Zhao Tingyang on "Rethinking China"

Manyul’s post about Chinese “philosophy” relates in an interesting way to some reading I’ve been doing lately of the work of contemporary Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang 赵汀阳. Zhao first gained attention for his 1993 book 《论可能生活:一种关于幸福和公正的理论》[On possible lives : a theory of happiness and justice]. He vaulted into super-stardom with his 2005 book, 《天下体系:世界制度哲学导论》[The All-Under-Heaven System: An Introduction to the Philosophy of a World Institution]. This appropriation of the “tianxia” idea has been widely discussed, positively and negatively, both within philosophy and IR circles. Some of Zhao’s work is available in English translation; I’ll cite this at the end of this post. What I want to focus on, though, is Zhao’s insistence on the need to “rethink China (重思中国)” [Zhao 2005, 6].

“Rethinking China” means to re-think the significance of China, Chinese culture, and Chinese philosophy, and to do so from China’s standpoint. He says, “The historical significance of ‘rethinking China’ lies in striving to restore China’s own ability to think, so that China once again begins thinking, reestablishes its own frameworks of thought and fundamental concepts, once again creates its own worldview, values, and methodology, and … reflects on China’s future … and on China’s role and responsibilities in the world” [Ibid, 7]. He contrasts “rethinking” China with “discussing (检讨) China,” in which China is the object of analysis but not necessarily the active subject undertaking the analysis. Often the frameworks used to “discuss” China — including most discussions by Chinese intellectuals — are imported from outside. Such discussions are not necessarily wrong or unhelpful, but Zhao worries about the potential misfit between China and the various analytical categories used to discuss it, given the origin of the categories in very different contexts. More generally, he argues that it is important to recover a sense of agency for China and Chinese philosophy. It must be “creative” and “constructive” [Ibid, 11]. Elsewhere, specifically addressing Confucianism, he urges that Confucianism not be understood as “finished” or complete; it needs to dynamically respond to challenges.  It needs to move from “local knowledge” to “universal knowledge.”

I think there’s a lot to all of this. Zhao’s work is an effort to put such a “rethinking of China” — that is, thinking from China, rather than just about it — into practice. I also believe that one does not have to be in China, or Chinese, to participate in this kind of project. I wonder what others of you think? (Let me be clear that I by no means endorse all, or even the majority of, Zhao’s specific claims; what I mainly like is his method!) I’ll end with some references to Zhao’s work in translation and to some discussons of it.

  • Zhao Tingyang, ‘A Political World Philosophy in terms of All-under-heaven (Tian-xia)’, Diogenes 2009, 221: 5-18.
  • —–, ‘Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept of ‘All-under-Heaven (Tian-xia)’, Social Identities, vol.12, no.1 (January 2006): 29-41.
  • —–, “The Self and the Other: An Unanswered Question in Confucian Theory,” Frontiers of Chinese Philosophy 3:2 (2008): 163-176.
  • ZHANG Feng, “The Tianxia System in a Chinese Utopia” [A fine, succinct discussion of Zhao’s work with responses to some criticisms]
  • William A. Callahan, ‘Chinese Visions of World Order: Post-Hegemonic or a New Hegemony’, International Studies Review 10:4 (2008): 749-61. [To my mind, an unsympathetic essay on Zhao’s “tianxia” concept; it is unsympathetic in part because Callahan views Zhao through an IR lens rather than a philosophy lens.]

5 replies on “Zhao Tingyang on "Rethinking China"”

  1. Steve, you write, “I by no means endorse … the majority of Zhao’s specific claims; what I mainly like is his method!”

    By “his method” I take it you mean not the method he uses, which you (and Zhang Feng) don’t seem to touch on, but rather the main claims of his that you (and Zhang Feng) sketch, which might be thought of as generic criteria for methods (intellectual and cultural and political) to meet. Or is that not it?

    • Thanks, Bill. By “method” in the sentence you quote I mean his overt and broad philosophical agenda, which is distinct from other sorts of broad agendas (like finding the correct, contextualized interpretation of a Chinese text). Thus Callahan at least partly misses his target, I think, when he charges that Zhao’s “argument is based on a cavalier use of a few key passages from Chinese thought, which upon closer consideration actually do not support his Tianxia worldview” [Callahan 2008, 753]. To be sure, the question of how much faithfulness a philosopher like Zhao owes to the sources from which he draws is a good one. Zhao makes some claims, like the observation that distinct ancient Chinese approaches (or schools) complement one another and together form a coherent worldview, that are certainly open to dispute. But I dont think that an argument of the form “Laozi [sic] didn’t mean by ‘Tianxia’ what Zhao uses a sentence from the Daode Jing to assert” has much traction on its own.

      The other thing to say here is that Zhao is also very explicit and self-conscious about his “methods” at another level:namely, specific forms of argument that he uses to back up his claims. For example, he argues that philosophers should adopt a “stanceless (无立场)” approach, by which he means avoiding premises coming from one specific schol of thought. Another example: he argues that we should only be persuaded by an analysis of social structures that applies homologously at all levels (family, state, world). In Zhao’s writings, both of these “methods” (among others) turn out to support his emphasis on, and analysis of, “tianxia.”

  2. Hi Steve,

    this sounds very interesting! I will try to get his books here in Taiwan.
    I am more and more convinced that we need to take “China” serious, while avoiding both traditional Western modes of universalism and sino-centristic ways of writing about this huge tradition. Thus, 重思中国 could be a promising approach…

  3. I’d love to go and read more before I comment, but today’s a work day, so I’ll just post something a little bit hasty…

    I’m not at all sure about the translation Steve gives of 检讨. I don’t know if there’s a technical sense, but in standard modern Mandarin – and particularly in political writing – 检讨 has very strong critical overtones. Specifically, it involves identifying, admitting, and comitting to learn from one’s errors.

    Steve then goes on to talk about the imported frameworks within which this 检讨 activity takes place, and I think that’s very pertinent. 检讨 does rather assume that a perfect system exists, and all that is necessary is to identify where one has failed to live up to this perfection (the obvious example being Marx-Lenin-Mao Zedong thought, and everyone’s failure to live up to it…). 重思, on the other hand, sounds much more like development of new ideas. Thus the need to be creative and constructive.

    It may also be worth mentioning that 检讨 is generally something one is ordered to do by a superior. It carries within it strong implications of where one stands within an established hierarchy – so for anyone wanting to move beyond a Western-centric model of philosophy/any discipline, 检讨 might be a good word to erase from the vocabulary!

    • Hi Phil — thanks for these comments. (I tried this reply once yesterday, only to have the power go out, thanks to a thunderstorm; I’m hoping for better luck today!)

      I think that you’re at least partly right: both that “discussing” is not the best translation of jiantao in this context, and that some of the connotations you mention are relevant. Here’s a relevant bit from the 2005 book: “If we view the last 100 years of Chinese people’s looking at the negative side and engaging in severe self-criticism as a movement of “jiantao China,” then we can view reflection on the positive side of China as a movement to “rethink China.” [2005, 6]. He goes on to say that he thinks this latter movement is the most important intellectual movement in China starting from the mid-1990s, because better-known movements (such as the debate between liberals and the new left) are not really based on China’s own “products,” but are imports, the duplication of concepts popular in the West.

      So, maybe we can indeed think about the West (and Liberalism, Marxism, etc.) as metaphorical “superiors” “ordering” a kind of self-criticism, and so on!

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