Are You Ready to Dive Deep into China’s Intellectual Odyssey?

Yves here. Given how the Western officials and the press make a fetish of overt and coded China bashing and baiting, a counterpoint seemed in order. The Institute for New Economic Thinking interviewed one of China’s best-known intellectuals, Wang Hui, the author of The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought. I suspect some readers know Wang Hui and his work and can comment on how good INET’s Cliff Notes version is, and perhaps also discuss whether Wang Hui is seen as authoritative in China, and whether there are other respected intellectuals who differ with his interpretations.

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

The need to understand China is obvious, but how to go about it? The lack of Chinese philosophy education in the U.S. presents a serious challenge, compounded by daunting barriers of language, stark cultural contrasts, and disparities in worldview. Concepts may not align neatly with Western philosophical frameworks, requiring a subtle understanding to grasp fully or even perceive the differences.

Anyone who sets out to comprehend China’s complexity confronts an intricate tapestry woven with threads of continuity, bursts of disruption, and variegated patterns. China’s history is filled with paradoxes, merging timeless traditions with the dynamism of transformation. From ancient cultural legacies to the ebb and flow of centralized governance over two millennia, China embodies a profound reverence for its heritage. Yet invasions, dynastic shifts, and revolutions have continually reshaped China’s socio-political and intellectual landscape, showcasing its adaptability. This invites exploration of the interplay between tradition and innovation, enriching our understanding of Western and Chinese thought.

If you’re ready to set forth, the contributions of Wang Hui, one of China’s most prominent intellectuals, are indispensable. After twenty years, English speakers can finally access his magisterial The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, which provides a comprehensive exploration of China’s intellectual traditions, emphasizing their diversity and interconnectedness. Avoiding teleological narratives, he traces developments in Chinese thinking from antiquity to the present, highlighting key philosophical movements and their impact on Chinese society and governance. Wang argues for a contextual understanding of Chinese thought, viewing it as a dynamic dialogue between tradition and innovation, shaping China’s cultural identity and its interactions with the world.

In exploring China’s intellectual development, it’s essential to pause and delve deeply into the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 C.E.), a transformative period that continues to shape modern ideology and governance. Wang illustrates how this era witnessed the shift from barter to a currency-based economy, the consolidation of centralized state power, the decline of the aristocracy, and the rise of the gentry-bureaucratic class. Additionally, it saw the emergence of egalitarianism, urbanization, and a Renaissance-like dissemination of knowledge, alongside a philosophical shift towards Neo-Confucianism from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. This significant social and economic development profoundly influenced China’s intellectual and political landscape, extending its impact well into the twentieth century.

Neo-Confucian scholars of this period saw public service as paramount, drawing inspiration from China’s revered Sage Kings, who provided guiding principles for conduct, governance, and social harmony, the foundation of what is known as the “rites and music” tradition. This tradition, extending beyond rituals, encompassed broader social and political dimensions. Wang explains how the School of Principle, a dominant Neo-Confucian movement in the Song Dynasty, influenced governance, education, and social beliefs. Emphasizing moral cultivation and self-reflection, this school advocated for a “Heavenly Principle” worldview, aligning morality and governance with universal harmony. Wang emphasizes the role of Song Confucians in shaping the domain of intellectual discourse, advocating for a return to tradition while simultaneously critiquing contemporary practices.

In the following conversation, Wang unpacks why he emphasizes specific conceptual frameworks in his historical analyses. He argues that Chinese concepts like principle (li), things (wu), and the propensity of times (shi) are vital for understanding the development of Chinese thought. Wang explores how these concepts reveal a tension between established theoretical paradigms and the complex nature of historical phenomena. He illustrates how Song Confucianism’s focus on concepts like li signifies a critical engagement with contemporary social, political, and moral systems, rather than a blind adherence to tradition. This critical perspective allows for a reevaluation of historical narratives and the development of alternative frameworks for understanding Chinese intellectual history.

Wang’s approach challenges contemporary and historical interpretations and promotes a more nuanced understanding of historical change.

Lynn Parramore: Your book traces the development of three concepts: “principle” (li), “things” (wu), and the “propensity of the times” (shi). What makes these crucial to understanding the progress of Chinese thought?

Wang Hui: Why these very specific concepts? I employed these concepts as clues to describe historical change, rather than employing social history, cultural history, economic history, or military history. I wanted to use these concepts to link different things together. Basically, I think that in all of Chinese studies — and not only Chinese studies, but historical studies, generally, especially in non-Western cultures — two prevalent misgivings have often left scholars feeling frustrated.

First, they struggle with whether or not they can effectively use existing theoretical categories or social scientific paradigms to describe and interpret historical phenomena. For example, if we talk about the traditional Chinese wellfield system [an agrarian plot division for equitable land distribution], people will often describe it as an economic system. But the wellfield system is not only an economic system, but also a social, political, and military system, and, after all, a racial system. So in that sense, once you reduce that phenomenon into the category of the economy, you’ve lost a lot of things. That’s one issue.

The second, of course, is that we are all studying Western social science — it’s a universal phenomenon – so the concepts and paradigms we deploy usually come from studies of Western history. Can they be usefully applied to non-Western historical phenomena? I have found that you always need to construct a dialogue between the different concepts.

In my book, I discuss principle (li), things (wu), and the propensity of times (shi) as philosophical ideas. These are three key categories, but at the same time, I use another set of three antithetical concepts in the more historical analysis. The first is the ancient rites and music culture and institutions. The second concerns political systems, enfeoffment [the feudal land grant system], and centralized administration. The last one was more of a response to what contemporary Western scholars are working on, and also something we’re working on in Chinese studies: the empire and the nation-state. I question these binaries and their application to Chinese studies.

