»  The American Scholar

Fall 1988

  The Beggars' Democracy

Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis
by Hao Chang


The last twenty years of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911) were not a happy time for Chinese intellectuals. It was bad enough to find oneself living at the wrong end of a dynastic cycle, when the measured tones of ancient rationalism were being drowned out by the rising din of institutional collapse; but for that circumstance one at least had historical precedents to work from. Much more disorienting was the accelerating inflow of Western ideas, which cast the whole of China's intellectual tradition in a strange new light, and invalidated quite large parts of it — its cosmology, for example — altogether.

To keep Chinese culture afloat in these storms was no mean task, and one can only admire the courage with which scholars manned the rigging. Intellectuals of later generations at least had the option to abandon ship, but for those born before the 1890s this was out of the question. They had been educated entirely in the native tradition, and encountered the West only after they had already reached intellectual maturity.

In Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis, Hao Chang has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of this "transitional generation". His book deals with four significant intellectuals of the years just before the 1911 revolution. This is not history or biography, but a very detailed account of what these men thought and believed, as best we can deduce from what they wrote and did.

Of the four figures, K'ang Yu-wei is the best known, and the most intellectually attractive. He was a leading light of the "Hundred Days" reform movement of 1898, when a group of enlightened scholars and officials, with the support of the idealistic young emperor, attempted to break the power of the Dowager Empress and her reactionary ministers. The movement was crushed by the empress, and K'ang had to run for his life, but he remained dedicated to the cause of constitutional monarchy. His later career reminds one of the more eccentric kind of British aristocrat. For some years he roamed the world with a teenage concubine, stopping at places of historical interest to compose rather good poems in the classical style. He made money in real estate, and (probably) by skimming the contributions of those who supported his political ideals. After 1911 he returned to China, where he buttressed his diminishing influence by firing off telegrams to important people and founding societies for the study of levitation. As well as being an intrinsically fascinating man, K'ang possessed the additional virtue of holding correct opinions about China's problems. The best hope for constitutional progress in China was, he believed, by reform from within the despotism. It still is.

T'an Ssu-t'ung, the second of Hao Chang's intellectuals, also took part in the Hundred Days, but refused to flee when the empress struck back. He was martyred (by beheading) and became something akin to a Nathan Hale of the reform movement. He seems to have been a dreamy, melancholy man, of a type familiar to anyone who has mixed much with Chinese intellectuals. Professor Chang's account of his inner life confirms one's impression that he was rather glad to rid himself of the world, once given an opportunity to do so with dignity and purpose.

Chang Ping-lin is best known as the editor of The People, a revolutionary magazine of the mid-1900s. Chang was an intellectual's intellectual, his works dense and difficult to read. One of them is called "Five Theses on Nothing." The contemporary satirist Lu Hsun — no light reading himself — described Chang's essay style as "incomprehensible." Philosophically he is much the most interesting of Prof. Chang's subjects. His development followed a fascinating path, carefully traced here, from materialism and legalism to a rationale for revolutionary action extracted, with great brilliance, from a Buddhist-Taoist denial of the world. Chang was irredeemably Chinese. He had encountered the West, of course, but when he attempted to deal with it intellectually, his marvellous brain turned to bean-curd. His critique of Christianity reminds one of those erector-set arguments with which good Catholic children are (I suppose one should nowadays say were) taught to refute atheists. His analysis of Western political systems is merely embarrassing. In common with every other Chinese person that has ever lived, he did not understand the meaning of the word feudal.

The fourth of Prof. Chang's subjects is Liu Shih-p'ei, another revolutionary, remembered — in as much as he is remembered at all — for suddenly defecting to the Imperial cause in 1908. Prof. Chang is not concerned with his apostasy, but concentrates on his work as a theorist and publicist of the early revolution. It is in Liu that Western ideas were best assimilated and most fruitful. Though his thinking was all grounded in the Chinese tradition, he early developed a viewpoint close to what we would now call cultural relativism, which enabled him to rid that tradition of much dross, and to strike out in quite new directions while preserving a central, Confucian concern with the moral perfection of society through the moral perfection of self. Liu reached at last a vision of an egalitarian utopia, which he seems to have thought could be created through revolutionary action. He, and Prof. Chang, refer to this vision as "anarchist"; but Liu prized equality much above liberty, and I think the Khmer Rouge might be waiting at the end of this particular line of thought.

Prof. Chang is a splendid guide over this difficult terrain. He has no axe to grind. His purpose is to bring forward some aspects of these men's thought which, he thinks, have hitherto had little attention; and to show us that they can be divided by quite other criteria than those we are familiar with. Thus the dichotomy K'ang and T'an and reform versus Chang and Liu and revolution, which can be found in the notebooks of a thousand students, is fed into Prof. Chang's kaleidoscope and made to produce all kinds of unfamiliar and stimulating patterns — for example K'ang and Liu, who were moral, Western, Confucian and utopian versus Chang and T'an, who were spiritual, Chinese, Buddhist and world-denying. Prof. Chang is particularly good at putting Western influences in their proper place. Here he distances himself somewhat from the minimalism of Thomas Metzger's Escape from Predicament, in which Western culture is seen as merely providing new forms in which to embody their ancient preoccupations. Chang emphasizes the role of the West as a catalyst in late-Ch'ing intellectual developments — an "ideological switchman," as he calls it — making certain aspects of the tradition more accessible and malleable, even as it rendered other aspects nugatory. An example is utopianism, whose perspective K'ang was able to shift decisively from the past into the future, and to place at the end of a well-defined consummatory process — an altogether new development in Chinese thinking.

