The Philosophers' Magazine

From California to Confucius

Jeff Mason

What happens when a delegation of American philosophers visits their counterparts in China? Jeff Mason lets us look into his diaries to find out.


Meeting 1: Philosophical Institute of the Shanghai Academy of Social Studies, 23 October 2000

Our first meeting with Chinese philosophers took place in the research academy of Shanghai, which was founded in 1958,and which expanded after 1978. The institute is a research academy which has a foreign section, a Chinese philosophy section, a Deng Xiao Ping section, and the philosophy of religion section specializing in Taoism.

The main theme of this discussion was the relation of philosophy and religion. This topic made more sense to our delegates than it did to the Chinese philosophers because in the West the distinction has had a long history, whereas in China it did not. Our host remarked that of the three philosophies of China, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Buddhism was most like a religion in the Western sense. In any event, the question of their separation was raised only lately, and then because of Western interest in the question.

Taoism, for example was held to be a way of thinking more than a religion, though it had become such for the superstitious believers. Originally it was not so. Religion is part of philosophical studies in China, and it was our different backgrounds that made the question explicit for the Chinese themselves. In China, it was pointed out, religion is not so important except as a subject for research.

There was, it seems, a conflict between Buddhism and Taoism in the early days, but Confucius brought elements of Buddhism into his philosophy. Believers in religion are different from philosophers. Intellectuals take Buddhism as a doctrine just like any other. It was remarked that even Christianity can be thought of as philosophy in the right light.

One of our members asked whether there is anything like revealed religion in China, or an appeal to the supernatural, and whether, for example, Buddhism contains a metaphysics. The answer to this question was interesting, being that in Buddhism we are not to look for a being in itself outside us as the ground of being, but rather we re to look within ourselves, isolating ourselves from sense impressions. What we find is, as it were, a transcendent nothingness. This is what it means in Buddhism to go beyond experience.

Then a definition of religion was asked for, and after a reference to the opium of the people and this answer’s insufficiency, the three identifying marks of religion were named as involving and ideology, a culture, and a social organization.

It was suggested that there is some similarity to the Oriental Sage and the Western Prophet.

Finally, it was asked whether we can compare Eastern and Western philosophy, and the answer was that in an obvious sense comparisons are possible, however the question of incommensurability remained. It is still a question whether universal values exist and whether they can be found in different cultures.

The meeting ended with the thought that the exchange had been stimulating, and the only problem was that we did not have enough time to explore the issues.

Meeting 2: East China Normal University, 23 October 2000

At the second meeting a much more wide ranging discussion ensued that covered many topics, beginning with the question of whether there is such a thing as Chinese philosophy. Hegel, for example, thought that there was no such thing. It was replied that there is a scholarly tradition in China, having its roots in the search for wisdom that does in some ways parallel Western Philosophy. Certainly, there is now much interest in Western Philosophy in China. This University, for example, teaches formal and dialectical logic, derived from Marxism, critical thinking, construction and evaluation of arguments, applied ethics and political philosophy.

The question was raised whether there is such a thing as Chinese logic. Some think yes, some, no. However, there was no logic as Aristotle conceived it in the Chinese tradition, no systematic reflection on the process of logical deduction.

There ensued a series of question to do with the role of Marxism in China today, and whether such subjects as liberalism and feminism were studied. It turns out that a more critical approach to Marxism is now carried on, one which incorporates Western Marxism. It was pointed out that the early Chinese Marxists were liberal in their approach, and this tradition has not been revived with the study of such figures as Locke and Mill.

The next question from the delegation had to do with how Marxism can be combined with capitalism. This question was carefully answered by our hosts, who responded that they thought of the changes in China as a process of modernization. It seems once again that orthodox Marxism has been abandoned for a more critical approach.

Then a Chinese student asked us to say what are the contemporary trends in American philosophy. Whole list of topics was mentioned, and one got the feeling a lot of this was new to our hosts, for example, feminism, Critical Race theory, queer theory and pragmatism, post modernism, applied philosophy, philosophy of sport, etc.

Michael Clifford then read a short paper on postmodern feminism and post colonial theory, and this complex essay evoked a quite heated discussion from our delegation, and showed our hosts what Americans do when they argue philosophically.

