Friday, May 14, 2010

Humanism in China

There may be hope yet. The ideas and language of humanism are slowly gaining purchase in Chinese society today. (Again. The first time was in the early 20th century.)

It seems like this mode of thought ought to be a natural fit -- after all, Confucianism has at its roots a deep sense of humanity. Not all aspects of it are the same as in "Western-style humanism," but there are elements that seem compatible. (However, it may be problematic to claim that China remains "Confucian" today. sigh)

According to an article in the New York Times:
"Western-style humanism flourished in China a century ago, brought over by the Chinese students of Irving Babbitt, a professor of French at Harvard University," who advocated "retaining the good things from the past. He insisted on the importance of the individual, and the study of the humanities."
"Humanism’s gentle, evolutionary approach clashed with the make-it-new passion of many students, intellectuals and politicians grouped around China’s early 20th-century May Fourth Movement. [If only they had known what was coming -- they might have chosen differently.] In 1949, the revolutionaries won the argument when the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China. For over three decades, humanism vanished from Chinese thinking. 
And no wonder. Humanism directly challenged the Communist system by valuing the individual over the collective. It rejected blind obedience to authority, whether religious or political. 
Secular, it opposed deification of any kind, including of a leader like Mao Zedong. Its emphasis on human well-being, freedom and dignity threatened the party’s control over its citizens. It was, orthodox Communists said, a bourgeois theory of human nature. 
Today, it’s back, spreading among intellectuals, writers and ordinary people alike in a process that began 30 years ago, following Mao’s death in 1976. Still controversial, it is periodically subject to attacks from a state that fears that it may become the basis of an alternative ethical system that will challenge Communist Party rule. The bumpiness of humanism’s road reflects the challenge in bringing about intellectual and political change in China."
-- "In Search of Modern Humanism in China" (May 14, 2010)
In the article, Gloria Davies, a scholar of Chinese intellectual history at Monash University, observes that “Humanism has quite a lot of purchase now. It’s used in public culture as a way of maintaining some form of integrity in relation to corruption and censorship.” She pointed to [Chinese blogger and public intellectual Han] Han’s declaration “I am just a humanist,” circulating widely on the Internet. “That’s key. Amid tightened censorship, people are looking for more inventive ways to try and keep the public sphere and civil society alive, so they are resorting to words like humanism. They can always use this as some form of criticism.”

The article also notes that "how to live according to core human values like respect, kindness and care for others has deep roots in Chinese thought, written about widely by Confucius and other philosophers." Furthermore, at an event on "Humanism in China" hosted at Harvard this year, Tsinghua Professor Wang Hui expressed a new, urgent concern for what some might call more old-fashioned humanistic values.

The article classifies Wang as part of the "New Left", calling him a "sophisticated theoretician and critic of China’s present model of capitalist development." One thing I really like about this piece and Prof. Wang is his exploration of the writer Lu Xun. He looks at the kinder, deeply human side of Lu Xun -- the one who exists underneath the pointed criticism and mordant satire:
"To make his point, he turned to a little-known 1908 text by Lu Xun, arguably China’s greatest writer of the 20th century, who was appropriated by the Communists. Lu Xun, said Mr. Wang, was actually a humanist. In “Refuting Malevolent Voices,” his major concern was to find “new voices” that spoke from the heart, and spoke the truth
A healthy society needs truthful voices. And truthful voices come from truthful people. China sorely lacks that [Wang says.] To solve its problems, it needs more open discussion and more self-critical thinking. “A lot of people say a lot of things, but they don’t believe these things, they are just echoing other people. China is full of noise, but it’s silent. You don’t hear real voices.”
Along with a sense of humanity, this Lu Xun was also dedicated to the truth. Two meaningful things: truth and humanity. They are worth searching for. They are also necessary.

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