Jiang Qing and Fundamentalism

booksA couple of years ago, we had some discussion on this blog of the idea of Confucian “fundamentalism,” sparked by comments of Peng Guoxiang, in response to criticism from some Confucians of plans for a large church in Qufu, near the ancestral home of the Kong family (Confucius’s family). (See also the discussion of Ralph Weber’s later post, as well.) At that time, some commentators on the blog said that they felt “fundamentalism” was inapt. Prompted by having to write a review of Jiang Qing’s A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future (Princeton, 2013), I would like to revisit this general question, being more specific both about what “fundamentalism” means and about the target of my analysis: not the broad group of signers of earlier petitions, but specifically Jiang Qing as he represents himself in this new book.

First, “fundamentalism.” One important source is The Fundamentalism Project, a large comparative study (see Almond et al 1995). According to Mårtensson et al (2011, 8), the main conclusion of this research is “that there is a ‘family resemblance’ between certain religious movements, which share most of the following nine characteristics:

  1. a response to religion’s social marginalisation;
  2. the selective use of tradition and modernity;
  3. moral dualism;
  4. absolutism and inerrancy of essential texts;
  5. millennialism;
  6. elect membership;
  7. sharp boundaries;
  8. authoritarian organisation;
  9. and strict behavioural requirements.”

Although it is often observed that fundamentalism is a reaction against one or more features of modernity, Mårtensson et al (2011, 10) observe that “is not specifically linked to modernity, but to ideologically-grounded strategies and methodologies related to community, state and nation formation; hence, we see the impetus of ‘formation’ and ‘re-formation’ as the force that explains the traits observed by the Fundamentalism Project, all of which are related to the drawing of boundaries.” This idea is related to Malise Ruthven’s observation that “fundamentalism may be defined as tradition made self-aware and consequently defensive” (2007, 11), although Ruthven’s phrasing is too loose to be used as a strict definition.

Turn now to Jiang Qing. The term “fundamentalist” (yuanzhijiaozhe) is regularly attached to his name in current Chinese-language debates about his proposals. Is it appropriate? I begin by noting that readers of Jiang’s work cannot help being struck by his authorial voice. Jiang is confident that he has grasped the way forward for Confucianism, and claims to speak for “China’s Confucianism” as a whole (2013, 47-8; 161). His new book contains critical essays by several other contemporary scholars; despite several of these critics’ deep sympathy for Confucianism, Jiang announces that their ideas “largely reflect the position of liberalism” (161). The key reason for this, I submit, is the critics’ general acceptance of what Rawls dubs “the fact of pluralism.” Acceptance of pluralism does not make one a Rawlsian, since that acceptance can take many forms, but Jiang insists that in order to avoid moral anarchy, “any human society must establish one comprehensive, systematic, leading, orthodox set of values for human and social betterment” (164). This central assumption helps to explain why both Bai Tongdong and Li Chenyang refer to Jiang as a “radical”; Bai perceptively suggests that Jiang’s radicalism has remained consistent throughout his life, even though his commitment has shifted from Marxism to Confucianism (115).

Jiang’s insistence that societies require a single, comprehensive set of values does not yet make him a fundamentalist; indeed, it does not distinguish him from most Chinese political thinkers, traditional or modern. [1] Jiang is a paradigmatic example of someone deeply immersed in what Thomas Metzger calls “Discourse #1,” according to which “knowledge is available with which to arrive at a rational solution for all major political problems, and the moral-intellectual virtuosi sincerely trying to obtain this knowledge can be publically identified.” Note that Metzger uses “rational” very broadly, consciously intending it to encompass Confucian epistemologies, though Jiang might still object. Metzger argues that Chinese political thinking of all political camps over the last century has exhibited striking continuity with basic orientations of earlier Chinese thinking, and that all join in rejecting what he calls the “Great Modern Western Epistemological Revolution,” according to which there are deep limits to the kinds of knowledge available to us.