On the question of feminism, it appears that China is still in the stage women’s liberation, much as earlier stages of the struggle in the USA.

Then came a question about the relationship between the individual and society, and it appears that more room is being made for the individual than had been true in the past, where the individual was seen as part of a family or the state. The question of individual rights surfaced, and our hosts said that this is now a question that is being taken on board.

It was then asked whether traditional Chinese philosophy was divided like ours is into separate branches, such as metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and so on. The answer was plainly "no", though it seems that today the subject is broken down into topics such as these.

As to whether there is anything like the analytic/continental split in Chinese philosophy, the answer was plainly "no".

Finally, to put our hosts a bit on the spot, it was asked whether the philosophers present thought that philosophy would affect government policy. They thought that it had, especially in work done on the "One China Policy" with respect to Taiwan, and also with respect to theorizing the new economic policies.

My impression was that our hosts met the questions we asked them squarely, and that we were free to ask what questions we liked. The meeting ended with expressions of good will all around, and the hope that such exchanges of ideas would continue in the future.

Meeting 3: Suzhou University, 25 October 2000

Suzhou University is the largest University in JiangSu Province. It has over 30,000 students, and all of them have to take an introductory course in Marxist philosophy. This supports a faculty of 30 Professors. In addition they have 40 undergraduate majors and 50 graduate students. Taught here are Marxist philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Western philosophy, plus philosophy of science and technology, logic, ethics, religious studies, management philosophy (we would call it public policy studies), the New Confucianism, plus a little analytic philosophy and philosophy of language.

Our delegation met with four of their main professors, including one, Professor Wang Xiaosheng, who kindly gave me an interview after the meeting. Hopefully, you will be able to listen to this on The Philosophers’ Magazine's electronic edition through real audio. It was a very interesting and free speaking conversation.

Today's session began with a presentation by Professor Christopher Albrecht comparing the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas with Chinese philosophy in a discussion of Natural Law. Using texts from Aquinas, from Taoism and Confucius, he attempted to show that Chinese philosophy employs a concept of God and natural law very like that of Thomas. In Catholic philosophy natural law derives ultimately from God, and he suggested that the Chinese word for Heaven could be translated as God.

There are indeed many quotes that can be taken to be similar. His idea was that natural law, or a law of our nature that aims for the good, is common to both philosophies and thus could form a bond between us. In Thomas we are to conform ourselves and our inclinations to natural law through reason in accordance with the Divine plan. Both cultures, he argued have a similar idea of a providential nature. In either case, there is, he believes, is an essential human nature, the realization of which can bring harmony to human life and to cooperation between various peoples and cultures.

The Chinese word for Heaven is Tiantang, and the question was raised whether this was equivalent to the Catholic word for God, a rational supreme and supernatural Being. The answer from our Chinese colleagues was 'no'. In Taoism, for example, while there are lesser deities, the Tao itself, or the Way, is beyond God.

What this interchange showed, to my way of seeing it, is the difficulty there is in translating Chinese words into English. It is easy to find similarities between Chinese philosophy and St. Thomas, if one translates words in a convenient way, but this may obstruct our understanding the original Chinese way of thinking.

The next question concerning the natural law had to do with who is the authority in interpreting and enforcing it. We were told that in the old days, the government controlled these things, and scholars in the exams had to show their grasp of the orthodox readings of the texts. Thus the central Chinese authorities, Confucians by training, had the last word for many centuries. After 1949, Confucianism was no longer the philosophy of the state and after that many different interpretations emerged, including in these later days the so-called New Confucianism.

Leaving this topic, one of our number asked if, or how, the Chinese philosophers of today handle the division of opinion in the West between those who, like Aquinas, believed in essential nature, and more modern beliefs in the malleability of mankind and the lack of essence in human being. Interestingly, even though the question was reformulated twice, our hosts did not seem to grasp what the question was about. They excused themselves on the grounds that though they taught ancient Greek philosophy and modern philosophy, they did not know much about the philosophy of the middle ages. Sometimes it is as interesting when we do not get an answer as when we do. The closest we got to an answer was the statement that some philosophers think that human nature, such as it is, can be improved by education and is not Heaven sent.

