Prof. Peter Bol & Prof. William Kirby
5 December 13 Word Count: 2403
A Chinese Transformation: The Age of De-Chineseness and Re-Chineseness At the turn of the 20th Century, China was exposed to the humiliation of the defeats in the wars with the West, to unsuccessful social and political revolutions as well as to the uncertainty of the nation’s future path. The truth and lies of antiquity must unravel and must be examined in light of the new and challenging era, and new models of national salvation from turmoil must be experimented. The major political debates around which model China should adopt revolve around the differing accounts of the backwardness and the intensifying degree of De-Chineseness. At the same time, these models differ in their capacity to deal with the tension between De-Chineseness and Re-Chinesness. The tension embedded in this process of De-Chineseness is chronologically linear; the tension between De-Chinesness and Re-Chinesness is horizontal. Coping with the tensions of De-Chineseness and Re-Chineseness is still crucial in today’s China.
The history of reformation from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century is a process of De-Chineseness: from knowledge De-Chineseness, to political De-Chineseness, and finally to value De-Chineseness. The ongoing tension in the different methods of transforming the country lies in the conflict between the preservation of Chineseness and the adoption of Western values. During the late nineteenth century, China was defeated by the British in the Opium War, by the Japanese in the Sino-Japan War and by the Eight-Nation Alliance in the 1900 War. In the late nineteenth century, weapons and ships largely defined the Chinese perception of the West. China was daunted by the advanced western military and technology power. From a series of military humiliations, the Chinese feared and were ignorant about the West. The Chinese initial questioning of their nation’s weakness and their efforts to learn from the West, in this period, is largely driven by self-defense. This mentality formulated the strategy of “师夷长技以制夷”. Under this strategy, the Qing government initiated the early efforts to save the nation from Western invasion. Accompanying these efforts was the utilitarian theory of saving the Chinese essence by adopting Western learning. As a result, the solution to the country’s backwardness is to learn the “scientific knowledge and technological development” from the West as well as to cultivate the “character and mind” of leaders.1 The Qing government started to build a navy and sanctioned merchant undertakings such as arsenals, coalmines and cotton mills. In order to produce future leaders of the nation, the government also sent young Chinese to the U.S. to study science and engineering (known as the Chinese Educational Mission). In this self-strengthening stage, the Qing government and its intellectuals still believed that Western technology was simply a means to preserve the foundational role of Chinese ethics and Confucian teachings. China’s external inferiority could be eliminated if only “the emperor would set us in the right direction.”2
However, simply learning Western technology did not change the circumstance. The self-strengthening movement did not bring the country the expected prosperity. The newly launched enterprises were inefficient. Beiyang Navy, founded during the movement by Li Hongzhang, was terribly defeated in the Sino-Japan war in 1895. The Chinese intellectuals quickly realized that the conceptual differentiation of utility and essence is unsophisticated because the Westerners could not have developed its economics, science and technology without the superiority of their political system. Learning Western science and technology without threatening the Chinese political norm is just a wishful thinking, and the reformers started to De-Chineseness its country’s polity. Therefore, a De-Chineseness of general scientific and technological know-how was followed by a political one. However, during this second stage of De-Chineseness, the Chinese accepted the fact that there was some backwardness in their traditional values, but they were not ready to negate their resilience in creating a better future. Even when intellectuals and reformers extended their learning of the West from pure utility to its essence, they still disagreed about the extent to which China should emulate the West. During this time, intellectuals began to import and translate works that could represent the Western civilization. Yan Fu translated works written by Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer and Huxley from 1898 to 1909.3 Opening the door for China to understand Western intellectual works, Yan believed that most of China’s troubles were “her own fault” and could be remedied by her own actions.4 Among the Confucian scholars, Kang Youwei resorted to Constitutional Monarchy and advocated for institutional reformation. Despite the Western influence in Kang’s theory, Kang’s Constitutionalism is still very Chinese. He used Confucianism to justify his reform ideas. He believed that the Confucian philosophy actually “advocated innovations” and supported reforms.5 Kang relied on the emperor to “follow Mencius’ example of loving the people.”6 From 1902 to 1905, Kang’s follower Liang Qichao claimed that by learning how other nations became independent, the Chinese were able to “improve what is original in [our] people” and “adopt what is