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TwoHigh Culture Fever The Cultural Discussion in the Mid-1980s and the Politics of Methodologies
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Confucian Revivalism

Jin Guantao's agenda of scientism forms but one of many responses that Chinese intellectuals made to the quest of the new era for a modern ideology that can replace the defunct unifying power that Maoism-Marxism once provided. But in post-Mao China, the advocacy of scientific rationality always risks the danger of being compromised by its opposite—substantive reason embedded in traditional ethics and xuanxue (metaphysics). I have shown how Jin Guantao's future-oriented time-consciousness paradoxically provided him privileged access to the premodern myth of totality and harmony. At the same moment that he propagated instrumental reason with the deepest conviction, his future-oriented gaze became ambiguously, albeit involuntarily, entangled in the imaginative reconstruction of an ethical totality borrowed from the idealized past of communal canons. The qigong phenomenon exemplifies the same paradox at work. Although its supreme masters such as Yan Xin never ceased to emphasize the scientific foundation for the art on lecture tours in the West, the quick spread of the "art of material energy" among every social stratum throughout the 1980s was hardly the result of the blossoming of a nationwide interest in scientific knowledge. On the contrary, the Yan Xin cult owed its popular appeal to the superstitious belief that common folk invested in the magic healing potency of qigong and to their remembrance of a past populated by legends of Haideng the High Priest, ancient swordsmen and boxers, and various other miracle workers and Daoist shamans.[37]

The danger of a relapse into the backward gaze reflects the epochal (un)consciousness of the historical bondage of tradition within which even the most revolutionary feats of modernity are embedded. It also serves to indicate that it is probably cultural ideology, rather than modern science, that stands a better chance of filling in the ideological gaps left by Maoism-Marxism. Surely toward the end of 1986, the term "culture" replaced that of "science" as the password for the Cultural Discussion. The revival of neo-Confucianism (ruxue fuxing ) can thus be taken as a response that the CCP and cultural conservatives made to the


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epochal demands of Deng's China for a substitute utopian vision in the face of Marxist ideological disintegration. Proudly presented in competition with the technocratic notion of rationality was this historicist view of substantive reason incarnated in traditional ethics.

Although Jin Guantao and the neo-Confucianists never carried on a nominal debate over the efficacy of scientific rationality versus substantive reason in their respective confrontation of the challenge posed by Chinese modernity, the oppositional agenda between the two parties evokes the ghost of the May Fourth debate of "science versus metaphysics" (kexue yu xuanxue ) in 1923.[38] Nonetheless, most intellectuals such as Gan Yang and Su Xiaokang insisted that the major themes of the Cultural Discussion revealed a qualitative departure from, rather than a simple rehash of, the old May Fourth problematics.[39] One such qualitative difference can be detected in the neo-Confucianists' heightened awareness that the new cultural renaissance that they called for should not be defined as a simplistic revivalism, but rather as a dual, simultaneous movement of modernity's critique of tradition and tradition's critique of modernity.

However, the theoretical proposal about modernity's critique of tradition—which amounts to a self-critique of tradition—should not be taken at face value. Advocates of the "neo-Confucianism of the third stage" were obviously more concerned with the capacity of tradition to withstand the furious pace of modernity and all the problems that would accompany it.[40] Although Tu Weiming insisted that a neo-Confucian renaissance is based on the concept of "creative transformation" rather than equated with a conservative return to the Great Learning, the neo-Confucianists did not adequately address the intriguing theoretical question of how one can critique but at the same time inherit tradition.[41] On the other hand, tradition's critique of modernity cannot be genuinely executed either. With the rise of the myth of "Four Asian Dragons," the 1980s saw the possibility of collaboration rather than confrontation between the two seemingly antithetical terms of tradition and modernity. Overseas neo-Confucian scholars like Tu Weiming and Yu Yingshi played an important role in driving home the dramatic message. Their ideological interventions from abroad strengthened the belief that Confucian tradition not only does not jeopardize, but on the contrary, facilitates the modernization process. Tu cited examples of Taiwan, Singapore, and other prosperous East Asian countries, and Yu traced the positive influence of Confucian culture on mercantilism back to the Ming and Qing period.[42] The timely entry into the Cultural Discussion of