If Jiang’s rejection of genuine pluralism does not make him a fundamentalist, it is time to turn to the various criteria outlined above and see whether they apply. After all, despite Jiang’s claim to be developing a “traditionalism,” his is a form of thought rendered intelligible only as the conscious response of a tradition deeply threatened by modernity (206-7). In other words, Jiang’s Confucianism is a double-negative: a negation of modernity’s negation (as he sees it) of Confucian tradition. Only in this way do terms critical to Jiang’s project, such as “religion,” “legitimacy,” and “constitution” make their way into his language. In addition, both the explicit content of his writings and their tone tend to resist open engagement with other positions. In the volume’s forty-seven page “Reply to Critics,” Jiang makes no concessions and suggests no middleground. He argues that only “scholars” are able to access the true meaning of the Confucian textual canon; for others, the proper attitude to the tradition’s teachings is “faith” (175-6; 190). This special (“mystical”) access justifies confident, even dogmatic assertions. Although there is surely room for debate and further nuance, I tentatively conclude that Jiang is indeed a fundamentalist.


[1] Jiang says that Confucianism does embrace a healthy kind of pluralism (or at least tolerance), so long as the non-leading values each acknowledge their subsidiary and private role, vis-à-vis the leading, official role of Confucianism. He finds evidence for this in the general acceptance in contemporary China of the erection of statues of Confucius on university campuses: “the reason is because in China the non-Confucians are very clear in their minds that Confucianism is a public value with political significance” (170).

Works Cited:

Almond, Gabriel A., Emmanuel Sivan and R. Scott Appleby (1995). “Fundamentalism: genus and species.” In Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby (eds.). Fundamentalisms Comprehended. Vol. 5 of The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 399– 424.

Jiang Qing  (2013). A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future. Translated by Edmund Ryden. Edited by Daniel A. Bell and Ruiping Fan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mårtensson, Ulrika; Bailey, Jennifer; Ringrose, Priscilla; and Dyrendal, Asbørn (2011). “Introduction: Fundamentalism, Politics and History: The State, Globalistion, and Political Ideologies.” In Mårtensson, Ulrika; Bailey, Jennifer; and Ringrose, Priscilla (eds.). International Library of Political Studies : Fundamentalism in the Modern World, Volume 1 : Fundamentalism, Politics and History : The State, Globalisation and Political Ideologies. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011, p 8.

Thomas Metzger (2005). A Cloud Across the Pacific. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.

Ruthven, Malise (2007). Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

22 replies on “Jiang Qing and Fundamentalism”

  1. I guess I think “__ian fundamentalism” is any view that latches on to some views or texts as axiomatic, not to be questioned, which have little semblance of any, er, objective claim to such status, and which are supposed to give broad guidance in life. So, Steve, your argument in the last half of the last paragraph seems to me to appeal to just the right criteria.

    I’m not so sure about the argument in the first half of that paragraph – that begins “If Jiang’s rejection…”. I don’t quite see how a rejection of modernity, or a rejection of the rejection of tradition, would be directly relevant to being a fundamentalist or not. When I ask myself – a priori, as usual – what it might be to be a “traditionalist” as opposed to being a “fundamentalist,” what comes to mind is that it would involve (a) some plausible non-circular argument for the general authority of tradition (or for one’s own tradition), and/or (b) a broad conception of what might be endorsed by tradition (or one’s own tradition): not a definite list of tenets or texts. What traditions generally endorse is many values that are in some conflict with each other, and someone who recognizes this as she defends the general authority of tradition perhaps shouldn’t be called a “fundamentalist.”

    As for letting the Fundamentalism Project’s list inform what we should mean by “fundamentalist” – at first glance that whole approach to the use of such a term strikes me as being wrongheaded. Maybe later I’ll try to figure out why.

    • Hi Bill, Thanks! It seems to me that the two worries you express, in your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs, have the same cause: seeing fundamentalism as a purely epistemic stance, rather than seeing it as a broader sociological phenomenon. You could be right that there is nothing to be learned from the comparative religionists’ approach, if indeed the broader category that they have constructed has little or no explanatory value. I’m currently of the view that there *is* something to their concept of “fundamentalist,” and that the fact that we see self-conscious embracing of (particular strands of) tradition in Jiang Qing and in Sayyid Qutb, for example, are to be explained in somewhat similar ways.

  2. I am skeptical of the Fundamentalism Project’s kind of use of “fundamentalism”. To me it smacks too much of “a fundamentalist is defined as anybody more theologically conservative than I am.”