originaly lacking in [our] people”.7 For Kang and his fellow supporters of constitutional monarchy, Western politics was a mechanism to preserve the virtue, wisdom and vitality of the Chinese tradition. As an opponent of Constitutional monarchy, Sun Yat-sen, sought a more “progressive” form of government8 after spending time in England and Japan. He wanted to overthrow the Qing monarch and establish a republic embodied with the Three People’s Principles. He planed to free China from economic oppression and to empower the people with civil rights and welfare. During this political De-Chineseness stage, the Royalists and Revolutionaries both negated the old monarchical dictatorship and invoked a reconstruction of the bureaucratic system. Moreover, they both retained the Chinese values in their proposals: Kang still believed in the top-down spread of humanness loving and Sun “sought in Chinese tradition the basis for a nationalism.”9 Nevertheless, they differed in their use of Chinese traditional values. For Kang, loving the people should be a responsibility of the sage king; for Sun, loving the people is a collective effort initiated by the citizens, and it is meant to “recover and restore” our “traditional virtues”.10 Therefore, by attacking the old political system, the reformers strived to renew the nation and preserve the Chinese civilization through political reform, but they disagreed about the how further they should implement the Western models. The third stage of “value De-Chineseness” came in 1916, reaching its climax during the May Fourth Movement (1919). This De-Chineseness of traditional values witnessed an intense clash with the previous two stages, because political De-Chineseness is turned out to be weak and incompetent. Although the founding of the Republic of China in 1911 demonstrated a radical political break away from the past, the corrosive old, feudal and Confucian ethics constantly obstructed the reform efforts, instead of promoting political transformation: the new Republic constitution aborted when Yuan Shikai came to the throne, Sun Yat-sen was then defeated in the Second Revolution (1913) and when Hufa Movement (1917-18) failed to overthrow Yuan’s dictatorship, warlords took the job of controlling the people. The Republic of China was further humiliated in the Paris Peace Conference, where China’s request of reclaiming the territory of Shandong was rejected. In this case, the effort of De-Chineseness was shifted from political and bureaucratic system to the “cannibalistic” nature of traditional virtues and the “slavish” nature of Chinese people. For instance, during and after the May Fourth Movement, Lu Xun be gan to vehemently attack and satirize China’s “national essence”.11 Hu Shi promoted the use of vernacular literature break away with the form of traditional literary expression. The New Youth magazine, established by Hu Shi, published a series of essays from 1916 to 1920 criticizing Confucianism and the old values. It was this De-Chineseness of old values in the May Fourth Movement brought forth the import of communism. The Communist ideology, reinterpreted by Mao, was an ultimate crackdown of the old knowledge, political system as well as values and customs. Mao, identified the real enemy of revolution as (not the warlords) the patriarchal feudal class.12 Mao sought to overthrow the existing thousands of years old rural order and the whole gentry and landlord class by empowering the peasants (probably the reformers’ most unwanted revolution initiators).13 Facing the waves of De-Chineseness of traditional values, Mao’s opponent, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, was still exercising quasi-Fascist industrialization and militarization to preserve Chinese traditionalism. Chiang was still defending Confucian ethics and “moral values of Chinese civilization” against materialism.14 During the New Life Movement (1934), Chiang emphasized Confucian self-cultivation, frugality, ethics of “Li Yi Lian Chi”, and loyalty to the nation to build up morale in the Nationalist regime.15 Although the anti-Japanese War exhausted the Nationalist military power, the vigor of the Communists’ political revolution and their determination to break away with backward traditional values was the real final hit on the Nationalists. During the Long March and Yan’an periods, not only did Mao initiate agricultural reform and maintain a life of commune, he also promoted leftist literature and culture to reinforce communist ideology of political and economic equality. For example, in 1942, Mao “convened a forum on art and literature to reign in writers” and he “reiterated the principle that the writer’s job was to serve the needs of the revolution.”16 Like many other revolutionaries, Mao was afraid of the restoration of the past. He plotted the Anti-Rightist Movement (1956), the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to sustain a denunciation of the old Confucian ethics, hierarchy and oppression. In these linear tensions between the three stages of De-Chineseness, each phase furthered the former by attacking its incompetence. During the process of De-Chineseness, China experimented with Constitutionalism, industrial Fascism and Communism. What differentiated these Western models are not the models themselves, but their degree of De-Chineseness. The tension of political debates throughout the twentieth century is not just about what kind of polity China should adopt, but more