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overseas discourses on neo-Confucianism helped shape the central thesis of the Chinese debate over traditional culture and modernization. The thesis that both Tu and Yu foregrounded derived its ultimate reference from Max Weber's theoretical framework laid out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Can Confucianism be creatively transformed into a new ethos and ethics that could serve as the ideological foundation for Chinese modernization?

The implicit reference to Weber was well taken in China because it corresponded to the series of Weberian inquiries that Chinese intellectuals themselves had undertaken even before the "Weber fever" reached its peak toward the second half of 1986 with the appearance of the Chinese translation of The Protestant Ethic . If, as Weber implied, modern Western capitalism is supported by the spiritual culture of Protestantism (characterized as a model of rationality based on a synthetic vision of "other-worldly" quest and "inner-worldly asceticism"), then did not the successful experiment of East Asian countries with capitalism indicate that neo-Confucianism can serve East Asia as Protestantism served the modern West? The Tu-Yu proposition about the compatibility of Confucian culture with an East Asian modernity provided neo-Confucian advocates at home enough ammunition to combat the school of total westernization (quanpan xihua ), whose message was powerfully delivered in the iconoclastic voice of Heshang .

Mainland Chinese cultural critics were indeed fascinated with the prospect of cultural self-positioning that neo-Confucianism promised. It is exactly this "articulation of native culture into a capitalist narrative," as Arif Dirlik argues, that made the East-Asian Confucian revival at home possible in the first place.[43] Such a pan-East-Asianism ("Confucian thought is the symbol of Eastern culture") gave rise to speculations that "Confucius not only belongs to China, he also belongs to the entire world."[44] The possibility that Confucian thinking may transcend temporal, spatial, ethnic, and geographical boundaries invigorated many Chinese Marxists who were willing to talk about the "complementality" as well as contradition between socialist modernization and Confucian ideology.[45]

Although Chinese Marxists talked much about how the positive elements of Confucian ethics—especially its emphasis on patriotic values and intellectuals' youhuan yishi (anxiety and crisis consciousness)—can benefit the socialist campaign of the reconstruction of spiritual civilization, they were much more engrossed in exploring the collaborative, or complicitous, relationship between the Master's philosophy and the


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mode of production, capitalist or socialist. It is the vision marked by the profitable co-optation of tradition by modernity—Confucianism serving the interests of socialism and capitalism—that characterized the contemporary Confucian renaissance first and foremost as a movement traversed by materialist motifs that placed high stakes on the solidarity between tradition and modernity. The constellation of the past in relation to the present during the 1980s has thus undergone a specific change from the May Fourth period, whose historical experience was confined within the antagonistic configuration between these two terms.

The task of mapping out the strategic position of Confucianism in the discourse of Chinese modernity subverts the bipolar oppositional formulae prevalent during the May Fourth period: zhongxi zhi zheng (China versus the West) and tradition versus modernity. On the one hand, arguing against what Weber proclaimed in The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism , Chinese Confucianists were eager to demonstrate that just like Western Protestantism, "neo-Confucianism could not only adapt but also pander to the spirit of capitalism."[46] From this view, Confucianism is no less susceptible to instrumental reason and materialistic motivation on which capitalism is based than capitalism itself. And yet on the other hand, Confucian tradition was originally evoked as an antidote to the Western model of modernity. Whether Confucianism liberates or colludes with modernity is an issue that none of its advocates or even its opponents are ready to confront. Liang Qichao, Zhang Taiyan, and all those genuine defenders of Confucianism in the early twentieth century would certainly toss and turn in their graves if they suspected that the so-called modernization of Confucianism (ruxue xiandai hua ) might lead to its ideological alliance with materialism and a modernity that gains ascendancy over the utopian past appropriated for the pure interests of the present.

