The Spread of Leo Strauss’s Thought and the Flowering of Classical Political Philosophy in Post-Socialist China
Considered the most important theoretical source for the U.S. Neo-conservatism, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a political philosopher who received various treatments in the field of political science. The intellectual orientations of the Straussian school and dialogues between Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt have aroused heated discussions. In a trans-linguistic context, debates about Strauss in Western scholarship have given rise to another intellectual trend, the so-called “Leo Strauss Fever,” in post-Socialist China. I see this intellectual trend as part of a new cultural renaissance in twentieth-first century China that both responds to the spiritual dilemmas of the 1990s and launches a new intellectual enterprise—revisiting and combining Western and Chinese traditions to create a new type of Chinese learning.
This paper investigates how a group of Chinese scholars, perhaps best represented by Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang, take on the recalibration of Chinese and Western learning (especially classical political philosophy) by introducing Western political philosophy through the lens of Leo Strauss’s thought. While searching for subjectivity in Chinese classicism, the Chinese Straussians also endeavor to establish a new ethical-politics based on energies that emerge from the combination of politics and ethics and from the rebirth of the spirit of Western and Chinese classics.
As I trace the efforts of these scholars, I will explore the following issues: How do they construct dialogue between the two traditions and what are major ideas with which they are concerned? How do they use one tradition to interpret the other? What new meanings do the Chinese and Western classics gain in post-socialist China, and do they gain or lose content in the process of translation? And finally, in what sense, does trans-linguistic hermeneutic practice reinterpret or even reinvent them? These questions will help us consider the fate of ancient classics in this post-revolutionary secular era.
Before discussing the Chinese reception of Straussian thought in the age of globalization, let me briefly summarize Leo Strauss’s basic theoretical approaches and arguments and his position in the spectrum of contemporary political philosophy. A loyalist to the Classical tradition, Strauss criticizes a range of modern discourses and ideologies brought about by modernity; he is deeply skeptical of new disciplinary fracturing of intellectual work into discrete areas such as social science, modern philosophy, and modern science, which has destroyed the holistic spirit of classical political [End Page 39] philosophy.1 By reexamining the origins of modern political philosophy and remapping the development of natural right and natural law and the interaction between them, Strauss brings into sharp focus fundamental disagreements between the ancients and the moderns, and calls for the rebirth of the classical political philosophy. He differentiates true political philosophy from political science by claiming that the latter belongs to the field of science and is “frankly non-philosophic” (Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” 14). He therefore argues, “ ‘scientific’ political science is in fact incompatible with political philosophy” (14). He also insists that “political philosophy ought to be distinguished from political thought in general” (12) and emphasizes that the former is linked to a search for virtues,2 and the most worthy way of life, as well as a commitment the good as the highest happiness.3 Strauss thus criticizes both positivism and historicism because both try to exclude political and moral dimensions of life in society.4 Although I cannot give a full account of Strauss’s intellectual enterprise here, I would like to argue that there are three aspects that run through his writings: First is the return to the classical, meaning to look back to the questions and concerns of classical philosophy; the second is a search for the political, meaning an attempt to recover the original mission and power of a politics that can take root in political culture today; the third is an emphasis on the moral. In this paper, I argue that these three aspects are also central to Chinese scholars’ reception of Leo Strauss’s thought, with an additional fourth aspect—the combination of the Western and Chinese traditions.
In his article “Leo Strauss in China: Summary of Research and Debates on Leo Strauss” published in 2009, Zhang Xu traces the rise of Straussian thought in the Chinese academy since 1985. In 2012 Wang Tao published an article with the same title “Leo Strauss in China” but with a different thematic subtitle: “A New Dialogue between the West and the East.” While Zhang provides critical comments on the translations of Strauss’s works and theoretical reflections on the genealogy of his thought and its dialogue with previous and later political theories,5 Wang’s article responds to some of the interpretations of “Leo Strauss fever” in 21st-century China, including Evan Osnos’s essay “Angry Youth” (New Yorker, July 28, 2008), which links nationalism to the rise of Strauss’s thought, and Mark Lilla’s article “Reading Leo Strauss in Beijing,” which links the “Leo Strauss Fever” and the “Carl Schmitt Fever” and criticizes these two intertwined tides based on the “liberal political tradition.”
Both the Zhang and Wang articles call special attention to the role that Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yan have played in the rise of Strauss’s thought. As two leading scholars who have made their reputations since the 1980s, Liu and Gan almost simultaneously began to write articles on Strauss, introducing his thought to Chinese intellectuals, especially the younger generation. Meanwhile, Liu organized a group of scholars who produced a number of translations of Western works, including classics and interpretations of those classics.6 Many of these interpretations highlight close analysis and commentaries, and assert a Straussian stand. In his “Reading Strauss in Beijing,” Mark Lilla correctly indicates that the introduction of the thought of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt was “a response to crisis.” He argues that in today’s China, there is “a widely shared [End Page 40] belief that the millennia-long continuity of Chinese history has been broken and that everything, politically and intellectually, is now up for grabs” (12). Just as Leo Strauss’s assertion that true political philosophy has a moral dimension as can be seen in the classical tradition, the new emphasis on classical political thought in China also highlights a “return to origins,” not only to the origins of Western learning via Strauss, but also to the origins of Chinese learning. In this sense, returning to the origin is a starting point for the establishment of a new ethical-politics in the post-socialist China. Such politics should contain both the elements of traditional Confucian ethics and those from the Western tradition. Thus, the three aspects of Leo Strauss’s thought have taken on Chinese characteristics: the “return to the classical” in the Chinese context refers to the return to both the Confucian and Greek traditions; the “search for the political” means recovery of the original mission and power of a politics that can take root in the Chinese political culture today; and the “emphasis on the moral” combines both Confucian and Western moral philosophy. The fourth aspect in the Chinese scholars’ introduction of Leo Strauss’s thought, namely a fresh combination of the Western and Chinese traditions, is aimed at finding a new direction for Chinese scholarship and learning.
I. The Return to the Classical
The “return to the classical” means a return to the spirit of classical learning, which involves two related issues. First, it looks back to the origins of philosophy as a whole, which requires a reassessment of its legitimacy and the relationships between philosophy and poetry and philosophy and politics. Only where all philosophy is political philosophy can we call it classical. But the label “classical” also entails returning philosophy to its original status as both poetry and politics. Second, the enterprise of return represents both a response and a challenge to modernity and modern discourses (i.e., modern sciences and ideologies such as liberalism and rationalism), which encourages a fresh look at the origins of both Chinese and Western learning and recalling classical political rationalism as a counter to modern liberalism, rationalism, and nihilism. These two issues not only run throughout the writings of Leo Strauss, but also have emerged prominently in the heated discussions of political philosophy in 21st-century China.
These elements of “returning” are highlighted in several of the academic productions spearheaded by Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang. The publications include their articles on political philosophy in general and Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt in particular, a new journal entitled Gudian yanjiu (The Chinese Journal of Classical Studies), and a series of books on the general topic of classics and interpretation (jingdian yu jieshi). This series ranges across Chinese and Western classical works and is edited by Liu Xiaofeng and his colleagues. In his article “Leo Strauss in China,” Wang Tao briefly describes Liu’s academic enterprises and his achievements reintroducing political philosophy and, in particular, Leo Strauss’s thought, to China: [End Page 41]
After Liu had studied Strauss for a while, he published several works, including The Docility of the Hedgehog: Five Essays in Political Philosophy (2001) and “The Path of Leo Strauss” (2002), which had a profound influence and made many scholars begin to pay attention to Strauss. In “Nietzsche’s Exotic and Esoteric Teachings” (2002), Liu applied what he had learned to interpreting Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Besides his study of Strauss, Liu has endeavored in recent years to promote classical studies (both Chinese and Western classics) and liberal arts education in China. He has also edited Classics and Interpretation, a series of books that reconsider Western and Chinese thought, some of them translations from German, French, and English, and others original studies done by Chinese scholars.
