Confucian liberalism

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.  


  1. There’s substantial precedent, though, for a real overlap between intellectual liberalism and essentialist nationalism: heck, you can’t really understand most of the 19th century without it. The use of critical thinking skills (rationalism!) to identify core cultural traits — and then stop thinking, except in terms of social reform — was real hallmark of what came to be known (broadly and often incorrectly) as Social Darwinism.

  2. Great post…
    I thinking here about what you mean by “Confucian liberalism.” It seems it aligns with Kokutai: a combination of rationalism (methodological individualism?) and national essence. I can see how that makes sense in terms of The Analects and Mencius – venerating the Zhou and all that. But I guess I am a bit taken aback because I don’t want to surrender the possibilities of “Confucian liberalism” (i.e. how Confucian ideas might align with liberal notions and practices) to only that one combination of rationalism and national essence….

  3. I wonder here, Alan, whether the difference between Socrates and a “Chinese Socrates” is this: the former uses a timeless notion of a priori truths generated via reason to critique contemporary values and culture, whereas the latter will use a historical-cultural narrative to do the same job. Socrates (or Plato) might use the Forms as his critical tool; Confucius uses the Sage Kings. Western versus Eastern liberalism, in light of the discussion of Bell?

  4. Jonathan,
    Yes, he does sound very Victorian in some sense, and sort of like some of the Chinese National Essence people of the 30’s, and I should really not be that surprised to find that sort of time-traveling liberalism in China it was still a little weird for me.

    That’s one of the things I was getting at in the Bell discussion (which I have been neglecting shamefully) Bell seems to see universalism as a Western thing, but both Confucius and Yang Shiqun are strongly universalist. I am getting really dubious about Bell’s “Asian viewpoint” as being anything like any Asian would have.

    I was actually struggling with the title, then picked this one on the assumption it would annoy Sam. Still, since CL is a pretty empty term right now it will be interesting to see who fills it.

  5. Alan,

    I’m not so sure — it depends on how “universalist” gets defined. In my own post on this, I drew a distinction between what I called being a “universalist” and being a “particularist”. In the former, values or norms can be derived and justified in ways that have nothing to do with local culture (say, a priori). In the latter, origin and justification of such norms is always a contextual affair.

    My guess here is that Bell thinks of Asian/Eastern ways of thinking on these questions as particularist, where current contexts and situations in modern life are critiqued in terms of values and norms that spring from historical and cultural narratives inherent in that local world (in this case, say, the Analects, the Mencius, etc). Thus, in this way, my friend above (Sam) seems to be a “Bellian” at least in some instances, given that he frequently critiques the PRC by wielding narratives from the localized ancient culture.

    But I think that Bell can be a particularist and a liberal, though I suppose it depends what we mean by “liberal.” Appealing the past doesn’t seem to preclude change, or critique of current traditional mores or practices. In fact, my own way of reading Confucius is pretty strongly particularist, and I see a lot of liberal themes in the Analects to be drawn from and used.

    But I’m not sure if this addresses what you are concerned about.

  6. Alan, I really agree with Chris. It all depends on how you define universalist and I suspect you will find yourself
    in some trouble if you tried to really make the leap that Western Universalism (ie Plato’s Meno or Christian
    teleology)is somehow equivalent with Confucian universalism (which I agree with Chris that this latter is strongly
    dependent on context)

    You state it but do not argue it– so I look forward to hearing your arguments sometime…

  7. I am not surprised Yang was reported.

    Students throughout the world (East and West) are expected to be taught and given solutions to problems to pass exams with a good grade, and find a good job afterwards.

    It takes a lot more than three or four years at a university to become an intellectual. University is easy. After all people like Shakespeare, Mao, Deng and Bill Gates didn’t need university to make them intellectuals. What is an intellectual? A true intellectual is a person who understands challenges and can successfully create solutions to any problems he encounters, not some loud-mouth who makes criticisms of anything he encounters.

  8. @Porfiriy
    The original Chinese quote is this:

    The name given is 赫斯, which could be either Hess, Hirst, Hirsch or anything that sound similar. Names in Chinese and western languages don’t really translate, since Chinese uses ideograms and western languages are phonic.

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