Although the validity of the East Asian model remains to be seen, the theoretical possibility for the alliance between Confucianism and capitalism, or in Weberian terms, the potential collapse of substantive reason into instrumental reason, emerged as a phenomenon no less scandalous than the (reverse) co-optation of science by Confucian ethics in Jin Guantao's system of thought.

The internal drive for self-negation within the ideological realms of scientism and neo-Confucianism does not simply tell us about the contradiction of the zeitgeist of the 1980s. It also indicates that those who made claims to the purity of either position failed to capture the essentially ambiguous makeup of contemporary Chinese culture and society.


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The internal development of science and morality, of efficacy and truth value, bears effects of domination as well as of emancipation. It is precisely the recognition of the ambiguity of the modernization process—progressive and atavistic at the same time—rather than the identification of a single unambiguous model, that needs to be foregrounded in our discussion of the agenda of Chinese modernity.

If such ambiguity escaped the advocates of neo-Confucian revivalism, the CCP was even less equipped to deal with it. This is not to suggest that the Party was short of ambivalence in its reevaluation of Confucianism. The long process of the rehabilitation of Confucius in post-Mao China could be traced back to 1978 when the first symposium on the studies of Confucianism was held at Shandong University. A consensus was reached among Marxist ideologues in the succeeding years that the era of Confucius-bashing (fan Kong ) was as passé as the eras that turned Confucianism into a cult (zun Kong ).[47] During the first half of the 1980s, it indeed looked as if the Party was interested in nothing but a serious academic reappraisal of Confucianism, for whom the issue of critique was as crucial as that of heritage. However, the ambiguous tone of the reappraisal underwent a subtle change as the indigenous project slowly evolved into an international one from 1987 onward.[48] All of a sudden, China's participation in the multinational agenda of the "Greater East Asia" overtook the simple local program of the cultural critique of traditionalism. The Party's agenda to endorse and to a certain extent initiate the reevaluations of neo-Confucianism during the Cultural Discussion was undoubtedly in part accounted for by its unambivalent sinocentric position, which showed little reluctance to sanctify an indigenous ideology as the single most efficacious model against the infiltration of foreign symbols (the list of which includes science, materialism, irrationality, and individualism à la mode).

What I wish to problematize, however, is not the Janus face of the postcolonial formula of East Asian Confucianized capitalism—its underlying impulse for self-empowerment and domination coexisting with an emancipatory capacity that frees the local from the hegemony of Western modernity. What I wish to lay bare is China's internal cultural politics that accompanied neo-Confucian revivalism, a politics that, unlike what the pan-East-Asian collaborative project implies, is unambiguously domineering without much liberatory potential. From beneath the camouflage of a seemingly innocuous cultural program (indigenous versus Western values) emerged a powerful hidden agenda only a politically disenfranchised Party apparatus would embrace with enthusiasm. What the


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Confucian revival reinscribed was the hierarchy of social structure consolidated first by the absolute subjugation of the subjects to the Emperor, which reinforced the Party's mandate. The reinvention of the truth value of the collective (this time not a politically defined collective, but an ethical one) served as the regime's preemptive attack on the "poisonous blossoms" unfolded in the name of the individual.