There followed a number of questions about what philosophers of the West are being studied here. For example, we found out that Wittgenstein is now being studied by a handful of Chinese philosophers including Prof. Wang. However, most interest was reserved for European philosophy, and most had not heard much of Kripke, for example.

Our Charles Sanders Peirce fan asked if he was studied, but it turns out they know nothing about him or his semiotics.

We also found that Chinese philosophers do not, for the most part, offer their own commentary. The teaching is still based on the interpretation of texts.

The role of Marxism in the 21st Century was then questioned, and we were told that Marxism before 1949 was the fuel of the revolution, but that there has to be some modifications in light of recent developments. The watchword is "Back to Marx himself." After the "Open Door Policy" historical materialism must be rethought in light of recent economic changes.

It was asked how Marx's criticism of capitalism is now being handled in the new modernizing tendency of China. We were told that profound changes are taking place in Chinese thinking about this matter, and there are substantial debates going on.

Someone then asked whether they studied communitarianism. It seems they do not, however they wished to know more because it asks whether we can live out our economic lives in a community. The ideas of community and harmony still seem to be central to the Chinese philosophers.

There followed a discussion of the philosophy of science in the West and East, and we were told that they now study people like Popper. It was then asked if there is collaboration between philosophers and scientists. The answer was that indeed there is a lot of collaboration, especially where technology is concerned. Philosophers are actually picked to counsel city governments in their planning process.

We then wanted to find out about the New Confucianism, and were told that this is the attempt to integrate Western philosophy and logic into the old Confucian ideas, to bring the "spirit of the West" into Confucian thinking. For example, there are attempts to bring both Kantian ideas and liberal ideas to the study of Confucius. There is the attempt to re-examine and interpret traditional Chinese ideas. Both Eastern and Western ideas are seen to supplement each other. There also seems to be an attempt to integrate both sorts of philosophy into a common ground. For example, there are researchers who see similarities between Buddhist ideas and phenomenology.

A point in the New Confucianism that can be helpful now, they believed, was the value theory inherent in it than can help to build up a global ethics of harmony and cooperation.

Near the end of the discussion it was asked if they studied John Stuart Mill. The answer was "yes" but mainly to criticize his individualism. The philosophers present thought that this individualism, which is a mark of Western thinking, is still the main issue that divides Chinese and Western philosophers, the Chinese placing more emphasis on the community.

Finally, more practical questions then arose about the nature and methods of Chinese teaching of philosophy. We found out that the traditional form is teaching from a text. The students are to master and be able to recite back the main points. This is still the emphasis, but it is changing. We discovered that the average class size is 20, that the main form of teaching is the formal lecture. However, in this transitional period, seminars are coming into being in which students will be encouraged to discuss issues that have no clear answers in the text. We also discovered that they use computers more and more in their teaching. Finally, we found out that students have texts books of Western philosophy translated into Chinese and that each student has his or her own copy.

In all it was a very eclectic morning with many issues raised and discussed. The need for translation slowed things down considerably, and sometimes it was hard to have our questions answered in the ways we are used to. Nevertheless, our hosts did their best and seemed to be quite open in their answers.

Meeting 4: Nanjing University, 26 October 2000

After arriving in Nanjing, the philosophy delegation went to meet professors and graduate students of Nanjing University. This large University, founded in 1902, has 30 philosophy teachers, and is supported directly by the State Council. It has 150 undergraduate majors in philosophy and nearly that number of graduate students. It has three major areas of study, including Marxism, Western Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy, plus religious studies. An interesting fact about the Phd program is that prospective graduates must publish three papers in qualified journals to gain a Phd.

The question was again raised whether Confucianism is a religion or not. The conclusion was that it was a quasi religion, and for many centuries the official state philosophy. It is mainly an ethical and political doctrine aimed at maintaining public harmony. However, there are temples to Confucius where he is worshipped after a fashion.

Today’s session was interesting because of what we learned about their research interests, and what they asked us about ours. For example we found out that in recent years, the Chinese philosophers have been reading such figures as Quine, Sartre, Heidegger, Rawls and Hayak. Sartre, Heidegger and Hayak have been particularly influential recently.

