fu‘s On Strength first appeared in 1895 and was the first serious account of Darwin published in China.

Darwin is an English biologist. Heir to his family’s scholarly traditions, he traveled around the world as a young man, amassing a rich collection of rare and curious plants and animals. After several decades’ exhaustive and subtle reflection upon them, he wrote The Origin of Species. Since the publication of this book, of which nearly every household in Europe and America now has a copy, there has been a tremendous change in the scholarship, politics, and religion of the West. The claim that the revolution in outlook and intellectual orientation occasioned by Darwin‘s book exceeds that of Newtonian astronomy is hardly an empty one.

His book says that for all their diversity, the species originated from a single source and that their differences developed slowly, for the most part in connec­tion with changes in the environment and an abiding biological tendency to­ward incremental differentiation. Eventually divergence from the remote source led to vast and irreversible differences, but these were brought about by natural processes in later ages and were not inherent in life at its origins.

Two chapters of the book are particularly noteworthy. . . . One is called “Competition” and the other, “Natural Selection.” “Competition” refers to the struggle of things to survive, and “Natural Selection” is the retention of the fit. The idea is that people and things exist in profusion, surviving on what the natural environment provides, but when they encounter others, peoples and things struggle over the means of survival. At first species struggled with species, and when they advanced somewhat, one group (jun) struggled with another.

Not bad, in my opinion, although I think he may overestimate Darwin’s sales figures a bit. At the end of this reading he is already leaving Darwin’s interest in species to look at the competition among “groups.” Here he is pretty clearly influenced by Spencer



Chairman Mao’s teacher

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:18 pm

A nice article in Modern China on Mao’s teacher Yang Changji. The article draws on Yeh Wen-Hsin’s work on the provincial background of many of the second group of Communist leaders. The early years of the party were dominated by “an urban radicalism; in contrast, the later, revolutionary communism was an outgrowth of conservative, Confucian-bound rural China.” Liu demonstrates this by looking at the ideas and activities of Yang Changji, who might have been just another provincial schoolteacher had one of his students not been Chairman Mao.

The article is not too Mao-centered and Liu provides a nice picture of a provincial intellectual. Two things struck me. One is the description of Yang as an intellectual celebrity

within two months everyone who attended Mr. Yang’s lectures admired and respected him. Although he did not talk much in class, each short statement meant a great deal. Within a year, the entire school accepted him and he became the “Confucius of First Normal.” Other schools in Changsha invited him and he conducted classes [in schools] as far [away] as the high school at the foot of Yuelu Mountain. Soon he was known to the students throughout the city as “Confucius”

The perfect modern version of the Confucian pendant, complete with gnomic lectures and a personal following. In the old days students would have come from distant places to hear him rather than him having to trek out into the boonies to talk to them. Yang taught a lot of foreign stuff (he studied in Japan) but he always claimed that a New China had to be built on native foundations. Liu gives the following quote as an example of Yang’s interest in western-style individualism

In the physical world, the center is my body; in the spiritual/mental realm, the center is my mind. In short, among the ten thousand things in the universe, I am the essence. The emperor is my emperor; the father is my father; the teacher is my teacher; the wealth is my wealth; heaven and earth are my heaven and earth…Mencius said: “All things in the world are complete in me”…Everything in the universe is also my responsibility.

This is not, to my mind, individualism, in a western sense. Wikipedia is not very strong here but it lists a lot of the Western thinkers who have used the term. Yang seems to be revamping the old Confucian cosmology by putting himself at the center of it rather than a (usually hypothetical) sage king. Obviously this fits in well with Mao’s later ideas about himself and his role.

Liu Liyan “The Man Who Molded Mao: Yang Changji and the First Generation of Chinese Communists”Modern China32.4 October 2006

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