The official support for neo-Confucianism should surprise no one. In October 1986, a national meeting on the future development of Chinese philosophy was convened by the official organ that laid out China's Seven Five-Year Plans for the disciplinary promotion of philosophy and the social sciences. Resolutions passed during the seven-day conference focused on the launching of a national project on the "Studies on Modern Neo-Confucian Thoughts." The two principal investigators of the project, Fang Keli, a professor in the philosophy department of Nankai University, and Li Jinquan, a professor at Zhongshan University, announced that the project would involve the collaboration of forty-seven specialists from sixteen research institutes over a period of ten years. In a follow-up meeting held at Xuanzhou of Anhui Province in September 1987, the research team decided to focus their studies on ten neo-Confucian masters: Xiong Shili, Liang Shuming, Feng Zhiyou, He Lin, Zhang Junli (the first generation); and Qian Mu, Fang Dongmei, Tang Junyi, Xu Fuguan, and Mou Zongsan (the second generation).[49] Although it is still too early to predict whether the mega-project will succeed in building a theoretical bridge between Marxism and neo-Confucianism, the official search for the dialogue between these two rival ideologies is certainly much more ominous than Tu Weiming is willing to admit. That the CCP "could better cherish the challenge posed by neo-Confucianism than by the advocates of Westernization" was not merely due, as Tu claims, to the fact that orthodox Marxist-Leninists were more sensitive to issues of ideology and moral values.[50] What was truly at stake was the self-interest of the Party in the face of the challenge of bourgeois liberalism. The complex issue of the legitimation crisis of Maoism-Marxism-Leninism that Tu mentioned but bypassed immediately should be subject to more rigorous examination if one is to fully comprehend the CCP's political motivation for endorsing the neo-Confucian revival.

Such an inquiry may in fact require more than mere critical insight, with which Tu Weiming is equipped aplenty. Perhaps it was mainland intellectuals' personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution that enabled them to suspect what Tu could not: The historical continuity of


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Confucianism to Chinese Marxism. It was none other than memories of the ideological collusion between the two that prompted mainland critic Yang Binzhang to retort both to overseas Chinese scholars' complacent promotion of neo-Confucianism in mainland China and to the Party's suspicious involvement in Confucian revivalism.[51]

As outlined earlier in this chapter, the Party's collaboration with traditionalists took various guises. It endorsed the establishment of the Academy of Chinese Culture—the bulwark of neo-Confucianists—and supported the series of workshops that the academy sponsored. The presidency of the Association of Confucian Studies was given to Gu Mu, the vice-premier of the State Department. And the various discussion sessions entitled "Strategies of Cultural Development" held in Shanghai and Guangzhou throughout 1986 were all activities administered by the reformers' quarter within the Party.

The CCP's alliance with neo-Confucianism appears even more problematic if one recalls that the CCP was the main organ that stipulated and carried out various modernization programs. The contradictory strategies that the Party adopted—that it could declare allegiance with tradition (the site for substantive reason) and modernity (the site for instrumental reason) simultaneously—reveal not only the nature of the expedient measures required for its political survival, but more importantly, suggest that tradition is by no means immune to the regimen of instrumental reason whenever it plays into the hands of political authorities. That is to say, if Confucianism itself is susceptible to instrumental rationality, the Party should experience little ideological inconsistency in courting its partnership.

As the other party of this pragmatic union, neo-Confucianists had less to gain. The potential and actual co-optation of Confucianism by Marxism only accelerated the process of the delegitimization of the former. Those who vowed against Marxism inevitably found Confucianism guilty as well. The intense aversion to tradition voiced in Heshang should not simply be seen as a scapegoating attempt by its scriptwriters to deflect attention from the real target, the communist system. On the contrary, tradition was condemned precisely because Su Xiaokang unconsciously recognized its collusion with the system itself, despite the fact that his later self-critique told us a different story.

On the whole, Chinese Marxist critics made no secret that they undertook the reevaluation of neo-Confucianism not on its own terms but from the Marxian perspective. Whereas they had no qualms in discussing the interrelationship between Confucian ethics and modernization, they


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rejected the notion of Confucianized capitalism as a typical idealist mode of thinking. All good orthodox Marxists would insist that it is base structure rather than superstructure that should be taken as the last instance of determination. Furthermore, as their own project of co-opting Confucianism is well under way, Chinese Marxist scholars are not oblivious to the hidden agenda of neo-Confucianism (especially its overseas advocates), whose primary goal, they proclaim, is to "assimilate and dissolve" Marxism.[52] The optimistic talk between Marxists and neo-Confucianists about the search for common ground can therefore only deceive those who imagine that idealism can wed materialism and live happily ever after.