    Most generally, I tend to expect that whenever someone trots out the idea of “family resemblances”, it’s because they are trying to defend an incoherent concept that obscures understanding more than it clarifies and hope that citing Wittgenstein will allow them to get away with doing so. And several of the particular “resemblances” identified here confirm that.

    “A response to religion’s social marginalisation” – well, surely that’s something you pretty much need to do if you identify yourself as “religious”. “The selective use of tradition and modernity”: sorry, everybody does that in one way or another, with perhaps the arguable exception of those who attempt to reject all tradition at all. If “self-conscious embracing of tradition” is something that makes you a fundamentalist, the Dalai Lama and John Spong and Thich Nhat Hanh are all fundamentalists.

    I think the term “fundamentalism” is far more useful when it’s kept close to its original Christian meaning, which focused on scriptural inerrancy and literalism. That meaning fits the original Protestant context and also applies quite well to Islam. I’m the first to admit I don’t know anything about Jiang, but I would be quite surprised to hear he takes the Confucian classics literally.

  3. I think the definition provided by the Fundamentalism Project leaves a great deal to be desired, in part because it ignores the specifically Christian, specifically Protestant and specifically American provenance and history of the term and in part because many of its criteria are, as mentioned by the other commenters here, are either far too vague or misleading. There is a substantial difference-in-kind between the projects of Lyman Stewart and Sayyid Qutb on the one hand, and Kang Youwei on the other, which I believe you are collapsing needlessly here. I also believe it is an error to conflate traditionalists with fundamentalists, so obviously the definition of each needs to be parsed with greater clarity.

    Having read A Confucian Constitutional Order and The Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China, a theme that kept cropping up was that Jiang does not argue for a single absolute and infallible interpretation of the texts he uses, but holds a ‘lower-critical’ view (to import the Protestantese theological term) that various hermeneutics and interpretive ‘schools’ for the same texts exist by necessity. (Obviously Jiang argues that some of these ‘schools’ are better-equipped and have more explanatory power than others, but that makes him no more a fundamentalist than me or you.)

    In short, in Jiang’s view, the Classics do not reference themselves and are not subject to a single infallible reading.

    Given this, I don’t see how the reading of Jiang-as-fundamentalist really holds water.

  4. I’m posting this before reading several other posts that have just appeared.

    Hi Steve,


    I didn’t mean to suggest that “there is nothing to be learned from the comparative religionists’ approach”! What I said was that letting the Fundamentalism Project’s list inform what we should mean by the term seems to me wrongheaded. I said that that sort of approach to such terms seems to me wrongheaded. (Also I don’t know whether the comparative religionists have taken that approach. It’s a certain special use of their list.)

    But why does it seem to me wrongheaded? I mean, we have learned to think that terms for phenomena carry promissory notes – they promise to refer to whatever natural kinds sort of match what we already think the terms refer to. So why not this term too?

    I don’t yet have a full reply. But suppose we found a strong correlation between having a certain view of the Bible and living in a trailer park. Should we thenceforth regard living in a trailer park as part of the cluster meaning of the term we had been using for that view of the Bible? I’ll be that move strikes you as wrongheaded. Such a use of the FP’s list seems to me, well, similar in kind.

    I still haven’t quite figured out what my reasons are. I think they have something to do with having a kind of respect for fundamentalism as a position – the kind of respect that goes with maintaining a willingness to talk with, not just about, fundamentalists.

    Most of the items on the List could be thought of as positions – maybe all; I can’t tell from here. Still, my gut sense is that many of these are not the kinds of things that a fundamentalist would typically avow as being inherent to fundamentalism: to the aspects of her position that she would mean to be naming by that term.

    I don’t know how broadly the FP cast its comparative net: whether, for example, they looked at religions that aren’t Christianity, aren’t Abrahamic, aren’t theistic, don’t believe in the overwhelming importance of life after our upcoming death. Some of their results could come from common features other than fundamentalism of the religions they looked at, such as the idea that an objective up/down moral fact about us is of the greatest causal importance, as it determines what happens to us after our upcoming death.