In her article “The Ancient Greeks in Modern China: History and Metamorphosis,” Shadi Bartsch also calls attention to several events that marked the flowering of the classics in Chinese college curriculum, including “the founding of a liberal arts core college (Boya College, within Zhongshan University), whose students are handpicked by its dean, the well-known scholar and public intellectual Gan Yang” and “the creation of an Experimental Class for Classical Studies at Renmin University around 2009, led by another controversial public intellectual, Liu Xiaofeng.” Liu before joining Renmin University had taught at the Department of Philosophy at Zhongshan University (Sun Yet-Sen University). Then, starting in 2003, he began editing the Classics and Interpretation series. In 2010, an electronic book entitled Gudian xueshu jicheng (Corpus litterarum classicarum)7 was uploaded in the website of the Gudian xueyuan (Classical Academy), an important website for classical learning in China, as a special collection celebrating the publication of 200 books in the Classics and Interpretation series. The introduction of this e-book lists six sub-series in which the 200 books appear:
1. Zhongguo chuantong: jingdian yu jieshi (The Chinese Tradition: Classics and Interpretation);
2. Xifang chuantong: Jingdian yu jieshi (The Western Tradition: Classics and Interpretation);
3. Jingdian yu jieshi (Classics and Interpretation: CSSCI Collections);
4. Gudian yanjiu (The Chinese Journal of Classical Studies) (an international quarterly journal);
5. Xixue yuanliu (The Origins and Development of the Western Learning); and
6. Zhengzhi zhexue wenku (Collections of Political Philosophy).
In fact, there are other sub-series not mentioned in the introduction to Gudian xueshu jicheng: one is entitled Xifang sixiangjia: Jingdian yu jieshi (Western Thinkers: Classics and Interpretation) and the other is Bolatu zhushu ji (Commentaries and Annotations of Plato’s Works).
These works all take a holistic view upon both the Western and Chinese traditions and suggest breaking through the disciplinary limits of modern scholarship.8 This emphasis speaks to my contention that the renewed interest in and concern with classical works and issues is related to the challenges and crisis of modernity in China. Reflections [End Page 42] upon modernity have prompted scholars to reexamine the development of Western learning and Chinese learning. While talking about dialogue between the West and China, they focus on the issue of “the whole” in their genealogies of the Western and Chinese traditions. Instead of touting the West as a model to follow, intellectuals now emphasize the particular subjectivity of Chinese scholarship.
Let us consider the first book in the sub-series “Classics & Interpretation: CSSCI Collections”9 (entitled Jingdian yu jieshi de zhangli [The Tension between Classics and Interpretation])10 to show how scholars like Liu Xiaofeng attempted to encourage returning to the origins of both Chinese and Western learning. There are several articles on Chinese classics11 originally written in Chinese and four translated articles treating Western classics. Two of the translated articles are from Leo Strauss’s works “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections”12 and “How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy,” which appeared in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss (207-26). In the latter article, Strauss questions the progressive understanding of history and the debate between philosophy and science in the modern age. He argues that “the development of modern philosophy has led to a point where the meaningfulness of philosophy or science as such has become problematic” (216). To Leo Strauss, only in the modern age does the question “Why philosophy?” become problematic. In other words, the very legitimacy and necessity of philosophy has been challenged by modernity. The only solution is to return to the classical, to the origin of philosophy. Thus, Strauss’s article ends with a broad appreciation of “premodern” or “unmodern” thinking (The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, 226).
The selection of these pieces by Leo Strauss clearly shows the editors’ attitude towards the relationship between the ancients and the moderns. In a short introductory essay at the beginning of the volume, the editors at the outset are critical of the Enlightenment in the West for not only ending the age of classical learning in the West, but also (eventually) for helping to destroy the scholarly tradition native to China. The editors then call attention to an internal link between science (kexue) and learning (xuewen), arguing that the former should lead to “practical knowledge” for solving problems in the real world, while the latter attends to the “spiritual upbringing of an individual or a country” (Tension Between Classics and Interpretation, iii). The editors contend that the true resources of learning are not the changing “scientific principles of the modern age,” but the classics. Thus, they suggest that people, whether pursuing Western learning or Chinese learning, should “either completely abandon classical learning to follow learning of the modern age, or reshape people’s spiritual cultivation by rebuilding the classical academy” (iii). Here, “rebuilding the classical academy” is simply a metaphor. We see that the editors’ belief in the classics and their questioning of modern science clearly echo Leo Strauss’s laments over the modern abandonment of issues fundamental to philosophy in the modern age.
Thus, the return to the classical includes a challenge to modernity and modern discourses. An appreciation for the classics implies skepticism toward the values and [End Page 43] drives of modernity. The editors say in their prefatory note to The Tension between Classics and Interpretation that the title of the series indicates the direction of their pursuit (iv).13 They argue that “The revival of the dying tradition of Chinese and Western classical learning is key not only because the problems of modernity prompt scholars to return to classical wisdom, but also because classical learning concerns the enduring issues that confront society.” They use the classical Chinese term, zhuixu (dying tradition, or tradition that is going to be lost), to refer to the heritage of ancient Chinese and Western learning (iv).
The second book in this sub-series, entitled Bolatu de zhexue xiju (The Philosophical Drama of Plato),14 also demonstrates the editors’ determination to pursue the origins of Chinese and Western traditions. The section “Arguments: Plato’s Philosophical Drama” contains three articles on Plato’s texts, including Lin Guohua’s “The Incomplete Drama of the Philosophy of the Holy: A Primary Analysis of the Storyline in Plato’s Parmenides,”15 Chen Jianhong’s “Crito and Socrates: On Literary Traits and Philosophical Problematic of Phaedo,”16 and Cheng Guanmin’s “The Structure and Motifs in Plato’s The Seventh Letter.”17 These articles highlight the original status of philosophy as literary text or poetry in its broadest sense. In addition to these interpretations of Plato’s texts,18 two additional articles tackle the Confucian tradition from the perspectives of hermeneutics, again attempting to combine Western and Chinese learning.
In this book, an emphasis on the classical also means a return to classical political philosophy at the level of the whole. In his “The Incomplete Drama of the Philosophy of the Holy: A Primary Analysis of the Storyline in Plato’s Parmenides,” Lin Guohua proposes to reach out to the entire realm of political philosophy, which means a world constituted by philosophers, princes, people, and the divine (Philosophical Drama of Plato, 5). In Liu Xiaofeng’s article “Shitelaosi yu zhongguo: gudian xinxing de xiangfeng” (Leo Strauss and China: The Encounter of Classical Minds), Liu correctly points out the uniqueness of Strauss’s thought. Liu says, unlike other modern trends in modern political philosophy, Strauss’s thrust is staunchly classical, or in other words, platonic. The most important distinction between classical political philosophy and its modern edition is that the latter’s status as a discipline among other specialized fields, while the former is devoted to seeking the broad meaning of human life.
According to Liu Xiaofeng, the classical nature of Leo Strauss’s thought, first and foremost, entails a radical criticism of modern predilection toward “isms.”19 Strauss says, “The classics were for almost all practical purposes what now are called conservatives.” This means that understanding the classical is not just engaging the old works from the standpoint of the classical, but also entails rethinking and reflecting on modern politics using the scales of the classical. In this way, Chinese scholars who tend to link the Confucian and Greek traditions turn the quarrel between East and West into a quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.20
As early as 2002, Gan Yang explored this vision in his famous article “Zhengzhi zheren shitelaosi: Gudian baoshou zhuyi zhengzhi zhexue de fuxing” (Political Philosopher Leo Strauss: The Revival of Classical Conservative Political Philosophy). Gan Yang [End Page 44] calls special attention to Strauss’s central concerns—the crisis of modernity and the crisis of Western civilization. For Chinese intellectuals like Gan Yang, the crisis of Western civilization is closely intertwined with problems in China’s modernization and has become part of the problematic of Chinese scholarship. In the face of China’s unreserved embrace of modernity and the overwhelming triumph of instrumental rationality in China’s process of modernization, scholars like Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang believe it is necessary to introduce Leo Strauss’s criticisms of modernity, modern liberalism, rationalism, historicism, and nihilism as a corrective.
Wang Tao points out that Leo Strauss has influenced Chinese scholars in three ways. First, “his interpretation of the conflict between revelation and reason in the Western tradition has made Chinese scholars aware of problems of modern rationalism.” Strauss’s reflections provide a critical impetus for Chinese scholars to “reconceive modernity.” In his article “Political Philosopher Leo Strauss: The Revival of Classical Conservative Political Philosophy,” Gan Yang shows how Strauss’s American disciples have turned the problem of modernity and the crisis of Western civilization into a United States problem and an American civilizational crisis. Thus, the introduction of Straussian thought in China will also provide Chinese intellectuals an opportunity to turn the problem of modernity into an equally Chinese problem, and the way the Americans have reexamined the relationship between their civilization and modernity may provide a model for Chinese investigations. As Wang Tao states, “Reflection on modernity is indispensable for thinking about the development of modern China, which looks, and will continue to look, to the West as an example. Strauss’s revival of classical natural right, in particular, spurs Chinese scholars to reexamine their attitude toward ancient Chinese thought.”
