Wang Gungwu 王赓武 on Living Chinese History

In his recent work, the renowned historian Wang Gungwu 王赓武 has from various angles discussed ideas about Chinese civilisation, holistic Chinese approaches to understanding the country’s place in global affairs and the world order in the twenty-first century. Grounded in his profound scholarship on China, South-east Asia and enriched by his capacious understanding of world history, Gungwu reminds us of the need to question, if not dislodge Anglo-American perspectives, not only in understanding the past, but also in discussions of the present.

The Mirror of History

History as a Mirror

At a time when the People’s Republic of China under the party-state leader Xi Jinping is acting on regional and global strategic views that are very much sui generis, Gungwu’s insights are timely and important, especially for students of current affairs. They also resonate with our long-term interest in New Sinology, that is, an approach to the Chinese world and ‘things Chinese’ that engages with the formidable legacy of premodern China in forming modern Chinese ways of making sense of the world. The ramifications of Sinitic ideas, unsettling as these may be, are of particular importance in understanding China today and what that country’s economic heft means to its government, its people and all of us.

The following discussion is taken from ‘Of Core and Edges’, the opening chapter in Ooi Kee Beng’s The Eurasian Core and Its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu published in 2014 by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). The chapter can be downloaded here and, for the full text of the book, visit the ISEAS Bookshop.

We have featured work by Wang Gungwu both on this site (see ‘Wang Gungwu 王赓武 on Tianxia 天下‘), and in our China Story Yearbooks. This dialogue adds to Currents of Thought 思潮 in the Thinking China section of this site, where we have previously published ‘The Practice of History and China Today‘, a discussion of Joseph Levenson’s famous trilogy on Confucianism and modern China among Australian, Chinese and North American historians.

We are grateful to Ooi Kee Beng and the publishers at ISEAS for their kind permission to reprint this material. We also warmly acknowledge the continued support of Wang Gungwu for The Australian Centre on China in the World and his interest in and engagement with The China Story Project.

The style of the original has been retained except for minor changes to italicised Chinese names and terms. Chinese characters have been added when deemed useful. — The Editors


Chinese Entry into the Global Age

OOI KEE BENG: Professor Wang, let’s start with the idea of China as a nation state. China becoming a republic in 1911 must have been earth-shattering for many Chinese. It certainly signified the crumbling of a world view that had lasted for millennia. Within forty years of that event, a form of communism would take over instead to dictate the national paradigm.

WANG GUNGWU: To be exact, that shift was precipitated by a nationalist paradigm more than a communist paradigm. China becoming a nation state was definitely very unfamiliar to most Chinese intellectuals, requiring as it did of them to shift away from their tradition of an Imperial China and from the ideals of Confucius and other historical thinkers, in order to adapt to what was a new and revolutionary idea. In that sense, the revolution in China was not a communist one to start with, but a nationalist one.

In moving from empire to nation state, they had to go through a period wherein they turned away from the past in order to look at China afresh, and to imagine a new kind of state.

And I must say that the early groups of scholars from the end of the nineteenth century down to 1949 were admirably adventurous in exploring other traditions. In other words, they took the West very seriously indeed. We tend to forget them now because they lost out after 1949, but the truth is a lot of them actually did a lot of studies on world history. They were looking particularly at Western history — why was the West so successful? They wanted an explanation, and quickly noticed how different Western history was from Chinese or East Asian history.

Searching 上下而求索 in the hand of Li Jishun 李吉顺

Searching 上下而求索, in the hand of Li Jishun 李吉顺

So what is the underlying difference? I think that when translating Plato, Aristotle, the Greeks and other European classics into Chinese, they already noticed that there was no world history as such. It was only European history writ large that they were reading, translating and reinterpreting for their Chinese audience. But they were also gaining a certain idea, a very important one in fact. They recognized that the West saw China as being on the fringes of civilization. Suddenly, the centre was there instead of here. And so, to what extent China could become part of that centre, or reengage as a new and opposing centre, was on their minds, and would remain on their minds for a long time to come. But the recognition that there was an ancient alternative civilizational centre that by the nineteenth century had proved to be more successful than China, inspired them to go in pursuit of something novel. All the social sciences were as yet new to them, even economics; and so they began to absorb some of these social science perspectives. But historians were the ones who impressed the Chinese audience most, because being able to place themselves in world history was important for them if they were to grasp where they were to go from here.

