24 December 2017

The Confucian populism of Liang Shuming

Liang Shuming 梁漱溟

I’m currently reading Guy Alitto’s biography of the New Confucian thinker and activist Liang Shuming, whose intellectual-political-literary career is of deep interest to me for a great number of reasons. Even though he marked himself as a Chinese cultural conservative (similar to Gu Hongming, whom Alitto mentions a couple of times in comparison) who believed Western political institutions and intellectual traditions to be nearly wholly incompatible with the humane trajectory of Chinese civilisation, he nonetheless positioned himself politically as a socialist, as a mover-and-shaker of the Rural Reconstruction Movement championed by leftists such as the Christian Jimmy Yen and the Deweyist Tao Xingzhi, and as a leading voice within the China Democratic League (which would be the political vehicle for others, like Carsun Chang and Fei Xiaotong, who sought a left-alternative to both the Guomindang and the CCP). One of the points of interest in the narrative, is how many of the reforms Liang championed were themselves similar to later Communist educational and land-reform initiatives – at least externally. Inwardly, the meaning of Liang’s Confucian-collectivist reforms was entirely different; he had no desire to stir up conflict, exaggerate contradictions or tear up age-old familial relations. But it remained a form of collectivism: Liang’s recovery of the Song-Ming teacher-student discipline of jiangxue; his insistence on the rich students subsidising the educations of the poor; his disdain for the bourgeoisie (particularly those of Shanghai and other coastal cities); his repeated squabbles with Hu Shi – all told of an extreme distaste for Western liberalism. The surface resemblances of Liang’s reforms to those of Mao Zedong later are not accidental.

Alitto likens Liang repeatedly to the Slavophils and to the conservative voices within the Russian Empire a generation or two previously – people like Dostoevsky and Pobedonostsev – in part because, like them, Liang’s political commitments are difficult to express in Western terms. Liang’s Eastern and Western Cultures appealed with a notable regularity to the lower levels of the intelligentsia – the schoolteachers and the county clerks – who had not yet been subject to embourgeoisement and who were tied to the Chinese interior. (Liang’s family hailed from Guangxi – a region that still has a strong ‘red’-traditionalist streak!)

Alitto mentions that he comes by many of these tendencies honestly. Liang Shuming’s father Juchuan started off a follower of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao – a ‘radical’ New Text reformist who had little patience with the intransigent elements of the conservative Qing court. Yet, frustrated as Liang Juchuan was with the old guard and their political impotence and growing irrelevance, he viewed the rising revolutionary class with a sense of profound alarm and revulsion. Taking notice of the Chinese revolutionaries’ open greed, their wanton disregard for tradition, their shameless corruption and political opportunism, and their amoral disregard for the poor and vulnerable, Liang Juchuan tried expressing his political disgruntlement through opera (as Kong Shangren had done before him) before ultimately taking his own life after the mode of Qu Yuan. The irony of Liang Juchuan’s life was the same as Kang Youwei’s. Although he had never been much of an advocate of the Qing, and indeed had championed many of the sea changes in Chinese culture that had come to pass, he found himself a martyr for the royalist cause. (Though even this characterisation was something of a misunderstanding! It was not for Puyi that Liang Juchuan had committed suicide, but instead for a deeper ethic he felt had been lost with the demise of the Qing.)

In the background of this political drama was a family one, one which Alitto takes great pains to highlight. Liang Shuming, Liang Juchuan’s favourite son, had started off a convinced utilitarian and advocate of everything Western, and grew increasingly enamoured of revolution just as his father was growing increasingly disgusted by the very idea. Liang Shuming had already undergone a deep psychological crisis in his adolescence that led to his jettisoning his atheistic utilitarianism in favour of Buddhism; his father’s death had an additional impact on young Shuming, and shaped his later intellectual life in deep and subtle ways. Certainly Shuming’s adoption of a Confucian-inflected conservative radicalism was owing in no small part to his father’s influence.

