François Jullien and the Hazards of "Chinese" Reality

This week, the famous French sinologist François Jullien is in Taibei for a series of academic events (among others, he participates in a conference at National Central University, see It is no exaggeration to call Jullien the most famous sinologist in the West. His books have been enthusiastically received by the public, and he is probably the only living scholar writing on pre-modern Chinese thought who has made a visible impact on the field of philosophy – at least in France where philosophers like Alain Badiou and Jean-François Lyotard have endorsed his very particular view of what philosophy should be. But also, to some extent, in Germany where, in 2010, he has received the prestigious Hannah-Arendt price for political thinking.

His work, Jullien emphasizes, does not aim to be comparative philosophy: being highly critical of the European tradition of philosophy (of what Heidegger has called the “onto-theological” foundations of Western thinking), Jullien turns to pre-modern China in order to gain distance from the current (Western) mode of thought and to raise the disturbing question whether “we” (in the so called West) are not entrapped in one particular world view that is ultimately wrong/doomed to failure/far too removed from ordinary life. Although it is not easy to summarize Jullien’s philosophical stance in a few lines, I think it is not wrong to describe him as a thinker belonging to the “Heideggerian” school, influenced by the romantic desire to over-come capitalist liberal modernity, even to restore some sense of meaning in a meaningless world (maybe searching for the final Versöhnung between subject and object, nature and history, East and West that Hegel was unable to discover).

Little surprise, then, that Jullien scorns the contemporary social and political reality in Asia as a bad copy of American capitalism, as some kind of Wiedergänger of the West, as un-real and simply “not interesting”. What Jullien yearns for is the cultural difference per se, the original Kluft between Greece and China; consequently, he has never had much sympathy for intellectuals like Mou Zongsan who have tried to somehow “modernize” the Confucian tradition by integrating Western elements.

This is, of course, still a rather sketchy description of Jullien’s project. Personally, I have much sympathy for his general approach to Chinese philosophy, being less systematic, less analytical than most other scholars’ work, but rather aphoristic, romantic, even “nomadic”. But there is no doubt that his books easily lead readers to develop a too strong notion of cultural otherness, thereby glorifying a long-gone literati culture and, rather naturally, developping a certain contempt for the Chinese present. Of course, his project is thought to be critical and even zetetic in a very general, even “Foucauldian” sense; but his basic Heideggerian stance (in continuation of the Kantian transcendental question) makes it that the ultimate goal of his books is not to get involved in contemporary Chinese reality, but to understand better the European heritage or re-discover European subjectivity or describe some sense of future meaningfulness that “we”, qua European citizens, can share and develop in our own lives (this hope becomes clear, I would argue, in his more recent book on the Zhuangzi 莊子, “Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness”, Zone Books 2007). However, all this, or at least this is what I would claim, means that there is one important blind spot in Jullien’s thought: he does not want to or is, due to some deeper features of his basic stance, unable to address social/political/economical reality as it presents itself today in the Chinese-speaking world. This also, I fear, puts him in a rather weak position to think through the on-going struggles in the Chinese world and probably also the future of a new, democratic China (Fabian Heubel, at the conference at National Central University already mentioned, has made a very similar point against Jullien).

What is reality? What is the reality of being modern? What is it to think in a contemporary fashion? These are of course very complicate questions, as anyone knows who has ever read Hegel. As I understand Jean François Billeter’s criticism of Jullien (compare, it points exactly to this blind spot: the reality of politics in the PRCh (are we allowed, following Peter Baehr’s recent hint, to call post-Maoist China “post-totalitarian”?! I am not sure – but to name it, like Daniel A. Bell has done, “Confucian” would certainly be the wrong move: compare Peter Baehr, “China the Anomaly. Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Maoist Regime”, European Journal of Political Theory, July 2010, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 267-286). How to describe this reality is, of course, an intricate question, but Jullien’s approach to China, I think, makes it in principle impossible to take seriously books like say Børge Bakken’s monograph The Exemplary Society : Human Improvement, Social Control, and the Dangers of Modernity (OUP 2000). In one word, his approach that regards Chinese reality under the logic of cultural difference, tends to devaluate more empirically-informed approaches.

But maybe this critique is still too crude. Let’s forget for a moment about Jullien. Another event has taken place these days in Taiwan that needs our attention: two days ago, the famous writer and current Taiwanese minister of cultural affairs, Lung Ying-tai 龍應台 (, got challenged by a very brave, young politician from the opposition party, Tuan Yi-kang 段宜康 (

I think some of you may still never have seen a parliamentary debate in Chinese, so I add the link ( It is actually quite a moving dialogue (because we witness real courage). To put it simply, Tuan Yi-kang is (1) highly skeptical about Lung’s commitment to human rights; (2) challenges her on the consistency of her liberal values that should not, in his opinion, become the object of a trade-off while dealing with China and Chinese culture; and (3) demands more transparence in her interaction with China.