    I think part of my feeling is that it’s deeply intellectually important to respect and preserve whatever transparency there is in our language – in our phrases and words. Fundamentalism is about fundamentality and it’s an ism. (The current use of the term ‘comparative philosophy’ should stick in one’s mental craw. ‘Pineapple’ we can put up with; maybe because it couldn’t mislead anybody – except people just learning the language.) I’m inclined to think that’s how fundamentalists understand the term.

    So yes, I suppose it is an “epistemic” position, so long as we understand that that doesn’t mean it’s just about theoretical rather than practical fundamentals.

  5. Amod, I think your criticism of the FP list considered as a definition of fundamentalism looks like a pretty good criticism of my definition too. You wrote, “To me it smacks too much of ‘a fundamentalist is defined as anybody more theologically conservative than I am.’”

    I had suggested defining fundamentalism as “any view that latches on to some views or texts as axiomatic, not to be questioned, which have little semblance of any, er, objective claim to such status, and which are supposed to give broad guidance in life.” – and I alleged that that was a respectful approach.

    Maybe my proposal can be fixed by replacing “which have little semblance of any objective claim to such status” with “and not because they seem to be inherently reasonable.”

  6. Thanks everyone for these comments! These are just what I was hoping for to help me think about what one might be claiming in calling Jiang Qing a fundamentalist. As I mentioned above, many in China today, from Jiang himself to various supports and critics, refer to him as a 原指教者, a term that was coined as a translation of “fundamentalist,” so one dimension of the issue I’m raising is thinking about what might be at stake in the deployment of this term in China.

    Even if we set China aside, though, I’d be tempted to push back a bit at Matthew’s desire to confine the category more narrowly to a Christian, Protestant, American origins of the term. After all, it sounds like Matthew is comfortable seeing both Lyman Stewart and Sayyid Qutb as sharing enough to talk about together, yet Qutb is obviously neither Christian, Protestant, nor American. So what is it that they have in common? A complicated question, to be sure, but I’m not sure we can find it in a precise epistemic stance, although I definitely agree that epistemology (broad, not just concerned with theoretical knowledge) is part of the picture. Matthew suggests that Kang Youwei is too different from Stewart and Qutb to count as whatever they are. I agree. (Though we could certainly talk about why.) My question is whether Jiang Qing is also too different to count; my tentative suggestion is that we actually learn important things about him and his views, and about his supporters, and about China and the potential roles of Confucianism in China (and perhaps the world) in the future, through this comparison.

    I admire and agree with Bill’s point about respecting and being willing to talk with “fundamentalists,” however defined. I don’t just want to talk and respect differences, though: I believe that there are some worrying aspects of Jiang Qing’s approach to Confucianism, both in terms of method and contents, and I believe it’s important to engage with these issues – both frankly and respectfully. It’s a wide open question whether Confucianism, in some sense, will be able to play a positive role in China’s and the world’s future.

    There’s more to say, but if I don’t post now it’ll probably not be until tomorrow; happy Independence Day to everyone in the US!

    • Thanks for the reply, Steve! I’d just like to make a quick clarification here, which perhaps I should have done earlier: I do not believe fundamentalism to be solely Christian, solely Protestant or a solely American phenomenon. But I think ignoring the history of the word can lead to confusion about its use (as it seems to be doing here). Hence my willingness to describe Stewart and Qutb in the same terms. And absolutely my post was an invitation to talk about what these two thinkers may share which religious and traditionalist Confucians like Kang Youwei do not.

      To be more explicit than my last post, I believe fundamentalists may reject certain modernist conclusions, but they operate on an ontological perspective which is pretty much lifted wholesale from modernism. The original fundamentalists following Lyman Stewart insisted that the Protestant Biblical canon should be intellectually assented to as factual in the scientific sense, reflecting a fear that if the Bible were interpreted in non-literal (read also as: non-modernist) ways, it would lose its claims to truth as constructed along Baconian lines.

      On the other hand, traditionalists tend to argue that even this reductive ontological orientation cedes altogether too much to modernity – this is a school of traditional religious thinking whose secular American analogues are to be found in books like Ideas Have Consequences and The Closing of the American Mind.

