20 June 2018

Despatches from the Xinzuopai in Monthly Review

Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍

I don’t think I’ve gushed on this blog yet about how awesome Dr Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍 is. Allow me to do so now. Wen Tiejun, a contemporary and friend of Wang Hui 汪暉 and Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元 and a key voice on the Chinese New Left (or xinzuopai 新左派), has made his name primarily as an activist attempting resuscitate the Rural Reconstruction Movement. A native of Hebei Province, he grew up in a poor farming family and worked as a trucker to support himself before becoming a social worker. His early life experiences and education convinced him of the need to strengthen rural communities, build a coöperative œconomy from the grassroots in the interests of the farmers, and establish food security through œcologically-sustainable methods. He was a vocal and ardent critic of the 1990’s pro-globalisation and neoliberal ‘reforms’ under Jiang Zemin 江澤民, and was dismissed from his teaching position as a result – and only reinstated with the growing realisation under Hu Jintao 胡錦濤 that a more balanced approach to rural development was needed.

Crucial to his thinking were the ‘three rural problems’ (sannong wenti 三農問題), namely: those facing rural agriculture, rural villages and rural persons. He was a critical advocate of Mao Zedong 毛澤東 and held that Mao’s policies, though necessary to retain independence from the capitalist world system, had left rural areas underdeveloped and culturally-weak. Wen’s work has been aimed primarily at achieving sustainable agricultural practices, the independence of rural villages and the collective self-respect and advocacy of China’s rural people; for this he and his students – many of them transplants to the mainland from Hong Kong – have looked to alternative models. Sustainable agriculture in India has been one of these: they’ve drawn inspiration from Gandhi and from the political-educational projects of Kerala Province.

In any event, Wen Tiejun’s (relatively-)recent English-language articles on the Monthly Review, co-authored with his colleagues Dr Lau Kin Chi 劉健芝, Dr Margaret Jade Sit Tsui 薛翠 and Dr Erebus Wong 黃鈺書 are all golden and all worth reading in detail. Here is a list:
I’m not going to bore you, gentle readers, with what is sure to be a brief, overly-simplistic and boring synopsis of these four essays. Suffice it to say here that they draw upon a number of interesting sources. Old-school Marxists Immanuel Wallerstein and Samîr Amîn figure very prominently in their understanding of the global scope of the problems facing China’s farmers. But – as indicated above – they do not draw upon solely Marxist sources. The very name of the Rural Reconstruction Movement (a name not all of these scholars accept) is meant to recall the work of the rural reformers during the Republican era. And in contradistinction to the colonial semi-peripheries of Hong Kong and Shanghai, they view the ‘indigenous’ culture of the Chinese inland, of the ‘99%’, as a valuable deposit of knowledge and culture rather than as a blank canvas upon which ‘modernisation’ and ‘industrialisation’ can be painted.

Dr Wen Tiejun himself has invoked the names of Jimmy Yen 晏陽初 and Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 – the ‘progressive intellectuals of the 1920s and ‘30s’ mentioned in his first Monthly Review article – in his establishment of rural advocacy groups, credit unions and educational organisations. His students have also done so in their own work. Jimmy Yen did not claim any denominational affiliation for himself, but in terms of his education, he belonged to that great broad stream of Social Gospel Anglicanism which sustained Richard Tawney, who met with Dr Yen and admired his work on his trip to China. Dr Yen was not deterred from his Christianity even by the ill-treatment he received in Hong Kong at the hands of bigoted white-supremacist Englishmen. Indeed, as head of the Chinese YMCA he spoke of being a follower of Christ. His intellectual formation and friendships with Methodist and Anglican rectors and volunteers including William Aldis, James Stewart and Fletcher Brockman deeply informed his rural activism and belief in mass education. William Aldis in particular was a deep influence on Dr Yen – he was no overbearing proselytiser, and did not preach to the boys under his care, but instead took care to witness to the Gospel by leading a gentle and unobtrusive life.

Liang Shuming, on the other hand, was a Buddhist by religious conviction and a Confucian by philosophical ones; and he combined a deeply conservative – even reactionary – social outlook with certain radical populist demands on the social organisation of rural life. Though he never quite saw eye-to-eye with Mao Zedong (with whom he was intimately related at several points in his career; sometimes in a friendly way and sometimes far less so), he shared with Mao a conviction that China needed a culturally-specific socialist revolution from the rural grassroots in order to stand on its own feet. Unlike Mao, Liang felt this revolution needed to be peaceful and needed to draw from ‘traditional’ sources – in particular the philosophy and group-oriented pædagogical methods of Wang Yangming 王陽明.

Wang Yangming was also a significant influence on the third of the great rural reformers of the Republican Era, Tao Xingzhi 陶行知, who actually took his name from Wang’s works. Tao Xingzhi bridged the Confucian and the Christian worlds; like Dr Yen he was educated at a Christian missionary school. He ended up joining, along with Yen and Liang, the democratic-socialist China Democratic League (Zhongguo Minzhu Tongmeng 中國民主同盟) and, like Liang in particular, Tao was more sympathetic to the Communists than he was to the Nationalists. He sheltered CCP cadres from the Nationalist secret police. He was outraged at the political assassinations of Li Gongpu 李公樸 and Wen Yiduo 聞一多 and declared himself ready to take the ‘third bullet’. Tao dedicated his life to educational reforms, and even though (like Dr Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, his comrade in the CDL) he was proscribed by the Cultural Revolutionaries as a ‘rightist’, he has since been rehabilitated in the ‘official’ histories as a key player in Chinese modernity.

As witnessed in these essays and elsewhere, the advocates of rural regeneration are synthesising and integrating insights borrowed from a wide spectrum of thought. Indeed, the Hongkonger members of ARENA have directed the students of Dr Wen toward Gandhian thought and the left-democratic politics of Kerala in India. The philosophical ‘concentration’ of Dr Wen is specifically political, of course, and it leads in an unmistakeably populist, that is to say narodniy, direction – Dr Jade Sit Tsui works in Chongqing, after all.

But Chinese thought in general needs, and naturally gravitates to, precisely such ‘concentrations’ as those heralded by Liang Shuming and Jimmy Yen. The work of digging up the ‘indigenous’ wisdom of the Chinese inland must be continued and deepened, and not limited merely to the political-philosophical sphere. The work of Dr Shen Jiming 申紀明 (or Gi-ming Shien), a traditional Chinese philosopher who introduced the deep and subtle thought of Laozi 老子 to a certain Fr Seraphim (Rose), inspired precisely such a concentration. Fr Seraphim, and later Hieromonk Damascene, would come to see Laozi as a prophet of the Way, whose Incarnation in the person of Christ he had not yet seen.


  1. Thanks for sharing these. So far I've read the OBOR article and noticed the authors refer to China as "state capitalist". Outside of the PRC this isn't a very controversial assessment but how common is it for intellectuals in the PRC to recognize it?

  2. Really impressive post. I read it whole and going to share it with my social circules. I enjoyed your article and planning to rewrite it on my own blog.
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  3. Hi Joseph! Thank you for the comment, and welcome to the blog!

    It's worth keeping in mind that Wen Tiejun is a mainland scholar and that most of his HK students now work on the mainland; that said, I think you may be right that most mainlanders wouldn't refer to the PRC openly as 'state capitalist', even if there is a consensus awareness that the PRC hasn't been MLM-led for the last thirty years or so.