Taiwan is, of course, the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world (with many dark powers still working against it). Neither in China, nor in Hong Kong or Singapur are powerful ministers challenged in such a direct and open way like it happens here quite regularly. And, more generally speaking, it is not evident to me that this kind of dialogue can be easily described by the means of traditional Chinese vocabulary(say by using attributes like “Chinese” or “Confucian”). This kind of political or, to use Arendt’s word, “agonal” contest is also what we should expect in a future open Chinese society. And the very real power-struggles that lie beneath this debate may even be one important undercurrent of “reality” inside contemporary China (and thus are only suppressed by the current regime). But than what to make of these insights, if they are real insights, for our project of re-thinking pre-modern Chinese thought? And what to think about Jullien’s presupposed Kluft between East and West? Or, more generally speaking, how shall we conceive of the relation between philosophical reflection and democracy in Asia? To put it more bluntly, can we still accept, like Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi did, the Confucian claim to authority, that is the normative belief that the Confucian-trained agent is not only legitimized, but also capable of “guiding” modern, open societies?

Maybe we should start here, on the “ground zero” of Chinese democracy building, to re-think the logic of “cultural difference”…?!

11 replies on “François Jullien and the Hazards of "Chinese" Reality”

  1. Thanks very much for this post, Kai. As it’s addressed more to people who are into Jullien, Mou, and/or Tang than to the likes of me, I wish there were some replies from those folks. I’ve learned from your post – I think there are several sinologists better known to the US educated public than is Jullien, or maybe I’m behind the times; anyway I didn’t know he was regarded so highly, didn’t know much of anything about his work, and didn’t know at all about the controversy. Thanks for the Henry Zhao piece.

    If I have a cultural home, it’s anglophone philosophy. I think that with regard to academic work product, the people of my culture share a sensibility that we associate however unfairly with intellectual responsibility, and that tends to gag on the kind of sentence or paragraph that is associated with the word “philosophy” east of Dover and north of the Sha Tin Race Course.

    “In that case,” said the Dodo solemnly, rising to his feet, “I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies–”

    “Speak English!” said the Duck, “I don’t know the meaning of half of those long words, and what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” And the Duck quacked a comfortable laugh to itself. Some of the other birds tittered audibly.

    It’s a limiting prejudice. I like sometimes to be told what the continentals say.


    You close with a question:

    …how shall we conceive of the relation between philosophical reflection and democracy in Asia? To put it more bluntly, can we still accept, like Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi did, the Confucian claim to authority, that is the normative belief that the Confucian-trained agent is not only legitimized, but also capable of “guiding” modern, open societies?

    I suppose there are many different kinds of relation between philosophical reflection and democracy …

    As I haven’t read Mou or Tang, I don’t know how to envision the Confucian-trained agent you speak of, nor the kind of guidance you are speaking of. You don’t mean to ask whether being steeped in the Odes, the Rites, and calligraphy is sufficient to enable people to lead today’s world by being or counseling feudal lords; and you don’t mean to ask whether we’d all be better off if activists and officials better exemplified the broad virtues that are the focus of the Analects. Your question is somewhere in between.

    Is there something you’d been hoping for?

    Long ago, when I was an undergrad, I was reading a book by some American left-wing sociologist – I forget who it was – who suggested that the country would be much better off if the geographical boundaries of towns, state school districts, fire districts, garbage collection districts, sewage districts, national legislative districts etc. were made to coincide (which they mainly don’t). More people would come to care about and identify with their local communities. As it is, most Americans disregard local affairs as a trackless mystery (except for murders and fires), so we miss out on important training for democracy.

    So there’s that.


    What is the logic of cultural difference?

    • Thanks, Bill, for sharing your thoughts with me (us?!)! That’s a good question, what are we hoping for? I somehow feel that I can’t give you an answer in this format, here on the blog, and I probably can’t even answer this question for myself (in private). Hoping for a better political order for humanity? For civilization, peace and prosperity? Maybe. Or let’s say: hoping for understanding. And here the cultural difference comes into play… Can we ever know the “other”? Maybe thinking of certain figures in Henry-James-novels, certain peaceful/meaningful cross-cultural encounters in the long history of humanity. Any thoughts on that?

    • Hi Kai,

      I think my comment didn’t hit the tone I was aiming for! I didn’t mean to mock; I meant something more like the reverses …

      I meant to be asking whether there is something specific you, Kai, were hoping for that could be described (too generally) as the guidance of an open society mainly by Confucian-trained agents. Among readers of Mou and Tang that general description might paint a picture, but for me it didn’t.