The return to the classical also suggests a reexamination of the relationships between philosophy and politics, philosophy and poetry, and philosophy and history, which are closely intertwined with the role of hermeneutics in contemporary classical studies scholarship. I have already mentioned several articles that use hermeneutics to interpret the Chinese classics. As the editor of those articles, Liu Xiaofeng has his own understanding of hermeneutics. In “The Path of Leo Strauss,” Liu differentiates Straussian hermeneutics from other theories normally labeled hermeneutics, such as those of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) and Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), and the school of deconstructionism that included Jacques Derrida. Is Straussian teaching just another hermeneutic method? How does Strauss’s hermeneutics differ from those of Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Derrida? Liu points to Strauss’s consistent attempts to differentiate the superficial and deeper meanings of classical texts through comprehensive critical readings, while Gadamer and Ricoeur are more engaged with inventing hermeneutic theories than close textual analysis. Doubting the existence of any hermeneutic theory “beyond formal or extrinsic experience,” Strauss is instead interested in hermeneutic practice. Rather than making the philosophical ideas in Plato’s dialogues into abstractions, Strauss tries to reconstruct their literary setting within the text. He asks purely literary questions first, and philosophical questions second. But his research on literary [End Page 45] questions is not about literary forms so much as the crisis in philosophy over its legitimacy. In this sense, Liu argues, Strauss is more like Plato himself than a literary critic. By suggesting that we try to understand philosophers of the past as they understood themselves, Strauss opposes the historicist approach to philosophy, which merely treats philosophical texts as dead documents instead of something related to a living world. This criticism was similar to a criticism from philosophy towards philology. By working out how philosophers hid their real ideas between the lines, he addresses not only the problem of correctly comprehending classical texts, but the very question “Why philosophy?” Both Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yan support Leo Strauss’s questioning of the modern concept of historical progress through a type of truly hermeneutic practice.
The return to the classical is evident not only at the level of ideas, but also at the level of institutions. The rise of various academic institutions and associations devoted to classical studies shows that the broad interest in classical texts and topics has become institutionalized. Examples include the establishment of the Chinese Comparative Classical Studies Association (CCCSA),21 the annual conferences of the CCCSA,22 the founding of more institutions highlighting classical studies,23 the publication of journals, and the establishment of websites.24
II. The Search for the Political
In the process of searching for the essence of political thought and values, Leo Strauss and Straussian scholars tend to return to the origin of politics in the Western tradition. Thus, they emphasize the original meaning of politics, not so much a set of policies, but rather a way of life.25 By tracing the notion of politics to its origin, the Greek polis, they try to recall the power of true politics and encourage intellectuals to regain their political courage and a proper sense of politics, or political consciousness, to reestablish an organic connection between their scholarly careers and interests and political life. Strauss emphasizes that classical philosophy means looking at “political things in the perspective of the enlightened citizen or statesman” and being able to “see things clearly which the enlightened citizens or statesmen do not see clearly” (Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” 27, 28). To Strauss, classical political philosophy expects philosophers to be political insiders: “They do not look at political things from outside, as spectators of political life.” Philosophers should be active participants instead of merely observing political life. Political issues should be the primary issues. Strauss thus criticizes the “estrangement from the simple and primary issues” in modern political thought (28). Such an intellectual orientation, introduced to China by scholars like Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang, has filled a real void in post-socialist China, where intellectuals since the 1990s seem to have developed a narrowed understanding of politics and set a strict distinction between scholarship and things political. Similarly, scholars who prefer the Greek political philosophy tend to understand “regime” as a way of life and try to rethink the issue of the best regime (the best way of life) in the Chinese context. This interpretative direction is similar to Allan Bloom’s take on Plato’s Republic. [End Page 46]
Meanwhile, at the level of politics as a way of life, Confucianism and Greek political philosophy have much in common. While discussing issues of classical political philosophy such as justice, the relationship between the city and men, between happiness and justice, and good and evil, scholars find it is inspiring to return to the old themes of Confucianism, such as wangdao zhengzhi (the kingly way of politics, or kingly governing). Some scholars even have compared kingly governing and the just city. In an explanatory note to his “Incomplete Drama of Philosophy Towards the Holy,” Lin Guohua argues that politics can lead humans to the divine. Politics was a kind of special “skill of the ‘legislative prophets’ pursued by Plato, Maimonides, Machievelli, Spinoza, and Leo Strauss” (xiju 3). It helps establish a world of law, in which a special species of animals can become human beings “only through politics” (xiju 3). Only after philosophy becomes political can it achieve its inquiry into the whole (xiju 3-4).
As I have argued, the search for the political requires understanding politics both at the level of the whole and as a way of life. Thus, on the one hand, philosophy should be political philosophy, meaning politics should be related to the whole of the society; on the other hand, political philosophy should be philosophy first and transcend the level of everyday politics, as well as the trivial issues in the realm of politics as practiced. In his article “Leo Strauss and China: Encounters of Classical Minds,” Liu Xiaofeng investigates dialectic thinking on political philosophy. Inheriting Strauss’s cautious attitude toward “practical purposes,” Liu contends that all types of practice should be anchored in studying the classics. He points out that political philosophy has to be a philosophy, not just an “ism” or an argument that is “politically practical,” that is, something that is only directly practiced in the realm of politics. It is interesting that in other contexts Liu emphasizes the power of politics to tackle problems in the real world; here, however, he criticizes modern political arguments for being obsessed with the “spirit of struggle in the face of reality” (xianshi douzhengxing). How should we understand this expression? If a political argument is solely to be used by the individual to fight his/her enemy or opponent, then such an argument is only an “ism,” not a philosophy. By carefully criticizing the necessity of struggle to political argument, Liu does not simply oppose political practice, he also suggests that having a broader understanding of reality via the classics can help people avoid blindly undertaking political engagement. Liu uses a unique term, zhengzhi shijianxing (political pragmatism), to show his thinking on the relationship between contemplative life and political life.
The search for the political also includes criticism of the modern disconnect between politics and social life, which has occurred as liberalism has become dominant in Chinese academia and the influence of mass media has grown in post-socialist Chinese society. Leo Strauss’s criticism of liberalism has been used to criticize the situation of China. Because of the destructive political struggles during the Cultural Revolution and in the wake of the Tian’anmen incident, many intellectuals turned to liberalism after 1989, which tended to remove the political element from every area of study. However, as Wang Hui has pointed out, this is only a kind of “depoliticized politics,” meaning that liberal intellectuals have never really abandoned politics; rather, they [End Page 47] consistently rely on and strengthen their own political ideologies and agendas by assuming an anti-political or apolitical posture. Thus, liberal intellectuals would oppose the spread of Leo Strauss’s thought in China because it advocates the integration of politics into social life, which is one of the most important characteristics of classical political philosophy. From the claim that Strauss’s thought would bring about “intellectual chaos” in Chinese academia, we see that liberals cannot absolutely support freedom of thought by accepting the validity of other strains of thought they oppose. While liberal scholars tend to de-politicize Chinese intellectual orientations by severing the relationship between scholarship and Chinese political communities, and by questioning any reference to the political and deconstructing the very concept of China, classicists like Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang suggest returning to the original spirit of politics as a way of life and recall the significance of a political community as an indispensable dimension of truly productive Chinese scholarship. In the introduction to his book The Path of Leo Strauss, Liu Xiaofeng chides liberal intellectuals for limiting their work to elaborating on the various “isms”. Thus they cannot grasp the fundamental problem that Leo Strauss identified: What are the causes behind the crisis of Western civilization?
