Skip to content Skip to navigation

Chinese Culture and Universal Values

July 3, 2012

Part One

In the twentieth century, the most important cultural phenomenon in China has been the degradation and decline of Chinese culture, one of the world’s oldest and greatest cultures. In the face of an onslaught by a powerful Western culture, this was as unavoidable as foreign guns and cannons replacing swords and spears, and Morse code superseding the pony express.

In the beginning, our scholar-officials attempted to resist with the approach of "protecting Confucianism in order to protect the country and the people." From Lin Zexu[1], Wei Yuan,[2] Zeng Guofan[3], to Li Hongzhang,[4] Zhang Zhidong,[5] and Kang Youwei,[6] they, despite being painfully aware of the arrival of the greatest changes in thousands of years, stubbornly clung to the belief that China's backwardness lay in its material, not spiritual, weakness, in its lack of skills, not the will of the people, and in its system and not its culture. They believed that China's traditional culture was the essence of China and its people, and was the ultimate guarantee against national destruction or disintegration. There were also people who believed that the existence of Chinese culture was a blessing for the whole world, because it would leave behind for future humankind a spiritual resource that could make up for the lacking of the West and rectify the ways of the world with the ways of the sages.[6]

While these scholar-officials did their utmost to carry out cultural self-preservation, efforts such as the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861-1894), the Hundred Days Reform of 1898, the Late Qing Administration Reform, the 1911 Revolution, and the founding of the Chinese Republic—were all commonly considered failures. People who were looking for quick success and shortcuts would declare failure whenever they encountered setbacks. When China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), they said that the Self-Strengthening Movement had failed. When China's new parliament was unable to convene promptly, they said constitutional monarchy had failed. When Yuan Shikai, the second president of the Chinese Republic, proclaimed himself emperor, and Zhang Xun[7] tried to restore the monarchy, they said the Republican revolution had failed. When the warlords carved up the country, splitting the North from the South, they said that constitutionalism had failed; and so on. The latecomers would look for problems to blame on the pioneers, and exaggerate and attribute present difficulties to the failures of those who came before them. This has become a fixed narrative formula in China's political and intellectual circles, as well as its contemporary history.

Regarding the repeated failures of the modernization movement, we need new interpretations and must find the fundamental reason at a deeper level. After the scholar-officials exited the stage of history, the new generation of intellectuals saw Chinese culture—specifically traditional Chinese culture with Confucian values at its core—as the reason for these failures. Chen Duxiu, the "commander-in-chief" of the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and co-founder of the Communist Party of China and its first General Secretary, said that Confucianism was "the evil root cause that gave rise to autocratic monarchy" (制造专制帝王之根本恶因), and that the then current political and economic system and dictators big and small were just its offshoots and evil fruits. Thus "republican constitutionalism" could not coexist with the Confucian code of ethics. Such was the final enlightenment of the "New Youth" of the May Fourth Movement. Statute of Confucius outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. January 2011. Photo credit: Voice of America News. For them, respect for Confucianism was equivalent to autocracy and the restoration of the old order. For them, the ultimate responsibility for the shameful failure of contemporary China and all its tragic consequences lay in the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, the ancient Classics, the system of the Three Cardinal Guides (the subject serves the sovereign, the son serves the father, and the wife serves the husband) and Five Constant Virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and good faith), dynastic history, and social customs. In their view, Confucius shared responsibility with the Empress Dowager Cixi for the late-Qing Dynasty's national humiliation and loss of sovereignty. He also shared responsibility with Yuan Shikai for the disintegration and decline of republican China. Half a century later, Confucius would even share responsibility with Lin Biao (military leader and Mao’s heir apparent who was killed in a plane crash after a failed coup attempt in 1971) for the fetid life-and-death factional struggle of the People's Republic of China.

The main theme of the May Fourth "New Culture Movement" (1915-1921) was opposing tradition. Although this also brought forth voices of cultural conservatism, these voices were weak. The basic anti-tradition theory of the May Fourth Movement can be summed up as follows: that China was inferior to and defeated by the West did not happen overnight—"three feet of ice don't form overnight," as the saying goes. Rather, the seeds of disaster were sown thousands of years earlier. The great defeat was preordained by the un-interrupted perpetuation of old culture and old morals. It was preordained by the ingrained and almost genetically inherited “cultural roots” and national weakness. Therefore, for China to be reinvigorated and stand among the nations of the world, China must break away from traditional Chinese culture, knock down Confucianism, and create a new culture. In this sense, the New Culture Movement had an element of cultural racism—only that the racial discrimination was directed against itself.