      This isn’t the first time you’ve seemed to express disappointment and maybe surprise, in an admirably deep and heartfelt post, that some such project looks like it’s not going to work out. I just didn’t understand what was the project that now seems to be bankrupt but could have seemed promising. But it looks now like maybe I was missing the idea in a bigger way; there wasn’t a project?

      It seems to me that open societies leave plenty of room for different kinds of moral and aesthetic self-development and community, and for leadership by whoever is impressive and effective. And it seems to me that Confucianism is, as we say in American politics, a big tent.

      You mention courage; so do Confucius and Mencius. Another core Confucian virtue is respect. Freedom of conscience and speech looks to me like a direct expression of mutual respect: compatible with vigorous debate because, after all, can you love someone without trying to teach her? And why spend an afternoon together without discussing what’s right?

      I suppose if we regard something as Confucian only insofar as it’s distinctively Confucian (as we might if our reason for being attracted to Confucianism is that it is a flag of China), then we’ll never be able to reconcile Confucianism with anything else. Or more briefly, one cannot ever be the other as such. Rather than immersing oneself in the world of the believer, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to engage in dialogue?

      Anyway I guess the broad world-historical trend is toward greater communication, more similarity, more comfort with difference. Still, we are finite animals after all.

      Regarding cross-cultural understanding, the larger drama from where I sit (near Washington DC) has has been about the West and the Muslim world. I thought there was a moment when Obama could have given a speech explaining some things about the point of liberty, speaking directly to the people of the Muslim world and getting through to many.

      When I think about groups that hold views that seem to me just crazy – Christians for example – my inclination, and my sense of civilization and respect, is about engaging them in discussion rather than worrying in general about the possibility of understanding the “other.” (Indeed, “the other” is for me a Dodo word, like “modernity” and “the self.” It’s not a word I use.) Talk with them rather than about them, I want to say. But you probably do that as much as anybody does, and of course I’m not opposed to theorizing about communication!

      My big background worries, the things that worry me most when I think about the world at large are threats to nature and to liberty, and the rise of the machines. Are the machines giving each of us a better overview, making information and all the people of the world instantly accessible? Or are they turning us into parts plugged into terminals, without interest in different people, without attention span, without will? Can the noosphere be intelligent and sane?

      I haven’t read anything lengthy by Henry James, nor anything in recent years.

      Lately I’ve taken on a part-time job writing screenplays for 10-20 minute mini-documentaries on aspects of “American democracy” for Voice of America TV broadcasts for the Mainland. I write in English and suggest visual materials, and others rewrite the scripts into Chinese and add the video. I’ve only done a few so far (people tell me I’ve been overestimating the audience). Any ideas for topics?

    • Hi Bill,
      thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment on my rambling thoughts about Chinese and Taiwanese modernity or, to put it more generally, about the possibility and reality of freedom here in the world where I happen to live.
      No, I didn’t think that you were “mocking”, not at all.
      I don’t identify myself as card-carrying Confucian, so I am still enjoying the advantages of merely being an observer. But of course I think that, in my daily life in Taipei, I come upon certain practices that need to be understood with reference to history (and maybe also language, as Jullien might want to add), and Confucian practices/ideas/beliefs are certainly part of this history. The “grand narrative” of today seems to be the re-emergence of Confucian China. But I don’t think that we should subscribe to this narrative too quickly – that is a general point I want to defend, as China has never been purely Confucian (and historically speaking it can be argued that Daoism has influenced many more Chinese in the past than Confucian ideas, compare f.ex. John Lagerwey’s excellent work).
      I do not want to sound “disappointed”, that is certainly not the case. I just hope that scholars could focus more on the reality on the ground, in particular on the fact that Taiwan already is a liberal democracy, and that at some moment in the future the internal contradictions of the Chinese modernization process will also lead to the democratization of China itself… (my conviction).
      And we should take into account that Western philosophers like Aristotle or Hegel, when writing about the democratic regime (or let’s say, in a more general way, about a relatively open society with a ballot system), knew very well what they were talking about. Chinese thinkers like Tang or Mou were merely anticipating democracy, somehow describing the genealogical/cultural possibility of democracy on the Chinese soil.
      You write about “the threats to nature and to liberty, and the rise of the machines”. I do share your concern. Asian thought may seem attractive in this particular context, but we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater (for example by wanting to “overcome” Western modernity in the radical way that Jullien, at least in my opinion, is suggesting). And yes, we still are final animals – but haunted by illusions of immortality (in Californian digital world more than elsewhere)…
      Regarding your last point: I think Ezra Pound could be an interesting case, no? Of course his political engagement for Mussolini is highly dubious, but as many of his finest readers have shown, he ultimately was against any abuse of power and pro democratic government (probably a kind of Jeffersonian democracy?!). Last but not least Pound was yearning for a new form of humanism with Confucian characteristics…
      Or maybe something on Leo Strauss in China? (which is again a very difficult matter, but as there are so many readers of Strauss in China, it would be important to show them another or even the “real” Strauss, not the one favored by the neo-conservatives…).