What they essentially recognized was that the successful centre they were dealing with was actually based around the Mediterranean Sea. They realized that the Western interpretation of history stemmed from Egypt, and from Babylonia. In that region, rival political and social systems had been evolving; and, eventually, it was Greek opposition to the Egyptian model, the Babylonian model and, most directly, the Persian model, which gave rise to the city states. Now, these city states were really quite different from what had gone before. They were miniature organizations, whereas the others were great states. Egypt controlled the whole of the Nile; Babylon ruled over the whole of the Tigris-Euphrates; and, ultimately, the expansive Persian Empire modeled itself on what went before. And so we have the great story of the Greeks resisting the Persians. The Chinese, on being introduced to Western history, could already see these two political systems fighting each other. In the end, the Athenian ideal lost out to the Spartans and to the Alexandrian Empire. Alexander was certainly imperialistic in the same way as the Persians, and Rome even more so. But, deep down, that different approach remained of “rule by miniaturizing political participation”, which never took the ideal of imperial bureaucracy too seriously, and which would cause reversion to the city-state idea throughout the whole medieval period down to modern times. Deep down, the idea of the small political unit lived on.

OKB: All politics being basically local… .

WGW: Yes. Small units collaborate as they will to form a larger system, but the root must be local. The Greek idea evolved towards a civil society idea. That is what is essentially still happening today.

Now, the Chinese read all that and realized that their case was very, very different. Recognizing that the centre of what they were up against came out of the Mediterranean, raised the question as to whether there was something moral, cosmological, philosophical, religious or spiritual, that sustains that centre and which is different from what sustains the Chinese. Whatever it is, it evolved from the Egyptians and the Babylonians down to the Roman Empire, and so into the rest of Europe. So what is this underlying something that is different?

The Chinese in their turn also did develop an empire, and their empire had many things in common with the Roman Empire. It had a bureaucracy, for example, although one could see that the nature of the two bureaucracies was different; one being based on warrior classes and the other on the literati. And this was a difference that moved the two in different directions.

Religious thought was also dissimilar. The religions of the Jews, the Christians and ultimately the Muslims all came with the idea of one god. In fact, the Egyptians already conceived of a monotheistic system, but it took a long time for the idea of one god overcoming all other gods to become dominant. It took over a thousand years, but the Jews did imbibe that idea. In fact, one should say that the Jews started in Egypt, and that the Moses story is an Egyptian one. Many other areas did not accept this one-god idea. Particularly in Central Asia and South Asia, there were other alternatives.

My understanding is that the Chinese realized that this one-god scheme was not something they could easily accommodate into their belief system, which has multiple gods. But the Chinese also have an underlying transcendental idea of Tianxia 天下 (All-Under-Heaven). Now, Tian 天 may or may not signify god, and although there is oneness denoted, one still has to ask if Tian equates god. That’s something that Christian missionaries in China have been struggling with for a long time. Chinese who convert to Christianity very often try to reconcile the difference and claim that Tian is in fact God. So you get Tianzhu 天主. The Jesuits were very good at transcending such differences. They tried to combine the two — Tianzhu means “Master of Tian” — and this appealed to some Chinese. It got them away from the idea of multiple gods, which was both confusing and localized.

Chinese intellectuals educated in the Confucian and other traditions were not persuaded, however, and they continued to explore other ways. What they took in the end from the West, which was most appealing to them and which did not threaten their own insights, was secularism — secular science. It was eighteenth and nineteenth century post-Enlightenment secularism and science and all that followed from the scientific revolution which they found acceptable. The one-god faith and the idea of miniature political systems were difficult for them to embrace.

This explains to some extent why the Chinese intellectuals, when they gave up the Confucian state in the nineteenth century, turned to nationalism and republicanism. The model to copy for them was secular and scientific Europe. The spiritual and religious side was not for them. They did recognize that democracy and republicanism were part of the Greco-Roman tradition, and that that tradition did produce scientific thinking, logic, mathematics and so on. But the Judeo-Christian tradition they would not accept. They really started their understanding of the modern world from the French Revolution onwards. That revolution provided the model for them — secular, progressive, scientific; and dismissive of monotheistic reason, such as that propounded by the likes of René Descartes.

In the meantime, they had also to recognize that it was the conflict of ideas in the Mediterranean which produced a civilization that became incomparably powerful by marrying — if I may borrow the terms that Europeans would use today — the Judeo-Christian tradition to the Greco-Roman tradition. This conjunction eventually gave birth to the secular, modern and rational post-Enlightenment world. That’s how these Chinese intellectuals would have seen it. No doubt, that point of view unacceptably pushed China to the fringes of world history. But, you see, that view is also somewhat narrow. For one thing, there are two fringes involved here — East Asia and South Asia. They are fringes in the sense that they have something distinctly their own.

The Core in World History

Now we come to the most interesting part, the part that I think puzzles the Chinese and others more than anything else — the role of nomadic Eurasia in history. For two to three thousand years an alternative existed there. If the nomadic Central Asian powers are acknowledged as a civilizational centre, then even the European Mediterranean is a fringe, just as China is a fringe. Giving recognition to Central Asia’s central role in world history puts China on par with the rest. And in any case, threats from Central Asia had always been the major security concern for Chinese emperors.

Interestingly enough, the West has always had the same fixation. They experienced similar problems with Scythians, Indo-Scythians, the various Huns down to the Tartars, the Mongols, the Turks — and Russia! Why, Russia has been absorbed into the Eurasian core to this day!

