Mandate of Heaven

Engagement with China and the Enlightenment- 与中国的接触与启示

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Image: Pope Encourages Conference on 17th Century Jesuit, ‘Friend of the Dear Chinese People’.

‘The Enlightenment’ broadly refers to the intellectual and scientific progress in eighteenth century Europe that was inspired by the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, many intellectuals started to develop a worldview that was critical of religious authority. Belief in miracles and faith were no longer accepted as adequate ways of explaining how the world functioned and came to be. This undermined not only the geocentric understanding of the cosmos as Galileo proved that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but also marked a shift in the way mainstream academia thought about human evolution, from the goal-directed explanation of Lamarck to Darwin’s natural selection theory.

In his essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote that this social and spiritual development of society (Aufklärung) symbolised the rational coming of humankind and a release from self-enforced immaturity. Immaturity here refers to the inability to use independent thought without the guidance of another. There were many factors that contributed to the culture of rationality and individualism in Europe, including the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) during which people started to question religion and warfare, as well as The Age of Exploration, in which discoveries in the New World exposed Europe to other philosophies and cultures. However, one of the less discussed influences on Europe’s intellectual history is contact with 17th century China. As Franklin Perkins (2004) notes, by disregarding this aspect of the development of secularism in Europe,

 We strengthen the illusion that European thought is a causa sui, growing up of itself, without interaction with the rest of the world. This illusion of an independent Europe allows for easy distinctions between “us” and “them”, “East” and “West,” at the same time that it obscures the historicity of those distinctions (p. x).

By the end of the sixteenth century, interaction between Europe and China was already underway as Jesuit missionaries engaged in cultural and scientific exchange: one of the earlier examples of public diplomacy. For Roman Catholic missionary, Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the journey to China was considered “the dream of Jerusalem” after many were unable to make the long sea journey around the Indian ocean. As a distant place that explorers considered as ‘waiting’ to be discovered, China became the ‘Jerusalem of Asia’, a place that would provide a new map of spiritual progress that would unite the world.

One of the main developments from these visits though was not so much the expansion of biblical thought, but the development of the pre-Adamism movement. In short, this was the belief that humans existed before Adam. By studying Chinese chronology, which showed that China was ruled by emperor Fu Xi (around 2950 BCE) long before the biblical flood (2349 BCE), many writers asserted alternative theories to the biblical version of world history. Dutch scholar Isaac Vossius, for instance, claimed that Chinese chronology, covering more than 4,000 years, was an accurate source for showing that the dates of the Hebrew Bible could have been wrong. Biblical events like the flood were increasingly considered local events that only happened to the Jews and no longer as universally valid or applicable.

Writers like Voltaire expressed similar thoughts. In his encyclopaedic entry on ‘history’, Voltaire pointed to Chinese historiography as a primeval and reliable source that recorded events that he thought probably did take place. Without mention of gods or miracles, China stood as a model for secular universal history, and even managed to feature notable characters like Confucius, who Voltaire described as a sage transmitting “the purest ideas that human nature unassisted by revelation can form of the supreme being” (1759, p. 23). The discovery of Chinese chronology ultimately provoked many authors to question the credibility of Biblical authority, starting a conversation on the role of the supernatural in historical inquiry, and whether there should be a division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ history.

It should be noted that in many cases the Jesuit and missionary writings that attempted to describe China in theory and practice either over-exaggerated praise for China or interpreted Chinese history and ethics from a Christian point of view. Vossius’s writings are a prime example. Demonstrating his strong interest and admination of China, he regarded China as a real life Platonic republic ruled by philosopher kings such as Confucius. For Vossius, not only was it a place free from war, the Chinese were one of the most advanced and productive people, writing in one the oldest languages and accomplishing in areas like medicine, architecture, and music long before any other nation advanced in these fields (see Vossius, 1685, p. 57-58).

