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Chinese sociology originated by ancient Confucian philosopher

FENG BO | 2019-06-27 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured above is an elegant party in ancient China. Chinese society has placed a strong emphasis on interpersonal relations since early times. Photo: FILE


Who originated sociology? French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857)? Or ancient Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi (c. 310–235 BCE)? In recent years, growing numbers of Chinese sociologists have attempted to explore the issue.

Comte is universally acknowledged by academia as the founder of sociology, as he coined the term. Later with the efforts of classical sociologists Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, sociology became a real social science and began to diversify. Nonetheless, as Hegel said, “What is ‘familiarly known’ is not properly known.”

Is the West the only origin of sociology? Did its history start from Comte only? Is this truly the logic of the history of sociology?


Logic of sociology’s history
Logically, if we broaden the concept of sociology a little and don’t confine ourselves to who put forward the term, we can find other origins of the discipline.

In October 1993, pioneering Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong pointed out in a lecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that sociology has a long history in China if the scope of the subject is widened to include knowledge and theories on interpersonal relations.

In a speech at Peking University, English social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown said that Xunzi from the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) had already founded the discipline more than 2,000 years earlier than Comte and British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer. Fei argued that regardless of Radcliffe-Brown’s opinion, the Chinese culture has undeniably placed a strong emphasis on interpersonal relations.

In a nation with such a long history and a large population, it is important to value the experience accumulated about how people get along with each other, Fei said.

The essay “Extending the Traditional Boundaries of Sociology” that Fei compiled in his late years can be regarded as his expectation for the future development of Chinese sociology. In the article, he started from the opinion that sociology is a discipline with a dual character of both the sciences and the humanities. The humanities nature of sociology determines that sociologists should be devoted to researching basic issues regarding “human,” “group,” “society,” “culture” and “history,” thereby laying a more solid cognitive foundation for the construction of sociology as a discipline.

Rich cultural traditions and abundant social and historical practices in China contain profound social thoughts and humanistic philosophies, indicating a huge potential for the development of sociology, Fei said, adding that it is a cultural treasure yet to be seriously explored.
Tracing the origin of sociology, Liu Shaojie, a professor of sociology at Renmin University of China, contended that how to define the essence of sociology bears directly on the understanding of its origin and development. Different definitions mean different views, hence different explanations on the origin and evolution of sociology.

When writing the history of philosophy, Hegel attached high importance to its relationship with the essence of the subject. Unlike historians who set off immediately to seek the origin of philosophy, he first carried out a thorough examination of philosophical concepts before looking for clues as to the origin and evolution of the field.

Based on Montesquieu, Durkheim proposed the fundamental principles of sociology and how to classify social life, affirming Montesquieu as the founder of sociology while complying with the above logic of Hegel.

Thereafter, French thinker Raymond Aron carried forward Durkheim’s stance and started to write the history of Western sociology from Montesquieu.

Liu said that Durkheim’s quest for the beginning of the history of sociology is significant first in that it broke through closed studies of sociology’s evolutionary history. If Comte’s bringing forth the concept of sociology is considered as the starting point of the subject’s history, it not only gives the history a certain origin, sparing the necessity of thinking about whether there was research on sociology prior to Comte, but it also restricts sociology to a narrow scope.

Moreover, that Durkheim regarded a scholar who had never used the concept of sociology as a pioneer of the subject also means that one’s standing at the starting point of sociology doesn’t depend on whether he had a clear consciousness of sociology or disciplinary stance, but on whether he essentially established or expounded on its principles.

In Liu’s opinion, Montesquieu should never be considered the only scholar in intellectual history to conduct research on sociology before the concept was formed. Tracing the origin of sociology to Xunzi or other thinkers is by extension the same as Durkheim’s practice of regarding Montesquieu as the pioneer of the field.

“Both adhered to a common principle that it is not the direct declaration of thinkers, but the content of their thoughts that defines the criteria for determining their sociological thinking and to probe into sociology’s history,” Liu said.

Here the self-awareness of sociological study is involved. Sociologists such as Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Georg Simmel and Talcott Parsons carried out sociological research with a disciplinary consciousness.

However, it is not advisable to limit the history of sociology to these self-aware sociologists, Liu said, calling for the courage to break limitations of requiring disciplinary consciousness when writing the history. In other words, sociologists can include into the historical team of sociology those who have contributed to the development of sociology by elaborating on related thoughts without yet being conscious of the discipline.

This is not only a matter of a discipline’s self-definition of its historic origins. Rather, it fundamentally concerns whether the discipline can open its arms to the long course of human intellectual history and support itself to develop more fully.

According to the above logic, if inferred from the essence of sociology, Xunzi should qualify as the founder of Chinese sociology in its developmental history. Although he never used the concept and had no awareness of the social sciences, his status and value as a historical sociologist is undeniable.

It is a similar case with Chinese philosophy. There was no such term as “philosophy” in ancient China, but Confucianism, Taoism and the metaphysics of the Wei-Jin Period (220–420) were philosophical practices. Hence we cannot say China had no philosophy at the time. We cannot likewise deny the existence of sociology in ancient China because there was no such term.
Reputed Chinese scholar Yan Fu translated sociology as literally “the study of groups,” defining it as a science that can interpret reasons for the stability, chaos, rise and decline of a nation and therefore contribute to cultivating the moral self, regulating the family, maintaining the state rightly and making all peaceful.

American sociologist Alex Inkeles also believed that sociology is capable of interpreting the nature of social order and disorder.

In light of such definitions on the essence of sociology, we can conclude that the study of society initiated by Xunzi is sociology. As Jing Tiankui, a research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, “we cannot simply equate the introduction of Western sociology to the origination of Chinese sociology.” Chinese academics in antiquity never followed Western learning.

Noting civilizations’ varying origins, Jing stressed differences in learning, concept, form and tradition. Chinese sociology originates from local sociological traditional resources represented by the study of groups founded by Xunzi, Jing said.

However deficient it is, be it premature or not professional, these are the most fundamental cultural genes of Chinese academics, and they are the root of Chinese sociology, Jing said.


Significance of tracing origin
Fei Xiaotong raised the concept of “cultural self-awareness,” his peer Zheng Hangsheng highly valued the theoretical self-awareness of Chinese sociology, and Lu Xueyi strove to localize sociology in China. The Chinese sociological community agrees that it must direct its efforts toward building the academic discourse system of Chinese sociology. Tracing the origin of Chinese philosophy and unearthing its value is vital to the construction of the system.

To that end, it is first of all essential to reflect on the view concerning the origin of sociology within the West-centric discourse framework. The famous “Needham Problem” is not a problem unless it is placed on the horizon of West-centric theory. Weber’s proposition about the relationship between Eastern and Western cultures and modernization exists only in the West-centric paradigm.

However, we have never reflected deeply on the origin of sociology as to whether we have unconsciously, subconsciously, uncritically and unreflectively accepted a parrot-learned conclusion under the influence of the West-centric stereotyped mindset. As a result, when scholars like Jing remind us of the problem, we cannot understand or even believe those who enlightened us, just like the prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave presented by Plato.

To sum up, tracing the origin of Chinese sociology based on reflections on the dominance of Western influence is of positive significance to the building of the academic discourse system of Chinese sociology and to the rise of the discipline in China.


Feng Bo is a professor of sociology at the Communication University of China.

​edited by CHEN MIRONG