Another point Prof . Chang stresses is the value of these men's ideas in themselves, rather than merely as props for an ideology. Thus, he speaks of K'ang's "lifelong moral-spiritual quest," of T'an's "devotion to a vision of reality," of Chang's view of political radicalism as "a preliminary step to the final transcendence of the world." What he is saying, to put it rather coarsely, is that these were not just political intellectuals; they were real intellectuals. This point is worth making, given the distressing tendency of our times to see all things in political categories — and late-twentieth-century categories, at that.

Prof. Chang's mastery of his material is total, and Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis is a very fine book. Why, then, does one set it down at last with such relief? Why do K'ang, T'an, Chang and Liu seem, for all Prof. Chang's prodigies of research, so little worth our attention? Why — to state the larger question in which this one is imbedded — why is it so difficult to feel much respect for Chinese intellectuals, or for China's intellectual tradition?

Certainly not because that tradition was shallow or facile. We should be surprised to find it so, knowing that it was built up by thousands of first-class minds over hundreds of years. Among the incidental benefits to be got from reading Prof. Chang's book is the reminder that, as backward as the Chinese may have been in the sciences of nature and government, they were our masters in metaphysics. The radical idealism of Berkeley and Hume must have seemed very old hat to scholars long familiar with Mahayana Buddhism; while Kant's grand search for order, and his ultimate location of it in the subjective self, would have been no news at all to men raised on twelfth-century Neo-Confucianism. Why, then, are these philosopher-intellectuals so tiresome?

Lu Hsun struck to the heart of the matter. He once described his own compulsive browsing in old texts as "my way of smoking opium." Intellectual activity in China is really a species of dreaming. When one compares the development of China's intellectual tradition with the actual course of Chinese history, one is struck by the near-total disjunction, by the astounding inconsequentiality of Chinese philosophy. It was all a vast solipsism, which knew nothing but its own thoughts. The Confucian virtues, for example, had almost no impact on the behaviour of Chinese people. Two thousand years of contemplating "sincerity" produced a society in which, as every visitor from Matteo Ricci onwards complained, you couldn't believe a thing you were told. ("There are no murders in China," my Party Secretary told me once, with a dead-on straight face.) Similarly, centuries of "benevolence" reduced China to, or kept her at, a level of everyday brutality so appalling as to shock the sensibilities of nineteenth-century British sailors, themselves scarcely a delicate bunch. Anyone seeking an introductory text on Chinese manners and morals would be wasting his time with Confucius. Much better to take up some book on the general features of life in societies of the despotic-bureaucratic sort — Robert Wesson's The Imperial Order, for example.

This flat refusal on the part of China's intellectual tradition to get up off the printed page and do things is seen again in the political struggles Professor Chang's subjects involved themselves in. K'ang and T'an both took part in the Hundred Days, which had the support of the Emperor. All the leading participants were educated people, steeped since childhood in Confucian political theories. They were swept aside with a contemptuous flick of the sleeve by practiced courtiers, many of whom were barely literate and all of whom knew things about government that the tradition had never discussed. After all, where in those centuries of lucubration about "statecraft" can one find any treatise on, say, the management of eunuchs? Where can one find anything at all about despotic statecraft, which was the means by which the empire was actually governed? In a closed social system with only a single power center, intellectual activity must always be of the kind described by Karl Wittfogel as a "beggars' democracy," where those who serve the state with their minds are encouraged to race the engine of intellection, but forbidden to engage the gears.

Reading of the endeavors of K'ang & Co., one can never quite put out of one's mind the futility of it all. For all their earnest engagement, what did change? China entered the nineteenth century under a lawless, obscurantist despotism. She is quitting the twentieth century in precisely the same condition. There is no strong reason to suppose that matters would be any different if K'ang, T'an, Chang and Liu, for all their lofty theorizing, had all perished in their cradles.

Prof. Chang points to the religious dimension of K'ang's life, and observes, correctly, that commentators have paid too little attention to it. But did K'ang's religion have any influence on the behaviour of ordinary Chinese folk comparable to, say, that of the Wesley brothers on the morality of working-class Englishmen? Again, one cannot resist a sad smile when reading that "many [reformist intellectuals] were fundamentally rethinking the nature of social and political Organisation in China." Were they indeed! And where may we find the results of their rethinking? Can the implications of Liu's educational principles be seen in present-day schools and colleges in China? Did these people make a difference? Of course not. In China, one comes slowly to believe, nothing makes any difference.

At last, Prof. Chang's book leaves one in despair, wondering — as one has wondered so often — whether there is anything at all that can waken this sad nation from her poisonous fantasies of Harmony and Benevolence. "What can you expect from us Chinese, with our slave mentality?" asks a character in a recent Chinese novel. Splendid metaphysics, is the answer, and very little of anything else at all.