      Note that these traditionalists are as a consequence far less given to political violence, intimidation and power-plays to achieve their ends, and also tend to be far more critical of disparities in modern economic and political institutions, in ways which overlap with the concerns of the left, than fundamentalists are. You don’t see the Salafis protesting against privatised oil industries or water services in the Arab world, for example – though certain other Islamic traditionalists (in Iran, in Syria and in Libya) have been known to participate in such movements.

      I’ll be blunt here and say that I simply do not see the same ontology at work in the work of Jiang Qing, which I think makes for a massive difference-in-kind from Lyman’s fundamentalism. As I said before, he is willing to accept the existence and necessity of multiple different schools of interpretation of key Confucian texts, and even to accept the idea that more than one of them might be valid (though he obviously prefers his own political interpretation of the Chunqiu).

      I agree that there are certain aspects of Jiang Qing’s approach which are shaky at best and possibly dangerous in their consequences – in particular his readings of other religious teachings and traditions, which he views as monolithic in a way he clearly doesn’t regard Confucianism. But he is willing to assert a Confucian doctrine which is critical of the structural inequities associated with modern Western capitalism (which it needs to be; Confucius and Mencius did not have many positive things to say about those whose primary motivation is profit), whilst remaining agnostic on the benefits of democratic rule.

  7. I wonder if a fundamentalist movement as a social phenomenon is possible without a religious identity. Adherents of Christianity self-identify as Christians, adherents of Buddhism as Buddhists, and so forth. But a belief in Confucian virtues or rituals rarely translates into being Confucian. Confucianism has existed as a state ideology, a social class (in the form of the scholar-gentry), and an ethical code, but rarely as a label for self-identification.

    A few exceptions come to mind, and Jiang Qing is one example, but self-identification still remains rare outside of academia. Can “fundamentalist” Confucians exist without a community of Confucians?

    • Interesting point, James, though I would put it more as a point about the nature of religious identity. In Western religions, it’s often that religious self-identity involves both social and ethical code as well as a hearty commitment to “credo” to a set of doctrines — maybe even epistemological axioms — that define the identity. Religious identity in lay Buddhism and Confucianism seems less dependent on credo and epistemology and more on practices and ritual — explicit self-identification aside.

  8. A small correction: JQ claimed himself to be a radical liberal (and perhaps “cultural Christian”)–who probably believed, among other things, that liberal democracy can only be possible in a Christian soil, but now he is a traditionalist. But a central thesis of his hasn’t changed: liberal democracy is rooted in Christianity. This is a rather common view among some Chinese liberals. By accepting Rawls’s argument for political liberalism/pluralism, I find this view false.

  9. Hi Baitongdong,

    Thanks for this – I have never heard that view! I’m really curious to know what the line of thinking is.

    • Sorry, I mean the view that liberal democracy expresses a specifically Christian outlook. I find it astonishing.

      Is the view mainly about liberties, or mainly about democracy, or both? For both liberty and democracy, it seems to me the defenses that should come to mind first have nothing to do with such core Christian ideas as God, Jesus, the afterlife, sin, salvation, or the Church; and I don’t see offhand how those Christian ideas could help. I can see how they could hurt.

  10. I’m thinking Jiang is, at base, a nationalist. His rather obvious anxieties about “Western” cultural assault on China, and the necessity to reclaim “tradition” as a bulwark against cultural extinction, is a rather common trope among cultural nationalists everywhere. And, of course, there is an additional irony there: the very notion of “nation,” and thus all nationalist projects, are themselves an effect of modernization(if we follow Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner, and not Liah Greenfeld here). So, Jiang’s attempt to resuscitate “tradition” cannot escape the modernity he seems to despise.

    • In arguing against a kind of communism, Mengzi is reported to have said: “I have heard of using our culture to transform the uncivilized, but I have not heard of being transformed by the uncivilized. … In the current case, some twittering southern uncivilized person opposes the Way of the former kings, and you turn your back on your teacher and learn from him.” (吾聞用夏變夷者,未聞變於夷者也。… 今也南蠻鴃舌之人,非先王之道,子倍子之師而學之… 3A4, Van Norden). I take it that when Mengzi says he has heard of A but not of B, he is talking mainly about which of them is the received dictum, not about what has in fact happened.