The mention of Hayak led one of our number to ask further questions about what had happened to some central ideas of Marx, namely what he wrote about private property, market competition and individualism. The response is that while sticking to the central principles of Marxism, some specific doctrines have to be dropped in light of the failure of the command economy to advance the welfare of the people. Some aspects of Marx’s thought are now believed to be out of date. China is facing difficult problems and needs reform if the economy is to advance.

The ‘Return to Marx himself’ movement was mentioned again, and their interest in the early writing of Marx. More emphasis was placed on the individual than before, and there was not so much interest as before in economic materialism. They are becoming more interested in the moral sciences. The question is whether the Chinese can combine moral development with economic development. They are using everything they can to work on this, including postmodernism. This, it was pointed out, is very different than it was 20 years ago.

They are more interested than before in the question of human freedom and the nature of personal choice. They examine ethical dilemmas, and extreme cases, and find that students and teachers now have differing views, whereas in earlier years the answers would have been more standard. Discussion is opening up.

At this point we invited the students to voice their questions. One was a question about whether and how Marxism is taught in the West. A number of recent developments were explained, including analytic Marxism, the radical philosophy association, the journal Marxism Today, and theories of market socialism.

Another topic of interest for them was the sociology of scientific knowledge, and the sociology of the philosophy of science itself. A number of recent developments in this area were outlined, and it was stressed that this is a very vital area of Western research.

Finally, they asked about science and technology and education, and our group spoke of developments on the information technology front that advance distance learning. Our hosts founds such developments fascinating and hoped to do similar things themselves in the future.

Meetings 5 & 6: Nanjing Institute of Education and Nanjing East University, 27 October 2000

As both these meetings centered on questions of educational policy and philosophy, I will bring the two reports together.

The Institute has around 6,000 students divided almost equally between undergraduate students and graduate students and was an amalgamation of three previous colleges. The emphasis in teaching is on science and technology, law and politics, ethics, and economics and politics.

Nanjing East University is another national University directly under the Council of Education. It is on the site of higher learning that has existed as a center of Confucian studies since the Ming Dynasty. This was the capital of China for many dynasties, and the highest exams for scholars were here. This University, however, was founded only 98 years ago, and it seems that the Chinese system of Universities has only been in existence for about 100 years. They are proud of the fact that Bertrand Russell lectured here as well as the Indian philosopher and poet, Tagore.

The specialities of the Professors we met included Western philosophy with a special interest in ethics, Chinese philosophy, social ethics studies, as they called it, and philosophy of religion.

The first questions raised by our delegation concerned access to education. Who should be educated and for how long? Does the universal opportunity of education translate into equal opportunities? A paper was read in the area of distributive justice with regard to education, and similarities were drawn between the problems facing education in the United States and China in particular.

Out hosts responded to these questions by stating that they are always interested in two things, family welfare and citizen welfare. Public education is mandated in China, but now it is also possible for those with enough money to send their children to private schools. It seems that there is a hierarchy of high schools and universities, and only those who do well at examinations at the lower levels have a change of going to the ‘good school’. Now with the policy of each family having only one child, there is a lot of pressure on the children to do well and to go to the best schools. It is much more difficult to bring quality education to the people in the countryside than it is for those in the city.

However, whereas the difficulties of education in the inner cities are a problem for the USA, the problems of rural education are the main problems for the Chinese. In fact, even from our train window we could see the vast gulf that separates a world where water buffaloes roam and the high tech cities, where you see cell phones and high tech communications equipment everywhere.

The problem facing both countries is how to provide equality of opportunity, while there is undoubtedly inequality in educational provision. The needs are the same everywhere for competent teachers, relevant curricula, sufficient teaching materials and good physical provisions of classrooms, plus the encouragement of a social environment that values educational achievement.

Our hosts explained that in China the state provides mandatory education for its children, but that families must also contribute to this effort. We heard of the practice of hiring tutors after school to help children prepare for exams that affect their whole future educational careers, and, of course, the kind of jobs they can expect to take up. This hits the poorer families who are unable to provide extra help. The existence of private education may exacerbate this problem.

