Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

New article: Jiang & O’Dwyer, “The Universal Ambitions Of China’s Illiberal Confucian Scholars”

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T. H. Jiang & Shuan O’Dwyer, “The Universal Ambitions Of China’s Illiberal Confucian Scholars,” has been published in the on-line journal Palladium. It begins:

Amid today’s talk of a coming civilizational clash between China and the West, it is easy to find philosophical experts on China holding forth on the cultural contours of Sino-Western civilizational difference. “China has always been and always will continue to be a communitarian society,” some have insisted; and its Confucian ethos is not a doctrine like America’s liberal individualism, but is instead the “ongoing narrative of a specific community of a people, the center of an ongoing ‘way’ or Dao.”

Such explanations amount to orientalist fantasies. How an industrialized society like modern China, transformed by both Communism and market reforms could still be defined by primordial cultural characteristics is not explained. Moreover, far from being a continuous, deeply organic narrative of the Chinese people, Confucianism is a diverse set of doctrines that have been ideologically contested, marginalized, reinvented and imposed as state dogmas at different times in Chinese history. This point holds for a brand of illiberal, statist Confucianism being promoted today in some of China’s leading universities, a brand whose future is still uncertain, but whose proponents hold out great hopes for its adoption into Chinese Communist Party orthodoxy. Moreover, this reinvented nationalist Confucianism is not without precedent in the modern history of East Asia; over a century ago, Japanese scholars educated in Europe were the pioneers of such a reinvention. This precedent, its cross-cultural inspirations, and its present day historical parallels in contemporary Chinese intellectual life merit examination, in view of the claims made by scholars for the cultural centrality of Confucianism in a morally renewed, globally rising China….

9 Comments

  1. Thanks, Steve, for posting this link, I will have a look. This sort of non-ideal approach to Chinese cultural difference(s) is very much needed.

    • Thank you Kai Marchal, I think you capture our concerns well in the article. If I may add – rather facetiously – it’s hard to become enthused by orientalist construals of that cultural divide when you know there are ardent Straussians lined up on either side of it.

  2. Maybe Chen Ming is not a liberal Confucian, but he is clearly not an illiberal Confucian. Zeng Yi is more conservative than many mainland New Confucians, but his conservatism means a fundamental rejection of revolutions, including the most important one in 20th century China. As a result, he has been “harmonized.”

    • To Tongdong Bai, my co-author has asked me to pass on the following response to you – ” I think your characterizations of these two figures are basically right, but just in defense of ourselves: First, we used the term “illiberal” in a very loose way, and we didn’t use “anti-liberal,” a stronger and more sectarian term, to label a thinker who does not identify him/herself as a liberal. [Stephen Angle is also an illiberal Confucian but his Progressive Confucianism recognizes some basic liberal rights and institutions.] Second, our primary concern is the attitude of a thinker toward the current regime. With the exception of some Maoist Confucians who simultaneously praise Confucian values and the Cultural Revolution, most conservative Confucians want to bid farewell to revolutions–that’s for sure. But the way they attempt to implement their visions is to reconcile the CCP and the Confucian tradition, and this is the major concern in our article. Of course this attempt sometimes gets censored, as in the case of Zeng Yi, but he hasn’t given up that attempt after his unhappy encounter with the CCP, according to our reading of his most recent interviews.”

    • It seems to me – and if I’m right, it’s worth pointing out — that in ordinary English (as distinct from technical language a paper’s authors may explicitly introduce), the use of “illiberal” described above falls far outside the range of possible meanings of the word.

      First, “Illiberal” is like “anti-liberal” and “unjust” in that its negative prefix definitely means “the opposite of” rather than simply “not” or (what is weaker than “not”) “not identifying oneself as.”

      Second, “illiberal” is unlike “anti-liberal” in that “illiberal” tends not to refer to a philosophical or ideological standpoint, something about liberalism. Instead, “illiberal” tends to mean a quality of action, policy, or character: restricting freedoms, being stingy, or even being ignoble and vulgar.

      Hence “illiberal” almost always carries a pejorative tone. Yes?