The complex relationship between Marxism and Confucianism in the 1980s taught us that the unpopularity of Confucianism among the younger generation of mainland intellectual circles was a phenomenon that did not always have anything to do with the vice and virtue of Confucian culture. Unless we examine the shifting relationships between tradition, modernization, and Chinese Marxism—their immanent antagonisms, compromising impulses, mutual attractions, and contingent accommodations—we will be unable to glimpse the complicity of power with knowledge in the seemingly antihegemonic discourse of the Cultural Discussion. Although 1985 was consecrated as the "methodology year," it was after all not a decade cleansed of ideology. The ebb and flow of methodological fever was hardly politically innocent. Nor could one assume that all the discourses produced during the Discussion were "unofficial" or even "antiofficial." The Party might not be the most eye-catching player in Culture Fever. And yet it certainly participated actively in unleashing certain discourses (such as the discourse of modern consciousness that I discuss in chapter four) while co-authoring others (such as neo-Confucianism).

In calling for a more honest reassessment of the role that the Party played in the Cultural Discussion, I wish to caution those (post-June Fourth exiles in particular) who blew out of proportion the antiestablishment mentality and the utopian character of the Discussion. In their view, the mid-1980s witnessed the confrontation and struggle between two diametrically opposed discourses: The "new civilian culture [minjian wenhua ] oriented toward human rights, democracy, pluralism, and open-mindedness" and the "old official culture [guanfang wenhua ] oriented toward authoritarianism, closed-mindedness, conservatism, and inhumanness."[53] In this imaginary map of bipolar opposition, Culture Fever emerged as the contemporary counterpart of the May Fourth


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Movement. It was seen as a dramatic trigger that opened up an iconoclastic space for anti-Marxist critics to generate discourses outside the power structure of the Party.[54] The thought that the Party could have taken part in a movement that prized itself for emancipating the mind was probably too sacrilegious for an elite who had always envisioned themselves as an uncompromising oppositional force in modern and contemporary China.

Confucianism and Rationality

Having configured the intricate relationship between power and knowledge to which Confucian revivalism inevitably gave rise, I now turn to the content issue: which aspects of neo-Confucianism are considered dregs (zaopo ) that obstruct the project of modernity, and which aspect is identified as its quintessence (jinghua ) that comes to modernity's rescue?[55]

It is important to note, first of all, that both the advocates and critics of the neo-Confucian school welcomed, and sometimes even solicited, the constructive criticism that exposed the retrogressive elements inherent in neo-Confucianism. The primary target of such relentless critiques is the philosophy's infamous liaison with an instrumental rationality that consolidated authoritarian regimes throughout imperial Chinese history. Given that an ultrastable political culture in premodern China was a casualty of the domination of Confucian statecraft, many scholars claimed that the repercussions of such a cultural heritage led to the malfunctioning of modern society as well. Nobody, especially the Party reformers, failed to notice—in the fine print at least—how the seamless structure of feudal bureaucracy obstructed the progress of China's modernization. The extension of the hierarchical familial and social structure to the workplace resulted in low efficiency and the continuation of the relations of production based on clan-centered consciousness—two nemeses holding in check the utilitarian functionalism on which the Western definition of social modernity is based.

Any vigorous critique of Confucian hierarchy invites irrevocably a reevaluation of the servile role accorded to the individual in the Confucian worldview. But once the subjugation of individual will and desire to the imperial and familial patriarch was identified as the real site of contestation, the criticism of the functional inefficiency of neo-Confucianism ran the risk of being turned into a defiant challenge to the current regime, and indeed to any regime that gained its legitimacy from the alleged mandate of the collective. The intimation of the tyranny


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of the collective was a political land mine on which mainland anti-Confucianists had to dance with extreme trepidation.