If we accept Eurasia as a civilizational centre, then it also becomes the core of world history, and all others become edges — East Asia, South Asia, Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Then, each edge studied for how it has been interacting with that core, gives China a valid chance to reinterpret history in a way that does not require it to be subordinated to other edges.

OKB: World history would have one core, and an integrated and balanced narrative would be possible.

WGW: Correct. Things now do make sense to the Chinese. The whole of Chinese history became continental because the driver of human history — Central Asia — always forced the Chinese to look inland. Their defences were always against that core; against the powerful horsemen who regularly came out of the Steppes to wage war against them. So the whole of Chinese civilization was built on differentiating the Chinese from those people. In that sense, even for the Chinese, the core was not China. The core was actually Eurasia, in differentiation from which the Chinese created a civilization to defend themselves.

More correctly perhaps, to them, the world had two centres — theirs and Eurasia’s; and the engagement between these was in effect world history. South Asia and the Mediterranean were fringes, and quite irrelevant as far as they were concerned.

By resisting Eurasia, they evolved into a rich and powerful civilizational centre, creating an alternative to it and managing to defend their values against those of the nomads — again, again and again. Now, if that is a valid interpretation of history, then the European phase of maritime victory over the continental powers is just a moment in history. It is only three or four hundred years old, if you start with the rise of the Portuguese. It was really only in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that maritime power replaced continental power — and not entirely either. Even the Cold War was a contest between maritime and continental powers.

The Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, but you see how even the United States now wants to be involved in Central Asia. It wants to have bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan because the Americans recognize that they cannot think in maritime terms only. Maritime terms alone were fine for a small island country like Britain. The British Empire did set a particular pattern, but it was only a short-term one, lasting only one or two hundred years. But it has had to be replaced by this balancing between maritime and continental power.

This helps the Chinese understand their own history: The Continental Phase gave them their civilization; and then they lost out during the Maritime Phase. The latter destroyed their civilization, and for over a hundred years they have been trying to recover. But now that they are recovering, they must not miss out on developing a maritime power of their own. They feel that if they don’t have a strong navy — and this is not for attacking anybody — they will be vulnerable, and they will never be able to represent this newly recognized force, this effective balance between maritime and continental power.

So they are like the United States in that sense — both are a maritime and continental power. If you take that broader perspective, the Chinese hope — it’s still only a hope — is that they can offer another way of looking at the world, another political culture to stand up against the essentially naval and maritime Mediterranean culture that now encompasses the world. The Chinese have successfully turned their continental condition into a strength, while the Russians have failed so far. But the Russians can be useful to the Chinese, and if peace is kept, the two can work out a concord to ensure that intra-continental relations do not deteriorate. That way, the Chinese have a chance to establish themselves as a global presence even on the maritime side. They can offer an alternative, and at the least hope that they do not become simply subjects in a West- dominated world, but are partners who are equally relevant to world history, and who offer differences that the West ultimately has to respect.

I think this is their ultimate hope — that they do not become just another satellite of a dominant centre. This possibility excites them.

The Confucian Order

WGW: …. The idea there in modern times has been to identify something in Western development that the Chinese could understand, but have not themselves had. The Chinese did not have the separation of Church and state. This was not because of any great ideological rejection though, like in the case of Islam where it is ruled to be impossible by the Qur’an.

For China, it was just not necessary, and this is where the Confucians played a key role. I guess if the Confucians hadn’t been so successful in the state, other things could have happened. If the Buddhists, for example, had taken over, the Chinese state would have been very different. But the way the Confucians managed to keep control provided for a stable political base, and made it unnecessary to separate Church and state because the Confucians were in the state. They can be said to represent a kind of socially conscious church that was not much worried about the next life. The way this worldly group of intellectuals were trained, the way they held together studying the same classics, completely absorbed in one set of books … to that extent, they were a monastic order. Now, that order was necessary to the state. In fact, the state was practically a machinery that gave Confucian ideas public legitimacy in return for which Confucianism provided the intellectual ballast to support the military, the aristocrats, and so on. The two had married so well that the idea that Church and state should be separate never occurred to them. So it remains to this day.

China still has these roots. Mao was in his own way, without being conscious of it, creating a state in which the state machinery and the communist bureaucratic machinery interlocked. The intellectual store of scientific socialism and the resources of the state were one and the same, and therefore the separation of Church and state was again not needed. Having a group of intellectuals outside the state who could contribute towards enriching society was unnecessary.

The Chinese are not really going along the way that the West had gone, where secularization has come to the point where you actually have an intellectual class separate from the state, and is constructively critical of it, and keeps the state honest. That is missing from the other two traditions, although the Chinese are not as extreme as the Muslims. They are actually capable of moving either way. Mao Zedong actually pushed it one way, and pressed for the supremacy of a set of ideological concepts and doctrines to dominate the state. And the state used all these to be absolutely totalitarian. He pushed it very far, and the Chinese rejected it, finding it simply impossible to live in that kind of state.

