15 July 2015

Simple and crude? You don’t say…

The argument that the Chinese Communist Party is not Confucian is, at least intellectually, not a particularly contentious one. So why Yu Yingshi is posturing so much over it now is somewhat beyond me. Honestly, I have no idea how many mainland Confucians the Chinese government has hoodwinked into thinking that it is on their side, but some very prominent voices - by no means all of them on the liberal side of the argument - have yet, let us say, to be convinced. Jiang Qing, for one, has been very clear in A Confucian Constitutional Order that he considers the CCP to be at the forefront of the world’s most modern state, and coming from him, that is not a compliment. And believe me, the CCP got the message loud and clear. It is highly unclear what ‘political benefits’ Jiang Qing has reaped from taking such a stand, as his book was officially banned at time of publication on the mainland, and most liberals subject his work to obscene levels of ridicule.

So no, the CCP is not Confucian. But that is pretty much where my agreement with Yu Yingshi ends. His rubbishing of ‘institutional Confucianism’ and furthermore calling it the ‘Confucianists who oppressed others’ is both inane and historically-illiterate, utterly unworthy of such a respected historian. Arguments can probably be made for Xunzi being the first ‘institutional Confucian’, but from what I can tell, a scholarly consensus holds that the first unabashed promoter of ‘institutional Confucianism’ was in fact Dong Zhongshu, and using the radical Gongyang commentary 公羊傳 on the Chunqiu 春秋 for support, he took very bold and indeed career-detrimental stands (as Michael Loewe makes clear in his somewhat contrarian and revisionist, but in many aspects well-researched history text on the man) against the Western Han leadership against nepotism, against oppressive tax policies, against massive wealth gaps, against war with the Xiongnu and for land redistribution that would benefit China’s poorest. Advocating for the oppressed very often means looking at institutions, respecting institutions and their power, and trying to reform them.

The real howler, though, is when Yu Yingshi tries to rope Kang Youwei in as an ideological support for his position. It’s true that Kang Youwei was a huge admirer of the West, as indeed were many Qing scholars of that time, and also a democrat of sorts. But he was also very much an ‘institutional Confucian’ who wanted Confucianism to become a state religion comparable to the Church of England in Great Britain, and who wanted to retain the Qing monarchy in perpetuity. In reality, Kang Youwei was hardly the staunch advocate of Western universal values Yu Yingshi wants to make him out to be, and indeed, Kang’s thought is taken as a great inspiration for some of the left-traditionalist mainland Confucians (like Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing) whose work Yu Yingshi is denigrating here. Yu Yingshi’s citation of Hu Shi as a ‘critical Confucian’ is another low point. Hu Shi was, in fact, not any kind of Confucian at all either in his beliefs or his practices; he was, in fact, a Pragmatist and a student of John Dewey, who was responsible for propagandising his professor’s thought to Chinese audiences, who welcomed it readily. And, as I have argued before, if you really want to look at the ideological underpinnings of the modern-day post-Deng Xiaoping CCP, John Dewey and William James, rather than Lenin and Mao, are actually at the centre, though of course their work has been taken well out of its native representative-republican context and interpreted in a more authoritarian way.

As can be seen here, the questions for mainland Confucianism are actually not the ‘simple, crude issues’ Yu Yingshi wants to make them. The tragedy of Confucianism in the mainland now, is that on the one hand it has become an ideological prop for those in power who do not respect it, and on the other it is once again becoming a scapegoat for China’s ills, the way it was in 1911. The trust Confucian philosophy has traditionally placed in the scholarly elites, and the sympathy and support it traditionally offered to the impoverished peasantry, place those who take it seriously in an awkward position in modern intellectual debates. At the same time, though, it has a vast wealth of intellectual resources to offer, to development critics, to agrarians, to socially-minded reformers on the Chinese New Left, and to critics of globalism more generally - a wealth of resources that is being quickly hushed up and buried by liberal scholars who desperately crave the kind of court favour (in the West!) that Yu accuses mainland new Confucians of seeking in China. However, Yu’s use of such language to describe Confucianism’s modern dilemma, and China’s intellectual landscape more generally, is both disappointing and telling. ‘Simple’ and ‘crude’ perfectly describes so much of modern Chinese right-liberalism of the sort Yu Yingshi champions, with its kneejerk support for the imperial Anglo-American West’s every heinous blunder in its quest to remake the world in its own image.

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