BOOK REVIEW: History of Chinese Thinking

2002-04-13Asia Times

BEIJING - On hearing the name Ge Zhaoguang, Chinese academics prick up their ears and, depending on their opinions, either raise their eyebrows or smile with pride. No one doubts that he has accomplished a great work. More than 1,000 pages printed in minute characters and thousands of footnotes based on original texts and Western and Japanese research prove that Professor Ge has diligently done his homework. But is the result worthwhile? Or is it simply a display of borrowed erudition?

On the Internet, where in China a great part of the national cultural debate takes place, criticism is fierce. Writers and professors, amateurs and professionals express venomous criticism against the book The History of Chinese Thinking. A small minority, however, led by Li Xueqin, a leading expert on Chinese archeology and ancient thought, has a different opinion.

"This book displays completely new features, not only from the methodological point of view, but also in respect to its view of reality, and it gives the reader a more profound and wider comprehension of the world of thinking," writes Li Xueqin. As a matter of fact, apart from some minor mistakes referred to by detractors, Ge Zhaoguang, 51, opens to us a new world of Chinese thinking.

While giving his book a title that is shared with many previous works, Ge sketches a new outline of Chinese philosophy in which he reviews the entire history of the intellectual development of China, from ancient times to the threshold of modernity. As far as the methodological approach is concerned, Ge's endeavor pays tribute to the work of Foucault, with respect to his reconstruction of cultural trends, as well as to Braudel for the extended scope of his work and for the attention paid to connections, even in the remote past. The book also tackles philosophical developments in a manner reminiscent of the work done by Graham, perhaps the most important sinologue of the last century. This leads Ge, however, beyond his inspirers. Indeed, Ge is able to identify the main themes of Chinese intellectual development, the themes that unify and define it over a course of more than 3,000 years.

Ge begins his work from the most ancient findings, the literature of the oracle bones, and proceeds to ponder the influence exerted by the peculiarities of the Chinese language on the development of Chinese thought. This in turn helped shape the underlying, profound unity existing in the ancient culture of the Yellow River Valley, between the concept of heaven, the cosmos, and normal people's lives. The perception of a symbolic unity between the cosmos and the political world of men was thus put into place and this unity was celebrated and strengthened through a complex series of rituals.

Such unity was, however, disrupted around the 7th century BC after a serious political crisis that swept away the old ritual practices that fixed this unity. This crisis led to all kinds of reactions. The first was, by definition, reactionary: Confucius wanted to bring back and re-establish the old rituals. Others wanted an altogether different political system and agreement with the cosmos. Such a separation between men and the cosmos led to the quest for a new political order no longer hinging on the idea of a Son of Heaven (a spiritual more than political leader of the Chinese world) but rather on individual kings strengthening their autonomy from the Son of Heaven and nurturing the independence of their states.

It was the transformation leading to the Warring States period, but also to the very tight and particular Chinese links between philosophers and politics. As a matter of fact, politics were largely shaped by a new social class of wandering scholars, the shi, who, as the political managers of the day, put their abilities at the service of the ones who financially appreciated them. The shi were the intellectuals of that period as well as the decision-makers in politics. They either rebuilt tradition, as Confucius did, or attempted to innovate it as the Mohists and Legalists did. They were the ones who laid the foundations for the first Chinese empire and continued exerting an intense influence over the emperor, who selected his ministers among these intellectuals and not among his relatives. An aristocracy of intellect, selected through direct promotion and through an examination system, was thereby created. This organized and politically recognized force of intellectuals was almost unique worldwide.

The relationship between intellectuals and politics subsequently becomes a constant in Chinese history. However, it reached a critical phase for the first time many centuries later, at the time of the great penetration of Buddhism into China. Little by little, a new class of intellectuals identifying itself with Buddhist thought escaped political engagements in order to pursue religious engagements. It was the second very profound crisis in China's intellectual history, when for the first time China became aware of a cultural invasion from the outside. This sparked off a chain reaction going in opposite directions. On one hand, it started the development of the Zen philosophy, which would at much later stages reach the West through Japan. Here there were the aesthetics of the void, the sense of nothingness that profoundly permeated its vision of the world in paintings and poetry.

