What the Chinese people are thinking (1)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this month, noted political scientist and historian Xu Youyu (徐友渔) was “criminally detained” by authorities in Beijing after taking part in a forum to commemorate this year’s 25th anniversary of the June Fourth crackdown on democracy demonstrations. As the anniversary that tragedy nears, CMP honors the intellectual tradition represented by Xu and others present at the May 3 forum — including CMP fellow Pu Zhiqiang — by publishing Xu’s 2012 Louis Green Lecture, delivered at Australia’s Monash University. We have divided the talk, originally titled “Intellectual Discourses in post-Mao China and Today,” into three parts.

Professor Warren Sun of Monash University, who extended the invitation to Xu Youyu in 2012, noted that Xu’s arrest this month was “sadly ironic” given that it coincided with President Xi Jinping’s commemoration of the 95th anniversary of China’s 1919 May Fourth Movement, whose spirit Xu Youyu and other reform-minded intellectuals embody.

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By XU YOUYU

I AM a philosopher, but I am not going to talk about philosophy this evening. As a Chinese public intellectual, I should like to say something about my country.

China has attracted worldwide attention in recent years because of the rapid growth of its economy. This growth has given rise to much discussion, and many wonder whether China’s tremendous economic and military capabilities spell good or bad fortune for its neighbouring countries, for the Pacific region and for the world. I do not want to dwell on this problem.

In my opinion it is more important to know what the Chinese people themselves are thinking. The economy and its material goods belong to the people, and it is essential to understand what this new prosperity means to its consumers. I shall focus on the points of view of Chinese intellectuals concerning their country and its future itinerary, noting that these opinions were formed and expressed only after the death of Mao Zedong.

Thirty-six years have passed since the death of Mao Zedong, the leader of mainland China, on 9 September 1976. Mao was one of those rare figures in the history of mankind to have made a deep impression on his country, either by causing the population to live in glory and happiness or by bringing it suffering and pain.

In ancient China there was a tyrant called Jie (桀) who provoked people to call: “We would rather perish together with you!” At the time of Mao’s death TV news reports and documentary films showed ordinary people crying and wailing loudly. It was as if their grief was so great that they wished they too had died, much as was seen after the deaths of the North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. What was not reported was that some Chinese rejoiced at Mao’s death and at the possibility of the restoration of normal life. On 9 September 1976 I belonged to the latter group. I had an optimistic premonition that there was hope for my life and for my motherland.

Mao’s death led to the end of the Cultural Revolution and to China’s transformation towards a market economy. Among Chinese intellectuals and philosophers there was a renewal of independent thought and intellectual discourses on history, society and culture. This latter development has made very slow progress, however.

I wish I could say that there has been a great change in the history of the People’s Republic of China, but I must remember what one writer told me: Eight hundred million Chinese people had only one head during the Cultural Revolution; that meant that only Mao Zedong was allowed to think, and everyone else had to obey. As a result, anything Mao Zedong approved of was said to be right, and anything he disapproved of was said to be wrong.

After Mao died, everybody realized he had a head on his shoulders and could think for himself. People also remember what Marshal Lin Biao, Mao’s assistant and successor, said during the Cultural Revolution: “Every sentence Chairman Mao says is truth, and one sentence of Chairman Mao works as ten thousand sentences.” Tens of thousands of Chinese were declared guilty, even sentenced to death, for questioning or disagreeing with what Mao said.

I call opinions on China’s modernization and future and social criticisms by Chinese intellectuals Chinese contemporary social thought —that is, non-governmental thought. The Party has monopolized theory, and thinking has been the privilege of the top leaders, for a very long time. Strictly speaking, Chinese contemporary social thought emerged in the 1990s, but our story should be narrated from the 1980s on. Although Chinese intellectual discourses or social thought did not come into being in the 1980s, they originated or bred in this period.

For Chinese intellectuals the 1980s are worth recalling. When that time is talked about we use terms like “culture fever” and “culture craze” to describe the variety and excitement of cultural activities in that decade. In my understanding “culture fever” indicates the tremendous enthusiasm demonstrated by Chinese citizens, especially university students. It may sound rather exaggerated to designate enthusiasm or interest as a “fever” or “craze”, but it is not unreasonable.