Liu’s criticism of “isms” also promotes a “true basis of political thought,” which engaged issues of virtue and morality. Liu argues that a “return to classical political philosophy” would force all intellectuals to face the issue of virtue, which is closely bound to the problems of living in human society. Liu calls it “virtue in life” (shengcun dexing). By locating the issue of virtue in specific living conditions, Liu recalls the old combination of the political and the moral. To consider the problem of virtue is not to consider virtue or morality abstractly in a vacuum of politics; rather, virtue or morality should always be considered in specific political environments. In Liu’s words, “intellectuals who have become believers of ‘isms’ have to reconsider how to perform as human beings and how to do scholarship in specific political communities” (The Path of Leo Strauss 9).26 Further, Liu hopes that Leo Strauss’s political philosophy can help young intellectuals understand the complexity and seriousness of the political life of human beings instead of blindly accepting political arguments from the mass media, which are divorced from the true spirit of classical politics and have been narrowed to the level of political struggle that obstructs serious reflection. The “search for the political,” according to Liu, requires responding to “the basic crisis of Chinese civilization in the current age,” which means going beyond the differentiations among various “isms,” whether liberalism, conservatism, or postmodernism (10). Liu’s criticism of liberalism is especially linked to the problems of contemporary China. Liu believes that the Chinese liberals have been blinded by Western liberalism and the Enlightenment mentality.27
This search for the political is additionally linked to a defense of the legitimacy of philosophy and politics, behind which we see a criticism on contemporary liberalism, especially neoliberalism. As Zhang Xu has pointed out, Liu Xiaofeng’s criticism of liberalism can be traced back to his acceptance of Carl Schmitt’s assertion of the legitimacy [End Page 48] of politics, which was based on Schmitt’s criticism of “depoliticized” liberalism.28 Furthermore, the legitimacy of philosophy and politics is also intertwined with the relationship between them and the interplay and tension between political theology and political philosophy: Which is the more beneficial and more credible? Should philosophy deal with the issue of value? Should philosophy search for the good life and justice, and answer the question of how human beings should live? If so, then philosophy is politics. Is a philosophical life compatible with the practice of politics? This is an issue of philosophy’s legitimacy in the face of practical politics. Here we not only see the latent dialogue between Carl Schmitt (political theology) and Leo Strauss (political philosophy), but also the intellectual conflict between Strauss (political philosophy as the search for justice, value, and virtue) and Isaiah Berlin (value pluralism). Liu Xiaofeng’s position displays a preference for Leo Strauss’s stand. In his article “Ciwei de wenshun” (The Docility of the Hedgehog), Liu examines the distinct differences between Leo Strauss and Isaiah Berlin. Criticizing Berlin’s “value pluralism,” Liu praises Strauss’s insistence on the mission of political philosophy as grappling with the fundamental issues of value, virtue, justice, and determining what constitutes a good life. Liu also emphasizes Strauss’s criticism that scientific positivism and historical relativism have destroyed the mission of political philosophy to search for the good life. Strauss also charged that the relativism in values emphasized by social sciences has removed the moral choice between good and evil, which turns the learning about politics into pseudo-political philosophy.
The tension between philosophy and politics is also related to the issue of freedom of thought or “freedom to philosophize.” In his article “The Two-Fold Writing and the Enlightenment: The Questions of Leo Strauss and John Toland,” Liu Xiaofeng introduces Strauss’s examination of how the “freedom of philosophizing” is treated in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Strauss argues that Islam and Judaism allow philosophy an “inner freedom from supervision” by endowing philosophy with a “private character.” The model for philosophical practice under the theocracy of Islam and Judaism was the philosophical practice of the Greek city-states, a type of totalitarian society, where philosophy alone was “essentially private” and transcended politics. Liu goes on to point out a key distinction between Leo Strauss and John Toland: While Strauss considers philosophical practice in ancient Greece to have been a private practice, Toland considers it public and related to politics. Thus, different thinkers’ treatment of the relationship between philosophy and politics depends on whether they consider philosophy to be a private or public form of expression, and how they treat the relationship between public and private.
Liu’s discussion of Strauss and Toland’s treatments of freedom of thought shows that his critique of liberalism should not be understood as that of an “anti-liberal” intellectual. Rather, he attempts to investigate the complexity of the question “What is freedom?” By introducing Strauss’s examination of Maimonides’s choice, Liu shows two ways of pursuing freedom: “Maimonides insists on the inner freedom of studying philosophy while abandoning the political freedom required for studying philosophy. On [End Page 49] the contrary, Spinoza gave up the inner freedom of studying philosophy, and turned to a search for realization of the outer freedom—the political freedom required to study philosophy and eventually express new ideas about political systems.” In addition, by exploring the dialogue between Strauss and Toland’s approaches, Liu traces the genealogy of the “freedom of thought” in Western history and its fate in the twentieth century, especially in the United States. His ambition is to provide a mirror that reflects the limits of liberalism, even as they play out in contemporary China.
In his “Reading Strauss in Beijing” Mark Lilla correctly points out that Chinese scholars’ interest in Leo Strauss’s and Carl Schmitt’s thought tallies with their critique of liberalism. While acknowledging the problems that Neoliberalism has brought about globally since the 1990s, Lilla laments the retreat of the “liberal political tradition,” especially in post-1989 China. In my opinion, Lilla’s observation and interpretation have certain problems. First, his claim that “Schmitt’s political doctrine is brutal modern statism” seems a bit arbitrary. Second, Lilla’s criticism of Schmitt’s thought appears to be based on nothing more than his appreciation of the beautiful blueprint of classical liberalism, and he fails to provide a strong response to Schmitt’s critique. Third, the majority of intellectuals have actually embraced a liberal attitude towards the relationship between politics and scholarship and the individual and the state. This is why the Chinese Straussians like Liu Xiaofeng have introduced Leo Strauss’s thought through the lens of Carl Schmitt to criticize this tendency. Their purpose is to recall the inner power of true politics and reestablish the organic relationship between the intelligentsia and society.
III. The Emphasis on the Moral
With his claim “the rejection of political philosophy as unscientific is characteristic of present-day positivism” Leo Strauss criticizes the social sciences’ “emancipation from moral judgements” (Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy,” 18).29 To Strauss, the absence of the moral leads to nihilism.30 Liu Xiaofeng embraces Leo Strauss’s criticism of modern social sciences for pursuing only knowledge rather than value. According to Liu, Strauss believes that the scientific analysis emphasized by social sciences leads to a lack of moral concern. Liu calls attention to Strauss’s criticism that “the relativism in values emphasized by social sciences removes the moral choice between good and evil,” which brings about “the decay of learning about politics” (Liu, “The Docility of the Hedgehog,” 31). Classical political philosophy is replaced by a reduced exercise in political science or a pseudo-political philosophy. The point here is that the issues of the political and the moral necessarily are intertwined.
While arguing for a return to the political in the classical sense, Strauss himself calls attention to the measure of the moral. He argues that Machiavelli marks the beginning of modern political philosophy because Machiavelli emphasized the practice of principles set by certain societies instead of a pure pursuit of virtues. In this way, Machiavelli challenged the traditional way that considers morality “something substantial” [End Page 50] (Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy” 40).31 Strauss argues that Machiavelli’s “critique of morality” is “identical with his critique of classical political philosophy” (41).
Liu Xiaofeng’s development of the moral dimension of Leo Strauss’s thought is shown in his recognition of both Confucian and Western political philosophy as morality-based philosophies. His article “Leo Strauss and China: The Encounters of Classical Minds” shows his preference for morality or virtue. In the title of his article, we see how Liu emphasizes xinxing (mind and nature), a Confucian concept, which he thinks has an equivalent in the Western tradition. Liu indicates that people consider the relationship between philosophy and theological politics, between revelation and reason, and the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns to be the principal foci of Strauss’s teaching. But Liu considers the relationships between philosophy and religion and revelation and reason to be the central problems of Western intellectual history. Thus, these are not the unique parts of Strauss’s thought. While many scholars have tried to narrow Strauss’s teaching by emphasizing the so-called Straussian method of reading texts, Liu argues that the unique quality of Strauss’s method is his focus on virtue.