LP: In Song Confucianism, “li” is seen as vital for both social harmony and moral growth, encompassing both adherence to traditional norms governing behavior as well as broader philosophical and ethical principles. Why did scholars prioritize this concept?

WH: Li was a very early, very traditional idea, and it was only in the Song dynasty, especially the Southern Song and afterward, that it occupied the highest position in Neo-Confucian thought. Some describe Song Confucianism as an archaism, a nostalgia for tradition, because before the Song dynasty, there was a Buddhist dominance, and the Neo-Confucians drew inspiration from a time before that shift.

Various early Confucians viewed rites and music and the [current] institutions as overlapping – seeing little difference between them. For them, the rites and music system, the family system, the wellfield system, and the political system are all the same, together forming the fundamental framework of behavior and encompassing moral doctrine. However, Song Confucians actually sharply divided these systems from each other. They thought that when you talk about rites and music, you’ve lost the essence. We can imagine something similar when people talk about democracy. Democracy is a framework, but a lot of people will criticize that idea and say, no, it’s not democracy — it’s lost its spirit or essence. So though the framework was still there, the Song Confucians’ division between rites and music and institutions actually came from a critical stance. It’s a paradigm shift. This is the first point.

Secondly, Song Confucians strove to reincorporate substantive elements from the time of the early Sage Kings, the Three Dynasties, back into daily life. They talk about the patriarchal clan system, which was part of the rites and music system. They tried to argue that we needed to return to the early Sage Kings’ time in considering the education system, the wellfield system (later described as an economic system), and the system of enfeoffment. However, this perspective can’t be viewed as mere archaism. It can only be comprehended in light of the Song scholars’ critical understanding of the current system, the civil service examination system, which was very different from the traditional education system. They also criticized the centralized bureaucracy in contrast to enfeoffment (the feudal system). The Song Confucians were also very critical of commercialization and social mobility because, in the rites and music culture, morality was based on a certain kind of community. They’re talking about returning to the early days, but they’re also actually trying to have a critical stance on the contemporary world.

Why do they put li at the top of the whole system? Why were they so dedicated to developing a category of li, the Heavenly Principle, and to talking about the Way of Heaven and so on? Confucius himself never paid so much attention to the abstract idea of li— what he talked about is everyday ritual practice. When the Song Confucians talk about li, they are talking about something like immanence. You still have the rites and music — the performance, the ceremony, and so on and so forth — but you can’t take these things for granted as representing the essence of the rites and the music. Now the rites and music exist in a way as the immanence. The Song Confucians went back to the rites and music, but not simply to reconstruct the rites and music. They are developing the idea of li.

LP: How does this fit into the overarching narrative of Chinese intellectual history?

WH: Is this an ontological or epistemological breakthrough? Traditional philosophers, those in the early days in America like Feng Youlan, who wrote a very famous textbook [in English], The History of Chinese Philosophy, treated this Song idea as a philosophical breakthrough. China finally had philosophy!

But really, the idea of philosophy only emerged in China in the early 20th century. The first translation of Youlan’s book was in the 1870s, mainly in Minju, Japan. They translated the Western ideas into Chinese characters. They translated the term zhexue [the study of wisdom] as philosophy. Later, overseas students who studied here had to reconsider Chinese thought. They had to use the frameworks and categories of philosophy, ontology, epistemology, realism, and so on, as well as the social sciences categories, to describe Chinese intellectual history. We need to think about this kind of relationship.

The fact that Song Confucians prioritized relatively abstract philosophical and ethical categories indicates the political thinking embedded in Neo-Confucianism because they are very critical of the current political, economic, educational, and even moral systems. They thought these systems were lost.

They are critical on the one hand, but they also recognize historical transformation. We can imagine a contemporary like John Rawls, who talked about justice, but obviously thought that the reality was unjust, and a lot of problems emerged from that. He tried to construct an abstract system to talk about the problems of redistribution and justice while still recognizing the legitimacy of democracy as a basic framework. In that sense, the Song Confucians, too, recognized historical change. They took the form of archaism, but they recognized the inevitability of historical change. We cannot simply go back to earlier years. We need to study phenomena to grasp the essence – that’s the li. The li can help us to imagine our ideas, systems, and behavior.

The inherent historical dynamics for the establishment and the deployment of the Heavenly Principle worldview were clearly set forth in the exploration of the differentiation of [ancient] rites and music culture from [current] institutions. Basically, Song Confucians saw that while moral values are not immanent in systems, they could find moral values by studying the systems. They set forth to explore the differentiation of the rites and music culture, which was the system of the Sage King, from the institutions, or current systems. They found that even the current systems exist on behalf of or within the Sage Kings’ rites and music culture.

I’ll just give an example. If you have a critical mindset, and you hear people defend the current system as a democracy, then the critical mindset will say, no, this is not a democracy. But to criticize in this way also legitimizes the value of democracy. The mindset of critical thinking that came from the Song Confucians was sort of conservative but actually very critical. They argue for this differentiation and also the comparison among the Three Dynasties (the Sage Kings’ time), and the eras that followed. The Sage Kings’ time became the ideal used to criticize contemporary reality. It’s similar to how people resort to Plato, Aristotle, the 18th-century Enlightenment, and so on to criticize current practices and reality. So you have a discussion of the dialectic binaries of centralized administration and enfeoffment; the wellfield system and the equal field system [a system to distribute land fairly among households based on their needs]; and the schooling system and the civil service examination system. In the Song Dynasty, these systems were attached to the centralized administration system and more like a proto-nation-state than what the Kyoto School [a Japanese philosophical movement blending Western and Eastern thought] argued for.

