China’s intellectual world needs to bundle up better, and wear its galoshes, since it tends to catch a lot of “fevers.” The current one is for Guoxue, usually translated as “national studies” and probably best thought of as parallel to the Western discipline of Classics. Guoxue, the study of early Chinese history, philosophy and culture all mixed together has a long history although it has not been a terribly lively field. I always remember the Guoxue sections in bookstores as being full of very detailed stuff on philology and whatever written by people whose interest in China petered out around 1368, if not long before. The May Fourth Movement was strongly anti-national studies and above all anti-Confucius, a position shared by Mao. This has started to change in the last few years and the biggest figure is Yu Dan professor of media studies, TV personality and, author of the best-selling 于丹论语心得, her rather idiosyncratic take on the Analects.1 The book promises to use the wisdom of Confucius to help you live in the modern world.
Needless to say as the author of a best-seller and a TV personality and a woman professor (of media studies!) she has come under some criticism by “real” scholars. Some of this seems spot on. She apparently thinks that that term 小人 means “child” which is just utterly wrong, as it means “small man” the opposite of “gentleman” 君子， one of the key concepts in the Analects. On the other hand it is hard not to think that some of the criticism is coming because her books are selling better than other people’s.
I find her popularity sort of interesting in lots of ways, but one of the most significant is her approach to the Classics. While she may not know much about Confucius or classical China, and the jibe that her book is “Chicken Soup for the Chinese Soul” is so sharp because it seems to be true, she does seem to have at least one thing right, in that she sees Analects as wisdom literature that is supposed to change your behavior rather than something for purely academic study, a point lots of classical Confucians would have agreed with.
In an interview on Sina.com she was asked about her book’s “respectful yet not awed” attitude towards the Analects. She replied that it was this just the point, people come to these stories with different experiences and get different things out of them for that reason. This is pretty close to Oprah territory, where all of human experience is grist for the mill of self-improvement and self-satisfaction. Of course this is why she sells, but suspect that Confucius might have agreed that the point is self-improvement, although he certainly would not have agreed that past models can be used in any way we want.
Her specific example here is also interesting. She mentions the story of Jing Ke as one that people have read many meanings into. One of the criticisms of her is that her paeans to “harmony” as the key thing modern societies can learn from Confucius are why she is so acceptable to Beijing. She is no Fang Xiaoru to be sure, but I found it significant that she picked the example of the righteous assassin as her example.
Which I have not yet read ↩