Mainstream thinkers despised and were contemptuous of Chinese culture. Some called Chinese culture "latrine," "poison," and a "zombie.” Others called Confucianism a "cage," "shackles," and "chains." Some criticized the 5,000-year-old culture as a total waste and described it as "anti-human" (吃人). Some advocated burning all the classics, not reading old books, doing away with Chinese characters, westernizing family names, and studying the universal language Esperanto. Those publicizing these views were neither ignorant angry young nationalists nor the so-called extreme fringe elements, but were representatives of mainstream thinkers who led the trend. On this point, the vanguard of China's enlightenment movement led by the New Culture Movement seemingly set itself apart from the European enlightenment movement that had the Renaissance as its vanguard: Europe's enlightenment bypassed the Middle Ages to directly seek advice from the classics of ancient Greece, while China's enlightenment bypassed the Middle Ages to denounce China's ancient sages.

Part Two

The predicament of Chinese culture is not unique. All non-Western cultures go through this when they enter the contemporary world. The questions of whether modernization equals Westernization and whether universal values equal Western values have always stirred a strong reaction of nationalism in the non-Western world and have been the core questions in the intellectual history of contemporary Chinese culture. People, when faced with these questions—and at the same time greatly tempted by modernization and extremely unhappy with the power of the West—very easily become impetuous, vacillating, and extreme.

One of the war flags used by the Yihetuan (Righteous Harmony Society, or Fists of Righteous Harmony, popularly known as Boxers).

Three attitudes represent the typical reactions toward tradition and the West in contemporary China: the Boxers’[8] fanatic opposition to the West, the New Youth Movement’s complete rejection of tradition, and the fanatic opposition to the West and complete rejection of tradition during the Mao era. They are all undesirable, especially the Maoist attitude.

In terms of modernization and democratization, it is true that Chinese culture cannot compete with Western culture. There is a reason why traditional Chinese culture was targeted during the New Culture Movement and then trampled on during Mao's Cultural Revolution—with hordes of “advanced elements” rising in contempt and hatred toward our ancient culture. It is a reason that has found great resonance: Chinese culture has never given birth to modern science and technology, an industrial revolution, or a capitalist system, nor has it nurtured democracy or constitutionalism. People even believe that as long as the influence of Chinese culture is preserved, it will be impossible to nurture democracy and science in their true sense.

But this is not true. Not originating science and democracy is one thing, but whether or not science and democracy can be accommodated is another. There are indeed a great many faults and defects in Chinese culture. But Chinese culture is different from a monotheistic culture centered on fundamentalist doctrine, and was secularized and demythologized as early as the Confucian period. It belonged to people rather than God and in this world rather than heaven, and was practicable rather than utopian. Since the time of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Mencius (372-289 BC), Chinese culture has never rejected pluralism, either in religion or values. That Chinese culture may even have become an obstacle in the long process of modernization and democratization and caused tragic consequences is not the worst thing that could have happened. Through study, borrowing, assimilation, and adjustment, we can adapt Chinese culture to the developments of modernization and democratization. In fact, this path has always been wide and unobstructed. It is definitely not true that one must totally break from traditional culture or knock it down.

People often blame Confucian culture for having hindered the development of democratic constitutionalism. The argument goes as follows: the moral principle of the Confucian Three Cardinal Guides propped up absolute monarchy. Its glorification of ren ben (人本, individuals serving as the foundation of the state), the rule of virtue, benevolent government, the “Way of the True King” (王道), and government by sages contravenes the concepts of rule by the people and rule of law. Its overemphasis on loyalty and filial piety, hierarchy, rank, order, and norms of etiquette laid down by the state goes against the value of equality. And the Chinese tradition of stressing obligations over rights does not accord with the universal principles of human rights and civil rights.

But when you get to the bottom of it, some of these apparent conflicts can be removed without having to knock down Confucianism. The Three Cardinal Guides—which originated from Han Fei-tzu, the Legalist statesman and thinker of the late Warring States Period (280-233 BC) and have nothing to do with Confucianism—can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with constitutional democracy. Confucian rites, forbearance, loyalty, and filial piety are similar to the Christian Commandment of “Thou shalt honor thy parents." Respect and love for one’s parents, teacher and superior—as long as it is within reasonable bounds—do not harm a healthy society. Other concepts such as ren ben, the rule of virtue, and the sense of duty and obligation, are fundamentally beneficial to constitutional democracy.

Ugly phenomena such as literary inquisition, torture, guilt by association, eunuchs, foot-binding, taking concubines, feudal superstition all are related to traditional Chinese culture, but they do not define the Confucian cultural system. Western culture also had similar if not more reprehensible phenomena, such as female breast binding, the crusades, religious inquisition, burning at the stake, the slave trade, concentration camps, etc. Therefore such cultural accusations as “Confucian anti-humanism” (礼教吃人) are words more than substance, and cannot be used as the basis for rejecting Confucian culture. Just like charges of "Christian anti-humanism" (教会吃人) or modern ways of killing (现代性杀人) are insufficient basis for rejecting Christian culture or modernity.

