- Ideas Won't Keep: The Struggle for China's Future
Wang Gungwu's new book Ideas Won't Keep addresses the momentous question of where China is heading today as it emerges from Maoism and isolation to become increasingly integrated into the world economic and political system. Wang is above all concerned with understanding the construction of China's new cultural and political identity at this important historical juncture, or, in Wang's own words, with whether China "will continue to have a distinctive political culture of its own" (p. 13). In order to answer this question, Wang focuses on the connection between intellectual trends and political power. The ten previously published essays that form this book in fact analyze the impact of Chinese Confucian tradition and Western influences on the country's process of political modernization and "how they have shaped the China of the present" (description on front jacket).
Wang's rich and eclectic scholarly background is reflected in the wide range of topics covered by the ten essays, which include the career of an imperial official from the time of the Five Dynasties ("Confucian Loyalty"), traditional historical and biographical writings, the Cultural Revolution, and the development of the idea of "rights" in China's Confucian tradition and in post-imperial politics and culture. Notwithstanding this wide range of issues, the essays make up a surprisingly coherent collection. Two main themes emerge. The first is that Confucian thought possessed distinctive (Chinese-style) qualities of humanism and proto-liberalism [my term]. For this reason, Wang argues, Confucian ideas can be relevant to China's current search for a new and more democratic identity. The second theme is how Chinese intellectuals and political leaders reacted to the spreading of Western ideas of modernity and how they understood their role in China's modernization. Wang's discussion of these two themes is informed by his underlying argument that China cannot completely forfeit its valuable past. Only a careful combination of tradition and Western modernity can yield the successful formula for a globally modern but distinctive political culture.
According to Wang the positive qualities of early Confucian thought were lost when Confucianism was appropriated by the imperial establishment as the basis of its ideology in a process that began with the Han dynasty in the third century B.C. and culminated with the emergence of New Confucianism in the tenth century A.D. In this process Confucianism lost not only its humanism but also its ability to be flexible, to absorb external influences, and to tolerate dissent ("Civilization and Change," "Confucian Loyalty," and "Rebellious Lives"). In the first essay, "Rights and Duties," Wang presents the idea that a basic notion of [End Page 260] individual rights characterized early Confucian thought. Although most of the fundamental ideas of Confucius, from filial piety to righteousness, appear to stress the duty of the individual toward either the family or the state, Wang argues that "when they are together as a hierarchy of reciprocal relationships, they also imply rights that flow from the duties performed" (p. 24). For example, "the ruler's right to loyalty depends on his fulfilling his own duties of being filial to his parents and kindly towards his people" (p. 24). This reciprocity was soon challenged, however, by Legalist thinkers as well as later Confucian philosophers, intent on translating Confucianism into a state ideology. They, in fact, severed the link between duties and reciprocity, demanding unconditional loyalty to both the father and the ruler, regardless of whether they were successful in fulfilling their duties ("Rights and Duties").
Other important aspects of early Confucianism were also lost as the authoritarian imperial establishment appropriated it. Early Confucian ideas of honesty and decency and "moral and dignified rhetoric" became obsolete as later Confucian scholars preferred instead to stress absolute loyalty to the emperor as the foundation of Confucianism (p. 64). The same fate also awaited the early Confucian notion of tolerance for dissent ("Rebellious Lives") and acceptance of change and adaptation ("Civilization and Change...