Using ideas or propositions like principle (li) to investigate things and extend knowledge was popular among Song Confucians and later Confucianism. If we simply deploy categories like li for economic, social, political, or historical narratives, we will not only reduce these complex conceptual problems to the components of these later narratives, but once we have encapsulated them as such, we will also have neglected their significance in the intellectual world of antiquity. Therefore, we need to examine these concepts within the framework of the particular worldview of that period, and then explain the phenomena that modern scholars have categorized as economic, political, military, or social in the context of their relationships with Confucian categories such as li (Heavenly Principle), and so on. We can then provide an internal perspective through this narration.

LP: How might an understanding of li aid us today?

WH: This internal perspective is a way to observe our own system. For example, when we talk about human rights, the classical idea of rights is not only a legal concept. It means doing things that are just. But this meaning was lost in modern times because you can weaponize or abuse the idea of human rights. Some people were trying to understand the classical idea of human rights, how to define them, and enrich the category of human rights. In that sense, the classical idea is not simply observing objects, but having an internal perspective for self-reflection. Historical study works in this way: we master observation, but also we are objects for reflection.

That reflection needs certain kinds of categories that construct the internal perspective to understand us. If we think about current crises, political crises, a lot of this links together. We need some perspective to understand it. We can’t understand it if we are simply stuck within it. If we are stuck within a perspective, we may find a solution that is actually the origin of the current crisis. It often happens like that. That’s why the idea of li becomes so important.

When we talk about the concept of things (wu), traditionally in Confucius’ time, wu was part of the rites and music culture. It overlaps. When you think about anything, it’s always within the system of rites and music. In that sense, wualways contains moral implications. It comprises the dynamic structure of our behavior. But if you live in a society that, from a Confucian perspective, is already in differentiation, then rites and music, even the form, have lost their substance. So wu becomes the object. You still do the rites, the ritual practice, but that ritual practice only concerns things or objects, not real moral implications. That’s why traditionally speaking, morality existed in people doing things. That’s the ritual order. But the Song Confucians emphasize that you need to start investigating things to achieve knowledge. Li is invisible within things (wu), so you need to investigate things. The idea of things themselves, when we talk about objectivity or the object, actually came out of what was not only a scientific discovery but also a historical transformation, the result of that differentiation from that perspective.

LP: And what about the propensity of times, this concept of the prevailing trends associated with a particular era, and that shapes its norms and behavior? What makes it important to Chinese thought?

WH: The concept of the propensity of times was also a very traditional idea. Mencius once asked, why is Confucius a sage? The answer: Because he knows the propensity of times. This concept is very different from the idea or the concept of time in the modern world — the linear, teleological, homogeneous, and empty concept of time. This is our time.

The propensity of the times is something else, and I try to use it as the conceptualization of history in Neo-Confucianism. I can understand why the Neo-Confucians re-employed this term to describe history. They said that there was a time before the Sage Kings’ time, the early Three Dynasties, and after. This is a periodization [a division of history into distinct periods based on significant events, developments, etc]. This is not based on the linear, teleological time. It’s based on their understanding of the propensity of times. The propensity of times in Song Confucianism became an inner matter or matter of interiority. So the li is linked together in the interior.

In that sense, the propensity of times is closely linked to what they talk about in terms of the differentiation of rites and music from institutions — in terms of historical changes. The most important thing is that when we talk about time, we actually construct the objective framework. But the propensity of times means that we are all within that propensity. We are the forces that change the propensity of times, and we are the products of the propensity of times, but we are also the active players that force the change of the propensity of times. So it’s a very dynamic term and helps to get rid of an overly teleological narrative of history. That’s why I try to compare this very specific concept of time with the modern concept of time — basically to get rid of the so-called teleological narration of history.

An example is the inquiry into Chinese modernity. The Japanese Kyoto School (1920s to 1940s) argued for the importance of Song Confucianism. One of the leading figures in the Kyoto School raised the issue of the transition from the Song Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, and later, another figure, Miyazaki Ichisada (and some others), argued that the Song Dynasty already had a certain kind of capitalism. To define the early modern in Chinese history, they used a standard narration, such as the decline of the aristocracy leading to the maturity of a central administration that was labeled as a proto-nation-state, and the growth of long-distance trade, which means a more sophisticated division of labor. And the productivity, urbanization, and the standardization of the civil service examination system, which meant that, because of the collapse of the aristocratic system, now everybody could pass the examination system to be employed.

And that was true — before the Song dynasty, all the high-ranking officials came from the aristocratic system. However, after the Song dynasty, all the prime ministers came from the national service examination system rather than an aristocratic background. A kind of civilian society emerged from then on. So for the Kyoto School, Song Confucianism is a kind of ideology of nationalism, a proof of nationalism. They would argue for these as the starting point of the early modern era.

However, at that time and later, some Marxists argued that the later Ming Dynasty was the starting point of Chinese modernity. They raised the question, what is modern? And also, what is China? The Song, Ming, the Yuan Dynasty, and the Manchu Qing Dynasty were very different in terms of territory and ethnic composition. The systems were very different. So how to define China? And of course, how to define Chinese thought or philosophy? And then how to define the rise of Chinese thought? My book is about the rise of modern Chinese thought – and you can actually question each term itself.