They have now pulled back from it, but they are not prepared to go the other way either. In fact, they pulled back to be where they always used to be. It is not Confucianism per se that they seek; it is about finding a balance where a bunch of people can exist; who are educated, trained and have the welfare of the state and society at heart; and who are committed to ensuring that the state behaves itself and does all the right things. They haven’t found that balance yet, but that is the new struggle.

My understanding is that the Confucians were quite modest about their intervention into the private affairs of people. They saw themselves as bearers of a tradition of respect for the family as a unit. That is not Confucius; that is more ancient than that. In the religion that we talked about earlier, already during the Shang period you can see an emphasis on the family, on heritage, bloodlines, ancestry and genealogy. Already, there was a sense of it. After a thousand odd years, Confucius simply re-embodied it, gave it an intellectual flavour and a moral justification, tying to it the social and political responsibilities that each educated person should have.

So it goes deep. It’s very deep-rooted, and the Confucians reinforced it. They didn’t fight it; they actually gave it legitimacy and a clearer definition, and forged a stable relationship in which the Tianzi 天子 (the Emperor) respected the autonomy of all families and clans, and these in turn produced people who would serve the Tianzi. Confucius himself did not spell it out as clearly as that, although he himself was an exemplar of it. He was there not to take over the state but to help the state be better, to help rulers be better. He saw himself in that role and he taught a whole generation of people to do the same — never to take over, but always to serve. And they failed, all of them failed.

Success came instead with the Legalists, who supported Qinshihuang, the First Emperor of China (259–210BC). They said you must first have power, then you can do some good. Without power, all talk is useless nonsense. And the Warring States, of course, proved it. All of them were fighting each other, and the Confucians were nowhere to be found. They were complete failures. The Taoists, too. All of them were failures. In fact, we should really call those who succeeded Realists, not Legalists. They were not interested in the law; they just wanted power.

They understood that in the end you need to collect taxes and defend your frontiers. These come first; people have to live. What’s the point of saying: Be nice to people, be good to people, have morals and so on, if you don’t have the soldiers and you don’t have the revenues to pay the soldiers. You can’t even survive! Earlier groups were interested in administration, like Shen Buhai (died 337BC). In a way, this was what we would call public administration today. Shen Buhai was not a Legalist per se; he came before them. Some would consider people like him to be zonghengpai 纵横派 — they were strategists. They did the same things as the Confucians did, but what they offered was not how to be a good ruler, how to be successful, or how to run the country. They went out with ideas about how to collect taxes, how to generate officials, how to recruit staff, and this and that. Out of this came the Legalists and the Confucians. Among the Confucians were people who also saw in the end that Confucius was a failure. They saw the need to come up with something else. These were people like Shang Yang (390–338BC), Xunzi (312–230BC) and Han Feizi (280–223BC).

Han Feizi was a follower of Xunzi and started out as a Confucian. He recognized that the Confucians were going nowhere, and like Shang Yang, who came from the Shen Buhai tradition, thought that they needed to have one leader who could unite them all. All the fighting was destroying them — people perishing, fields untilled, resources limited, and the country impoverished. They must unite. So they concentrated their energy on the one ruler they thought could win, and this was Qin Xiaowu, the father of Qinshihuang. For eighty to a hundred years, these rulers built up the military state that ultimately won, and won not only by military means but through a bureaucratic structure. Every time they won, they extended their bureaucratic network until they covered the whole of the empire. In the course of doing that, they also built up a most powerful military system.

But having succeeded, they went on to conquer further afield, into territories that were not part of the Warring States at all. They extended their borders into Korea, into Mongolia, Sichuan, into the Yangtze Basin and all the way down to southern China. The Qin armies went right down to Vietnam. That was because they had a military system already in place, with nobody to oppose them. They just marched right down. It was not intentional. It was not an imperial system in the sense that they went out to seize territory, but they were so powerful that they simply moved on, like with the Roman Empire, and in a way as with the British Empire, too. All empires have the tendency to do that. When you meet no enemies, you push on until someone stops you.

But in this case, the Qin stopped simply because the First Emperor died. There followed a period of chaos, and the first Han emperors reviewed the fact that they now had control over huge territories. And having set up this bureaucratic system, who was to run it? At first they just used aristocrats. These were all educated in different schools. They were not only the Confucians; they were also Taoists, Legalists, disciples of Mozi, the Yin-Yang school — all of them having some kind of religious background. It took another fifty to sixty years before Han Wudi (156–87BC) decided that those most useful to him were the Confucians. He made that decision, and it was a personal one. He appreciated the Confucian Dong Zhongshu (179–104BC) greatly, you see. He clicked well with him.

