Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power

A call for political morality reveals top-level debates often missed outside China, writes Jonathan Fenby

September 1, 2011

At the age of 16, Yan Xuetong, now one of China's leading intellectuals, was sent to work in Heilongjiang province in Northeast China. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing, and the policy was to send students like him to labour with peasants. Yan and his companions lived a brutal existence, carrying weighty sacks barefoot through snow so deep that it cut off roads, depriving them of vegetables and salt for three months at a time. The "hardship and then anarchy" changed him, but what marked Yan most from that period was the way in which Mao Zedong's last disastrous adventure destroyed the country's ancient ethical tradition and fostered the growth of hypocrisy in place of the "sincerity" that had always been prized highly among human virtues.

"In politics, people were obliged to say what was false," Yan says in an interview in this collection of his works. "It was clear that no one wanted to go to the countryside, but every young person was required to say that he desired to stay on the farm for his whole life...The government forced people to tell lies. You were punished if you did not do so."

In his field of international relations, Yan sees that "this spirit of telling lies left by the Cultural Revolution has had a very bad influence...To tell lies now not only does not result in punishment, it even wins society's approval." One might note that lies from the top pre-dated the anarchy that ruled for much of the time between 1966 and Mao's death in 1976 - the Great Helmsman himself had felt that he had to warn against the fantastic claims advanced for farm and industrial output during the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, not to mention denial of the huge famine that followed. But Yan's bitter verdict on the heritage of the time fits in with his argument for greater morality on the part of his country.

Yan has been painted in the West as a leading "neo-comm", as he was described by the UK author Mark Leonard in his 2008 book, What Does China Think?. But Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, a smoothly translated volume with an excellent introduction by Daniel A. Bell, strikes a very different note from Leonard's account of a believer in military modernisation who exploits popular nationalism.

Yan's central contention here is that China needs to go a long way back in time to learn from political thinkers before the foundation of the first Qin empire in 221BC. Far from putting his faith in force, Yan stresses the importance of political leadership based on morality. He appeals to a strand in Chinese thought that holds that we have much to learn from thinkers such as Xunzi, who argued that the cause of conflict lies in selfishness and lack of order, Laozi, founder of Taoism, and, of course, Confucius. The fragmentation of what became China from 770 to 221BC during the Spring and Autumn Periods and the age of the Warring State can be seen as parallel to the global divisions of later times, and thus the prescriptions of exponents of statecraft in that era are held by Yan to be relevant to our present age.

He stresses the importance of hierarchies, in which countries such as China that occupy the higher ranks should accept the responsibilities that go with their status. He warns that single-minded pursuit of national wealth may prove counterproductive because of the reactions it provokes from others. "The Chinese government has not yet been able consciously to make building a humane authority the goal of its strategy for ascent," he writes. He thinks it should reach back to Xunzi to stress human talent and evolve regulations to underpin the nation's continuing rise.

Given the materialist nature of Chinese society and the stress on economic growth now that ideology is in the mausoleum along with Mao's corpse, Yan may seem otherworldly. But although its appeal to the general reader is likely to be limited, this book is a valuable addition to our knowledge of the way in which influential intellectuals are thinking in the People's Republic, and shows once more their recognition of problems and contradictions often overlooked in the West confronted by China's rise.

Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power

By Yan Xuetong

Princeton University Press

312pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780691148267

Published 11 May 2011

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