Unlike his father, though, Liang Shuming himself had little patience or love for the ‘religious stink’ (as he called it) of Kang Youwei’s projects, or for the New Text school in general. (More’s the pity. The two complement each other nicely, as I hope to demonstrate in a future blog post.) Instead he appealed back to the Ming radical-idealist Wang Yangming, whose idea of the ‘unity of knowledge and action’ (zhixing heyi 知行合一) provided inspiration for Liang Shuming’s social activism. Liang developed an intricate (and in some instances frustratingly vague) philosophy of culture and civilisation, which divided humanity broadly into Western, Chinese and Indian civilisations. The defining characteristic of the West was its voluntarism: its need to project the will (broadly stated) into an all-encompassing conquest of nature. The defining characteristic of Indian civilisation was its renunciation of will, its inversion of desire: the impulse of Indian civilisation was to reject desire and to show it as illusory. Chinese civilisation, Liang placed in a happy intellectual mean: that of harmony and balance between will and nature. Only the Chinese sages of ancient times, Liang postulated, had discovered a way to be truly human, taming the will with the demands of lixing 理性.

Liang thus differentiated himself solidly from both the liberals and the communists, both of whom advocated for a wholesale Westernisation of China. He also differentiated himself from the ‘blenders’, foremost among whom was Liang Qichao: he couldn’t see any good resulting from a ‘blending of cultures’ (though many of his own proposals came, as Alitto notes, remarkably close to this position themselves). And lastly he differentiated himself from China’s cultural conservatives – he understood that China couldn’t simply take refuge in the dead, empty husks of Qing cultural output, and required some form of adaptation to modern exigencies.

From their bases in Zouping and Dingxian, Liang Shuming, Jimmy Yen and Tao Xingzhi began setting up rural education circuits specialising in basic literacy, civics and practical education. In addition to these, they attempted to set up bottom-up socialist coöperatives: consumer coöps; marketing coöps in food, silk, cotton and basic manufactures; and credit coöps meant to break the clutches of local loan sharks (gaolidai 高利貸). They also set up self-defence militias meant to protect villages from banditry, violent landlords and local bullies (tuhao lieshen 土豪劣紳), but the militias also went after vagrants, swindlers, pimps and other exploiters of the poor. There were real results from the rural reconstruction experiments in Shandong, but sadly the rural reconstruction efforts of Liang, Yen and Tao were cut short by the Japanese invasion.

Liang Shuming was also active in building up the China Democratic League as a ‘third force’ in Chinese politics against both the Guomindang and the Communists. Ironically, in fact, because Liang had little faith in democracy – he thought the question of constitutionalism was a non-sequitur, and also felt it was unsuitable to China’s condition. Liang thought a one-party dictatorship would be more effective and better able to bring the change China’s peasantry needed: just not the one-party dictatorship of the Guomindang. Similarly to Carsun Chang and Fei Xiaotong, Liang understood early on that the Guomindang were little more than amoral thugs, bullies and gangsters – quick to embrace violence and Legalist solutions where a lighter hand was, in fact, needed. Liang’s fruitless struggles to advocate for the peasantry to the Guomindang, and to reform the conscription system in a fairer direction, embittered him permanently against Jiang Jieshi’s government. His experiences in north China during the war against the Japanese, with Guomindang deploying secret police and assassination to undermine a united front, further alienated him from the Guomindang and shifted his thinking in favour of the Communists.

His criticisms of the Communists were more specific, but no less trenchant. He apparently felt that in a number of ways, the Communists were better than the Guomindang: they went directly to the peasantry and worked to improve their conditions in real, measurable ways. The problem with the Communists was that they embraced class struggle and the heightening of contradictions among the peasantry even where such means were not appropriate. Rural China, Liang understood, was not amenable to the logic of class struggle or violence; often, it was impossible to distinguish the ‘propertied’ peasants from the poor ones, precisely because what mattered for peasant welfare was the network of family relationships that they could draw on in times of difficulty. Alitto stresses that the Confucian Liang Shuming and the Marxist Mao Zedong were often quite similar in their outlook, and understood each other better than their liberal and Guomindang critics understood either. Liang could come off as more ‘leftist’ than Mao precisely where his cultural conservatism demarcated him from the latter. As I said before about Fei Xiaotong, Liang’s Confucian anthropology was more thoroughly collectivist than Mao’s; even though he embraced socialism (of a localist, guild-friendly form), Liang understood that China’s peasant œconomy was far more complex than individual exploiters and individual exploited, and was more sensitive at first to the grim ‘on-the-ground’ realities of Chinese peasant life than the Communists were.