The Confucians had always been on the fringes, always offering advice with nobody paying much attention because they were too idealistic or too moralistic. But these guys were pretty good at administration. So Han Wudi brought them in and, by the end of his period, had basically entrusted the running of the state to them.

Their principles were as follows: never attempt to take power; always be of loyal service; be as educated as you can be; learn all about institutions and the best way of making use of them for the sake of the kingdom, for the emperor. This was all very objective on the whole and with no vested interest — and it was also secular. Confucius did say that the other world was not our business … we don’t know it at all, you see. Why discuss something of which we know nothing? Act on what we know, what we see.

They were very realistic, very practical, very pragmatic and very willing to compromise with the state. Now, that’s very important. The Taoists, for example, were not willing to compromise. They had said basically that you could not trust the aristocrats, which was probably right. But Confucians said, well whether you trust them or not, you should help them. Make them better! You see, that’s the difference. They all had ultimately the same goal. They all wanted peace and stability — heping 和平 and tianxia wei gong 天下为公 and tianxia taiping 天下太平 [OKB note: Respectively, these mean “Peace”, “All under Heaven is Common Property”, and “Great Peace in All under Heaven”]. All said the same thing. But to achieve that, the Confucians thought you should work with the rulers, and actually — they brought in Taoism and played down Legalism. They made the laws less stringent, and applied them less rigidly. But that was not quite enough. In the end, somebody had got to run it. How do you secure the collection of taxes? After all, the two major functions of the state are collecting taxes and defending the frontiers. How do you make sure that’s done properly? The Taoists, for example, were simply too vague and impractical to come up with an answer.

OKB: Was this when the Wen 文 (civil) and Wu 武 (martial) distinction developed?

WGW: I suppose it was already there before that. This distinction was there during the Warring States — Wen were the people going around giving advice, and Wu were the soldiers. In this context, the idea of Shi  士 is very interesting. Shi originally applied to Wu, to the military. But it became a word to describe the more educated and intellectual part of the machinery of government during the Han Dynasty. Shi came to denote Wen, the civil, but its origins were martial, as in qishi 骑士, a cavalier, or even shibing 士兵, a soldier. Shi was used initially for anybody who used power to do things. The separation was not that firm, but the Confucians made it more and more rigid, because they thought that in order to be really free from suspicions of being ambitious for power, they must not have military power. You see, if you have any military power, the emperor can never trust you because you can always use your power against him. To be absolutely sure that the emperor would trust you, you must show that you have no power! So the basis of the denotative for Confucianism — Ru 儒 — is very interesting. Some say Ru originally meant “weak”. In a way, the Taoists would approve of that. Softness can transform things.

OKB: The element of water and the like… .

WGW: Yes, the element of water. You must not, as it were, fight or resist; and so you serve. You have no power, and so you serve well. Now, to establish that sort of reputation, the Confucians elaborated on what Confucius had said, and Mencius in particular emphasized this more and more. By the time of the Han Dynasty, the concept of Xiao 孝, of filial piety, was linked to the concept of Zhong 忠, loyalty. Confucius never made that connection. He did talk about how important Xiao was, but Zhong meant something else then! It meant being true to yourself, being faithful to what you believe in, your ideals, the tenets and doctrines you believe in. But during the Han Dynasty, partly thanks to Dong Zhongshu and others who served Han Wudi, there came a re-interpretation of some of the Confucian texts. This was required to make these people even more trusted by the state. And Xiao and Zhong became inseparable. Xiao was no longer a family matter; it became a necessary part of educating children to be Zhong, to be loyal to the state.

Fourteen Confucian virtues, in the hand of Dong Yongxi

Fourteen Confucian virtues, in the hand of Dong Yongxi 董永西

The argument was, if you are not Xiao (filial), how can you be expected to be Zhong (loyal)? So, the way you serve your parents would be a good indication of your willingness to serve your ruler. All this came after Confucius.

It is very important to distinguish between Confucius and his immediate disciples on the one hand, and on the other, Confucianism as a body of thought derived from the original ideas of Confucius, which was independent of the state and had its own momentum and dynamics. And then there is State Confucianism. These three are really quite separate. State Confucianism was, of course, the derivative of the other two. It propounded a very focused and narrow set of ideals, and represented the part of Confucianism that the state was prepared to support and that it found most useful.

But if you had gone too much into what Confucius believed in, the state would not have approved either. For example, the complete autonomy of the ruler would have been challenged. Like the Christian Protestants who say, “I can talk to God myself”, the Confucian can go back to Confucius and reinterpret things: “My understanding says that this is what Confucius meant, and you as emperor are not doing the right thing. I have the right, and the duty, to tell you that you are wrong.” Now, that is Confucianism. It is not Confucius, but it is Confucianism.

State Confucianism and Confucianism conflict at some points, and if you want to be in the state, you have to accept the limits of State Confucianism. The Confucians who didn’t want to join the state could stay out and accept the fact that their ability to influence events would be very limited. Many minor officers did spend their lives teaching and performing small services instead.