For example, people lined up throughout the night outside the doors of bookstores for literary masterpieces such as Anna Karenina or Shakespeare’s works. Almost every university student loved poetry, and almost everyone wanted to be a poet in China at that time. Almost every publishing house tried its best to produce “hot” items—surprisingly enough Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Being and Time. These two books reached record sales figures of over 100,000 copies within several months.

The nature or character of the cultural activities of the 1980s was nongovernmental. None of them was organized by the Party or the government. It was the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China that all books were chosen and edited by scholars, then given to official publishing houses to be printed.

Scholars and activists formally established non-governmental organizations usually called editorial boards. The five most influential ones were as follows. Firstly, the Towards the Future Editorial Board, whose core was composed of research fellows of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, young scholars good at the natural sciences who devoted their major efforts to recommending the methodology and world outlook brought about by recent scientific developments and who tried to investigate history and to predict the future with a new conception of that discipline.

Secondly, the Academy of Chinese Culture, which was headed by the grand old scholars studying Chinese traditional culture. They regarded reviving this field and recommending contemporary Confucianism as their duty.

Thirdly, the magazine New Enlightenment, which was edited by a group of open-minded Marxist theorists advocating an explanation of Marx based on humanitarianism.

Fourthly, the Culture: China and the World Editorial Committee, whose main task was the recommendation of twentieth-century Western humanities. I was a member of this group.

Finally, the 20th Century Book Editorial Board, which was engaged in translating and recommending Western social sciences such as sociology, science of law, economics, political science etc. Each group co-operated closely with certain publishing houses, helping them choose, organize, edit and publish many good books that would not have been possible otherwise.

It should be noted that people talked a lot about culture in the 1980s, but politics constituted the starting point and purpose. Everybody knew that the most important and pressing task was political, not cultural, but they had to advance by the roundabout cultural route because politics was a forbidden zone. So translation is needed in order to understand intellectual discourses in the 1980s. For example, when we criticized China’s feudalism, what we were actually referring to was the autocracy of contemporary China.

Some so-called rebellious and frightening opinions that the Party launched a campaign to criticize were in fact common sense. For example, Li Honglin (李洪林) maintained that there should be no “forbidden zone” in reading and that political problems could be discussed.i People were surprised at such daredevil slogans, and the newspapers and magazines publishing what he said were waiting for punishment. Perhaps we are astonished that such common sense was worth discussing.

However, when we think about some of the events of the past, we know that it can be life-threatening to espouse common sense in China. One example is Yu Luoke (遇罗克), who was sentenced to death as a thought criminal during the Cultural Revolution for insisting that the future of a young person should be determined by his or her performance, not by family background.

That those scholars, so-called teachers of youth or cultural heroes in the 1980s, were rather limited in their outlook and philosophy can be seen from an example. Liu Zaifu (刘再复), a respectful and enlightened teacher, was condemned as an advocate of bourgeois liberalization by the Chinese authorities in the 1980s. When he visited Claude Monet’s garden in France, he said excitedly: “Look, we failed to train and bring up any great painter like Monet under Chinese cultural policies.” He thought that he was criticizing the Chinese educational and cultural system, but at heart he was the same as the government officials. All of them thought that an Impressionist master like Monet could be trained and brought up under a certain system or policy.

The culture fever in the 1980s could also be called aesthetic fever, for the most important discipline at that time was aesthetics or literature. The most influential theorist was Li Zehou (李泽厚), an aesthete, and another influential theorist was Liu Zaifu, a literary critic.

People were concerned with politics in general, but they read and thought about problems of aesthetics, literature and ethics. The reason for this can be sought in Chinese traditional culture. The most interesting problem for the Chinese from ancient times to the present has been the so-called issue of ultimate concern — that is, how to be a gentle and noble person. There has been very little attention in the Chinese cultural tradition to the principles guiding social and political institutions.

It can be said that Chinese intellectuals were not prepared for any social movement or social transformation in the 1980s. They failed to give any practical advice or suggestions to students apart from expressions of moral support when the latter took to the streets and appealed to the authorities for democracy.

Part two of Xu Youyu’s talk will be posted Thursday, May 29.


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