If you talk about the rise in the teleological way, then when was the rise? Was it in the Song or Ming dynasty? Or was it the modern 1911 revolution? Or, like Francis Fukuyama said, did the early modern political system, and its structure, really start 2000 years ago in China in the Qin dynasty? He said that the Qin dynasty was almost like a proto-nation state. Whether or not it can be defined as early modern, that’s very strange to some extent if you really think about it in a teleological way.

So, my question: does the concept of li (Heavenly Principle) embody an antagonism, a tension between its ideas and the Song transition? First of all, I disagree with the Kyoto School when they say that Song Confucianism is proto-nationalist, expressing the ideology of nationalism. Rather, they took the form of archaism, but you cannot reduce it to an ideology. You can only legitimize the transition. They recognize it, they criticize it. There’s a contradictory or paradoxical decision there.

So why did the Kyoto School say that the Song dynasty, or even more, Song Confucianism, was nationalistic? Because they thought the Song dynasty, compared to the early dynasties, was an even more Chinese China. Confucianism was thought of as China, whereas Buddhism was a foreign idea that came from India. How, then, can we represent the Song transition from a Confucian perspective? And how should one portray the social structure in the Mongolian Yuan dynasty after the Song? Or even more to the point, the social system of the Qin dynasty, the last dynasty, the Manchu dynasty? If you argue that the Song dynasty is the more Chinese China, how to define the Mongolian China or the Manchu China?

If you start from the teleological or linear way of thinking about the modern, does that go back to ancient times or something else? It’s contradictory, because if you do that, then you’ve lost the whole narrative thread. That’s why I think that the idea of the propensity of times gives us another way of imagining history, another way to think about these kinds of things. In that sense, we can also rethink contemporary China, and go beyond the binary of empire and nation.

For example, we can talk about modern China, the Republic of China after the 1911 Revolution, as emerging based on the last dynasty, the Qing dynasty. It overlaps with the territory, the populations, and a lot of the systems. Then we need to ask the question, how did Confucianism, as well as other sources, legitimize the Qing as a Chinese dynasty though it was very different from the Ming dynasty? It had the Manchu as the ruling class, but it’s still broadly recognized as a Chinese dynasty. How is that legitimized?

Understanding historical change is very important for Confucianism as a political philosophy. It’s not only the history of ideas. It’s full of the political dynamics within the ideas. People say, well, now we are modern. Then why are you talking about Plato, Aristotle, all the ancient ideas? Because you are still trying to retrieve those ideas for the contemporary world.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    His name is pretty well known to anyone who’s been loosely following Chinese intellectuals over the past few decades – I can’t claim any expertise about his work – I’ve not read any of it – but the cynic in me suggests that anyone who can easily move between senior academic posts in China and the US without apparent problems has little radical or interesting to say. Or more likely, anything radical he says is behind such layers of obscurantism, nobody can be bothered to work out what he really means (and this is without getting into the intricacies of translating Chinese concepts into English).

    My understanding is that he was associated with a loosely defined movement in the 1980’s and 90’s who opposed the rapid marketization of the Chinese economy and the focus on exports and infrastructure. For a period in the mid-90’s they were quite prominent in public discourse at the time, such as it existed. Its always hazardous to put labels on these groups, as they don’t fit into any neat categorisations we usually like to slot people into. They were alternatively described as Maoist leftists, or reactionary nationalists, or even social democrats. Essentially, they argued for a more decentralized, kinder form of development, focusing on local needs, with a strong questioning of authority – in other words, a form of anarchism or syndicalism with a strong nationalist angle (this would be familiar to anyone who has read up on Spanish or Irish radical thought). Like a lot of intellectuals, they had a revulsion towards industry and large scale development. As always with China, any hard economic/social arguments made were wrapped up with various real or imagined ‘special’ Chinese characteristics.

    They were sometimes called the ‘new left’, but I’m not really sure they welcomed or agreed with the label, and in any event they were a very diverse groups with lots of different views. Most – sensibly – kept their criticisms of authority largely to themselves, or phrased to stay within the very narrow overton window permitted at the time. Suffice to say, they lost the argument and China went for a conventional high growth capitalist (oh yeah, ‘with Chinese characteristics’) economic model.

    1. Albe Vado

      “Like a lot of intellectuals, they had a revulsion towards industry and large scale development.”

      Intellectuals hating the idea of actually working for a living, why am I not surprised. I understand the Maoist impulse to sent these types to do real work for at least a few months a year, so they don’t completely lose touch with reality.

      1. Adam1

        LOL!!! In my view the biggest failure of marxism is not treating everyone to this concept. Yes they threw the intellectuals into hard labor, but then left all their “new” managerial class to just replace the outgoing bourgeoisie. Eventually these new managers assumed they were entitled to economic rents of those below them.

    2. Louis Fyne

      random hinterland Chinese discovered synthetic dyes literally 2000 years before Europeans—one of the foundational waypoints of modern chemistry.

      Of course this upset Confucius’ intellectual followers, which found the development decadent and repulsive—they didn’t like the merchant class having access to prestige colors.

      random hinterland Chinese discovered synthetic dyes literally 2000 years before Europeans—one of the foundational waypoints of modern chemistry.

      Of course this upset Confucius’ intellectual followers, which found the development decadent and repulsive—they didn’t like the merchant class having access to prestige colors.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        One of the interesting conundrums of China’s history, is that they either invented, or at some stage were world leaders, in nearly every pre-modern technology you can think of. Yet, somehow, by the 19th Century they were behind anyone that mattered.

