Chinese elitism versus American parochialism (aka Sarah Palin-style “democracy”): Musings on how different political systems function. Part I: The Chinese story.
Abstract: The Chinese society functions well when the stuff of its elite works. The American society functions well when the stuff of its elite works and is embraced by its masses (which is far from automatic). The challenge for the Chinese society is that historically the stuff of its elite (e.g., Confucianism, Legalism and revolutionary socialism) has often failed to work. The challenge for the American society is that the stuff of its elite (e.g., science, education and secular humanism) is often rejected by its masses.
I want to talk about “Enculturation (教化)”, the recursive and reciprocal interaction between a society’s elite and the masses.
Historically, the Chinese, regardless of their social economic status, have believed in enculturation. China observed the first spreading of enculturation from the most elite circles to the masses in the Spring-Autumn (春秋) period, with the appearance of the “lay learning/scholarship (民间学术)” of “the one-hundred schools (诸子百家)”, the pursuit of scholarship outside court-sponsored facilities (i.e., the official learning or 官学, including the works of the royal historians at the Zhou Court and the scholar-officials maintaining the traditional faithfulness of rituals and ceremonial protocols (礼官, see 钱穆, 1952). The tradition of lay scholarship peaked in the Ming Dynasty, with flourishing Confucius institutes (书院) presided over by renowned scholars (讲学之风气) in southern China, such as the prestigious Yue-Lu (岳麓) in Hunan and the politically active and radical Dong-Lin (东林) in Zhejiang.
Traditional Chinese learning, both lay and official, has aimed to achieve and maintain order and harmony in the relations among material objects, between the material environment and people (Fengshui & Yi-Jing), and among people as social/relational beings, therefore has always been intimately connected to ordinary people’s daily lives (刘志琴, 2008).
Lay (民间) scholarship, along with the availability (however limited and selective) of education to the poor but ambitious and intelligent youngsters in the village, has maintained an organic bond and lively communication between the masses and the elite. Knowledge gained in scholarly activities was passed on to the masses, modifying their customs, behaviors and ways of life and aligning them with the current level of the culture’s rationality (所谓移风易俗, 刘志琴, 2008). The Chinese believe in human variability in understanding and other aspects (人之不齐人之性也); they rank people on achievements (牟宗三, 2006). Those who know the truth first have the responsibility to enlighten those who would know later (so that everybody knows) and those who wake up first must waken those still asleep (先知觉后知,先觉觉后觉, 参看熊十力, 关于“圣人 (wise man)”与“庸众 (the mediocre multitude”)。
Another link between the Chinese elite and masses is the social responsibility of the Confucius scholar. Participating in politics and governance is not just a personal ambition, but a duty, a prerequisite for integrity. “Study the books to become an official (读书作官)” is the vulgar rendition of the standard life-path of the Confucius scholar. Learning for the purpose of learning was dismissed as vacuous. Learning was pursued for achieving wise and assured choice of action at the individual, family and national levels (AKA politics). (This was the thesis (知行合一) of Wang Yangmin that had made a significant impact on the Japanese Bushido, especially on the doctrine of courage and decisiveness, 勇气和果敢, see Bushido, by Nitobe Inazo) The theoretical learning of the elite (礼) and the practical acting of the masses (俗) mutually inform and facilitate each other’s growth in a recursive interaction (similar to Marx’s concept of praxis). The elite, as officials and educators, were in charge of ensuring that the masses’ everyday lives were in accord with the natural order of the universe (合乎天道, 刘志琴, 2008). For instance, in the Han dynasty, the local official was also a tutor to the emperor’s subjects under his governance (钱穆, 1952). In the historical periods before written records, the patriarchs/tribal leaders (三皇五帝) were also responsible for enculturating the members of the society. For instance, Shen-Nong-Shi (神农氏) was credited for various innovations in agricultural technologies and passing them to his followers.
At times of existential threat to the nation, such as foreign invasions, it was the Confucius scholars’ (both official and unofficial) responsibility to step forward and salvage the situation, sparing no personal cost. 无事袖手谈心性，临危一死报君王。At the end of the Song Dynasty, we had the Martyrdom of Wen Tianxiang (文天祥) and Lu Xiufu (陆秀夫). At the end of the Ming Dynasty, faced with the crushing Manchu infantry, scholars with no military training such as Wang Chuanshan (王船山), Zhu Shunshui (朱舜水) and Gu Tinglin (顾亭林) rose to the times. They joined the brief resistance movement clustered around an offspring of the Ming royal family, the Southern Ming. When that failed Zhu and Gu, among others, traveled to Japan in an attempt to borrow military forces from the Japanese Sumurai to counter the Manchurians, more than two hundred years before Sun Zhongshan did something similar in nature (although what Sun intended to borrow from the Japanese was not exactly troops, 兵). When the Tokugawa establishment declined the request, Gu came back to China and refused to serve the Qing government, despite repeated summoning from Beijing and recommendations from the local officials. Zhu stayed in Japan since a Chinese resurrection did not seem realistic, and became closely associated with the powerful Tokugawa Mitsukuni (徳川光圀). According to Liang Qichao, “整个日本变为儒教国家，最大的动力实在舜水。后来德川光圀著一部”大日本史”, 专标“尊王一统”之义……舜水……也是日本维新最强有力的导师。(梁启超, 2001, pp84)”
Despite their sense of mission and responsibility, the Confucius scholars had done a very poor job governing China, and they have known it all the time, expressing a pervasive sense of helplessness about their lack of competence and skills in defending the nation from less cultured/civilized but tougher and more aggressive invaders. Their stuff simply did not work and the nation had suffered because of their failure. They frequently terminated their lives in apology. “愧无半策匡时艰，惟余一死报君恩。” The Confucius types were followed by the revolutionaries, Sun Zhongshan, Jiang Jieshi and Mao Zedong, each guided by a hybrid of nationalistic ideologies. Communism and San Min zhu Yi (三民主义) were chosen as vehicles, or means, to serve the nationalistic goal (saving the nation and restoring its glory). In the 21st century things have changed, so has China. Now we have the engineers from Qinghua University, who believe that scientific rationality based on empirical verification (实事求是) and the precision of engineering technologies can serve the same nationalistic goals pursued over the last hundred years. We will see how far they can lead the country. My best hope is that the quality of the Chinese elite’s stuff will improve as more and more people trained in the US return to China. After all, Qinghua and Beida are now the top two undergraduate feeders into Ph. D. programs in the US (ahead of UC Berkley and U of Michigan, in all fields combined, not just in science and engineering).
The unchanging theme of the Chinese society is that the elite leads (or rules). The particular ideologies constituting elitism (Confucius thoughts versus Mao Zedong thoughts) have changed from time to time, but elitism as a tradition has remained as the guiding principle of the functioning of the Chinese society.
梁启超(2001).中国近三百年学术史. 太原: 山西古籍出版社 (based on 饮冰室合集).
刘志琴(2008). 礼俗互动是中国思想史的本土特色. 东方论坛.
牟宗三(2006). 才性与玄理. 南宁: 广西师范大学出版社 (originally published by台湾学生书局).
钱穆(1952). 中国思想史. 台北: 中国文化出版事业委员会 .
熊十力(1947/2007). 十力语要. 上海: 上海书店.
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