14 December 2017

I owe Xu Fuguan an apology

Xu Fuguan 徐復觀

I’ve let it be known before that I’m slightly hostile to that group of scholars known as the New Confucians – the ones who promoted Confucian doctrines in the wake of the Republican revolution. A significant part of my distaste comes from the political fact that many of them were intimately tied to Jiang Jieshi’s Guomindang government, which was both corrupt and every bit as thuggish and dictatorial as the Communists. But, according to some of the reading I’ve been doing recently, the reality is far more complicated than that – and Chinese history during the Republican-warlordist era, the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War was a remarkably messy time.

Xu Fuguan, for example, was highly sympathetic to socialism and approved many aspects of the CCP’s programme; however, he used these insights to provide Jiang Jieshi with intelligence on the CCP in the hope that the Guomindang could be reformed from within. Upon seeing that this hope had been misguided, it became a matter of deep and intense shame for him after his exile to Taiwan in 1949, and caused him to spend the rest of his career railing – with good cause – against KMT corruption, cronyism, looting and the cult of personality around Jiang; against the moral cowardice of China’s intelligentsia and its liberal élite (Hu Shi in particular); against the CCP’s abandonment of humaneness; and against American imperialism and support for anti-communist dictatorships in Asia. His socialist- and collectivist-leaning ‘democratic Confucian’ critique of the political situation actually sounds very much like Zhang Junmai’s (or my own, for that matter), and I was quite wrong to criticise him as I did. The fact that Xu Fuguan had precious little use for postmodern ‘art’ is equally endearing to me, I must admit.

Xu Fuguan’s later critique of the CCP (that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution essentially continued all the bad points of the feudalism of the ‘old society’ while continuing none of its good points) is also something I can get on board with, though I’m not entirely sanguine about where and how he casts the blame. His distaste for rural peasant leaders and their methods is understandable, but it doesn’t fit well with his general sympathy for the poor; it also doesn’t really accord with fact. The greatest damage done during the Cultural Revolution was in the big cities and in the old centres of culture, where the Red Guards attacked anything that smacked of the ‘Four Olds’. The rural effects of the Cultural Revolution, though by no means absent or harmless, were far more attenuated and less dramatic.

In short – Xu Fuguan was a far more complex and, to my mind now, more sympathetic character than I had originally thought. I was deeply unfair to him before, and I apologise for that. His thought parallels that of Zhang Junmai. He didn’t cling to the lies of the Guomindang once he saw them for what they truly were, and I respect that deeply – nor was his early support for the CCP something that blinkered him either. I still think that the apolitical quietism of his colleagues and their tacit support for the Guomindang’s policies both on the mainland and on Taiwan is something reprehensible, but I’m now much more aware of the difficulties and complexities of the time.

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