        Why this is… well, lots of theories of course. Its likely that its simply a matter of a very big, very culturally and geographically homogenous state is good at short leap forwards, but when things go wrong, it goes into rapid reverse. But anyone can pick their own favourite cultural/economic/genetic/philosophical theory they like.

  2. ilpalazzo

    I have read somewhere that in order to get a quick and dirty insight into the Chinese society one needs to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I have only watched the recently made movies so far which are available on the seas but I think I got a few good clues out of them already.

      1. John

        It is far more revealing to read the complete, and long, the version I have is two volumes, books. Add to that The Water Margin and The Story of the Stone for traditional China. Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman is a start on 20th century China.

      2. hk

        Movies are terrible. I wouldn’t recommend them, and the novel itself was always completely rewritten with different twists by so many people in different contexts (even with the same general plot) that you can’t get a good sense just by reading one version. In a way, I’d say that how different writers in various eras rewrite the novel might give a better sense of how the thoughts are evolving in that era than any single version–but that’d mean reading several versions of a long novel.

        A particularly “modern” take (one that provides a lot of insights into how modern China–at least some parts–I think) is a manhua (like manga, but Chinese) version titled “Ravages of Time” in English. (Translation is decent, although not great)

        1. hk

          In a way, the original novel (and the many folk tales and legends preceding it) was a revisionist recasting of the original history that suited the thinking of different eras….

          1. Albe Vado

            Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a work of historical fiction. It’s right there in the title, ‘Romance’. It’s pretty explicitly biased towards Liu Bei and his Shu faction, and really wants to go out of its way to present him as the noble underdog hero, the one guy who actually cared about common people, and his ultimate defeat as a tragedy.

            The actual history, and who knows how unbiased it really is but it’s less partisan, is the Record of the Three Kingdoms.

            Any attempt at an objective view of the period will probably lead one toward first that the Yellow Turban rebellion had a bunch of reasonable demands, and second that the oft vilified Cao Cao was probably in practice the least damaging for a majority of people; his uniting the realm was the quickest way to ending the widespread suffering.

            1. hk

              The thing about Romance of Three Kingdoms is less about Luo Guanzhong’s “original” (itself drawing liberally from the folk tales and legends, much more than the “history.”) but the way it’s been retold by many other writers in other periods. The “original” is interesting not so much for the pro-Shu Han bias (not to downplay this), but the kind of Confucian ethics it promotes and the notion of “legitimacy” that turns Liu Bei into the designated hero. Other interpretations have played around these quite a bit, reflecting the thoughts of the times. As I was saying, I often found myself wondering how much of “modern China” (and if so, which one–Chan Mou is a Hong Longer, after all) it captures.

    1. Polar Socialist

      On a tangent, I recall watching Wolf Warrior II and realizing that if they make films like this, they clearly see themselves as a superpower (and as a force of good) – not just the Politburo, but the hoi polloi. As superficial as it may sound, I started to pay attention.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Wolf Warrior was directly funded by the CCP, via the China Film Group, the countries largest production company. Its interesting that the first film was set in China, and was just a moderate success, while the second one depicted heroism outside the country, and was enormously popular. A strange echo of First Blood/Rambo II. In fact, I think the second film may have been quite a deliberate echo of Rambo II. It had the same general theme of warriors being disrespected at home, and only ‘finding themselves’ in foreign conflict.

        Asian cinema has always had an odd relationship with war movies when seen from a Hollywood perspective – for all sorts of political and economic reasons, they always seem to focus on historical wars or situations, while threading a fine line with contemporary or near contemporary history. Even post war Vietnamese films tend to focus on individual heroism and suffering rather than jingoism. Only Indian and Pakistani films tend to go for that type of film, and even then there is usually a tongue firmly pressed in cheek. Korean cinema tends to approach its war history in a very allegorical manner. Japanese cinema is best known of course, but even during the 1930’s and 40’s the militaristic government was very reluctant to allow its film industry to make Hollywood style hero films – most propaganda films of the time either had historical settings, or tended to focus on the home front.

        I think a lot of it comes down to the overall establishment attitude to the film industry. Artists in general are viewed with suspicion by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments, they always assume there will be some sort of message slipped in that they don’t like (which in the case of Japanese 1930’s cinema, was entirely justified).

        So just at a guess, the wave of ultra nationalistic films that popped up a decade or so in China reflects more a government confidence that it has full control over its artists, than anything else. I’m a huge fan of the fifth generation of Chinese film makers who bloomed in the 1990’s – sadly, Chinese cinema (and other aspects of Chinese art) has become far more staid and cliched since then. Maybe I’m just jaded, but I feel that with the exception of Korean cinema, very little of interest is coming out of Asia right now.

  3. Carolinian

    Do western people really spend a lot of time talking about Plato and Aristotle or would that just be western philosophy students? At any rate what I got out of the above is that the Chinese are into tradition as much as modernity. My library has a couple of good books about modern China by Peter Hessler who was a Peace Corps English teacher invited to teach English in a small town and wrote columns about his experiences for The New Yorker. The books are River Town and Country Driving. While he is welcomed and accepted by some he is also treated with great suspicion by others and in this time period–the early noughts–government propaganda is still very much a thing.

    But I guess the above is more about the rulers than the common folk and we get hardly any of that in the many Chinese movies that make it here or the just mentioned books. But if

    the propensity of times is closely linked to what they talk about in terms of the differentiation of rites and music from institutions — in terms of historical changes. The most important thing is that when we talk about time, we actually construct the objective framework. But the propensity of times means that we are all within that propensity. We are the forces that change the propensity of times, and we are the products of the propensity of times, but we are also the active players that force the change of the propensity of times. So it’s a very dynamic term and helps to get rid of an overly teleological narrative of history.

    then surely race and culture need to be talked about as very relevant to a national “propensity.” Polyglot America is nothing like China or Japan. It could be that the ‘ideas’ matter less than the facts on the ground.