China is trying to solve these problems by learning from the world. Mention was made more than once about the contribution of ‘postmodern’ thinking in this regard, but it was unclear to me exactly what this meant in the context of education. It is clear that while the Chinese think that education in the West is aimed to advance the individual, they are concerned that education also improves the lives of people in the country as a whole. The market system is changing the way the Chinese are thinking about the individual and individual choice, yet a balance has to be struck between the ambitions of individuals and the needs of society.

The central question for the Chinese, therefore, is whether the traditional idea of the community can survive the structural changes in social life that the new system is bringing with it.

The problem, as our hosts see it, is to prevent an explosion of individualism, greed and self-obsession that characterise Western culture. This is the reason that philosophy in China seems to revolve mainly around ethical questions. How can they maintain group oriented thinking in the face of the new consumerism?

The big educational question that arose at the Institute was about computers and distance learning. Professor Arthur Falk of Western Michigan University gave a talk about his experience with distance education and its prospects of widening access to education.

Our Chinese hosts were very interested in the idea of distance education, but their own efforts in this direction are rudimentary. It was felt that a drawback was the lack of physical proximity of the learning group. However, as the bulk of the population is crowded into vast cities, there is no problem finding students near by. They are also worried about the psychological effects on students if they are no longer able to interact face to face.

Another worry is what they called ‘computer face’ that students get when looking too long at the computer screen. Since this is a solitary activity, it was feared that students would lose the social skills they need to interact with their peers in person. In other words, they were worried that communication skills would be lost. Good social relations are absolutely crucial to the Chinese and anything that takes away from that is worrisome to them.

Professor Wei from the Institute thought that website teaching could be helpful in the spread of education about China, and also that instant communications had a good tendency to dissolve borders. However, there is so much information on the web that it is important to know where the best information is to be found. This is difficult question that did not find a resolution at this meeting. However, it was felt that distance educational resources should be mobilized to help in the effort to bring the rural areas of China into the mainstream. China is tying to make the best use of limited resources, but still the rural areas have poor classrooms, little equipment and poor teachers, so for the workers these distance learning techniques are very inviting. Still, the Chinese are concerned about who controls the information on the web, and so far this remains a vexed question. Will the market or the government control what is on the web?

Furthermore, concern was expressed about the psychological effects of web studies. Will it lead to fragmented identities?

Moving on, Professor Wei stated that not long ago only 6-7% of the population went to any kind of college, much as in the UK in the 1950's. Now 15% go to college, and the numbers are planned to increase almost exponentially. How are these students going to be taught? There is a lot of pressure on Colleges that have a lack of teachers and other resources. The government and the schools are working together to solve this problem by trying to maintain quality of education while catering for vastly more students. It was pointed out that Institute is constantly expanding is numbers because of the need for more and more highly qualifies teachers.

The conclusion drawn was that China must mobilize all techniques for the spread of education and that distance learning and the use of computers will undoubtedly play a part of the process.


Part 2

In this last report from Beijing, I will not be giving a report on our meetings, but summarizing my thoughts about this philosophical trip to China. As the meetings occurred I have found certain topics repeating themselves. The first concerns the modernization of China, and what the introduction of market forces into a communist society will do to social cohesion. So far there has been little criticism of the new system. China is forward looking, and the new situation is very exciting for them.

One thing I have noticed is that while the older professors are very careful to emphasize that Marxism is the backbone of the Chinese State system, we spoke relatively little about Marxism itself. Even those professors who teach Marxism, and most of them do, had other interests, often, surprisingly, in the study of religion.

Yesterday at the People's University, we split into groups, and the discussion became more candid. I asked one of their teachers about what happened to the idea of China as "the land of rites and ceremonies?" I was told that though such rites and ceremonies still exist, they are not nearly as important as they were. However, the modern Chinese State still appears quite formal, and I believe that the rites and ceremonies have simply changed, not disappeared. Then I asked about the belief in spirits and demons, and in general about the appeal of superstitions in China. Here the reply was that after 1949 there was a concerted and rather rough effort to bring the Chinese to a more rationalistic and scientific view of the world. While he regretted the roughness of this effort, he thought that it had been necessary. Even now, however, it seems that superstition has not been completely eradicated. China, it appears, was a magical world, and some of this magic still remains.

