Angle’s Review of Fred Dallmayr and ZHAO Tingyang, eds. Contemporary Chinese Political Thought

A month ago I noted that Sungmoon Kim’s review of Fred Dallmayr and ZHAO Tingyang, eds. Contemporary Chinese Political Thought: Debates and Perspectives had been published at NDPR. My own review for Dao of the same book has now been published on-line first, and should be accessible to those with institutional access to Dao. I’ll paste the first couple paragraphs, as well as the penultimate paragraph (which makes a fairly self-standing point), below.

Fred Dallmayr and ZHAO Tingyang, eds. Contemporary Chinese Political Thought: Debates and Perspectives. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. viii + 295.

Judging by its contents, Contemporary Chinese Political Thought has two, somewhat different goals. On the one hand, it seeks to offer a broad, accessible introduction to the diversity of current Chinese political thinking. On the other hand, it also wants to give readers the opportunity to delve more deeply into some of the contested issues; in this way, the volume aims to display examples of the most innovative current thinking. The result is a somewhat uneven collection that succeeds partially at each goal. There is certainly much to recommend here, as I will explain, and even the volume’s shortcomings are quite stimulating to further reflection. Every reader will be rewarded by an encounter with this book.

It would be possible to write an entire review based upon the multiple ambiguities found in each of the four words in the book’s main title. I will exercise some self- restraint, though, and confine myself to a single word. What is the scope of “Chinese”? There are at least four things it could mean: political thought in China; political thought in the Chinese language; political thought by Chinese thinkers; and political thought based on Chinese traditions. These categories may but need not overlap. Each offers something of value, but something distinctive. On which version or combination have Dallmayr and Zhao chosen to focus? In Dallmayr’s Introduction he says that the answer is “in…China” (13), but in reality the answer is, at least to some extent, “all of the above.” The authors of all chapters save the Introduction were born in China, but many now live and teach abroad. It is a complex question—largely unaddressed in the volume—to what extent there is a coherent discourse of Chinese political thought taking place among the many locations represented here, and furthermore taking place across multiple languages. For that matter, many of the chapters engage at least in part with non-Chinese (by any definition) theorists, including one that barely makes any direct mention of China or Chinese thought (WANG Shaoguang’s piece on state effectiveness) and one is mainly concerned with explicating and defending an American scholar’s interpretation of Confucian thought (Peimin NI’s discussion of Henry Rosemont)….

… A thorough critical discussion of Chen [Ming]’s approach would have to question its linking of a supposedly ancient Confucian tradition with the comparatively recent (about a century old) phenomenon of Chinese nationalism, and perhaps contrast this with the rather multi-cultural and multi-state context of the classical Warring States era in which Confucianism matured. For present purposes, I want instead to ask whether Confucian values are likely to serve as the whole answer to current questions about Chinese values like those raised by Ci. I think it is possible that a suitably progressive understanding of Confucianism may play a positive role—and not simply further the “resublimation” about which Ci is concerned—but the very need to fit with or promote China’s “modernization,” whatever exactly that comes to mean, puts Confucianism in a difficult place, as Chen himself recognizes. I suggest that we may want to turn our attention instead to something else playing the leading role. In a fascinating recent collection of empirical and theoretical essays, Everett Zhang, Arthur Kleinman, and TU Weiming have endorsed the idea that “governmentality”—that is, a mode of power whereby the state seeks to support citizens in achieving “adequate lives”—is coming to replace a combined concern with state and party “sovereignty” and communist “revolution” (see Everett Zhang, Arthur Kleinman, and TU Weiming, eds., Governance of Life in Chinese Moral Experience: The Quest for an Adequate Life, London and New York: Routledge, 2011). I believe that we see something of the same idea of governmentality in the present volume’s essays by Cui and Fang, in particular. Pursuit of individual and collective well-being need not be mere “hedonism,” as Ci characterizes it, though he is surely right that imagination and ingenuity are needed to further articulate a robust contemporary political morality in China (and, perhaps, for the world)….

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