19 September 2017

Gong Zizhen, revolutionary conservative

Gong Zizhen 龚自珍

So, I’m reading Dorothy Borei’s 1977 thesis on Gong Zizhen, and the picture that is emerging of the man from her writing is, to say the least, a fascinating one.

Gong Zizhen was a minor official hailing from Hangzhou in Zhejiang during the Qing Dynasty who has gained as a reputation as an ‘eccentric’ dissenter. Even though he practised Tiantai Buddhism and highly esteemed the zhuzi baijia 诸子百家 of the Zhou Dynasty (including Zhuangzi, Gaozi and Mozi), he was nevertheless a Confucian to the bone in his moral outlook. He was a powerful prose writer and poet, having gotten a sincere and deep love of poetry from his mother. But he was consistently frustrated in his official career, never attaining high office and lamenting bitterly that he could not do his duty to his country. All the same, his ideas would have a profound influence on the later Qing reformer Kang Youwei.

He used even what small position he had to lambaste the court practices and social norms of his day. He lived at a time when the power of the Emperor ran practically unchecked, when powerful officials lived comfortable lives and lesser officials resorted to bribery and kickbacks to sustain the lifestyle they were accustomed to, all at the expense of the poor. It was also a time when officials who wanted to reform what they saw as intractable problems could not voice opinions for fear of their reputations and careers. Gong Zizhen saw all this, and attacked not only his peers for their slavishness and moral cowardice, but also the institutional structures that prevented them from living honestly. He wanted the Emperor to reinstitute the official right of remonstrance among the scholars, to show more clemency in punishments, to allow greater freedom of thought, to devolve power to the regional level, to compensate minor and local officials better, and to reform the civil service examinations so that they better reflected the abilities of aspiring officials. He also sought a confiscatory redistribution of land from the rich to the poor and an end to socially-demeaning practices like foot-binding and opium-smoking. Uncommonly for his time (but not entirely unknown amongst Confucians generally), Gong Zizhen had a high estimation of the intellectual capacities of women, and advocated for women’s education. This is likely due to his mother’s influence, who herself was a connoisseur of poetry and instilled in her son a love for the art. It’s also worthy of note that he was very close friends with Commissioner Lin Zexu and Wei Yuan, a fellow New Text scholar who attacked the opium trade and Western imperialism.

Gong Zizhen was no mere contrarian, though – eclectic and unconventional though his interests were. He grounded all of his critiques in a deeply-traditional, even antiquarian, Confucian language. Gong clearly didn’t believe in harsh and punitive measures even in the case of shameless and corrupt bureaucrats. Instead, he believed strongly that the Emperor must rule by enlightened example and by wuwei 无为, and that the officials in turn must comport themselves with humaneness, restraint and zeal for the common good. Once the right relationships between king and vassal were rectified, and once the qi 气 (‘morale’ or, more literally, ‘atmosphere’) of the existing order was restored, the other reforms he desired would flow naturally. In particular, he used his knowledge of the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn, which he had gained from his New Text teacher Liu Fenglu, to legitimate his ideas for legal and institutional reform.

Gong Zizhen had something of a utopian vision, but it was grounded in the distant past, in the Zhou. Politically, he sought not the overthrow or the resistance, but the revitalisation of the Qing. But the revitalised Qing he wanted, was one in which even the poorest families could be self-sufficient, in which the country was free from opium addiction, in which officials were incentivised against being corrupt or brutal, and in which women had some rôle to play in the intellectual life of the country. Even though it’s something of an anachronism even in Gong’s day, it may be fair to characterise him as a ‘revolutionary conservative’.

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