    • I may eventually be able to use your suggestions, but my work is more universal in its aims. Recently, for example, I delivered, as requested, a screenplay on Presidential Pets. Benjamin Harrison once had to chase an escaped goat down Pennsylvania Avenue because it was towing his grandchildren in a cart. John Quincy Adams kept two alligators in a White House bathtub. Andrew Jackson’s parrot had to be removed from his funeral, for excessive profanity. These are the things I am learning.

    • This sounds like a very interesting program! John Quincy Adams seems to be a really interesting character (Pound has collected many anecdotes about him in his “Cantos”, but I have never come upon one as funny as yours on the alligators!!)… Is it already on the air-waves?

    • I don’t konw when or whether it will ply the ether. Instead I know that JQA used to swim in the Potomac in the nude, in which circumstance he was prevailed upon to give an unscheduled interview to an enterprising woman journalist, Anne Royall. Or if that is not a sufficiently telling fact about democracy, perhaps I can interest you in a picture of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge cradling in her arms a raccoon on a leash? Or the mechanical horse on which Calvin himself took morning exercise?

    • I need to see these… Inspiring! Now heading back home for my “Cantos” copy –

  2. Hi Kai – It was great to see you briefly last week, and thanks for this fascinating and rich set of reflections. Here are a couple thoughts that I have….

    First, I wonder what you thought of Jullien’s talk at the conference, not so much the emphasis on distance (間距) as his idea of the in-between (之間, entre). I confess that I’m not entirely confident in what he meant, but what it suggested to me, any way, was a flexible, dynamic, always-up-for-negotiation way of thinking about doing philosophy in a manner not determined by more determinate “comparison.” I found this to be pretty attractive, but it doesn’t fit so well with your description (and worry that he’s centering himself on a vision of premodern China). Thoughts? I may well be misunderstanding what he was writing about.

    Second, you know the saying “one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tolens?” (Probably there really is no such saying – I admit that it doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue!) What I mean is this: the tensions between Confucianism and modernity can lead one to suspect that Confucianism is irrelevant today, OR it can emphasize the need to continue the process of remaking Confucianism. I have to say that I came away from the conference fired up about the latter!

  3. Hi Steve: yes, I enjoyed our brief conversation, too. Regarding your first point – I had a similar feeling,i.e. that Jullien was aiming at a “flexible, dynamic… way of thinking”. But even after a second reading of his paper today I am still somehow confused about what he actually wants to say. In his written version, he emphasizes that he does not want to substantialize “Chinese thought” (for him, Chinese thought is merely “the thinking that expresses itself… in Chinese”, p. 142). But he seems to be making his theoretical moves on an extremely high, not to say speculative level, and I just don’t see how we can, following Jullien’s method, come back to the very real issues that we encounter in fields like let’s say political theory or ethics. At least to my knowledge, he has never changed his basic discursive strategy (to re-think Greece via premodern China). And he knows well what rhetoric strategies are… “Larvatus prodeo” (I wear a mask), as he once wrote about the Chinese sage – and this might also describe well his own style of thinking.

    Regarding your second point: I am not saying that Confucianism is irrelevant today. But many committed Confucian scholars (at least in Asia) are not willing to reflect deeper on the decisive rupture that has taken place in the Chinese world around 1900, the year China began to change its traditional ethos under the impact of the West. A rupture which implies both that there is no way back to Confucius or Mencius and that transcultural importations (from the West) are necessary and unavoidable in the Chinese-speaking world. To some extent I subscribe to Farah Godrej’s recent claim that we, as Western scholars, need to immerse ourselves “in the world of the believer”, that is, in our case, the committed Confucian scholar of today (see her Cosmopolitan Political Thought. Method, Practice, Discipline. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 96). But we need also to take into account the fact that the committed Confucian scholars of today are a small minority and that the mechanisms of real world politics in open societies (like for example Taiwan) cannot be easily explained with reference to the Chinese/Confucian tradition. Your idea of somehow “remaking Confucianism” is certainly important – only that I am not sure who will ultimately decide about the future direction of Confucianism: the believer, the half-believer, the committed scholar, the majority of Chinese-speaking people, or maybe other, less “rational” powers…

  4. The year 1900 is, of course, just one year among many others, merely one episode in a long process of change…

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