      A trope common among nationalists can also be common among others, and I wonder whether anxiety about alien influence has to be a sign of nationalism or modernity. The difference between Mengzi and Jiang here might be that Jiang takes Chinese culture to be one of several analogous cases: cultures on a par with each other in some sense. I wonder whether the long Confucian resistance to Buddhism also took such a view? I don’t know.

      Somewhere this year I read that someone argues that pre-Qin Chinese political thought was “modern” or “postmodern” (I forget which; I don’t think with those terms). Can’t find it now.

    • I’m not quite sure that’s a given, Sam.

      First, merely asserting a Sittlich identity over-against the ravages of Western liberal modernity does not make one, by that fact alone, a nationalist. A good Western example of this is Metternich, who had all manner of criticism for political liberals and constitutionalists and yet remained fervently anti-nationalist, largely for the reasons you describe.

      Second, it would be a bit disingenuous to deny that there has been (and it is arguable that there still is) an Anglo-American, at least, cultural (and economic, and political) assault on China going back to the Opium Wars, and that one of the ramifications of that cultural assault was the growth of the ideology of nationalism as represented by Sun Yat-sen (among many others, including some in the Self-Strengthening Movement and the FoRH).

      Nationalism as an ideology in China, whether of the liberal-conservative variety typical of the KMT or the far-left Maoist variety typical of certain elements of the CCP, traces its roots definitively back to Sun Yat-sen, the ‘founder’ of the Chinese nation. By contrast, Jiang Qing says himself, and others who study Mainland China New Confucianism in depth (including Bell) say about him, that he is following directly in the footsteps of Sun Yat-sen’s intellectual rival Kang Youwei – I think this can only make sense if he is doing so over-against the Three Principles of the People (popular rule, popular rights and the people’s welfare) which form the basis for all Chinese nationalism worthy of the name.

      (Indeed, his arguments against absolute political equality and against the very notion of popular sovereignty, for which you yourself have had occasion to critique him, seem to be aimed specifically at undermining the ideological basis for and promoting a sort of scepticism about the Three Principles.)

      Yes, certainly I agree with you that he does care about preserving a Confucian culture – again, as did Kang Youwei – in the face of Westernisation. But to call him a ‘cultural nationalist’ based on that fact alone is to distort the right meaning of ‘nationalist’ beyond useful recognition, at least in the terms of modern Chinese politics. I think to make that case, you would have to argue from Jiang’s writing that the Confucian religious norms he is prescribing for China’s public sphere are specifically and inescapably oriented to the sole benefit of the Han ethnicity inside China, or of the speakers of Chinese language(s).

  11. Matt,
    I find your “right meaning of ‘nationalist'” too restrictive. Clearly, Chinese nationalism has expressed itself in forms other than Sun’s Three Principles. Indeed, the particular content of the “nation” is variable and fluid, or that is what I draw from Gellner and Anderson and others. Jiang is a nationalist because he is attempting to define, and defend, the “nation” – a term that did not exist in Chinese before the 19th century (see Zhao Suisheng on “zhonghua minzu”) And he is doing so by creating a particular, and in some cases peculiar, content for the “nation.” Indeed, he is a good example of the invention of tradition insofar as he seems just to be making up the whole tricameral legislative thing (I don’t know where that is mentioned in the “tradition”).

    • I guess my major issue with your argument here, again, Sam, is that you appear to be glossing over the content of Jiang’s objections to placing the locus of political legitimacy precisely in the zhonghua minzu, but rather in a group of sacral scholars who can rightly interpret and exercise the wangdao (a political term to which he assigns far more weight than minzu). It is this distinction which makes me think that ‘nationalist’ is as much an inappropriate description as ‘fundamentalist’.

      It strikes me that you can’t have it both ways, on the one hand writing Jiang off as undemocratic for arguing against the philosophical basis for the popular sovereignty of ‘the nation’, and on the other hand writing him off as a nationalist for trying to assert a rather unorthodox (to these Anglo-American eyes, anyway) notion of ‘the nation’ against liberal capitalist ideology.