This is where the literati as a stable sociocultural force is so important to Chinese civilization. In a way, the state trusts them. They do not have power, and they will never organize themselves against the ruler. They have great autonomy because the emperor is not bothered with them; and as long as the emperor had his State Confucians working for him, the non-State Confucians could say what they liked!

So that’s part of the tradition. The Confucians could bring this sense of stability and cultural unity to the whole nation because they were spread out everywhere. In every town and village in the country, there was somebody studying Confucian classics outside of state control. Nobody cared about them because they had no power, and they would never organize themselves against the state. They were not like the Taoists and the Buddhists who could do that because they had their own gods.

These non-State Confucians had no gods. Their only god — their divinity — was Confucius, and their texts taught them to be always loyal to the state. When things become absolutely impossible, then they would stand up and say what they must, and they would have their head cut off! And they did that. That is the tradition. So the state says, OK, we actually do not have to control everything! They know they can count on this body of literati who are found everywhere, to provide peace and stability in the villages and towns. These will provide leadership, have the respect of the people, and will never tell the people to rebel. On the contrary, they are always teaching the people how to be more loyal, and how to serve society better. And the state can afford to leave them alone, as long as it can recruit from those who pass the exams — and these don’t necessarily have to be the best guys — to serve in the state system. So State Confucians are those who are part of the system. They are not actually collaborating though; they are more the backbone of the system. The state can trust them because they will not rebel.

It is like in modern societies, such as in America, where there is the ability to recruit from the universities. The universities provide the Confucians, and those among them willing to serve the state are like the State Confucians. Every branch of government in the United States is full of PhDs, or Masters at least. In other words, they’ve passed some examination that has made them loyal, and they are never going to rebel against the state. All these qualities are not too dissimilar from the Confucian case. They have the same kind of function, and when they finish, they go back to being a Confucian again, back to the university to do the social sciences, and so on. They’ll never organize themselves against the state, and they will always be serving somebody. In the American case, you have a two-party system. You serve either one party or the other, but you’re always loyal to one or the other.

So in a way, the gap between the western and eastern fringes of Eurasia is actually diminishing because the Chinese are also adapting themselves to the modern system. They have had the roots; the heritage was already there. Both State Confucianism and Confucianism can appeal to the Confucian texts. But on the whole, the texts are very modest. They are very broad and they can be interpreted in many different ways. That is fine though; that’s actually the best kind of text. All the best texts are those that are not too sharply divided. So when the Confucians attack State Confucians, the latter also use the words of Confucius to defend themselves. The two have a balance in their relationship, a mutual respect because both can quote Confucius against one another, just like Europeans can quote the Bible against each other. Certainly, the Catholics and the Protestants quote the Bible against each other. The similarity is fascinating.

OKB: In our time, the concepts that grew out of other fringes are neglected because the western fringe is epistemologically so dominant.

WGW: No question about that. The West has been dominant for two hundred and fifty years. Some scholars in China today are going back to their tradition, but they are going back with fresh eyes because they have been through Marxism-Leninism. They have read the classics of the liberals, they have read the Greeks and the Romans, but they tend to return to Confucian things. Some were doing this from the beginning of the twentieth century already, but they remained peripheral; they were very few. And then they were caught in the political struggle between the nationalists and the communists, and never had any real influence. These people were completely ignored and neglected. But after Deng Xiaoping brought a new stability to the Maoist revolution, and gave it a new legitimacy, the system became a little more open-minded, and now allows Confucians to reappear.

There is an analogy there, perhaps not an exact one; but something that fascinates me also is how the Confucians historically survived the onslaught of Buddhism. Buddhism was a minor influence that appealed to a very small number of people when it first came to China. But by the fourth century, devotees like Faxian (337–422) were going to India to look for the texts, as did Xuanzang (602–664) in the seventh century. Yijing (635–713) as well. All these priests went to India to retrieve sacred texts. In the fifth and sixth century, every state, whether in northern China under Turkic rulers or in southern China under Han Chinese, was Buddhist. The ruler of the Liang Dynasty (502–557) actually thought he was going to be a kind of Buddha on Earth. This is not very different from the way Thai, Cambodian or Burmese kings in the past saw themselves — as Buddhas on Earth.

In all this, the Confucians were totally marginalized. They were barely surviving, and so they had to compromise. You see, they were taught to be loyal to the state. So if the state became Buddhist, they studied Buddhism. They continued to represent their Confucian ideas and tried to marry the two without giving up on their core convictions. Buddhism was not quite right, they felt, but they didn’t know how to overcome it because the rulers were Buddhist. So you had to make yourself useful, to show that a Buddhist ruler may believe in all these other things, but when it came to running the country and the institutions of state, you could do it for him. The ruler may be Buddhist, but that did not stop you from doing your job capably. In any case, the ruler couldn’t trust anybody else, because none of them were dedicated to that same principle of loyalty. Buddhist monks may not wish to topple the emperor, but then they could not be of service since what they wanted was to enter Nirvana. Confucians could tell the emperor, if you want to stay in power, if you want your son to succeed you, we’ll help you. They continued to make themselves useful, even though they were not fully trusted. In the meantime, the rulers could pray and build Buddhist temples and worry about the next world and about immortality. The Confucians would worry about this world, and about getting the job done.

