National sudies fever

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 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.  

  1. Which I have not yet read 


  1. Has her popularity resulted in more popular publications by more established scholars? Or by less established scholars? Or is this a one-book craze (though, to be fair, Chicken Soup for the Soul started out as one book, too) which has more to do with self-improvement literature than anything else?

    The increased interest in Confucius by the central government can’t be hurting her, I’d think.

  2. It started as a set of lectures on TV, and now she has at least two books out. A couple of people have written books attacking her. There are also a apparently lots of other things coming out on guoxue, though it seems little of it by scholars.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post – never surprising when Guoxue becomes a topic of interest once again. Just sad to see this “scholar” producing such poor scholarship, which, of course, is probably gaining a wide audience.

    I would, however, quibble with your remark that the May Fourth Movement was decidedly anti-Guoxue. Certainly the mainstream of the May Fourth Movement rejected catholic Confucianism in all its forms, but the Guocui (national essence) groups were also a part of the New Culture/May Fourth Movements. These national essence scholars, generally speaking, took “radical” political positions, but also maintained conservative cultural notions. This “conservative” movement during the pre- and post-New Culture/May Fourth period is best represented by groups like the Society for the Protection of National Studies, the Southern Society and journals like Critical Review and National Essence Journal. Notable “May Fourth” figures who were either conservative in orientation or could be lumped into a Guoxue group might include people like Gu Jiegang, Wu Mi, Tao Xisheng, Zhang Junmai, Liang Shuming, and many others.

    As most probably know, the best study of conservative groups in the early twentieth-century remains Charlotte Furth’s edited volume “The Limits of Change: Essays on Conservative Alternatives in Republican China”; but Guy Alitto’s biography of Liang Shuming is also good as is Laurence Schneider’s study of Gu Jiegang.

  4. Yes I suppose it would have been more accurate to say that May 4th was anti-Confucius, although even there they took him seriously. Given that revolutionaries were “criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius” as late as 1972 the May 4thers were a lot less successful in purging him from the national memory than they might have thought. I have not yet seen Yu’s book but I did order it since it will be sort of interesting to see what the pop Confucius looks like. I suspect that the book actually will be pretty important, in that as it is selling well and will create a new generation of Chinese who can at least identify quotes from the Analects. I remember one of my teachers (mostly educated in the 60’s) telling me that literally all they knew about Confucius was that the government said he was bad and that her parents said that he was a wise man who taught that children should obey their parents. As I recall she did not even use the term , 孝 fillial, so there is a long way to go in terms of re-popularizing Confucianism and Guoxue in general.

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