Part Three

The relationship between Chinese culture and modernization and democracy is quite complicated, and cannot be conveyed by the simple words "compatible" or "contradictory." Nor can it be resolved by the simple measures of "knocking down," "revolution," "conservatism," or "revival." Chinese and Western traditions have two characteristic differences: one is a difference between swords and spears and jet planes and tanks—that of advanced versus backwardness; the other is a difference in degrees of development—that difference between knife and fork and chopsticks, for example. The former difference can be reduced with hard work. The latter is an example of cultural pluralism that should be allowed to flourish and develop in the spirit of pluralistic co-existence. But since the meeting of East and West, and as China enters the modern world, people have frequently confused these two types of differences, resulting in all kinds of meaningless comparisons of the East and West, and generating all kinds of exaggerations about East-West conflict.

In essence, the key question is whether Chinese culture supports universal values. Proponents of radical anti-Confucianism, anti-traditional culture, Chinese exceptionalism or Western exceptionalism, and "Asian values," as well as the current official view of the Chinese communist government—Premier Wen Jiabao's personal statements excepted—all are not willing to accept the idea of universal values. But these views generally don't stand up to scrutiny.

Culture is pluralistic. Different cultures have different ways of expressing and demonstrating value systems, each with its own particular emphasis. But human nature is connected across cultures. Confucius said: "Human nature is similar; its manifestations are different." He also said: “Always adhere to principle and ethics even when you are among barbarians."

Westerners do not want to be enslaved or bullied. No Chinese aspires to be enslaved either. In this sense, freedom is a universal value. Westerners want to be treated as human beings by others. No Chinese are willing to be treated as animals by others either. So human rights are a universal value. Westerners do not want to be cheated by others. Nor do Chinese. Therefore, good faith is a universal value. In short, special characteristics can only be viewed as individual characteristics, and special values cannot be called values. The so-called Socialist core values—with the empty concept of “Chinese characteristics”—have nothing to do with China or values.

Former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949.

Freedom, equality, fraternity, human rights, and the rule of law are all universal values. So are the five constant Confucian virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and good faith. Democracy is a universal value, so is the Confucian concept of the people being the foundation of society. (The belief by some theorists that the Confucian concepts of "people being the foundation of society" and "the people are more important than the ruler" are fundamentally incompatible with democracy is an exaggeration. When it comes to democracy, if the model is Athenian direct democracy, then it is different from the traditional Chinese idea of the people being the foundation of society. But if the model is modern representative political systems or constitutional democracies, then there is no incompatibility.) Jesus and Confucius share the same golden rule of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." In implementing universal values and working toward modernization and democratization, traditional Chinese culture does not have to be an obstacle at all. On the contrary, it can actually be turned it into a resource.

Beginning with cultural thinkers Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber, people have universally recognized that culture is more fundamental than law and political systems. With the help of culture, the pursuit of modernization and democracy can achieve twice the result with half the effort. But culture is evolutionary and not man-made. It is the result accumulated over generations, easy to destroy and hard to revive—and absolutely cannot be readily “constructed” by means of a resolution passed by Plenary Session of the Communist Party Central Committee. Therefore, when it comes to implementing universal values and promoting modernization and democracy, respecting former generations, being courteous to tradition, and cherishing culture are the most desirable cultural attitudes.

English translation by Human Rights in China.

Yang Guang (given name Wu Jun), was born in Songzi County of Hubei Province in 1965 and graduated from Huhan University with a degree in mathematics. From 1986 to 1989, he worked as a mathematics teacher before enrolling as a graduate student at Beijing Normal University. He soon lost his status as a student and was under investigation due to his involvement in student movements and the June 4th Incident. In 1990, he was sentenced to one year in prison for “anti-revolution propaganda” by the Shiyan City (Hubei) authorities. From 1991 to 2006 he worked in the private sector as a corporate manager. Since 2004, he has been a freelance writer, columnist, and independent scholar of political sociology and modern Chinese history.

Translator’s notes

[1] Lin Zexu (林则徐) was a Chinese scholar and official during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), and is most recognized for his opposition to the opium trade.
[2] Wei Yuan (魏源) was a close friend to Lin Zexu, and was deeply concerned with the crisis facing China in the early 19th century.
[3] Zeng Guofan (曾国藩) was an eminent official, military general, and devout Confucian scholar of the late Qing Dynasty.
[4] Li Hongzhang (李鸿章) was a leading statesman of the late Qing Dynasty.
[5] Zhang Zhidong (张之洞) was an eminent politician during the late Qing Dynasty and an advocate of reform.
[6] Kang Youwei (康有为) was a prominent political thinker and reformer of the late Qing Dynasty and had led movements to establish a constitutional monarchy.
[7] Zhang Xun (张勋) was a Qing Dynasty loyalist general who attempted to restore the abdicated Emperor Puyi in 1917.
[8] The Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1901, a nationalist movement that opposed foreign imperialism and Christianity.

Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.