Here we see a slight difference between Leo Strauss and his Chinese interpreter Liu Xiaofeng. In his book Thoughts on Machiavelli, Leo Strauss emphasizes the break between Machiavelli and the tradition of classical political philosophy by examining Machiavelli’s theories from a pre-Machiavelli perspective. He problematizes the two characteristics we often credit to Machiavelli’s thought: patriotism and proto-scientific analysis. Strauss argues that Machiavelli’s patriotism was based on “indifference to the distinction between right and wrong.” He observes that modern patriotism, which is often rooted in amoral or even immoral drives, is totally different from loyalty to the good espoused in classical political philosophy. Here, although Strauss is criticizing the so-called evil teachings of Machiavelli, his real point is to highlight the break between the ancients and the moderns. Similarly, he opposes considering Machiavelli the originator of scientific method by indicating that he in fact made value judgments instead of developing scientific approaches. In other words, Strauss did not merely lament the disappearance of the moral paradise envisioned in classical political philosophy, but rather deeply examined the rupture between the premodern world and modernity. Somewhat differently, Liu Xiaofeng advances new arguments based on Leo Strauss’s praise for classical morality and provides his own interpretations. Here we see a slight twist in focus. Liu further argues that the fundamental issue for Strauss was the morality of a philosopher, or if he lacks morality, his corruption (“Leo Strauss and China”). In this way, a political question becomes a moral question, or, a political question in fact is a moral question. At the same time, it is also a matter of ethics, concerning the ethical dimension of politics and the ethical dimension of the state. Liu strengthens his argument by saying that the moral-political question of philosophy is the fundamental question of political philosophy. Here, we see an echo of classical Chinese ethical politics (lunli zhengzhi). Where Strauss argues that it is necessary to revive “the premodern [End Page 51] heritage, both Biblical and classical,” for Liu, it is similarly necessary to revive the xinxing tradition of Confucianism. Liu’s emphasis on the issue of morality instead of the relationship between revelation and reason (or Jerusalem and Athens) has its background in the history of post-socialist China. First, the tension between Jerusalem and Athens is rooted primarily in concerns of the Western tradition; second, China’s socialist revolutions have destroyed most theological elements in its political culture and social life. Thus, the problem of the relationship between revelation and reason is not particularly relevant in China today, while the decay of virtue and the absence of a compelling system of value with a clear moral dimension have become very evident, especially as the rise of “value pluralism” that accompanied the dominance of liberalism has disarmed any motivation to pursue the notions of value and virtue in society.
From Liu’s emphasis on the moral, we see an elite approach to the combining of the Greek and Confucian traditions, that is, turning all political and moral questions into questions for philosophers. Liu Xiaofeng considered the classical political philosophy Strauss suggested was “Platonic political philosophy” and explains that it is because this type of philosophy takes the problem of Socrates as its starting point. According to Liu, the key to the problem of Socrates is how a philosopher treats the relationship between morality and politics (the moral dimension of politics), or how he treats the political relationship between himself and society. In other words, it is not only essential to reconstruct a political relationship between philosopher (intellectual) and society, but also to reconstruct the moral dimension of politics itself.
Comparing Leo Strauss’s original points and Liu Xiaofeng’s elaborations on these points in the context of post-socialist China, we see that Liu is stricter in his view of modern discourses and thus more classical. Although Strauss also calls attention to the dialectics between morality and immorality and classical philosophy and the “three waves of modernity,” Liu’s emphasis is more on criticism of modernity with special disdain for discourses and ideologies developed after the Enlightenment. Strauss not only calls for the rebirth of classical political philosophy, he also describes a “depth” created by Machiavelli “from which classics, in their noble simplicity, recoiled” (“What is Political Philosophy” 18). To Liu, such a “depth” is a trap. For some scholars, Liu’s break with the Western tradition since the enlightenment signals a chance for a new rebirth. For example, in his article “Classics: Holding the Two Extremes and Stick to the Middle—Celebrating the Sixteen Year since the Straussian Classics Entered China (1998-2003)” submitted to the second annual conference of the Chinese Comparative Classical Studies Association in 2012, Mo Zhelian terms Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang’s intellectual turn a development “from Enlightenment to reflection upon Enlightenment.” Mo regards the interest in translating Western theories after the Cultural Revolution as marking a second Chinese Enlightenment, since many scholars consider the May Fourth Movement to have been the first modern Chinese Enlightenment. Interestingly, in his preface to The Path of Leo Strauss, Liu Xiaofeng indicates that as early as 1999, when he started to write articles on Strauss’s thought, he was prepared to say goodbye to the cultural spirit that took hold after 1919 (Liu refers here to the May [End Page 52] Fourth Movement) and the philosophical spirit of the 1789 era (the French Revolution, an offshoot of the Western Enlightenment). In other words, Liu’s acceptance and introduction of Leo Strauss’s thought in the Chinese context is a critique of both the Western and Chinese Enlightenment movements. In this sense, Liu’s self-recognition echoes Mo’s observation.
The penetration of the moral issue in politics is also evident in the criticism of democracy from standpoint of classical political philosophy, Strauss’s standpoint. Chinese Straussians like Liu Xiaofeng develop Strauss’ points and criticize the myth of Democracy in post-socialist China.32 In 2013 Liu Xiaofeng published an important article, entitled “Ruhe renshi bainian gonghe de lishi hanyi” (How to Understand the Historical Implications of China’s Search for Gonghe in the Past One Hundred Years). Although gonghe is the Chinese translation of the English word “Republic,” Liu uses gonghe not only to refer to modern China’s struggle to achieve a modern republican politics, but also to envision an ideal politics that he traces back to the early Confucian political tradition. Historically, gonghe yuannian (the first year of gonghe) was considered 841 BC, the starting point of Chinese history with an exact year. Thus, the idea of gonghe really carries the power of original Confucian classicism. The fact that modern Chinese intellectuals chose this term as their translation for a new Western ideal shows that they too embraced the dream of a good politics it implies. But what does gonghe mean? What type of politics does Liu Xiaofeng envision by invoking this term? In this article, Liu first criticizes the popular understanding in today’s China that the new idea of a “Chinese Dream” equals a dream of constitutional politics, and constitutional politics equals parliamentary democracy. Liu cites the rise of Nazism as a result of parliamentary democracy in Weimar Germany to support his point. Inheriting the Straussian critique of democracy from the perspective of classical political philosophy (freedom is the primary issue in democracy, but freedom can be invoked for good or evil), Liu complains that in the modern age, “the antagonism between democracy and despotism has turned into antagonism between the moral and immoral” (“Historical Implications”). Liu further argues that the legality of freedom and democracy requires limiting the moral legitimacy (or legitimacy of morality) of the state and tends to employ “freedom of values” or “neutralization of values” language to eradicate common sense morality (“Historical Implications”).
Of course, Liu is not praising despotism, but means to show the retreat of the moral dimension that was intrinsic to the state as envisioned by classical political philosophy in the wake of the rise of modern ideologies such as democracy as the new “moral standard.” Once being democratic becomes the new moral and morality is reduced to a legal notion and administrative procedure that follows from regulations, the classical idea of the moral as related to an ongoing search for the good cannot survive among the political meanings and practices of the state. This leads Liu to argue that the most important modern project is to establish a type of dezheng (moral politics, or ethical politics). To Liu, ethical politics should embody the “universal value” and the “universal standard” by which to “judge whether a political community is good or evil” (“Historical Implications”). [End Page 53] In a state employing ethical politics, people would achieve happiness and virtue. In other words, while using the combined thought of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt as theoretical resources to criticize the limits of democracy, Chinese Straussians advocate a new type of ethical politics as a more viable substitute than democracy.
Let us return to the question I posed just above. If the type of politics Liu Xiaofeng envisions is a kind of ethical politics, then his use of the term gonghe in its classical meaning gives a blueprint for a politics in which philosophers or gentlemen are the leading class. Historically, there are two explanations of the term gonghe. One explains gonghe as the new politics Duke Zhao and Duke Zhou instituted together as ministers after the despotic King Li Wang had been forced to flee; later interpreters extended gonghe to be a general state of politics in which ministers and rulers maintained a harmonic (he) relationship and took care of political issues together (gong). The other explanation refers to a politics instituted by the magistrate of Gong whose name was He. Both explanations refer to a gentry-led politics ruled in the Confucian tradition that roughly parallels the philosopher-kind ideal in the Western tradition.
In his article “Classics: Holding the Two Extremes and Stick to the Middle—Celebrating the Sixteen Year since the Straussian Classics Entered China (1998-2003)” Mo Zhelan also presents a vision of an ethical politics. After pointing out the three problems of modern Western civilization—democracy as a political system that sustains capitalism, the overwhelming pressure that human desires place on the natural world, the social sphere, and humanity itself, and the domination of technology, Mo suggests guigen fuming, an idea from the Laozi meaning a return to the origin and root as a solution to societal problems. Mo argues that “returning to the root” requires embracing the essence of Chinese learning, which he calls dexing zhi zhi, a system of virtue or morality.33 In this way, Mo champions a return to the morality-based formulation of Chinese political culture. There follows from this a question: What was its origin? Confucius or pre-Confucian philosophy? Here we see how Mo turns the quarrel between Socrates and pre-Socratic philosophy in the genealogy of Western tradition into a key question in the Chinese context.34
After examining the quarrel between Confucius and pre-Confucian philosophy, Mo proposes his own solution: a return to the thought of the era before Confucius, when dao-de (道-德the Way and virtue) defined li-fa (礼-法 ritual and law) and the latter also prescribed the character of kingship (wangquan 王权) and illuminated the dichotomy between righteousness and profit, which would become one of the most important dichotomies in the Confucian tradition. Thus, Mo indicates that “return” eventually leads to the combination of virtue and the holy righteousness (shen yi 神義), which can resolve the mutual enslavement of technology and human desire. Interestingly, Mo also defines Straussian questions as “Jewish” questions and links Jewish questions to Chinese questions. Mo also describes tensions between their communitarian culture and democratic progress in Europe. Thus, the experience of the Jews can also function as a mirror for the modern Chinese. By emphasizing how Jews have achieved [End Page 54] a combination of the three key dimensions—the divine, the human, and material things (shen-ren-wu)—Mo continues to press for a return to the origins of Chinese civilization where virtue and righteousness are integrated.