importantly, is about how much should the country value Chineseness after suffering from humiliations and foreign invasions. The historical context demonstrates a frustrating fact that traditional virtues destabilized every political effort of reformation and modernization. In order to eradicate this influence, reformers had to push forward on the path of criticizing the past. On this path of De-Chineseness, there lies a horizontal tension in the conjunction between every two stages of De-Chineseness. Every phase of De-Chineseness was simultaneously encountered with a wave of Re-Chineseness. Re-Chineseness is a tendency to formulate an identity, a sense of belonging and a national spirit unique to the country, because China cracked down the darkness of the past not for its own sake, but for the creation of a bright future. Different models that China experimented with differed in their capacities of dealing with the relationship between De-Chinesness and Re-Chineseness. More specifically, they differed in the intensity of De-Chineseness and the mechanism to accomplish Re-Chineseness. The successful Re-Chineseness is not accomplished by looking back to antiquity, but by people’s collective participation in unified political struggle. Moreover, if De-Chinesness was not radical enough, the tendency of Re-Chinesness would override De-Chineseness and thus abort revolution endeavor, because it was always convenient to look back to antiquity for the sense of Chinese exceptionalism as a political glue. If De-Chineseness was radical, the collective endeavor of De-Chineseness itself would satisfy the tendency of Re-Chinesness and thus it was able to renew the national spirit and rebuild national identity. The competition between Constitutional monarchy and Republicanism occurred in an age of foreign invasions, territorial concessions and domestic uprisings. In Kang’s model, Constitutionalism was essentially an institutional and policy reform, dependent on the monarch’s initiative.17 However, Sun’s model pinpointed the public discontent with the Qing monarch and identified economic oppression as the major problem. Compared with Sun’s model, Kang’s constitutionalism was not efficient enough and was neither able to buffer the tendency of Re-Chineseness. Sun attacked the old Chinese political identity—the subjects of the monarch, and formulated a new civil identity by proposing Three People Principles. His principles encouraged and valued civil engagement in political transformation and in the building of a welfare state. Looking at the competition between the Nationalist model and the Communist model, a similar pattern of tension reappeared. The Nationalist model of Fascist-style industrialization and militarization was a top-down imposed reform with the aim of defending Chinese traditionalism against Western invasion. However, the Communist model emphasized a voluntary grassroots participation in economic construction and nation-building. By criticizing the corrupt traditional ethics, the Communist model humiliated the tradition that obstructed previous revolution endeavors. The Communists attacked “ancestor worship, lineages and solidarity with patrilineal kin.”18 In doing that, the Communists redefined the national identity. They formulated the identity as revolutionary communist vanguards by cultivating a sense of belonging to the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements. Seen from above, the tensions embedded in different models of revolutions in different historical contexts pose these two fundamental puzzles: to what extent are the progression and modernization determined by the level of De-Chineseness? To what degree does the endurance of revolutionary endeavor rely on the reconciliation between De-Chineseness and Re-Chineseness? These questions are still relevant to today’s China. Despite the economic growth, the political crisis of 1989 Tian’an Men protest unleashed massive discontent with the reappearance of old habits: bureaucratic corruption, and the quasi-monarchical dictatorship of Deng Xiaoping.19 In calls to “end corruption”, the May Fourth Movement spirit reoccurred, demanding again a criticism of old values in order to withhold decades of De-Chineseness endeavors.20 In the next twenty years, China “subdued…political discussion” and furthered its economic development, in which the demand of political De-Chineseness was eased by the overwhelming wave of materialistic satisfaction and economic growth. In spite of this, discussions of constitutionalism and political reform haunt the comtemporary Chinese Internet. The Communist Party is having trouble answering these questions: whether economic capitalization is a form of De-Chineseness or a mechanism to reinforce bureaucratic capitalism and economic hierarchy; whether the collective participation in industrialization and urbanization is able to accomplish the Re-Chineseness of national identity and whether it can serve to consolidate a new national spirit. More importantly, the dilemmas of today have much more to do with the undigested history the murderous regime that caused many more death and deeper ravage in the name of attacking the tradition and renewing the country than so called Western "invasions"--singing the old song will not bring healing until the real source of China's grief can be openly acknowledged: Great Famine, The Cultural Revolution and 1989—these are the harsh causes of much that aches Chinese society and politics.