Webinar reviews course of ideological reform

By ZHA JIANGUO and CHEN LIAN / 02-02-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An exhibition on the theme of Lu Xun and H. C. Anderson at Lu Xun Memorial Museum in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, on Aug. 15, 2022 Photo: CFP

On Jan. 6, the Webinar on Historical Changes and Chinese Thought was hosted by the Institute for Modern Chinese Thought and Culture at East China Normal University. Contemporary Chinese thought took shape over 5,000 years of history, absorbing the essence of human enlightenment. 

Intellectual history 

Historical changes essentially reflect the progression of human existence and evolving practices. Examining them is inspiring for today’s development. According to Wang Zhongjiang, a professor from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Peking University, in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770–256 BCE), various schools of thought mushroomed in response to the questions of the era from different angles. In this era of “roaming scholars,” pluralistic thoughts represented by the studies of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu played a role in guiding social reform and promoting personality liberation. Intellectual openness and inclusiveness were demonstrated in this process, laying the foundation for the grand inclusive ethos of the Chinese civilization. From the Eastern Zhou to the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, Chinese thought advanced through vicissitudes. 

Chinese society has witnessed radical reform in the transition from pre-modern to modern times. Modes of production and lifestyle have undergone profound changes. As a representative of conservative thought, Kang Youwei’s explorations mirrored the tortuous revolutionary road of modern thought. Wang Hui, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsinghua University, believes that Kang creatively interpreted the concept of zhongguo [China] beyond the mere “state” to the connotations of “civilization,” representing an effort to overcome Western hegemony. Seeing the universal value of Confucianism, Kang perceived a world of great harmony from traditions, undoubtedly tinted with the color of enlightenment. However, he placed the hope of revolution on the imperial court and Confucianism, once again staining the enlightenment with the color of conservatism. The limitations of the times profoundly affected the progress of Chinese thought. 

Kang’s contradictory efforts symbolize the dilemma of traditional culture’s self-salvation. The collapse of the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898 intensified the above contradictions and catalyzed the change of values, climaxing as the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Under the leadership of Lu Xun, Hu Shi, and others, Chinese intellectuals widely absorbed Western Enlightenment thought and used it as a weapon to criticize feudal ideology. Thought thus leaped from political and academic circles to the people and began to actively affect reality. Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao actively promoted the spread of Marxism in China and encouraged intellectuals to integrate the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities. “The May Fourth Movement reshaped intellectuals’ values and pushed China to open up amid revolutions,” said Chen Sihe, a professor with Fudan University. 

Fan Hao, a professor with Southeast University, suggested that the contradiction between justice and efficiency in the Western context be overcome by reactivating the thought of “fairness” with Chinese characteristics to make up for the one-sidedness of efficiency, injecting ethical warmth into society and fostering a sense of happiness and belonging in life. 

“Different from modern Western emphasis on forms, Chinese ideological traditions highlight the unity of external forms and internal essences to overcome one-sidedness,” said Yang Guorong, a professor from the Department of Philosophy at East China Normal University. Contemporary China needs to go beyond the blind admiration of the West and the extreme derogation of traditions, strengthen cultural and ideological confidence, and integrate its fine traditional culture with Marxist theory for new progress. 

Human community with a shared future 

In the context of globalization, exchanges between China and the rest of the world are increasingly close. It is an indisputable fact that mankind lives in a community with a shared future. Against this backdrop, distinctive Chinese thought serves to push China to go global and contribute Chinese wisdom to the building of a better world while focusing on China’s specific conditions and circumstances. 

Intrinsically contained within the traditional Chinese notion of “all under heaven are one family,” the concept of “human community with a shared future” provides Chinese solutions to the problems of modernity. According to Sun Zhouxing, a professor at Zhejiang University, the world still faces a series of technological problems. The ecological crisis caused by industrialization has already affected all mankind and forced us to choose a new way of life. 

In this regard, Wu Genyou, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University, suggested that the idea of “the unity of all things” in Chinese thought be revitalized and combined with the idea of communism to develop the theory of a community of free individuals in which human beings share weal and woe. 

Reconsidering today’s China from this perspective, Zou Shipeng, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Fudan University, noted that to go beyond the bipolar pattern of confrontation between empires and nation states, we should, on the one hand, affirm the universality contained in Chinese civilization and adhere to and expand economic globalization. On the other hand, it is also necessary to emphasize its particularity as a multi-ethnic country in development. 

This concept is consistent with humanity’s shared values. In contemporary society, “new normal” and “momentous changes” coexist. We are once again standing at the crossroads of history. In terms of the characteristics of Chinese thought, Yang called for efforts to be vigilant against the abstraction of universal values and to connect them with the real life of human beings. For politics to align with shared values as the common goal of Chinese and foreign civilizations, the two should go beyond competitive relationships and move toward win-win cooperation. China and the world are likely more closely linked with Chinese thought as a bond.