Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

10. The modern period

Beginning with the Buddhist incursion into China at the beginning of the Common Era, the question of the degree to which ‘Western’ influences have effected significant changes in China’s cultural life has been vigorously debated. Han Yu, like Mencius a thousand years earlier, railed against the pernicious influence upon the Confucian community of competing ideologies. Yet, as we have argued above, the Chinese genius for realizing social stability through the harmonious integration of novel influences led to the effective transformation of Buddhist ideology and practice into a distinctly Chinese institution.

In modern times, events surrounding the May Fourth movement in 1919 seemed likely to lead to the Chinese acceptance of Western ideological influences. Hu Shi, a student of John Dewey and later a distinguished Chinese philosopher, helped arrange Dewey’s twenty-six month lecture tour of China in 1919–21), and later sought to disseminate his mentor’s ideas. Bertrand Russell, whose lectures in China overlapped Dewey’s, was equally well-received by the intelligentsia. However, the final result of the May Fourth uprising, which occurred just three days after Dewey’s arrival in China, was not the realization of democratic reform but the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The widespread assumption that Marxism has effectively westernized Chinese philosophical culture is seriously challenged by Mao’s own claim, upon adopting Marxist ideology, that he was using a Western heresy to confront the West (see Marxism, Chinese).

The Chinese transformation of Marxist into Maoist thinking in contemporary China reveals the inertia of Chinese tradition. The single most distinctive change that Mao made to Marxism was a commitment to particularity and site-specificity. Dialectical materialism is revised to reflect a yinyang ad hoc relationship between economic principle and social superstructure. Although hierarchical, these forces are seen as interdependent and mutually determining. Human malleability and the fluidity of social nature goes far beyond the standard Marxian line. Where Marx places emphasis on the uniformity of class-originated nature, Mao emphasizes the importance of those differences derived from ways of living and thinking that must be factored into the evaluation of any particular ‘concrete’ personality. There is in Mao a basic suspicion of abstract, general claims, and a recurrent return to specific cases and historical examples. The contemporary Chinese view so historicizes the Marxist sensibility as to make room for an almost unlimited flexibility with regard to the shaping of individual personalities and the development of individual skills (see Marxism, Chinese).

There is little evidence to suggest that contemporary China has abandoned any significant elements of its syncretic Confucian orthodoxy. The dynastic leadership of contemporary China maintains many of the same characteristics that have dominated since the Han dynasty: a governing state ideology that gives all people their respective place in their community, an understanding of the nation as a ‘family’, a programmatic constitution which functions more like a Bill of ‘Rites’ than a Bill of Rights, a filial respect for the ruler as ‘father and mother’ of the people, and the consequent sense of rule as a personal exercise. With respect to the personal character of rule, it continues to be the case in China that to object to the policies that articulate the existing order is in fact to condemn the ruler’s person.

As a ritually-constituted society, without grounding in the objective principles associated with reason or natural law, contemporary China is defined by the exemplars of its tradition. The members of the society are themselves possessed of their ‘humanity’ not as a gift from God or a common genetic inheritance, but as created by ritual enactment. The Chinese have no inalienable rights. Citizens have been deemed to possess only those rights granted by China’s various constitutions. The Chinese would see the Enlightenment insistence upon the universality of certain values and principles as an instance of ethnocentric dogmatism. Chinese ethnocentrism is, perhaps, more consistent than its Western counterpart since it is grounded in the self-conscious insistence upon the centrality of its peculiar ethos, defined by racial and linguistic identity.

China remains a culture grounded in the model of the family which cultivates filial dependency. Thus, the Chinese have no means of cultivating that ‘healthy suspicion’ of governmental power which we take for granted without undermining the community of affect that binds ruler and people. As a rational means of organizing social and economic interactions, the technology so prized in the West cannot but erode the ritual grounding of interpersonal relationships. One of the catchwords of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 was ‘democracy’. But, in a society where individualism remains a symptom of selfishness and license, and freedom of speech must be qualified by the Confucian understanding that not only saying but thinking involves a disposition to act, Chinese democracy must certainly take on an unfamiliar form. Indeed, the inhibition of individualism and freedom of speech is not a modern invention of Chinese communists but a persistent feature of a Confucian society in which ideas are always dispositions to act.

One can hardly look closely at the intellectual culture of contemporary China without coming to respect the power of China’s traditions. The intransigent sense of ‘Chineseness’ which coalesced in the Han dynasty continues to determine the shape of Chinese intellectual culture. For good or ill, the Chinese remain the people of the Han.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. The modern period. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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