Also at The People's University, which has 40 professors of philosophy and 30 associate professors, Dr. Sandra Bartky spoke about American feminism and it was thrown open to the Chinese philosophers present to respond. This was the second or third time this topic had been raised, and up until now we had no response at all. Interestingly, there are quite a number of female philosophy students and professors in China, not fully half, but quite a few and more than in the West. The Professor who chaired this meeting was a woman, and she asserted that since 1949 the situation for women in China as one of complete equality. The official response by the chairwoman was that there are no feminist studies in Chinese philosophy, because she did not believe that there were any gender differences worth discussing. Men and women are equal, and that is it. Western debates about whether or if women have a separate nature from men and a separate voice simply did not register. However, at this point one of the female graduate students got up and gave a longish and impassioned speech, to which the Chairwoman responded sharply, and in fact our translator was told not to translate what she said. On the bus home, he told us that what the graduate student said is that women's voices in China are indeed muted, and that the situation was not one of complete equality as was stated by the Professor.

I heard from a friend who spoke to her and some of the other female graduate students more about this situation and the developing class system that is arising on the back of capitalist markets and a cash economy. There are winners and losers in the market system, and the losers here are the peasants from the countryside, whose educational opportunities in no way match their city raised cousins. For example, one woman told my friend that in order for her to study at the University and to escape the trap of rural poverty, her whole family had to move to Beijing and take little jobs just so that she could study. There are tuition fees at the University and to pay them the whole family has to sacrifice. In this she is the lucky one, for there are thousands of others for whom that sacrifice is not made and who never escape the countryside for a better life. Another point this student made is that if a woman is intelligent and capable of getting an advanced degree, it is unlikely that she will ever find a husband, since Chinese men do not seem to want to marry bright women. Therefore, a woman who wants to actualize herself as a scholar had better be prepared to find a job and work for herself, and not count on the support of a man. However, these thoughts were not expressed in the general meeting.

There is an incredible disparity between the country and the city that is growing all the time. It is not clear that the "two Chinas" approach is going to work. In my small group, our Marxist professor confessed that things are not a "pure" as they used to be, and that it is too soon to tell whether the changes now affecting China will be for the good or not.

Finally, let me return to what I will take away from this trip to China, and what I have learned from its philosophers. The main questions preoccupying Chinese philosophers are ethical and political. Here is what I see as the main difference. In Western thought, with the possible exception of Plato, ethics and politics begins with the individual and works its way up to society and the State. While concerned with social harmony, Western ethics concerns itself with the rights and obligations of the individual, with the questions of individual freedom, and the rationale for democracy.

In China, on the contrary, the individual is seen first and foremost as part of society, and only secondarily as an individual per se. This approach is difficult for a Western thinker to fathom, but it is one that needs to be explored as the effects of individual actions change our world, and not always for the better. How can we think about ethics in a more global fashion? How can we think of the good of the whole first, and then work out equitable arrangements for living together as individuals. This is undoubtedly the main concern of the philosophers we have met. They want to expand discussion, and to increase the number of voices that can be heard in China, and some movement in this direction has been accomplished. We see this in the coming of the seminar method of teaching, in which different students are free to disagree with each other. This is a departure for the Chinese philosophers for whom arriving at a consensus is very important. At least we were allowed to see very little of their internal arguments and disagreements. This is very different from our philosophers who love to argue and disagree with each other.

I have felt very privileged to be here in China during this transitional period in which everything is changing. The People to People Ambassador's Program indeed does bring us closer together, and I hope that from this trip many contacts will be made and developed for future cooperation. The Chinese philosophers are doing everything they can to incorporate Western thinking into their research, and we would do well to do the same. Chinese philosophy, especially in the field of ethics has a lot to teach us, and I hope that in the future Western philosophy departments will do more to take it on board and incorporate it into their thinking.

Signing off now, Jeff Mason

The Philosophers' Magazine - 21 Parkhurst Road, London N22 8JQ