Zhao Tingyang on “Rethinking China”
Manyul’s post about Chinese “philosophy” relates in an interesting way to some reading I’ve been doing lately of the work of contemporary Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang 赵汀阳. Zhao first gained attention for his 1993 book 《论可能生活：一种关于幸福和公正的理论》[On possible lives : a theory of happiness and justice]. He vaulted into super-stardom with his 2005 book, 《天下体系：世界制度哲学导论》[The All-Under-Heaven System: An Introduction to the Philosophy of a World Institution]. This appropriation of the “tianxia” idea has been widely discussed, positively and negatively, both within philosophy and IR circles. Some of Zhao’s work is available in English translation; I’ll cite this at the end of this post. What I want to focus on, though, is Zhao’s insistence on the need to “rethink China (重思中国)” [Zhao 2005, 6].
“Rethinking China” means to re-think the significance of China, Chinese culture, and Chinese philosophy, and to do so from China’s standpoint. He says, “The historical significance of ‘rethinking China’ lies in striving to restore China’s own ability to think, so that China once again begins thinking, reestablishes its own frameworks of thought and fundamental concepts, once again creates its own worldview, values, and methodology, and … reflects on China’s future … and on China’s role and responsibilities in the world” [Ibid, 7]. He contrasts “rethinking” China with “discussing (检讨) China,” in which China is the object of analysis but not necessarily the active subject undertaking the analysis. Often the frameworks used to “discuss” China — including most discussions by Chinese intellectuals — are imported from outside. Such discussions are not necessarily wrong or unhelpful, but Zhao worries about the potential misfit between China and the various analytical categories used to discuss it, given the origin of the categories in very different contexts. More generally, he argues that it is important to recover a sense of agency for China and Chinese philosophy. It must be “creative” and “constructive” [Ibid, 11]. Elsewhere, specifically addressing Confucianism, he urges that Confucianism not be understood as “finished” or complete; it needs to dynamically respond to challenges. It needs to move from “local knowledge” to “universal knowledge.”
I think there’s a lot to all of this. Zhao’s work is an effort to put such a “rethinking of China” — that is, thinking from China, rather than just about it — into practice. I also believe that one does not have to be in China, or Chinese, to participate in this kind of project. I wonder what others of you think? (Let me be clear that I by no means endorse all, or even the majority of, Zhao’s specific claims; what I mainly like is his method!) I’ll end with some references to Zhao’s work in translation and to some discussons of it.
- Zhao Tingyang, ‘A Political World Philosophy in terms of All-under-heaven (Tian-xia)’, Diogenes 2009, 221: 5-18.
- —–, ‘Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept of ‘All-under-Heaven (Tian-xia)’, Social Identities, vol.12, no.1 (January 2006): 29-41.
- —–, “The Self and the Other: An Unanswered Question in Confucian Theory,” Frontiers of Chinese Philosophy 3:2 (2008): 163-176.
- ZHANG Feng, “The Tianxia System in a Chinese Utopia” [A fine, succinct discussion of Zhao’s work with responses to some criticisms]
- William A. Callahan, ‘Chinese Visions of World Order: Post-Hegemonic or a New Hegemony’, International Studies Review 10:4 (2008): 749-61. [To my mind, an unsympathetic essay on Zhao’s “tianxia” concept; it is unsympathetic in part because Callahan views Zhao through an IR lens rather than a philosophy lens.]