But the sense of invasion also triggered an opposite reaction which later, in the 9th century AD, led to the Confucian restoration. It is during this period that the sense of Confucian tradition first takes shape, when the pursuit of knowledge, once almost exclusively an accessory to politics, becomes more popular by spreading the teaching of morality across all social classes. These new philosophers, on the other hand, under the double pressure of the Buddhist cultural invasion and the Mongol military invasion in the 11th century, were also forced to admit for the first time that the world does not end in the valleys of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers.

It is then that the transition from the concept of tianxia (literally, "under the sky", indicating the whole world) to that of zhongguo, or "Middle Kingdom" (a concept that formerly indicated some of the territories of the Yellow River basin), takes place. The notion of civilization, wenming, against the barbarians living outside the Middle Kingdom stems from this development. This civilization's ability to assimilate other cultures is later confirmed by the progressive Sinicization of the Mongol rulers.

A geopolitical change occurs with this shift in perception. The Chinese capital, which from the time of the first unification in 220 BC remained in a valley surrounded by mountains around today's Xian, is moved to Beijing. Here, as explained by a young philosophy student, Lu Xiang, can be seen a transition from a set of priorities centering around mere defense, thanks to the mountains' protection, to a prerogative placed on positions of attack. The mountains and the Great Wall north of Beijing enable the government to react promptly in the event of an attack launched by the Mongols, while the large plains stretching south clear the ground for troops sent to crush possible local rebellions.

This is a radical change intensified by the arrival of the Jesuits, explains Ge. The astronomical instruments of Matteo Ricci and his colleagues and the new maps of the world plunge the cosmogony passed on from time immemorial into a crisis and change once again the concept of the world, the Chinese weltanshauung. For Chinese civilization, wenming, it is quite like discovering other forms of life on other planets. Such a discovery coincides with the shock of Manchu rule, a foreign race that is soon completely Sinicized. This leads to the rediscovery of tradition through a new textual criticism, laying new foundations for Chinese thought.

At this point, we are on the eve of a confrontation with a new wave of foreigners from overseas. Here the debate becomes tangled and vacillates between interest in the discovery of and opposition to the Westerners, to the Chinese intellectuals' siding with those who not long before were also foreign invaders, the Manchus. These issues largely also form the terms of the present cultural and political debate among Chinese intellectuals. The issues lined up on the table between the Americans and the Chinese are there - nationalism, modernization, and most of all, the difficulty of understanding one another beyond mere words.

One of the most revealing moments of Ge's long history occurs when the author writes about the forfeiture of the old categorizations of Chinese knowledge in order to reinterpret everything in accordance with the classifications of Western knowledge. Thus the classics, jin, history works, shi, the works of the Masters, zi, and the collections, ji, are classified anew as literature, history, philosophy, politics, economics and law.

With his current work, Ge rebels against such classification, classical or Western, and reviews Chinese thinking in its entirety, regardless of all prior classifications blindly followed by many Chinese authors out of respect for Marxist categories. In doing so, Ge still takes into account Western thought without rejecting it on principle; yet he still manages to mold it his way, drawing from abroad all those vital energies that can benefit his country and the development of its thought. It is a courageous work, which takes its intellectual roots in the Chinese nationalism that so worries the Americans, to build a bridge toward the world and to lay the solid foundation for the reconstruction of a Chinese thinking that encompasses the past.

This is perhaps also one of the reasons not many like this book in China. It is not written as a Leninist classic and not even as a cameo of neo-Confucian imitation. It is truly new, rich in ideas in every page, and it is virtually impossible for the reader to remain indifferent. As with any good book, it divides and shocks. (2002-04-13 Asia Times)


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