Of course, whether neo-Confucian ethics obstructs or facilitates the East Asian narrative of capitalism is an intricate issue not easily resolved by either a wholesale condemnation of Confucianism or the theoretical hypothesis of Confucianized capitalism. A more levelheaded critic of neo-Confucianism in Deng's China aspires to a position between the extremes, recognizing the rational elements of Confucianism but critiquing its proponents' attempt to inflate the role that Confucian cultural philosophy played in modernizing East Asia.[56]

But whenever the issue of cultural subjectivity is foregrounded, those who hold the middle ground are tempted to give in to the proposition of the alternative modern. Much of my discussion in the previous section illustrates that the postcolonial politics of localism versus Eurocentrism has led prosperous East Asian countries (and their elite representatives) to the making of a contestatatory narrative of modernity. This East Asian discourse on modernity is based on the notion of a collectively oriented entrepreneurship and clan-centered ethics, which, according to its narrators, benefits instead of cripples productive relations in modern society.

Neo-Confucian advocates have repeatedly claimed that their philosophy provides sources of substantive rationality that can combat the adverse effects of a social modernity caught in extreme functionalism and antihumanist efficacy. Advocates of neo-Confucian revival share the Weberian conviction that moral and spiritual values play a constructive role in rectifying the fetishization of Western material culture.

At first sight, the fundamental recipe for the promotion of Confucian substantive rationality seemed to comprise a simple concoction of a plain and wholesome Confucian spiritual diet that was meant to neutralize the pungent flavors that modern Western values left on the palate of a modernizing China. A binary paradigm between two sets of opposing terms—Confucian and Western values—were thus set up. And there was no doubt that the first set of terms was privileged over the second. Thus collective wisdom was pitted against idiosyncratic genius, a harmonious coexistence with Nature against domination over Nature, a mechanism of well-regulated interpersonal relations against egocentric mores, communal rapprochement against alienation, human-centered worldview (renben zhuyi ) against materialism, idealism against functionalism, reason against desire, and middle-of-the-road (zhongyong ) mentality against


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extremist positioning. The simplistic structuralist principle at work here needs little explanation or elaborate criticism. Anyone who has overcome the human anxiety of classification and the structuralist impulse of polarization will perceive that those generalizing formulae hardly characterize fully or exhaust either Confucian or Western values.

The picture was further complicated by the potential reversibility of certain terms of substantive rationality into its opposite, instrumental reason. For instance, "collective wisdom" could undergo the process of instrumentalization and be turned into a tool serving an ultrastable sociopolitical and cultural structure. The collective almost always dictates homogeneity, marginalizes the particular, smothers difference, and views creativity with suspicion. The "mechanism of regulated human relationships" never fails to conjure up the image of a traditional extended family preying on its individual members and the modern caricature of Maoist street committees prying into and controlling private lives in the name of harmonizing human relationships. "Human-centeredness" sounds especially suspicious since the term "humanity" is not only historically but also culturally specific. In the West it may mean celebration of individuality, rebellion against anything normative, or a leap to the primordial. In China, however, this breathtaking act of self-delimiting contradicts the true spirit of renben . Confucian human-centered epistemology rarely positions the self as a term in its own right. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that the self is hardly aware of its own boundary because it is never differentiated from the whole in the first place. Furthermore, in its emphasis on moral principles, this kind of epistemology collapses into ethics. And when one considers how such ethical constraints contributed to the maintenance of the functional coherence of power both in imperial and modern times, one wonders how it can claim its unequivocal superiority over Western materialism. After all, both renben ethics and materialism can yield deformed human beings, since the former may nurture totalitarian instinct, and the latter, reification. How could one cure the other, or to speak in the diction of instrumental reason, how can the instrument of the Sovereign Patriarch bring salvation to that of Mammon? This seems to be an issue that deserves serious scrutiny.