    1. Albe Vado

      No, western people don’t commonly talk about Plato or Aristotle. And I very much suspect the equivalent is the same for Chinese; Confucian and Taoist ideas may be baked into much of Chinese culture (something deliberately engineered over a long span of time because ‘shut up and know your place’ is very conducive to stable rule) but no one actually debates them outside of intellectual circles.

      And even that supposed ubiquitous nature, that they don’t see them in the same way fish aren’t aware of water, I have my doubts about. Adjacent to this, and admittedly not Chinese, I’m thinking of how Shinto, the supposed ‘intrinsic soul of Japan’, is a subject where Japanese language ‘idiots guides to Shinto’ type books are consistent sellers, and the reviews will often contain some version of “I still don’t get it” (because it’s gibberish; there’s nothing to get).

      1. zach

        “… (because it’s gibberish; there’s nothing to get).”

        I used to feel the same way about algebra, until i changed my mind. Once i got to calculus i got really bummed out at how easy it was, and how it would’ve been better if i’d spent the time when i was younger…

        Also, that statement is zen af, which isn’t shinto… Or is it?

    2. CA

      “Understanding historical change is very important for Confucianism as a political philosophy. It’s not only the history of ideas. It’s full of the political dynamics within the ideas. People say, well, now we are modern. Then why are you talking about Plato, Aristotle, all the ancient ideas? Because you are still trying to retrieve those ideas for the contemporary world.

      — Lynn Parramore”

      This is a lovely passage, but after several readings I am unable to understand the meaning. History, from my experience, that is overwhelmingly attended to in China, is detailed scientific or technological history and broad history since the formation of the Communist Party in 1921.

      1. hk

        I tend to think the West is mistaken if they think Confucianism (especially the weird version that cropped in the West, partly as the result of Jesuit propaganda in 17th century) is they think it is the key to understanding China. I’ve found the reexamination of Qin Shihuang in the past 100 years to be much more insightful about modern Chinese sense of “history.”

        1. CA

          I tend to think the West is mistaken if they think Confucianism (especially the weird version that cropped in the West, partly as the result of Jesuit propaganda in 17th century) is the key to understanding China. I’ve found the reexamination of Qin Shihuang in the past 100 years to be much more insightful about modern Chinese sense of “history.”

          [ Perfectly expressed. ]

        2. CA

          A sense of how a well-read Chinese may think about and use historical analogy:

          ShanghaiPanda @thinking_panda

          President Xi told a story to President Macron:

          Chinese ancient musicians Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi’s friendship was strengthened by music. Boya played a piece of music that only Ziqi could understand, demonstrating that true friendship requires mutual understanding and appreciation.

          11:56 AM · Apr 7, 2023

    3. Craig H.

      The biggest star in UFO’s right now, Diana Pasulka, is on tour making hay out of Plato’s cave right now. There was a lolapalooza in November 2023 at Stanford and it’s right there in her youtube.

      You have me stumped on Aristotle though! Was he in the Alexander movie?

  4. zach

    Some German:

    “… if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

    This guy:

    “…we master observation, but also we are objects for reflection.”


    What the hey’s so scary about staring at a crack in the ground? If you’re worried about it staring back get one of those one-way interrogation windows like they have in police stations. Problem solved.

  5. stefan

    I don’t think this guy is doing a very good job here of introducing Chinese philosophy. If you want to get a good grip on Chinese philosophy, the nice thing about it is that some familiarity with just a few texts will help do the trick.

    The Da Xue (“The Great Learning”); in fact just the opening line of the Da Xue can take you very far:
    大學之道,在明明德,在親民,在止於至善。”Da sywe jr dao, dzai ming ming de, dzai shin min, dzai jr yu jr shan.”
    “The way of Great Study (or the great study of the Way) is in bright bright virtue (meaning be a shining example of virtue), in renewing the people (every day, make it new), and in stopping when you arrive at perfect equity (like a bird alighting on a branch [preferably a plum in blossom!]).” The Da Xue has about 300 characters; Most children in the East read it in junior high. We memorized it in College where I studied philosophy in the 1970s.

    The Lun Yu “The Analects of Confucius” (these are recollections of Confucius’s conversations with his students); again even the opening of the first book can take you very far:
    “To study with the winging of the seasons, isn’t this pleasant? To have friends come from afar, isn’t this a joy? Not concerned whether other people know me, (but that I understand other people).” (Very Roughly!) The First Book of the Analects has about 20 exchanges/verses. Think of it like Socratic dialogs. I think all together there are about 20 books in the Analects.

    Actually, Ezra Pound’s book of English translation entitled Confucius covers this stuff, and is rather okay, if somewhat idiosyncratic.

    Then top it off with the great opening of Zhuangzi, Book 1. 逍遙遊 – Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease….”In the darkness of the Northern Ocean, there is a fish named Kun. Kun is so big. No one knows how big…”

    If you let all this seep in, you will be well on your way to entering the spirit of Chinese philosophy!

    1. zach

      “Not concerned whether other people know me, (but that I understand other people).”

      If everyone were to do this, and succeed at it, would it make things more, or less, confusing and fractious? Do they cover that in the text? No one likes a spoiler.

      Cool sources, that was a total flex. So sayeth Chico Marx, next time don’t take so long (to chime in).