      And his proposals for a Confucian constitutional order don’t strike me as particularly problematic from a traditionalist perspective, in part because all traditionalist institutions and loci of meaning and legitimacy have already been systematically compromised by the Cultural Revolution. If one wants to rebuild a political order based on Confucian mores, rites and music, one won’t succeed without some level of reinterpretation. All tradition is reinterpretation to some degree (though in my view that doesn’t render it either meaningless or superfluous): what the Roman Catholic Church ended up becoming was hardly what St Paul and St Peter had envisioned (from an institutional perspective), and yet it is unquestionably a body which can lay legitimate claim to a hermeneutic of continuity in Christian teaching going back to its founders.

      I guess the most basic smell test is this. Would you consider Gandhi a ‘cultural nationalist’, to be described on the same grounds that you describe Jiang? Gandhi also clearly had ‘anxieties’ about British rule and cultural influence in India. He also tried to reclaim an Indian Sittlich identity and ‘tradition’, and even more dangerously tried to rearticulate it as economic self-sufficiency from Britain using handicrafts and small-scale technologies. He obviously didn’t fully succeed in completely rejecting Western influence, either, given that he was inspired by the work of GK Chesterton and Lev Tolstoy, among others.

      But it seems to me that dismissing Gandhi as a ‘cultural nationalist’ elides a great deal about his work and beliefs. It is also rendered analytically useless in the context of Indian politics by the fact that it places him in the same category as his assassin.

      By extension, I think much more care needs to be taken in doing the same with Jiang.

      Jiang is certainly a traditionalist, or at least fancies himself one; and he is certainly illiberal in the sense that he regards the project of Western modernity with suspicion.

      But ‘fundamentalist’, to me, carries basic connotations of literal textual analysis, intellectual assent to textual infallibility and inerrancy, and a Baconian ontology which reduces all truth-value to a single dimension of sensory fact. I find no evidence of this in Jiang’s writing, and indeed several places (particularly his discourse on the ‘transcendent’) where fundamentalist thinking is explicitly rejected.

      Likewise with nationalism. Nationalism relies definitionally on the idea that a certain ‘native right and might’ (to use Brownson’s phrase) is vested in a particular ethnic or linguistic group as a whole. Granted, the contents of this ‘native might and right’ can change, rendering nationalism more-or-less benign or psychotic and murderous. But I do not see Jiang arguing in these terms, and indeed I think there are certain elements of his argumentation which come down against them.

  12. Gandhi is an interesting figure. He might be seen as anti-imperialist but not nationalist. It was pretty clear that his post-independence vision for India was not in keeping with nationalists in the Congress Party (who, like most nationalists, had a rather strong modernizing project). “Village Swaraj,” Gandhi’s aspiration, rejected most aspects of modernization (mass industrialization; urbanization; etc.). And there is really nothing in the logic of “village swaraj” that requires the “nation” as a political expression of a particular community. Gandhi certainly rejected Hindu nationalism; indeed, he was killed by a Hindu nationalist zealot. Thus, I do not see Gandhi as a “cultural nationalist.” But we are wandering from this blog’s main purpose….

  13. I’ve gone and looked at the older posts, and one thing that strikes me about this whole discussion is that no-one has acknowledged explicitly the most important aspect of the word “fundamentalist”: it is a derogatory term (in English). Obviously it’s not just an empty insult; it has some content, related to the ideas that are listed in Steve’s post. But any usage of the term must be understood first and foremost as a rhetorical denunciation, and only secondarily as a substantive comment on the nature of the group/thought to which it is applied.

    So I find an analysis of “fundamentalist” groups a bit of an unhelpful starting point. It’s not so much, “anyone more conservative than me”; it’s “anyone whom I have chosen to denounce/insult as more conservative than me”. It’s fundamentally (sorry) a wrongheaded place to begin thinking.

    All of these terms a pretty loaded, in fact. Conservative is an odd one to be using, given that one of the criteria listed is “selective use of tradition and modernity”. Personally, most of these terms lead me to first take a long hard look at the person using them, and user’s (perceived) position within the user’s own ideological/religious/political framework, before I could even begin to try to assess what the words might or might not say about their target.