The emphasis on the moral not only suggests returning to the origin of classical Confucian teaching, but also brings about a new vision combing the classical Western and Chinese traditions and the Socialist tradition rooted in twentieth-century China. This is also intertwined with Chinese Straussians’ criticism of unreflectively transplanting Democracy to contemporary China. While Gan Yang explains his famous formula of “tong santong”—to combine the three traditions of Confucianism, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping—Liu Xiaofeng calls attention to the significance of Mao in China’s quest to recover its gonghe. He calls the People’s Republic of China a regime of “xin gonghe” (literally, “New Republic”). By considering the socialist regime a fresh chapter for the ideal of gonghe politics, Liu is responding to the definition of a communist country as a “dictatorship,” which dominates in the Western imagination. Liu chooses to understand the socialist regime from the perspective of ethical politics. He introduces a discussion on “the sovereignty of the people (renmin zhuquan 人民主权) and legislators (lifa zhe 立法者).” Assuming that the common people may not be equipped to establish laws, Liu argues that a good regime needs legislators. In difficult times, a state’s most important resources are its leaders and political elites. He therefore emphasizes the “political virtue” of these leading figures. On this account, Liu considers Mao Zedong a good/moral leader and the CCP officials a moral leading class. He believes the political virtues (zhengzhi dexing) of the Communist Party lies in its combination of traditional Chinese political virtues with the Enlightenment virtues of the West.35
Of course, criticizing the myths around republicanism and democracy and the one-dimensional understanding of them is valid and important. Liu’s arguments would be stronger, however, if he deepened his definition of gonghe and provided a more theoretical analysis with better supporting evidence. Reducing morality/virtue and the notion of gonghe to the level of changshi (common sense) does not serve his purposes very well. Considering that Liu wrote this article with the clear intention to refute the criticisms from many gongzhi intellectuals,36 I think his arguments should go beyond “common sense,” which has been fallback of the very gongzhi intellectuals Liu himself criticizes.
IV. The Combination of the Two Traditions
The interaction between Western and Chinese learning in 21st-century China embodies scholars’ efforts to combine the two traditions. As I have argued above, it does not mean using the West as the model to follow; rather, it embodies a search for the authentic subjectivity of Chinese scholarship. Such an effort includes two dimensions: first, dialogue between the frameworks, paradigms, and methodologies of the two traditions, which allows the incorporation of one tradition into the other; second, the reinvention [End Page 55] of the two traditions at the level of the whole as a response to the challenge of modern discourses, which encourages Chinese scholarship to strike out in new directions while learning through the mirror of the Western tradition.
Hoping to combine two traditions, scholars have attempted to extend the dialogue between frameworks, paradigms, and methodologies of the two traditions through hermeneutic practice, namely the creative interpretation of Western and Chinese classics. Scholars have used a Confucian framework, traditional Chinese terms, and paradigms of classical Chinese learning to reinterpret classical Western works. For example, Liu Xiaofeng always incorporates classical Chinese vocabulary into his interpretative essays on Western classics. Because he uses a classical term wangzhi (kingly regime) as a new translation for the title of Plato’s Republic, many other scholars who participated in translating and editing the “Classics and Interpretation” series also use this term to refer to Plato’s Republic. In his prefatory note to the sub-series “The Western Tradition,” Liu contends that the encounter with Western learning is an essential issue for the field of Chinese intellectual history, which requires continuous translations of Western classics. While criticizing the selection of translations in the past century as somehow unsystematic, Liu calls attention to the late Qing Confucian scholar Kang Youwei’s saying, “Any thought has two aspects: yili (righteousness and reason, here referring to the aspect of value) and zhidu (system).” Based on this statement, Liu continues to object that many Western classics related to yili and zhidu have not been translated into Chinese. Yili, literally meaning “righteousness-principle,”37 encompasses a range of meanings, such as moral principle, classical learning focused on interpreting Confucian classics in ancient times, the intellectual contents of expressions, and reason or justification. Thus, Liu’s use of yili as one of two standards to judge or select Western classics clearly shows what he appreciates in Western texts and what he wishes to introduce to the Chinese audience. His favorite works are those related to the core classics of the Western tradition, those combining moral teaching and intellectual depth, and those related to the search for the most desirable or noble life. Here we see how a Chinese term can be appropriated to open a hermeneutic space for Western works.
To explain why they took on the “Classics and Interpretation” series, the editors indicate that classics need to be interpreted, which involves not only activities to cultivate one’s taste, but also decisions related to intellectual orientation: Errare, mehecule, malo cum Platone, quam cum istis vera sentire. This last sentence quotes Cicero and means, “I would rather go astray with Plato than understand truth with others.” In other words, they intend to trailblaze a new direction for scholarship, and especially for Chinese scholarship in a new age.
The combination of the two traditions requires a deeper reexamination of questions of modernity and classical issues in the modern context. The webpage of the Division of Classical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences of Chongqing University contains this short mission statement: [End Page 56]
The Division of Classic Studies focuses on the modern interrogation of Chinese classical civilization; it aims to study, explain, and interpret ancient Chinese and Western classics to deepen our understanding of Chinese and Western civilizations.
Following this statement are three research orientations:
Classical Political Philosophy
Modern Interpretations of Chinese Classics (Past and Present)
Translations and Interpretations of Western Classics (Past and Present)
The webpage of the Division of Philosophical Studies also posts a mission:
The Division of Philosophical Studies focuses on the reinterpretation of Chinese and Western classical philosophy, studies of political philosophy, and contemporary dialogue between Chinese and Western thought. It traces cutting-edge developments in the major intellectual schools of contemporary China and the West.
Following this statement are four research orientations:
Chinese Classical Political Philosophy
Western Classical Political Philosophy
Major Intellectual Trends of the Modern West
Comparative Studies of Chinese and Western Philosophy
From their mission statements, we see the academic ambitions of these two divisions: to develop truly critical and innovative scholarship with a comparative vision, based on constructive dialogue between China and the West and the ancients and modern thinkers. The introductory statement of the Chinese Comparative Classical Studies Association expresses a similar formula for the revival of Chinese civilization and its scholarly tradition:
In the past hundred years, the basic problem for Chinese culture was to meet the challenge from the West. If Chinese scholarship in the twentieth-first century is to reach a high goal, it must reexamine Chinese classics based on a deep understanding of Western classics in various eras. If Chinese scholars are not able to produce credible studies on the Greek and Roman classics, Chinese academia can never achieve a truly independent interpretation of Western civilizations. The members of the initiating committee believe that the development of classical studies in China should differentiate itself from classical studies in the West, which focuses on Western classical civilization. Chinese classical studies should focus on studies of Chinese classical civilization and based on this foundation, develop a comparative approach to [End Page 57] Chinese and Western classical civilizations and other classical civilizations in the world from a comparative literature perspective.
From this statement, we see scholars’ interest in investigating the subjectivity of Chinese classicism. Behind this pursuit, we also see that China’s competition with the West has extended from the fields of politics and economy to cultural and scholarly production. With the West always in its intellectual horizon, a comparative vision has been among the key features of Chinese classical studies from the beginning. A report on the first annual conference of the Chinese Comparative Classical Studies Association points out the interdisciplinary nature of rising classical studies in China. Participating scholars came from seven disciplines, including Philosophy, Chinese literature, Chinese history, world history, law, political science, and foreign literature.
