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  • Tongbian in the Chinese Reading of Dialectical Materialism
  • Chenshan Tian

In any civilized engagement, perhaps no one believes that negotiation is always either impossible or easily accomplished. In any case, potential pitfalls and misunderstandings abound. The Chinese conversation with Marxism is no exception to this rule. For example, a surprisingly large number of scholars have shared the opinion that Chinese Marxism can be understood fully in terms of Western categories. Many of these scholars—for example Stuart Schram, Joseph Needham, and Nick Knight—have said that there is something distinctly Chinese about Chinese Marxism, but have failed to make clear what this implies, in terms both of what makes it distinct and of how it differs from the Marxism of Marx or of later "Marxists."

Unlike the approaches of previous scholarly efforts, this essay tries to draw attention to the fundamental issue that certain cosmological assumptions of the Western tradition have led to the differences between Western Marxism and particular philosophical currents in the Chinese tradition that developed independently of Western Marxism. Following the assumptions of David Hall and Roger Ames concerning a "correlative" modality of thinking, I argue here that tongbian as a correlative thinking had weighty pertinence in the discourse of "dialectical materialism," or bianzheng weiwu zhuyi. Tongbian means literally "continuity through change," suggesting a worldview of correlations among the myriad things in the world. Ancient Chinese thinkers first authored the concept in the Xici text of the Yijing (The Book of Changes) and it is stamped heavily on the development of classical Chinese culture. In modern times it has influenced the reading of Marxist "dialectics" according to a worldview that sees a continuity between all things or events, a worldview that is devoid of transcendence and order and in which the complementary and contradictory interactions of the two basic elements of a polarity like yin and yang constitute the fundamental forces that produce change. This distinct modality has precluded the dichotomy and the attendant difficulties that have beset Western Marxisms.

In what follows I will begin by introducing tongbian as a form of correlative thinking that appeared as far back as two thousand years ago in the form of functional analogues in the Yijing. I will then employ a discussion by the modern Marxist thinker Ai Siqi on "materialism" and "the interpenetration of opposites" as an exemplary case of how Chinese Marxism draws on tongbian to read Marx and Engels in a distinctly different way, such that whatever one finds in dialectics and materialism in the West is different from its Chinese analogue. Chinese Marxism has developed from a culture and tradition that cannot be fully understood in terms of Western categories. [End Page 126]

Tongbian: A Form of Correlative Thinking since the Yijing

The Chinese term for "dialectics" is bianzhengfa (dialectical method or way). However, when Marxist dialectical materialism encountered—and presented itself as something that might engage in dialogue with—the tongbian approach to philosophical reasoning that existed in China,1 it went through a process of representation and came to be identified with a particular Chinese style of reasoning that suggested analogical relations such as "xiangfan xiangcheng" (complementary opposition). When we say "the relationship between yin and yang is xiangfan xiang-cheng," we are indeed saying that they are "bianzheng," or "dialectical," since here xiangfan xiangcheng and bianzheng ("dialectic") convey exactly the same meaning, that is, "two things that are both opposite and complementary to each other" (Hanying cidian 1985, p. 752). Bianzheng has come to indicate the internal relationship between an identifiable yet interdependent, interpenetrable, and intertransformable pair.

The functional analogue of bianzheng can be found in such terms as dao, yi, yin-yang, and biantong The Yijing tells us:

A door's being shut may be called [analogous to] kun, and its opening, qian. Opening succeeding shutting may be comprehended as of an [event], bian (change); getting through a process of [one] opening to shutting to another may be called tong (the constant course of [things or events]). (Yijing, "Xici" I, chap. 11)

In this passage, both bian and tong have analogical relations with the two events—the door's opening and being shut—and both refer to the process of "becoming...