My own question here really is this: How did the Confucians survive the four hundred years between the Han and the Tang (220 to 618)? Great Tang emperors like Tang Gaozu (566–635) and Tang Taizong (598–649) were really Taoists and Buddhists, not Confucians. In fact, they were very much Taoists by then because they considered themselves descendants of Laotse since they had his surname — Li. That was of course ridiculous because the Tang emperors were actually of Turkic origin, descendants of the Toba Turks. Yet they claimed a connection and were therefore very accepting of Taoist practices. In fact, they used the Taoists as they used the Buddhists. If you look at descriptions from the courts, you see that the Taoists and the Buddhists were always present, in close proximity to the emperor. There were always superstitious practices going on, and the emperor was forever hoping to gain immortality. The Confucians were at the edges, offering to run the empire, to collect more taxes, and to make sure the military remained loyal.

The Buddhists didn’t know how to do all that. They could teach you things, but that could make them ambitious to be emperors themselves, something the Confucians never did. Almost none of the top Confucians held important positions, except under Emperor Xiaowen (467–499) of Northern Wei (386–534). So what were these guys thinking in their own minds? They must have said, we’ll just keep at it, show that we are loyal and not dissenters.

When Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the non-state literati made fun of him. They said the Swedes had sold out and were accepting Mo Yan, who belonged to the state literati. But really, Mo Yan represents a kind of independent and creative thinking, but is doing it without fighting the state. He just says, “Why should I join the rest of the world and ask for Liu Xiaobo [the incarcerated 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner] to be released when I can do more by being in the state? And furthermore my works get read.”

And his works are very creative. They are actually full of very fascinating ideas. Mo Yan feels, “I work in the system and I do what I can to open up people’s minds and to open up the system. But if I do it as a dissident, I am just isolated, and even if I don’t go to jail, I’d be marginalized.” So it is a difficult dichotomous problem. The analogies are there, obviously.

‘The Chinese are Learning Everything’

OKB: In Western societies today, the Confucian role we are defining here would analogously be played by the people active in NGOs, wouldn’t it?

WGW: They are civil society — the public intellectuals who are not willing to collaborate. The ones who are willing to collaborate are often in the universities, with academic skills but without political ambitions. The government trusts them, but not those other guys — the NGOs and civil society — even though they are trained by the universities as well! So the universities play the role of training the Confucians and training the State Confucians also! So the analogies are not that far apart.

When you think about it, why is China seen as such a threat to the American way of life? China may have something that actually works a little bit better in some ways. It doesn’t work very well in other ways, but it can be more stable. You don’t get something like the American “fiscal cliff”, where you are so polarized that the government is stymied and completely stuck! Now, should the Chinese become more successful in administering the state, people will begin to have doubts about the Anglo-American global system.

The Americans do feel the threat of an alternative modified system that actually denies some of the most central ideals that the West represents. This they find unacceptable. But in terms of trying to establish a stable society, which is peaceful in itself, and finding ways of getting things done — collecting taxes and defending the country, which is what the state is for — and accepting the most advanced knowledge of science and technology that the West has, the Chinese are very quick to learn. The only hesitation is over political ideals. But everything else they are learning from the West, very, very fast, including literary and cultural matters. No reluctance, no barriers! The Chinese are learning everything! The only thing they are not prepared to accept — and that’s the one thing that the West is trying to hold against them — is the ideal of liberty. That is indeed what the Chinese are most fearful of, because they are not sure how to control it. If they can understand how to control it, if they think it possible to have liberty and still be in control, I think they’ll accept it. In fact, the State Confucian group we were talking about is actually relatively free, as it is!

It’s the other group — the Confucianists — that the state is watching. Their final text is still in doubt. Is it more about Confucius or about Marx? To be sure, Marx is just a symbol to represent the modern West, not the Christian West, but the modern secular West, including the science and technology. That’s Marx in shorthand.

Put Learning to Use when the Time is Right 學而時習之, from The Analects

Put Learning to Use when the Time is Right 學而時習之, from The Analects, in the hand of Yang Changtai 杨昌泰

As I said, there had been three groupings in the past — Confucius and his disciples, Confucianism, and State Confucianism. It’s still the same now, and this mix is still a struggle. You do find a number of Confucian scholars drawing upon Marxist texts, and a lot of Marxist ideologues quoting bits of Confucius. In other words, there’s an attempt, as happened in the Song Dynasty concerning Buddhism and Confucianism, to syncretize. However, I think the conflict has been reduced, and they are now fighting about very specific things. These are over a few key words — liberty, rule of law, and individualism.