As Gan Yang and Liu Xiaofeng’s disciples and young friends have gradually become faculty members at different Chinese universities, we see the seeds of classical studies spreading broadly across China. All of these scholars aim to combine Chinese and Western traditions to seek solutions to the crisis of Chinese and Western modernities. For example, Zhu Zhenyu, a former student of Liu Xiaofeng who received her Ph.D. from Boston University in 2012, became a faculty member at the School of Foreign Languages of Zhejiang University. Zhu is listed as a discussant in an advertisement for a lecture organized by the Forum on Classical Studies at Zhejiang University. The speaker, Lin Zhimeng, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Zhejiang University, is also involved in the “Classics and Interpretation” book series. He is the author of Translation and Interpretation of Plato’s Minos, the editor of Teleology of a Legislator: Commentaries on Volume Ten of Plato’s Laws, and also edited a series of commentaries on Plato’s Laws (in total, ten books). Here is the mission statement of the Forum on Classical Studies:
The Forum on Classical Studies aims to read and interpret Chinese and Western classics and investigate the meanings and connotations of those classics, in order to reexamine the modern experience of Chinese civilization. The forum will encourage young scholars from different disciplines to help each other deepen the questions they ask. The forum will focus on one classic per month, hoping to improve the participants’ spiritual level and cultivate their love of study, questioning, and thinking, with a sturdy commitment to scholarship.
Clearly, this runs closely parallel to the mission statement put out by the Division of Classical Studies directed by Liu Xiaofeng. The Forum of Classical Studies is one of a number of reading groups across China where young scholars and students work to revive Chinese scholarship by returning to classical learning and combining the Chinese and Western traditions.38 [End Page 58]
Conclusion: Return to the Future
In the analysis above, we have seen four key aspects of the spread of Leo Strauss’s thought and the new interplay between Western and Chinese learning in post-socialist China. The return to the classical, the search for the political, the emphasis on the moral, and the combination of two traditions all constitute a response to not only the problems of Chinese academia in the post-socialist context, but also the modern experience of Chinese civilization over the course of its encounter with Western modernity from the late Qing. If Leo Strauss’s American disciples have turned the crisis of Western civilization into an American issue, then his Chinese followers’ concerns are not only with Western civilization, but also Chinese civilization and dialogue between the two. The Chinese Straussians have several goals: In addition to transposing the questions of Western modernity into a rethinking of Chinese modernity and reviving the vigor of Chinese classical learning, they are promoting a search for social virtue, value, and the true integration of the political and the moral as critique and corrective for the absence in China of a constructive political life, a sense of political community, and the ethical dimensions of social life diminished by the domination of liberal discourses. The Chinese Straussians’ ideas provide a critical response to other key topics and issues in contemporary China, including a reexamination of the pros and cons of the Chinese Enlightenment or Chinese Renaissance in twentieth-century China, a theoretical reflection on the role of the Chinese Communist Party in China’s pursuit of modernization and democracy, and addressing the Chinese Dream and the dream of achieving a Constitutional Politics and the relationship between these two.
In “Leo Strauss and China: The Encounters of Classical Minds,” Liu Xiaofeng indicates that “Strauss’s classical philosophy might be more meaningful in China than in Europe or America.” If Leo Strauss had read what his Chinese interpreters have said about the situation of contemporary China, how would he respond? From some of his speeches and writings, we can see his ideas on the quarrel between East and West. For example, in his essay “The Crisis of Our Time,” developed from his lecture of the same title, Strauss argues that the victory of Communism can be considered a triumph of the West, since it resulted from the combination of British industry, the French Revolution, and German philosophy; at the same time, it was also a triumph of Eastern dictatorship.39 We can see from this that Strauss inherited some of the clichéd (mis)understandings of Eastern societies and the relationship between East and West, such as labeling the East the domain of despotic dictatorship. Thus, Strauss might have been surprised how his Chinese disciples have criticized modern discourses and become even more critical towards modernity than he was. He might say it is perfectly valid to call on the rebirth of classicism in post-revolutionary China, where traditional value systems have been swept away by the discourses of modernity and Westernization. He might also say, “Don’t despair.” China might be in a situation similar to the one Machiavelli encountered. The loss of traditional morality and virtue has been painful, but it might also bring about a historical moment from which new teachings of politics and [End Page 59] ethics can emerge. China has more theoretical resources than the West, namely those from the Confucian and Socialist traditions. The return to Western and Chinese classical traditions should not merely be a turn toward the past, but also way into the future.
Dandan Chen received her Ph.D. from Harvard University. Currently she is Assistant Professor of History at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York. She is also an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. Her interdisciplinary research interests include modern Chinese culture, literature, and intellectual history. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitle “Politics and Ethics: Zhang Junmai and the Search for a New Ethical Life in Modern China.” Her research project “China on Stage: Eileen Chang’s Theatrical World and Imagination of China” was selected as one of the Five Year Research Projects on Eileen Chang.
1. In “What is Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss argues that “Science and History, those two great powers of the modern world, have finally succeeded in destroying the very possibility of political philosophy” and “the rejection of political philosophy as unscientific is characteristic of present-day positivism.” See Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” in Strauss, What is Political Philosophy and Other Studies, 18.
2. In “What is Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss argues that “it was possible to speak of the classical solution to the problem of political philosophy because there is a fundamental and at the same time specific agreement among all classical political philosophers; the goal of political life is virtue, and the order most conductive to virtue is the aristocratic republic, or else the mixed regime” (40).
3. In “What is Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss indicates, “if men make it their explicit goal to acquire knowledge of the good life and of the good society, political philosophy emerges” (10).
4. Strauss emphasizes that “the serious antagonist of political philosophy” is historicism and criticizes that historicism “rejects the question of the good society, that is to say, of the good society, because of the essentially historical character of society and of human thought: there is no essential necessity for raising the question of the good society” (Strauss,“What is Political Philosophy?” 26).
5. For example, Zhang indicates that the translation of Leo Strauss’s Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis was not because of Strauss’s significance but because of interest in “the topic of Hobbes’ political philosophy.” Zhang himself thinks this book represents a not-yet-mature work in the genealogy of Strauss’s thought. Zhang also comments on other translations of Strauss’s books such as Natural Right and History.
6. Gan Yang is also listed as one of the chief editors of a sub-series; however, Liu is the key editorial force behind this series.
7. This Latin title can be translated as “Collection of Classical Literature.”
8. In the introduction to Gudian xueshu jicheng, the editors indicate the emphasis of each sub-series. For example, the “Chinese Tradition” aims to revive the study of traditional Chinese classics in a modern academic environment. “The Western Tradition” aims to deepen understanding of the great traditions of the West. The “Origins and Development of Western Learning” suggests “re-reading the West” with a healthier attitude and focuses on problems within the Western tradition while avoiding “looking to the West for solutions to questions in China.” The Collections of Political Philosophy series has two aims: “first, to critically examine the origins and developments of Western political philosophy; second, to deeply investigate the tradition of China’s political philosophy.” (http://www.dioskoroi.com/article/f6/366.html). [End Page 60]
9. Books in the sub-series “Classics & Interpretation: CSSCI Collections” and “The Western Tradition” have similar structures: there are four basic categories in each book: “Arguments” (lunti), “Studies of Classical Works” (variously phrased jingdian zuopin yanjiu, jingdian wenben yanjiu, gudian wenben yanjiu, or gudian zuopin yanjiu), “Inquiries into Intellectual History” (sixiangshi fawei), and “Book Reviews” or “Reviews” (shuping or pinglun). Some books have another category labeled “Old Articles (on Ancient Texts) Republished” (jiuwen xinkan or guwen xinkan). Within these categories, the volumes in “Classics & Interpretation: CSSCI Collections” function as collections of articles on various topics (except for the essays in “Arguments,” which might focus on one topic or one philosopher). But the books in the “Western Thinkers” series each treat a single thinker. The key difference between the two sub-series is that the former contains articles on both Western and Chinese (mostly Confucian) classics, while the latter focuses solely on Western learning.
10. Books in the sub-series “Classics & Interpretation: CSSCI Collections” were edited by Liu Xiaofeng and Chen Shaoming, Liu’s colleague at Sun Yat-Sen University, whose major field is Confucian learning. The first book focused on the interpretation of both Chinese and Western classics. This book was published in October 2003.