Study of Confucianism led many to believe that Chinese philosophy also represented a universal morality. While failing to mention God as the supreme origin of moral law, Confucianism was still considered a superior way of being that could align with many Christian beliefs. Jesuit Alvarez Semedo (1585-1658) considered Confucian virtues such as ren to be equal to the Christian virtues of piety (piedad) and humanity (humanidad). Unlike the pagans, Semedo (1642) argued that Confucianists still worshiped some supreme force (Tao – the Way; also Tian – Heaven as the moral universe) without comparing it with other beings. Translations of major works such as the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) and the Analects (Lunyu) were interpreted in ways where the authors highlighted similarities between Christianity and Confucianism. The common phrase ‘who offends against Heaven’ in Chinese texts was changed to ‘who sins against Heaven’, as ‘sin’ was more appropriate to Christian understandings of transgression and lawlessness.

It could be said that this encounter with Chinese philosophy and history by the early Jesuits and later writers who would publish books about their experiences in China partly contributed to ideas of progress, rationalism, and history in the West. Very much like the Confucian revivalist movement today, Confucian morality was considered to be the equivalent to Christianity in its emphasis on virtues, order, and harmony. Although these understandings of China would have been a consideration in the development of Enlightenment theories, the exchange had little to do with dialogue. The one-sided explanations of China show how authors are in positions of power to communicate ideas, many of which are based on interests that align with the dominant ideology and political climate. For centuries, writings about China from these encounters would have shaped popular imaginations about the Far East as both ‘exciting’, ‘advanced’, ‘entertaining’, but also as ‘frightening’ and ‘uncivilised’. The paradoxical views of the Chinese and China’s rise continue to impact perceptions of what China is and how it is influencing the world, and so it is important to be aware that these views and depictions never exist in isolation. Theories about the world not only develop within a society, but from contact with the outside world and the perspectives of individuals who write about these engagements.

Book Extract- The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能

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Since its founding in 1949, China has developed from an extremely poor country into a global power. After developing its industrial system under Chairman Mao, China opened up to the global economy and became the world’s second largest economy, maintaining a double-digit growth rate for over 30 years. To do this without engaging in war and maintaining stable domestic conditions has been unprecedented in modern history. For other countries, China represents an alternative path to development that involves applying development models that match different histories, cultures, and national and regional conditions.

In 2012, President Xi promoted the ‘Chinese Dream’ as a vision for China’s development over the next decades. Through a top-down political campaign, the Dream has been a main theme in the majority of Xi’s public speeches and in Chinese media and scholarly publications. In 2014, for example, 8,249 articles with “China dream” (zhongguo meng, 中国梦) in the title had been published within China according to the CNKI China academic journals database (Callahan, 2014). By 2017, this number has increased to 53,679 articles.

The concept of the Dream is based on China’s historical experience and the desire for rejuvenation following the Century of Humiliation (bainian guochi,  百年国耻) and colonialization by Western powers. Chinese people have been presented with many ideas describing collective aspirations for national independence, common prosperity, and the recovery of the Chinese nation from feudal backwardness. The Dream combines all of these past slogans, including ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious society’, by emphasising sustainable development, common prosperity, and independence from foreign domination through a system of socialism with Chinese characteristics guided by the Communist Party of China.

The following is an extract from Maya X. Guo’s book The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能. In it, Guo interviews a number of Chinese academics on topics around China’s development, including the prospect for democracy, the future of socialism in Chinese modernisation, and Chinese maritime strategy. In the section titled Century-old Quest for Renewal: The CPC’s Evolving Narrative and Historical Mission, Guo interviews Professor Cao Jinqing from East China University of Science and Technology. The following views and opinions expressed in this extract are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin.

Maya: In his first speech after being elected China’s president on March 17, 2013, Xi Jinping gave a detailed account of the Chinese Dream, a dream of the great renewal of the nation. How do you understand this concept in the context of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) narrative?

Cao Jinqing: By proposing this concept, the CPC has revisited the narrative of the century-old pursuit of national independence and modernisation. The Chinese Dream means the completion of a modernately prosperous society in all respects when the CPC celebrates its centenary, and turning China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary. The Two Centenary goals are based on a historical narrative different from the CPC’s conventional narrative. The new narrative appeals to all those who remain committed to the quest for national renewal, including Chinese people on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as overseas Chinese.