        1. zach

          maaaaan, you right, we ain’t been on the Galactic Standard Calendar since a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

    2. Kouros

      “Not concerned whether other people know me, (but that I understand other people).”

      But vanity is Devil’s preffered sin…

  6. Es s Ce Tera

    I think for the NC readership I would recommend the opening chapters of Bank 4.0 by Brett King.
    While the west locked itself into the banking concept created in the middle ages, centered on the bank branch and proving ones identity, and also locked itself into hyper-regulation because anti-money laundering, anti-fraud, anti-terrorist financing, and every transaction being traceable and stoppable, because fear of everything under the sun, the Chinese came to finance from a fintech angle, purely a technical need for the person on the street to easily conduct transactions, nothing more, so created almost an unbank approach, the tool without the bank, a first principles of economy, having carried no conceptual baggage about what a bank is or should be, based on branch finance from middle ages Europe.

    I think it’s important for the NC commentariat to understand the fintech approach also becuase the Western banks are lusting after it, see it as a way to bust out of the hyper-regulation straightjacket which prevents any kind of different approach in banking, so we should be watching this space.

    Among other things. I need to pick up a book or two and read some Wang Hui but from the above it feels like he may be hanging out on a very narrow and particular branch of Chinese philosophy, rather than trying to cover the tree itself.

  7. Clark Landwehr

    The idea that McChina has any relationship with ancient Chinese traditions is preposterous. This is the same as the US laying claim to the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. No post-enlightenment humanist raised in a materialist culture can in any way comprehend the worldview of people who lived in a world dominated by supernatural forces.

  8. Mario Golden

    I find the three concepts emphasized to be profound, illuminating, and grounding. Philosophical reflection and understanding is paramount to discern what is happening, what needs to be done, and what is our role (individually and collectively) in transformation.

  9. samm

    I’m glad I finally had the time to sit down and read this piece. What a great read, also really enjoyed the comments. There are certainly a lot more knowledgeable comments here than this one from a high school dropout, but one I think was missed above is Hui’s point that philosophy is a Western concept and was only imported into China in modern times. What he was looking for was a way to study China’s history outside of a Western framework, and he thinks he found it in the three concepts he outlined.

    I’m certainly not a person of school smarts, but I’m a heavy reader and have read me some Marx and Hegel in my more than five decade career here on planet earth. It seems fairly clear to me Hui is heavily influenced by Marx’s righting of Hegel’s dialectic, particularly with the interpenetration of the three concepts he discusses here. Of course I haven’t read the book and could be way off due to my own ignorance, but if this is the case then perhaps Wui Hu still has one foot in the Western way of things.

    At any rate, the propensity of times — this was the most interesting part for me. It’s basically an anti-teleological (or against any step by unavoidable step) view of historical progression. It’s seems like it was what Marx was looking for but mostly failed finding in his development of historical materialism — at least until later in his life. People say these things in history don’t matter, but I think what both Marx and Hui have proved is they *do* matter. Today wouldn’t be in the shape it is if it wasn’t for yesterday. You can ignore this, but then you are also ignoring root causes of THAT WHICH PLAGUES US.

    Anyway, thanks for posting, Yves — I only wish I wasn’t resistant to forking out the 75 bucks it costs to buy the book!

    1. CA

      “Wang’s point that philosophy is a Western concept and was only imported into China in modern times…”

      Interesting comment all through. Surely philosophy was developed in China just as in the “West,” and extends over 2,500 years. Joseph Needham, in 27 magnificent volumes, describes the extent to which Chinese philosophy contributed to or allowed for science development in China.

  10. Tedder

    I got my BA degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Stanford in 1971. In our course, we studied Chinese philosophy and religion—Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism—much in the original Chinese. So, I was interested in Professor Wang’s thought.
    However, I was put off right away by his erroneous claim that prior to the Song dynasty, China used barter: “Wang illustrates how this era witnessed the shift from barter to a currency-based economy.” I just cannot think how he could make such a claim; however, it is possible he never said so, just the narrator thinks he said so.

    1. CA

      “I was put off right away by his erroneous claim that prior to the Song dynasty, China used barter…”

      May 24, 2023

      Ancient coins bear Silk Road history of Xinjiang

      From as early as 60 BC, business and trade occurred between Xiyu, or the western regions of the Han-Tang dynasties (roughly present-day Xinjiang) and Zhongyuan, a region otherwise known as the Central Plain area and the cradle of Chinese civilization. Ancient coins that circulated at the time facilitated business and trade between the west and central areas of ancient China for over two thousands of years…

      1. skippy

        Barter happens occasionally on a very narrow social aspect in antiquity and still to this day, but it is not the history of human action in scope toto or how money was born.

        Everything else is just ideology and environmental ego …

  11. Kalen

    Always but especially now in the era of global confrontation and demise of Western hegemony it is critical that people coming from different philosophical landscape, wittingly or not shaped by it try to understand each other because after all we all think the same human values with major philosophical alternations and misunderstandings predominantly coming from serializing those values and ideas into social sphere via language codification of reality. Wittgenstein as a philosopher and mathematician saw it clearly as he posited that any language limits or even imposes certain perceived reality that is reflected by philosophy conceived with the language.

    In other words some ideas or philosophies conceived within specific language form are nearly impossible to precisely transplant into other language expressions while preserving full meaning. (Derrida went even further). Hui pointed out just that. The natural simplifications and shortcuts used in translations seeking local language reference frame, to enable “better” understanding, by way of thousands cuts often dilute, skew or even loose original meaning. When philosophical tradition and cultures are common or stemming from the same roots such task is difficult but doable. But when they are unique the task is nearly impossible without total language immersion.