Finally, the notion of "golden mean" yields an excess of eclecticism that often guarantees the continuation of the status quo at the cost of daring conceptual revolutions. Eclecticism, in fact, predictably summarizes the gist of the main staple of modern and contemporary neo-Confucian revival, that is, the manifesto of fanben kaixin (returning


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to the source [Confucian ethics] and opening a new path [science and democracy]). The 1980s were a different time than 1958, when this manifesto was first launched by Mou Zongsan, Zhang Junli, Tang Junyi, and Xu Fuguan.[57] What appeared in 1958 as a revolutionary proposal of modernizing Confucianism looked in the eighties like just another variation of the clichéd formula of "Chinese substance and Western means" (Zhongti xiyong ). There was no shortage of critiques of the cultural logic of blending from mainland Chinese Marxist critics, to whom the neo-Confucian Way that is "sagely within and kingly without" (neisheng waiwang )—the scenario of a Confucian moral culture wedded to Western pragmatism—is paradoxical at best. Many questioned the inner incentive and capacity of neo-Confucianism to invent a new modern democratic and scientific culture. The minben (for the people) orientation of the Confucian art of governance was demystified by many as characteristically Machiavellian, and the neo-Confucianists' effort to extract cognitive subjectivity from the ethical-moral subject (liangzhi ) proved to be merely self-deceptive from the very beginning.[58] Bao Zunxin was most articulate in summarizing the representative position of Chinese anti-Confucian critique: "If the value system of tradition is not shattered, then [it] does not signify progress but eclecticism instead; it does not mean the expansion of new frontiers but conservatism, not physics but ethics."[59] All the criticisms exemplify once more the inner contradiction between the orthodox Marxian scientific worldview and a fundamentally idealist philosophy such as the "Learning of the Principle of Reason" (lixue )—the dominant trend of Song and Ming neo-Confucianism—upon which the contemporary neo-Confucian revival is based.[60]

Neo-Confucianism and Western Marxism

Disagreement between Marxism and neo-Confucianism may indeed lead us to renounce the hypothesis that the materialist and idealist standpoint can reach a common understanding about how to best define modernity. But the fantasy about the possible union of those two rival ideologies has just begun. In fact, the neo-Confucianists' critique of Western instrumental rationality raises the theoretical possibility of a neo-Confucian revisionism that is no less scandalous than the so-called Confucianized capitalism. If contemporary Confucian proponents had no qualms in forging a liaison with capitalism, one may argue that a diametrically different ideological collusion with Western Marxism is equally a plausible supposition that is worth exploring.


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Although mainland scholars like Tang Yijie, Fang Keli, and their Marxist peers are interested in mapping out the conflux between dogmatic Marxism and Confucianism, the possibilities that Western Marxism has a lesson or two to teach both Chinese Confucianists and Chinese Marxists seems to have eclipsed their imagination. When asked why Chinese intellectuals did not seek any inspiration from Western Marxists, the formulaic response is the simple dismissal that "it is not very useful to us."[61]

Indeed, Herbert Marcuse's critique of the one-dimensional society of capitalism and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's denunciation of the paradox of the European Enlightenment have nearly canceled out every potential influence they could exercise on Chinese intellectuals, whether neo-Confucianists or Marxists. It is understandable that any critique of capitalism, and indeed, of modernity itself, should be unpalatable to a nation in a craze for modernization. In a similar manner, Adorno and Horkheimer's negative appraisal of the Enlightenment fails to appeal to an elite whose lament for the May Fourth Movement as an unfinished project of enlightenment seems to perpetuate itself indefinitely. Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, it was only through Erich Fromm—via Freud—and through the subject of psychoanalysis that the Frankfurt School left its feeble imprints on the psyche of Chinese intellectuals during the 1980s.[62]

Predictably, research on the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory in post-Mao China remained academically oriented.[63] Few studies were undertaken on the ideological implications of Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Englightenment for the discussions of Chinese modernity. What escaped Chinese intellectuals' attention is not only the authors' critique of Occidental rationalism but also their totalizing criticism of the bondage of instrumental reason and domination, themes that nearly all of China's neo-Confucianists had touched upon in their efforts to promote the ultimate antidote—spiritual culture of the East.