11. The articles on Chinese classics in this book were written by Chinese scholars and include Wang Zhongjiang’s “Conditions of Classics: A Case Study of the Formation of Early Confucian Classics,” Huang Junjie’s “On the Two Types of Tensions in the Hermeneutic Tradition of East Asian Confucian Classics,” Jing Haifeng’s “Three Ages of Confucian Hermeneutics” and “Examining Chinese Hermeneutics Through Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming’s Respective Interpretations and Commentaries on The Great Learning.” From these titles, we see the authors’ efforts to examine ancient Chinese texts and traditions using Western theoretical terms and systems such as hermeneutics and its structure of interpretation.
12. According to the translator’s note, this article is from Peter Eberley & Barry Cooper eds., Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993, 109-138. Originally, this was a lecture Leo Strauss did at the City College of the City University of New York in March, 1967. See The Tension between Classics and Interpretation, 259.
13. The editors point out that the title “Jingdian yu jieshi” originally was the title of a book published by the Department of Philosophy at Sun Yat-Sen University in 2000. To name this series of books, they borrowed this title to show the direction of learning they prefer. Interestingly, the English translation of the title “Jingdian yu jieshi” in the 2000 book is “Classics & Interpretations,” which is different from the English translation of the title of the series “Jingdian yu jieshi,” which started in 2003. The articles in the 2000 book entitled Jingdian yu jieshi are all on ancient Confucian learning.
14. This book was edited by Liu Xiaofeng and Chen Shaoming and published by Shanghai sanlian shudian in December, 2003, two months later than the first book was published.
15. Lin Guohua, the author of this article, then a Ph.D. student of the Committee on Social Thought at University of Chicago, indicates in his explanatory note that the article was inspired by Proclus (410-485) and Leo Strauss. Originally it was a paper submitted for a seminar on Plato’s Parmenides sponsored by the Committee on Social Thought at University of Chicago in 2002. Lin dedicated the article to his beloved teacher and good friend Liu Xiaofeng. See Bolatu de zhexue xiju [The Philosophical Drama of Plato], 3-4. [End Page 61]
16. The author was a Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy at Catholic University of Louvain at that time.
17. According to the author’s note, this article was completed as he was doing postdoctoral research at Freiburg University.
18. From the fact that the authors of the three articles on Plato’s texts all had studied or done research at Western universities, we see the efforts of Chinese scholars, especially the young generation, to grapple with the Western classical tradition.
19. In his article “Leo Strauss in China,” Wang Tao argues that because Western “ims” have become dominant in Chinese academia since the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals’ abilities to explore “fundamental questions of human society” and “Chinese life” have declined. This has caused some intellectuals to turn to Leo Strauss.
20. In his article “Leo Strauss in China,” Wang Tao also indicates that “one reason Chinese scholars are so interested in Strauss is that, before they even knew his works, they had a stark sense of the conflicts between ancient China and the early modern West—and therefore the conflicts between the ancients and the moderns.”
21. CCCSA was formed in 2009 under the sponsorship of six academic institutions, including the Center for Studies of Classical Civilizations at the School of Liberal Arts at Renming University, the Center for Classical Studies at Sun Yat-Sen University, the Center for Trans-Cultural Studies at Peking University, the Institute of Ancient Greek and Roman Religions at Shaanxi Normal University, the Institute of Ancient Greek Philosophy and Religion at Sichuan University, and the Center for Classical Studies at Southwest University of Political Science & Law.
22. The first CCCSA annual conference took place at Sun Yat-Sen University, under the thematic title “Classical Studies and Modern China.” In December 2013, a second annual conference took place at Chongqing University, themed “Commemorating the Fortieth Anniversary of the Death of Leo Strauss: Leo Strauss and Classical Studies.”
23. Another important institution emphasizing classic studies and liberal arts education is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at Chongqing University. Gan Yang is the academic director of the boya xueyuan (liberal arts college) at Chongqing University, under the sponsorship of the Institute, and Liu Xiaofeng directs the Division of Classical Studies at the Institute. Both Gan Yang and Liu Xiaofeng are the leading figures in the Institute’s Division of Philosophical Studies.
24. The Journal of Chinese Classical Studies and the website of the “Classical Academy” mentioned above are the official journal and affiliated website of this association. An introductory note recounting what led to the formation of this association emphasizes that classical studies is among the oldest disciplines in the tradition of Western learning. The fact that the discipline does not exist at any Chinese universities made it necessary for scholars to form an association where they could begin to recover the long tradition of China’s own classical civilization.
25. In “What is Political Philosophy?” Strauss argues that “the guiding theme of political philosophy is the regime rather than the laws.” “Regime is the order, the form, which gives society its character. Regime is therefore a specific manner of life” (34). Also see Lin Guohua’s interview with Harvey Mansfield.
26. Liu puts “Leo Strauss als Wegmarke” under the Chinese title on the cover of the book. [End Page 62]
29. Strauss argues that, “Positivistic social science is ‘value-free’ or ‘ethically neutral’: it is neutral in the conflict between good and evil, however good and evil may be understood. This means that the ground which is common to all social scientists, the ground on which they carry on their investigations and discussions, can only be reached through a process of emancipation from moral judgments, or of abstracting from moral judgments: moral obtuseness is the necessary condition for scientific analysis” (Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” 18).
30. Strauss also argues that, “the habit of looking at social or human phenomena without making value judgments has a corroding influence on any preferences. The more serious we are as social scientists, the more completely we develop within ourselves a state of indifference to any goal … a state which may be called nihilism.” (18-19).
31. Strauss indicates, “the founder of modern political philosophy is Machiavelli. He tried to effect, and he did effect, a break with the whole tradition of political philosophy.” He continues to argue that “the traditional approach was based on the assumption that morality is something substantial: that it is a force in the soul of man, however ineffective it may be especially in the affairs of states and kingdoms. Against this assumption Machiavelli argues as follows: virtue can be practiced only within society; man must be habituated to virtue by laws, customs and so forth” (Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” 40-41).
32. This is why Chinese Straussians have been severely attacked by liberals who advocated transplanting democracy to China without any reflections.
33. From this definition, we see that Mo’s focus is on the moral dimension historically dominant in Chinese civilization. Mo provides an outline of this idea in his account of Strauss’s theories in China, where he calls attention to several issues. First, he points to the changed mode of translation from that done for general readers to translation done with researchers in mind. Second, he highlights the new way interpretations show the entire framework of hermeneutics. Third, he focuses on the double nature of reading: What to read and do we believe what we read or not? Fourth, he addresses concern at the state of classical studies after the rise of modernity. Fifth, he introduces new debates on Western learning such as the debate between the Straussian school and the Tübingen School and their debates around the nature of modernity. Sixth, he identifies new quarrels between Chinese and Western learning, such as conflicts between the hermeneutic approach to Chinese classics and the tradition-focused guoxue (“national learning”).
34. Mo also presents three ways of returning to the Chinese classics: “First, using Western methods, paradigms, and logic to reread and reinterpret Chinese classics; second, using the framework of New-Confucianism; third, using the received frameworks of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.”
35. In this article, Liu addresses three concepts of virtue: political virtues; Enlightenment virtues, and natural virtues. While the arguments on “political virtues” can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle, the concept of “natural virtues” also have its origin in Greek literature. Liu praises that CCP for its political virtues and indicate that the GMD (Guomingdang, [End Page 63] or the Nationalist Party) lost the Civil War because it lacked such virtues. He argues that the Cultural Revolution was aimed at recovering social equality, which is certainly a virtue in the genealogy of Enlightenment philosophy. To reach a Hegelian ideal of freedom, the state must achieve moral vitality. Liu locates the failure of the Cultural Revolution in the replacement of natural virtue with Enlightenment values, which caused the Republic to lose its integrity. From these arguments from a public speech, we see Liu inherited many theoretical resources from the Western political tradition, especially from classical political philosophy.
36. Gongzhi, abbreviated from gonggong zhishi fenzi (public intellectuals), is a term that has taken on negative implications in the Chinese media in recent years. While “public intellectual” in its ideal positive meaning should refer to the most independent, critical-minded members of the intelligentsia, gongzhi, in twentieth-first-century China, often refers to people who claim to criticize but merely produce rumors, people who pretend to be independent but in fact only speak for their class. Most gongzhi intellectuals claim to be liberals. Their main criticism of Liu Xiaofeng is that he speaks well of / defends the dictator Mao Zedong.
37. Yi can be translated as “righteousness,” while li can be translated as “principle.”
38. In his “Leo Strauss in China,” Wang Tao also mentions that “some scholars younger than Liu and Gan are very familiar with ancient Chinese thought and ancient and modern Western thought. They developed the habit of reading the classics in groups when they were undergraduates or graduate students.”