Maya: How is it different from the previous narrative? How did the previous narrative justify the CPC’s ruling status?

Cao Jinqing: The previous narrative was a Marxist-Leninist narrative. It was also a conventional narrative of the CPC. The CPC’s vision of Chinese history provides an important ideological perspective from which to explain the legitimacy of its political power. The publication of Chairman Mao Zedong’s article “On New Democracy” in 1940 marked the establishment of the Party’s conventional vision. The article answered questions about China’s past, present and future in Marxist terms: China had evolved through the stages of a primitive society, a slave society and a feudal society like other countries. Had it not been for the invasion of imperialist powers, China would have gone on to evolve into a capitalist society. The Opium War (1840-42) interrupted its routine course of development and reduced the country to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The exploitation of imperialism and feudalism was the root cause of China’s poverty and decline. Under those circumstances, fighting against imperialism and feudalism was the top priority of the Chinese nation. Going forward, China would experience in turn a new-democratic society, a socialist society and finally a communist society.

The theory redefined the history of the Chinese nation, giving rise to a comprehensive new vision of history. This vision, which applied the philosophy of Marxist materialist history to China, was one of the most important reasons for the success of the CPC. As it satisfied their spiritual needs, it attracted numerous disillusioned and hopeless intellectuals to Yan’an, the onetime headquarters of the CPC, making the small town along the Yellow River a gathering place of China’s top talents. One of the prime reasons why the CPC defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in the civil war was that the former seized the ideological high ground. It did so precisely by establishing a new vision of history. In keeping with this vision, Mao led the Chinese nation in advancing socialism. He exercised political power confidently because he believed he was on the side of truth.

Maya: Why is a vision of history so important? How could it make such a big impact on Chinese intellectuals?

Cao Jinqing: That’s because China is a nation imbued with a strong historical awareness. China does not have a Western-style religion or philosophy. The role of history in China is equivalent to those of history, philosophy and religious beliefs combined in the West. History maintains the cultural identity of the Chinese nation. Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801) made a good point when he said, “All the six classics come down to history.”

History lays the foundation of the Chinese culture. When China was a traditional agrarian society, the Chinese lived in clans. Each clan had its history, which helped it evolve by building upon past achievements. While ordinary people were attached to their clans, officials cared about their fiefdoms and the entire kingdom, which also had a history. The Chinese have long been aware of the value of visions of history. The classic works Spring and Autumn Annals and Records of the Grand Historian enabled us to identity with out common ancestor Huangdi and our common history. Visions of history are the center of the Chinese culture. At a minimum, they represent the shared cultural identity of the Han ethnic group.

After the Opium War, which marked the beginning of the modern era in China, Chinese intellectuals focused on reshaping China’s vision of history as they learned from the West to promote the country’s economic, political and cultural transition. Creating a new vision of history was considered a pivotal task for those who aspired to state power. The trailblazer in this field was Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a political thinker and reformer who accepted the Western evolutionist philosophy of history. After the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal political movement from 1919, a group of radical intellectuals turned to Marxist-Leninism. I think the most powerful past of this theory is its vision of history, with which the CPC reconstructed China’s history based on the historical stages of the West.

Regressive history and cyclical history are two traditional Chinese visions of history. The theory of cyclical history, coupled with the Mandate of Heaven, justifies the replacement of an old dynasty by a new one and the rule of a new emperor. The CPC modified this traditional narrative and repackaged it in Marxist language. But the underlying idea remained the same: Those who gain popular support will gain state power; those who lose popular support will lose state power. The CPC’s revolutionary narrative is consistent with the Confucian view of revolution: The Party, which represented the will of the people, overthrew a regime that had lost the Mandate of Heaven…In the CPC’s narrative the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was replaced by “rules of historical development.”

The Chinese Dream has returned to the narrative of the 100-year pursuit of national independence and modernisation, a process in which the Chinese strived to save China from being conquered, bring prosperity to the nation, and catch up with Western powers.

For the latest updates on the Chinese Dream, see Xinhua’s (2016) Chinese Dream webpage.