  3. If I may add my own comment, building on T H Jiang’s reference to ” the attitude of a thinker toward the current regime”. The term “scholar of the state” is our translation for the modern Japanese 御用学者 and the Chinese 国师/國師, acknowledging the derisive meanings of both terms today. But taking the latter term historically, and thinking of a continuum of scholarly postures it could denote, from “morally cultivated teacher, advisor and critic to the ruler” to “scholarly lackey and shill for the state”, where do you think the Chinese scholars we discuss in our article fit along this continuum, such as Chen Ming? if, for instance, we take Xu Zhangrun as a rather lofty modern exemplar of “the scholar who brings his coffin to the remonstrance session”, where do they fit relative to him?
    Then, considering the attitude of these scholars toward what (in a loose and popular sense) we could describe as the “illiberal nationalism” which the CCP is currently promoting – represented in slogans such as “The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation-volk”. Do they repudiate it, are they indifferent to it, do they propose to “moralize” it with Confucian principles, or do they merely aim to retrofit Confucianism in cruder terms so that it becomes consonant with such a nationalism? Of course, similar questions could be asked of certain Japanese scholars active between the Meiji and early Showa Eras, and there were enough suggestive parallels to motivate us to write the article as we did.

  4. Bill Haines, perhaps I led a very sheltered early life, but my first encounter with the term “illiberal” was during my grad school days, reading this book https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9780333613993 in which “illiberal democracy” is a political scientific rather than pejorative term. Since the mid-1990’s there’s been an explosion of scholarly discussion of “illiberal” thought in relation to 4 ideal types of liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, liberal autocracy and illiberal autocracy. And I guess it’s a sign of the times that the likes of Viktor Orban wear “illiberal” as a badge of pride, rather than assume that they are being accused of stinginess, ignobility or vulgarity. Our use of the term “illiberal”, though lacking textbook rigour, takes this background of scholarship for granted.
    However, yes, we obviously do use the term “illiberal” in a critical sense, much as we do the term “scholar of the state”. That critical sensibility connects to our concern with “the attitude of a thinker toward the current regime” – and the moral responsibilities of Ruist scholars working within such a regime’s research and educational institutions. On the liberal-illiberal typology stated above China approximates the illiberal autocracy type, characterized by state capitalist economic management, largely non-democratic single party governance, weak rule of law, restrictions on political speech and civil rights, and a growing carceral-surveillance system targeting entire religious and ethnic minorities. T H Jiang and I hint at a comparative evaluative dimension to this critical perspective. All things considered, Chinese Ruists would be better able to advocate for and practice Ruism safely as a comprehensive doctrine in a constitutional liberal order rather than under the CCP, and we side with those Ruists who argue for such a order and who refuse support for the CCP. But we also hint that there are reasons for Ruists to at least withhold support for the CCP even if they are not enamored of political or comprehensive liberalisms. Amidst the growing ideological instability and intolerance in leading Chinese universities – eerily reminiscent of the instability in 1930’s Japanese universities – important moral questions arise for Ruist scholars, as they do for all other scholars. Are they to continue offering their paper schemes for “Confucianizing” the CCP or even cravenly to justify its repressions, are they mutely to stand by or to collaborate as their colleagues and students are intimidated, dismissed, arrested…or “disappeared” as occurred in the Jasic Affair? There are plenty of precedents within the Ruist tradition for scholars/ministers confronting such circumstances to withdraw their support from the state, and to choose exile of some sort where they cannot openly remonstrate.

  5. Clearly I am the sheltered one! Thank you for this. I should change my opening parenthesis above to “(as distinct from technical usage in the field of the paper)”, and that’s a big change. But because of what I still think is the main range of non-technical usage–from which “ignoble” has probably dropped out but “stingy” has not–I kind of think the technical usage is regrettable. The term “non-liberal” may better capture the idea?

    • There are definitely some faults becoming evident with the term “illiberal”, especially with the growth of diverse intellectual and political movements in the so-called west repudiating some aspect or other of liberalism, ranging from American “post-liberal” Christian conservative rejections of “the tyranny of liberal ideology” to European populist movements selectively upholding some social liberal values while repudiating multiculturalism and economic globalism. And some of the strident attacks on “western values” coming out of the CCP in recent years sound more vehemently anti-liberal than anything else. Perhaps a more nuanced set of terms are needed to address the different strands of criticism of liberalism – rejection of liberal capitalist values combined with upholding of social liberal values, or rejection of social liberal values combined with defense of free market values, and so on. In any case, out of inertia, Jiang and I stuck with the standard terminology!

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