16 May 2016

Confucianism and the left: partners of convenience?

I don’t know quite how or why it took me so long to pick up on this, but I recently read an article by Dr Zhang Taisu of Duke University on the growing alliance (and a more recent one here – unfortunately behind a paywall), as illustrated by the paper put out by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing in April last year, between China’s Confucian cultural conservatives and the advocates of the Chinese New Left – Gan Yang, Jiang Qing and Chen Ming in particular. It is a topic of very great interest to me, naturally, so I was interested to see Dr Zhang’s take on it. In short, the good professor makes a valiant attempt to gauge it neutrally and fairly, but at the end of the day it seems he is unwilling to acknowledge any basis other than a purely prudential one for the alliance. As he sees it, the ‘River Elegy’ school of liberal denunciation of traditional Chinese culture on the one hand, and the more subtle lip-service acquiescence of the neo-Confucians in the Chinese diaspora to Western political norms on the other, were what prompted the neoleftists and the mainland Confucians to begin listening to each other (as opposed to any substantive body of shared values).

There are a couple of historical points on which I find myself differing with Dr Zhang. The first is his narrow identification of the 4 May movement with the contemporary left (a stance which implicitly cedes to the CCP its claim to the whole legacy of the student movement of 1919). What this leaves out is that the father of Western-facing Chinese right-liberalism, Hu Shi, was also a major contributor to the 4 May movement, and that many modern right-liberals share a greater intellectual continuity with the aims of the 4 May movement than they do with anything prior.

The second is (and I do realise and defer to Dr Zhang’s expertise on the Qing economy) the idea that the Qing society itself had perfect continuity with Confucian notions of statecraft, or the implicit claim that Confucianism was univocal on matters of governance. There are indeed supports for the idea that Confucianism supported a limited state, particularly looking back as far as the Song Dynasty and thinkers like Sima Guang – but it seems a far cry from there to assume that the entirety of the Confucian stream even in early modernity could be characterised as supporters of ‘small government’ in the modern libertarian sense of the word. The go-to example on this question would be Kang Youwei. It’s important to realise, though, that he was not alone in his positions but rather represented a particularly radical evolution of the Changzhou school, which in turn has roots in the thought of Dong Zhongshu and He Xiu. This ‘leftist’ (if I may use the fanciful anachronism) Gongyang Zhuan school of Confucian thinking was hardly in ascendance in Qing times, but it has a valid continuity stretching through the late Qing back to the Han.

But overall these are minor nitpicks with two quite astute articles. Dr Zhang rightly notes the convergence of elements of the Chinese left with elements of Chinese traditionalism; however, I suspect that there is far more to this convergence than a simple alliance of convenience. Certainly, as a populist myself with a mix of left-wing and traditionalist views (and one with a particular love for and interest in the well-being of the rural China in which both views tend to have prominence), I can empathise with those Confucians and those neoleftists who are currently attempting to bring about an intellectual détente.

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