China’s intellectual future

Epistemic confidence level: very low. I don’t really know what I’m talking about here, though I’m trying to know more.


In an essay published a few months ago, I looked for a way beyond what I call the Standard Critique of Technology, and suggested that one such way could be found in certain Daoist ideas about the human-built world. And I speculated that, as China grows in power and influence, and insofar as the Chinese technosphere draws upon elements of ancient intellectual traditions, there is at least the possibility that some of those ideas could make their way to the U.S. 

In light of all that, I read with great interest this essay in the LRB by Peter C. Perdue. The essay is essentially an overview of the work of a Chinese historian Ge Zhaoguang, with a particular emphasis on this new book. Ge is a passionate advocate for the Confucian intellectual tradition, and sees it not just as valuable in itself but also a kind of binding agent for Chinese culture, a project towards which Perdue is extremely skeptical. He thinks such a return to the past is necessarily Han-centric and therefore manifestly inadequate to the multicultural society that China has become. 

Yet Perdue sees the need for some kind of project of cultural and moral renewal — that is, he fully understands why Ge writes as he does. He notes that 

In 1895, China suffered a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Japanese and then came under assault from its own intellectuals, who were heavily influenced by the Western thought that had arrived with the conquerors. The result was an almost complete rejection of the Confucian tradition over the next ninety years. Ge ends his Intellectual History of China in 1895, the year in which Yan Fu, the famous translator of Darwinist thought, wrote of the extreme ‘nervous anxiety’ afflicting intellectuals of his time. Ge does not follow the story into the next two decades, when genuine faith in the classical tradition almost completely collapsed. As he writes, by 1895, the loss of territory, cultural confidence, unity and common historical identity had ‘undermined the integrity of the classical tradition’. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 and the collapse of the dynasty in 1911 sealed its fate. But China had faced foreign invasion and cultural challenges before without the collapse of the Confucian tradition. 

Other forces have rushed in to fill the gap created by the collapse of the Confucian system, Maoist Marxism above all — but not only that: “After Mao, Chinese endorsed cowboy capitalism of the most corrupt, environmentally destructive kind. Like all of us, they struggle to restrain capitalist greed with moral or legal norms; many of them, amazingly enough, have turned to Christianity for answers, but others search for guidance in Buddhism, Daoism, popular cults, and even Confucius.”

Perdue himself is appalled by “cowboy capitalism,” appalled by the rise of Christianity in China, appalled by Ge’s desire for a return to Classical Chinese thought. Indeed, he seems appalled by every option except China coming to embody the worldview of — well, of the LRB and its readers, I guess. “Is an alternative intellectual history of China possible? If so, it would not seek to define the unity of Chinese civilisation, but to celebrate its multiplicity. It would look to centrifugal forces, marginal figures and frontier contacts as sources of innovation, not threats to order. It would include women, non-Han peoples and non-elite traditions without trying to co-opt them into an orthodoxy.” (I’m not saying that these would be bad things, but it’s noteworthy that, while lamenting the influence in China of Western models of political economy, Perdue can only imagine a good future for China that’s based on a Western leftist cultural frame. As though the possibilities for China’s future involve choosing items from a buffet laid out by the West.) 

In my essay for The New Atlantis I invoked the fascinating work of Tongdong Bai — especially his Against Political Equality — and speculated that there might be some interest within the CCP in renewing Confucianism or other elements of the classical tradition. Perdue thinks this is happening, at least on the level of public declaration: “The Chinese state now invokes the once despised Confucius as the bedrock of native values.” But Tongdong Bai isn’t so sure, as he explained in an email to me that he has graciously given me permission to quote from: 

I don’t think CCP is that friendly to Confucianism…. My interest in Confucian political philosophy is not directly related to the mainland Chinese government and policies. Although my dear friend Daniel Bell sometimes links his proposal to the present Chinese regime, I am fundamentally different from him in this regard. What I am proposing is normative, and I don’t think the contemporary Chinese regime offers any real-world exemplification of my proposals. 

So what do I — again, a novice, if a fascinated one — make of all this?  A few things: 

  • There is a kind of crisis of confidence among China’s intellectual elite, a sense that the power of their state is growing faster than the moral order of their culture; 
  • For many, capitalism (whether of the cowboy variety or any other) is inadequate to providing the necessary moral order; 
  • For those many, certain religious traditions — whether the embodied-in-religious-practice forms of the Three Ways (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism) or Christianity — offer themselves as alternatives; 
  • None of these alternatives is yet strong enough to displace or even really to affect the juggernaut of CCP capitalism; 
  • The hopes I articulate in my essay for a renewal of Daoism seem unlikely, in part because, as both Ge and Perdue explain, Daoism has been largely incorporated into Confucianism, or redefined by Confucianism; 
  • Christianity might therefore be a better hope for providing a moral order for Chinese culture; 
  • But Christianity, though I believe it to be true, has never developed the kind of coherent critique of technocracy that Daoism has long embodied; 
  • So if that new moral center emerges, it’s unlikely to offer significant resistance to the increasingly technocratic character of the Chinese regime and therefore the Chinese nation.