    So the use of “fundamentalist” by Peng appears to have been a denunciation/distancing technique – and that’s an interesting thing, though I don’t know who Peng is. The use by Jiang of the Chinese term to describe himself is much more interesting: is he using it as a badge, or merely as an attempt to describe his approach to texts/tradition?

  14. My concern about respect, which I didn’t adequately present above, was not about whether Steve or others in fact think fundamentalists are to be spoken with or not; it was about trying to define fundamentalism by looking for a cluster of properties that has “explanatory value” in case the main kind of explanation contemplated is causal, e.g. sociological, explanation of events involving “fundamentalists.” To define the term in that way would approach it from the point of view of talking about rather than with them.

    The kind of respect I’m concerned with is of course consistent with having a low opinion of their view, of fundamentalism in general or of __ian fundamentalism. But I meant to be defining it in a way that fundamentalists could accept as a self-description. I think it’s not so uncommon for fundamentalist Christians to accept the term.

    Here’s my definition again, with another layer of derogatoriness scrubbed away:

    X-ian Fundamentalism is any view that takes as axiomatic, not to be questioned, some (approximately: the) standardly X-ian views or texts, and not because they seem to be inherently reasonable; supposing that they give broad guidance in life.


    Fundamentalism is any view more conservative than Bill Haines’ view.

    Of course, views that fit account (B) need not fit (A) — nor vice versa (unless we’re defining ‘conservative’ in a certain very abstract and purely epistemic way). Also, (A) makes fundamentalism ism-relative, while (B) doesn’t.

    Both accounts make the term derogatory in that to call someone a “fundamentalist” in that sense is to imply that she is in some way wrong. In particular:

    To call someone a “fundamentalist(B)” is to say that one disagrees with her (though one may be correct in calling her a “fundamentalist(B)” even if her view is completely correct and reasonable).

    And to call someone a “fundamentalist(A)” is to say that she is being unreasonable about what’s basic (though it does not imply that any of her substantive views are false).

    Sam: To call someone a “fundamentalist(A)” is not to say that she believes only what is actually included in her scripture: on the contrary, she reasons from the scripture to further conclusions. Also, of course, it is not to say that she reasons well from her scripture.

    I want to raise a couple of problems for my account (A).

    Suppose you think the Bible is all axiomatic because it’s revealed by God, and suppose that (i) you accept God by faith, which you grant to be unreasonable, or alternatively (ii) you think that by your personal encounter with God you know that God is real (and gave us the Bible). In both of cases (i) and (ii), you do not take the Bible as axiomatic, strictly speaking. You derive the reliability of the whole thing from a few other premises. In case (ii), you don’t even think your premises are unreasonable. And they may even be reasonable, depending on your experiences.

    Still I think we want to say that in both cases (i) and (ii) the Bible is taken as pretty much axiomatic—even though its derivation from other things is crystal clear and salient. Why do we want to say that? I think it has to do with the otherworldliness (“transcendence” if you like) of the argument for the Bible.

    What would be the parallel move in Confucianism? I mean, parallel to (i) or (ii). Something about a sage or sages endorsing the classics? (There’s also a difficulty about what it would mean to take the Book of Odes as axiomatic.)

    Let’s give Confucianism a third move—(iii): We trust the classics because after decades of immersion in the classics (or something like that) we find them inherently reasonable.

    Now: that view is no longer “fundamentalist” by my account (A), not even if we change “axiomatic” to “pretty much axiomatic.” Indeed it brings out a problem with my term “inherently reasonable.”

  15. I wrote just above:
    Let’s give Confucianism a third move—(iii): We trust the classics because after decades of immersion in the classics (or something like that) we find them inherently reasonable.

    Note the difference between that view and (iv) the same move minus the word ‘inherently’. Move (iv) would give Confucianism a view analogous to that of, say, the science of chemistry. After immersion in the data, one might find the principles of chemistry reasonable; but one doesn’t, or anyway shouldn’t, find them inherently reasonable. One might hope to explain, more or less, the reasonableness of accepting any particular principle on the basis of identifiable data and widely accepted canons of good thinking.

    Here’s a fifth move for Confucianism: (v): We trust the classics because after decades of immersion in the classics (or something like that), one simply trusts the classics.

    That’s fundamentalism, I think.

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