Freedom of expression and democracy are of course just extensions of liberty. The Chinese don’t deny democracy, but their interpretation of it is different. In the West, the idea of democracy must include rule of law and freedom. The Chinese idea of democracy is that as long as we are doing it for the people and the people approve, you have democracy! It is why you call it minben 民本 — the people as the base. Even Confucius talked about it; Mencius as well. If you do it for the people, you are serving the people! Wei renmin fuwu 为人民服务(serve the people) was not coined by Mao Zedong. The notion was already there, even though they didn’t have that phrase. It is clearly from Mencius — the people come first, the ruler comes last. He always said that, in the end, the determination of a ruler’s righteousness is that people accept him. If they don’t accept him, they overthrow him, and that would be the end of his Heavenly Mandate, his Tianming 天命. When you give that a democratic interpretation, the Chinese don’t find it too much of a conflict.

OKB: It is rule for the people, but not by the people.

WGW: Not by the people, because “by the people” brings in questions of rule of law and liberty … and the individual. The individual is something that the Chinese are very ambivalent about. Confucius actually did place a great deal of emphasis on the individual, but that’s the individual with a conscience, with education, a person at the top. In other words, your shidaifu 士大夫, your gentleman, is an individual, but your laobaixing 老百姓, your common man, should be organized in family units. And their Xiao, their adherence to family values, is more important than themselves. So the collective is more important than the individual at that level. Now, the Shi, to have his conscience to serve, is still a member of that community; he still has Xiao, he still belongs to the community when it comes to family affairs, and he accepts a collective judgment. But, when he is serving the state, and to be loyal, to have Zhong to the state, he has to have a conscience that is drawn from Confucian ideals. For that, he must be free from his family, for fear of nepotism. He cannot help his family because that is not helping the state or the emperor. His loyalty to the emperor demands certain other things, including his conscience. What advice to give to the emperor about running the state and society is a separate duty done by the individual, and not by the collective mind.

OKB: The Confucian attitude is something that grows over generations, isn’t it?

WGW: It is a kind of secular religion, with a set of secular values which one has faith in. It is not based on logic. It is based on the faith that one grows up in, based on one’s relationship with one’s parents, brothers, sisters, cousins — the whole network.

Confucius and Mencius continually underlined the fact that this was the most natural thing to do; the most natural because you do grow up with your parents, your brothers and sisters, your grandparents, and your aunts and uncles. The Confucian idea is that if you get that right, the whole of society should develop in the right direction. If all the families are well run in themselves, why should there be any need for the state to intervene? In minimal things like collecting taxes and defending frontiers; yes, the state is needed because no single family can do that. Like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) says in his classic, Leviathan, you give something up to the sovereign, to the king, and you close a deal with him. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) as well — you give up certain things, enabling the king to do certain things, like collecting tax revenues, defending the empire or the civilization, etc. The rest he should not bother about; the rest can look after itself.

And that worked for a long time. That fascinated the Jesuits when they arrived in China. That was the one thing that caught their eye. They brought it back to Europe and it became very influential, particularly among the Germans and the French. The French took one side of it and developed a fantastic centralized bureaucracy; while the Germans took the more philosophical side of it, and tried to work out the ethics of it.

Now while the Catholics found the bureaucratic part highly interesting, many Western philosophers in the following centuries, mostly Protestants, were inspired by the idea of the autonomy of the people from the state; that the state and society had different functions and could maintain a relationship not based on religion or a church.

OKB: Kang Youwei (1858–1927) came along at the end in an effort to change things.

WGW: In a way. He messed it up because the Empress Dowager never forgave the Han Chinese for attempting the Hundred Days’ Reform.[1] “They’re ruining my empire! They cannot be trusted!” She was not very smart; she was very old fashioned and very much focused on the preservation of Manchu privilege. That was her heritage, you see, and she couldn’t see beyond that. So, do you save the Qing, or do you save China? That was the question.

Sun Yatsen (1866–1925) in a way represented a new force, and the Manchu response reinforced Sun Yatsen’s message that they could not have Manchu rulers anymore.[2] If the last imperial house had been Chinese, they could have done what the Japanese did. But with the Manchus, there was no way that could happen! Who was to replace the emperor? Who to replace the Man rulers? Who has the right to be Tianzi? There was nothing for it but to declare China a republic.


Further Reading

For an introduction to Central Asian political history, see Peter B Golden, Central Asia in World History, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. See also Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, Capitol, 1951; and, Anthony C Yu, State and Religion in China: Historical and Textual Perspectives, Chicago: Open Court, 2006.

1. This vain last-minute attempt at reforming dynastic rule was done with the emperor’s consent, and lasted from 11 June to 21 September 1898.
2. Sun is widely considered the “Father of the Republic of China”.