    That’s why transplanting foreign cultures often leads to abomination or these days results in flattening or commercialization. Simple example is Chinese food (fast food) sold in US no Chinese would recognize as such.

    Those barriers in mutual understanding to high degree can be overcome if we all seek to find common humanity within others’ ideas.

    Many different ideas of social organization may serve humanity well so fixation of for example on western political tradition or any other tradition as something absolutely superior is fundamentally conflicting and de facto prevents mutual understanding.

    For example democracy of western political tradition can serve vast majority of people well in some practical implementations while becomes utter failure in others. The same is with eastern or Byzantine political tradition of Russia or Chinese political tradition implementing the same paraphernalia of democracy as the west. As long as humanity meaning perception of Justice, fairness, caring and sharing is upheld as well as adequate degree of people self governance is assured systemic labels are meaningless.

    Hui himself suggested that in a sense feudal system was more humane than dehumanizing rule of mobile capital having no permanent home or allegiance.

    The popular during enlightenment era idea of enlightened despot in a way embodies possibility of embracing humanity regardless of systemic formalities.

    Interestingly it is what is a quintessence of Putin and Xi rule. It is true that they imposed social contract on people but they also fully embraced culture people identify with and while taking all power they took all responsibility for the nation. The buck stops at their door as there is no one else to blame. None of them can sweet talk themselves out of that.

    And so as much as they are fully in charge they are not immune to tremendous pressure from the people if people are betrayed and imposed on them however harsh social contact is arbitrarily broken. Political framework of eastern tradition requires that people demand leadership to uphold the contract or its authority will be voided and leaders gone one way or another. None of that kind of pressure on leadership exists within western bourgeois liberal democracy in the moment when electoral deal is broken. It takes new elections for people to express themselves often after damage is already done. And then what? New leader with new lies can get to power to continue defying peoples will and determination to shape societies in ways beneficial to them.

    It is clear in polls where Xi and Putin enjoy overwhelming support by the people while western leadership acting against people’s will has dismal if not catastrophic ratings clearly indicating that they acting against people despite fact that they were elected. In fact today in all western democracies majority of people have no say even during elections as all popular voices are being eradicated and winner enjoy support only fifth of population or less clearly denying purpose of democracy self government.

  12. skippy

    OK I’ll have punt on a lark ….

    Historically the West has never groked China, let alone Asia, past or present, save self serving idioms of superior culture and never will do – because[tm] – its baked in from day one.

    History is replete with examples, but some jaw bone on and on completely oblivious to the past for whatever reasons.

    See Ukraine antics which make zero political or economic sense in the long run, like everyone save western elites[lol] are naturally superior by the dint of them saying so.

  13. Claricius

    Executive Summary
    Li = Ideology = Management objective = Intention.
    Wu = Stock = Magnitude = Integral.
    Propensity of times = Flow = Rate of change = Derivative.
    All three interact destroying linearity, causing dynamics, destabilizing equilibria.

    1. zach

      All the destroy destabilize verbiage seems kind of grafted on but yeah I can see what you’re getting at. The goal is to think holistically, something that isn’t so often considered in the western cosmology. We tend to think that we can identify the “most bestest” or “most importantest” or “most necessariest” out of the panoply under observation – a synthetic, reductive rather than syncretic, additive approach, (in my poorly explained and justified opinion) it’s how we end up with things like fentanyl, rayon, and the Trump Taj Mahal.

      1. Claricius

        How about this?:
        Executive Summary
        Li = Ideology = Management objective = Intention.
        Wu = Stock = Magnitude = Integral.
        Propensity of times = Flow = Rate of change = Derivative.
        Without Li, Wu and propensity of times would follow a linear path of growth or decay.
        With Li, propensity of times changes both in speed and direction because Li represents a Will, a desire, and intention. Then Li is in turn changed by Wu and propensity of times in a feedback loop. These interactions destroy linearity in history, replacing it with dynamics, causing equlibria to be destabilized and the appearance of new equilibria which may be more or less stable than the previous one.
        Essentially, Chinese philosophy as described by Wang Hui is a re-discovery of dynamical systems as applied to history and society.
        And yes, that vision is holistic in the sense of seeking to understand all the components of the system and how they interact to produce history, instead of being Cartesian, reductionist.

        1. CA

          “Li = Ideology = Management objective = Intention.
          Wu = Stock = Magnitude = Integral.
          Propensity of times = Flow = Rate of change = Derivative.”

          Really clever. Deserves further description.

  14. stefan

    On further thought, while I think the Da Xue (The Great Learning) is the best gateway to Chinese philosophy (it is both concise and profound), another good title also occurs to me.

    Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, by Zhang Dainian, Yale University Press (2002)

    “This book is both a good introduction to Chinese philosophy and an invaluable reference tool for sinologists. Comments by important Chinese thinkers are arranged around sixty-four key concepts to illustrate their meaning and use through twenty-five centuries of Chinese philosophy. This unique guide was prepared by Zhang Dainian, one of China’s most famous living philosophers. Zhang reaches back to include concepts in use before the oracle bones (c. 1350-1100 B.C.)-what could be called a philosophical “prehistory.” But the focus of the work is those concepts that gained currency in classical Chinese philosophy, especially those whose meanings are deeper and more difficult to grasp. Translated and edited by Edmund Ryden in consultation with the author, the book also includes helpful introductory commentary by Ryden for each section.”

    Meanwhile, going back to the The Great Learning for a moment, I think the best commentary on that is by Chinese statesman, general, and Neo–Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529), see:

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