Alongside Jimmy Yen and Huang Yanpei, Liang Shuming founded a series of political associations meant to provide a ‘third force’, an explicitly-socialist and explicitly-democratic counterweight to both the Guomindang and the Communists. The first, the Association of Comrades for National Unity and Construction (Tongyi Jianguo Tongzhihui 統一建國同志會) was founded as a ‘non-partisan’ mediating organisation which later reorganised as a formal party, the League of Democratic Political Groups (Zhongguo Minzhu Zhengtuan Datongmeng 中國民主政團大同盟), later the China Democratic League (Zhongguo Minzhu Tongmeng 中國民主同盟, or Minmeng 民盟) – a ragtag group of rural reconstruction workers, schoolteachers, skilled labourers, youth counsellors and various other small parties and working groups. Though he was no fan of democracy or of constitutionalism – thinking the former a foreign import and the latter a distraction from more important cultural work – Liang wound up ironically promoting both. His political programme in 1941 called for China’s political sovereignty; for relentless, total warfare against the Japanese; for an end to one-party rule; for protections of freedom of speech; and for a sustained and thorough anti-corruption campaign. The Guomindang was hostile to the new political group from the beginning, and unsurprisingly the vast bulk of the new party leaned toward the Communists – particularly after the political assassinations of the CDL-affiliated activist and teacher Li Gongpu and poet Wen Yiduo in 1946. Liang Shuming investigated their deaths himself and personally condemned the Guomindang for the murders, but did not follow the rest of the CDL into the waiting embrace of the Communists.

Liang Shuming chose retirement instead, though the Communists wouldn’t let him enjoy that retirement. Perhaps he was too close to their position for comfort, or perhaps they feared the legacy of the rural reconstructionists as rivals to their plans. But despite Liang’s carefully-worded self-criticisms, he refused to renounce his previous theories on Chinese civilisation, his commitments to Confucianism or Wang Yangming’s thought. He quickly became a target of political witch-hunts. He had all along been denounced by the Guomindang as a ‘dupe’ of the Communists, and by the liberals as a fusty old rustic. But in the 1950’s he was to be denounced by Mao himself as a reactionary. Alitto explains this psychologically. Mao’s insane, vicious and spittle-flecked denunciations of a harmless old man were all the more vehement because they had touched a raw nerve: Liang with his Confucian theorising had touched on precisely the point where Maoism diverged from Marxist-Leninist ‘orthodoxy’ and the Soviet model. The loudness of the Communists’ denunciations betrayed precisely how much they themselves had borrowed from Liang’s rural reconstruction models.

Interestingly, the only public intellectual who refused to condemn Liang – whether from the ‘left’ (as Mao did) or from the ‘right’ (as Hu Shi, the Guomindang’s CC clique and even the other New Confucians did) was the grandee of New Confucianism himself, Xiong Shili. Even thus isolated, when the Criticise Confucius and Lin Biao campaign came about and he was pressured by the authorities for a contribution, Liang openly defied the government, and adamantly refused to pen or say anything against Master Kong.

Alitto’s book is a fascinating look, not only into the intellectual depths and idiosyncrasies of China’s ‘Last Confucian’ himself, but into China’s intellectual climate during the tumultuous eras of warlordism, anti-Japanese struggle and civil war more broadly. As for Liang himself, Alitto’s treatment has given me nothing but respect, admiration and awe for a man – an intellectual hero – who clearly understood the precariousness of his own situation and still held fast to what he held to be true and right, even as everyone around him took to the easy and expedient answers. Liang himself, every bit as fervent in his critiques of capitalism and in his conviction of the necessity of socialism as his rival Mao, was nonetheless equally adamant that such a deep revolutionary transformation in Chinese culture as he sought could not be brought about through violence, least of all against the fabric of the extended family and the embedded collectivity of Chinese life at its roots.

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