It is one of those strange little nagging historical questions that I’ve never gotten a straight answer to, and probably never will – but it is a question which continues to compromise my ability to take the ‘Confucian liberals’ seriously. It is a question which continues to rise to mind whenever I hear ‘Confucian liberals’ criticise the small present-day group of Confucian classicists, traditionalists and communitarians on the mainland for being, in their estimation, ‘authoritarians’. It is a question which rises to mind again and again when I read the work of Joseph Chan in particular, but it’s a question that shoots at an intellectual lacuna which describes a broad swathe of Taiwanese, Hongkonger and overseas Chinese liberals who inquisitorially decry any whiff of what they see as a betrayal of democratic values, without examining closely their own intellectual history and that of their forebears.
By ‘Confucian liberals’ I mean that body of white émigrés and overseas Chinese intellectuals which followed in the footsteps particularly of Xiong Shili and Hu Shi – a body which includes Mou Zongsan, Xu Fuguan, Zhang Junmai and Tang Junyi – which first acquiesced to most of the cultural drift of May Fourth, and afterwards collaborated to a high degree with the Nationalist government in Taiwan under Jiang Jieshi, far beyond any specific call to gratitude. And that very action goes straight to the heart of the question. These thinkers were very quick to adapt concepts which were then popular in German idealist philosophy. And I’m sure that they felt that in doing so, they were adapting Confucianism to something more amenable to the values of the West. But what they ended up doing in practice was legitimating a Nationalist dictatorship which could be every bit as brutal, albeit on a smaller scale, as the Communist government they had fled. The Nationalists flooded and starved their own people during the Second World War (particularly at Huayuankou), a policy which, arguably unlike the Great Leap Forward, was done in full consciousness and forethought of the human consequences – the millions who would be drowned, displaced or starved. And subsequently they massacred over twenty thousand protesters in Taiwan in the 28 February incident. It does not speak well, to say the least, of the ‘Confucian liberals’ of the New Confucian movement, that among their number only Zhang Junmai demurred from support of Jiang Jieshi on account of his heavy-handed brutalism, and parted ways with his associates for a career in the United States.
I don’t want to downplay in the slightest the valuable intellectual heavy lifting this group of scholars did. It is largely on account of their work that Confucianism has any recognisable presence at all in the modern world. But it seems to be far from a personal failing on the part of each member of this group of New Confucians that all but one of them openly and materially supported, legitimated and sought the patronage of Jiang Jieshi’s brutal, bloody and blatantly un-Confucian dictatorship – and further that they subsequently had the gall to claim their thought as ‘democratic’ and to take a stand on the ‘new outer kingliness’ of Western liberalism. The circumstances of modern Taiwan, a developed and democratic polity, might in some measure justify their choice in retrospect, but they could have had no knowledge of such an outcome at the time, and at any rate it is not a Confucian attitude to take that the ends justify the means. If Confucianism is virtue-ethical, we cannot fail to ask these questions; after all, wisdom (zhi 智) and sincerity (xin 信) are two of the cardinal Confucian virtues.
And let us be fully honest when we are comparing them with thinkers who were doing work in similar directions – in much more straitened intellectual circumstances – on the mainland, always at the risk of their livelihoods and very often of their lives. I am speaking specifically of China’s first and greatest sociologist, Fei Xiaotong. The situations of Fei Xiaotong and the New Confucians are in fact quite comparable. Like them, Fei received a Western education – and like them, he thought it indispensable and even necessary to learn from certain forms of Western thought. But very much unlike them, Fei’s knowledge of (and sympathy for) the Confucian corpus was not acquired through a classical education, but rather through his encounter with the sediments of that corpus that were still alive in the rural culture. Fei does not quote from classical scholars at length in From the Soil, but his understanding of Confucian practical ethics, mindset and worldview (though expressed in the language of Western sociology) are still every bit as deep as those of Mou and Tang and Xu.
But here’s the kicker. Fei had been a member of the Democratic League and eventually became a ‘reluctant Communist’. Ideologically he was much closer to being a distributist or even something like a Chinese narodnik. To the end of his career, he insisted that it was the job of the intellectuals to understand and inhabit the mindset and practices of the common people, without presumption and without condescension. And in an instructive counterpoint to the New Confucians’ cosy relationship with the Jiang government, he didn’t seek Mao’s patronage but instead stood fast in defence of his sociological discipline and of the ‘Confucian’ rural culture. His books were banned in the Cultural Revolution. He was branded as a ‘rightist deviationist’ for his advocacy during the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, stripped of his professorship, physically assaulted by the Red Guards and assigned the most demeaning janitorial labour. He weathered the inhuman upheavals of the Cultural Revolution with as much integrity as he was able to under the circumstances, and went on after Mao’s death to advocate both for a ‘people’s sociology’ and for the peasantry.
In truth, even though Fei Xiaotong was not a classicist and never would have described himself as a Confucian, he ultimately made a much better Confucian gentleman, a much better junzi 君子, than the modernising intellectuals who fled to Taiwan in Jiang Jieshi’s shadow. His instincts were populist and pro-peasant in the best sense meant, possibly in the tradition of Ban Gu – he was always eager to allow rural people to express themselves on their own terms. Yet my suspicion is that the liberal thinkers who follow the New Confucians would nowadays seek to brand Fei an ‘institutionalist’ or an ‘authoritarian’ and cast him posthumously as a ‘leftist deviationist’ into a cultural-revolutionary outer darkness of their own making, for his empirical observance of the differential mode of association and his implicit disavowal of the idea of individual moral autonomy as a necessary component of Chinese society or ethical thought.
And, as I have noted before, he would in this respect join a number of venerable Confucian gentlemen – radicals, reformists and advocates for the poor and downtrodden – who are written off by the right-wing neoliberal intellectual elites of China’s modernity as ‘institutionalists’ and ‘authoritarians’: a number which includes Dong Zhongshu, He Xiu and Kang Youwei.