The kindred spirit between Adorno, Horkheimer, and the contemporary neo-Confucian revivalists makes one wonder if the latter—especially neo-Confucianists on mainland China—could benefit from the former's critique of capitalism or learn from the Critical theory's core arguments against instrumental reason something about their own critique of Western scientism and the Occidental mode of modernity. What strengthens the theoretical possibility of such a cross-fertilization between neo-Confucianism and Western Marxism is the close resemblance


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of the antidote that each party prescribes in its treatment of the alienating function of instrumental reason.

Horkheimer criticizes the rigid dualisms of spirit and nature, the ideal and the real, and speaks of the "critical spirit" as one that "prepare[s] in the intellectual realm the reconciliation of the two [namely, subjective and objective reason] in reality."[64] Both Adorno and Horkheimer are aware that substantive reason, although part of bourgeois enlightenment ideology, is nevertheless a humanizing factor. Inasmuch as they depict late capitalist culture as narcissistic—the subjective and the private leaving little space for the objective and the public—both Marxists sound like neo-Confucianists who complain about the banishment of the questions of communal values from the domain of rational thought. And to the extent that they condemn Western history as a process that starts from the self's renunciation of nature and community (everything that is antithetical to it) and concludes with the self's self-renunciation, they seem to yearn for the curative magic of all those good old Confucian dictums such as tianren heyi (the unity of Heaven and [hu]man), liyong housheng (utilizing resources and enriching the lives of the people), and wanwu yiti (myriads of phenomena in One Being).

Speculations about such ideological affinities notwithstanding, a radical critique of reason in Adorno and Horkheimer's fashion risks alienating the neo-Confucianists for one good reason. We only need to follow the history of counter-Enlightenment in the West—from Nietzsche to Derrida via Heidegger and from Nietzsche to Foucault via Bataille—to understand that a radical critique of reason inevitably leads to the critique of the sovereign rational subject and, by extension, to a frontal attack on the whole tradition of humanism itself. What is at stake is the entire value system of the conscious (as opposed to the unconscious), the conceptual (as opposed to the preconceptual or nonconceptual), the rational (as opposed to the irrational), the moral subject (as opposed to the decentered body of desire), and fusion (as opposed to diremption). It is easy to comprehend why Chinese neo-Confucianists and virtually all the Chinese advocates of modernity were not prepared to join forces with the progenitors of Western post- or anti-Englightenment philosophy.

What this entails is that the Chinese ad-lib response to the Frankfurt School, "it is not useful," tells only half of the story. It tells us what Chinese neo-Confucianists chose to negate in Western Marxism: the whole package of antihumanist and anti-enlightenment ideology. By perpetuating the habit of instinctually evaluating the intellectual goods delivered


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to their door, Chinese cultural elite neither fully grasp the risks if they purchase the goods nor understand in advance what is at stake if they reject them. Decisions always have to be made in a haste. And the turnovers of ideas are so speedy that the intellectual market of Deng's China in the late 1980s was already buying the fantasies about the "late-capitalist" cultural logic of Chinese postmodernism.

My purpose in undertaking this brief analysis of the possible dialogues between neo-Confucianists and the two representative figures of the Frankfurt School is to pose the question, What is at stake if the former renounces the latter as an unusable commodity? Although in the course of formulating this question, I have already speculated about possible answers, I wish to recapitulate the crux of the problematic: What is at stake is the eventual failure of the neo-Confucianists and their official patron, the CCP, to truly understand the ambiguities of the rationalization and modernization process that China is going through at this historical moment. Their alliance, pronounced in the first case, and unpronounced in the second, with capitalism further deepens the conceptual fallacy that they can pay any price demanded by the economic progress that comes with modernization. The June Fourth tragedy is one dramatic ransom paid in one installment. There are other smaller dues to be collected. Ecological imbalance and environmental problems are certainly on the list, as are a few classic capitalist evils such as sharpened class conflicts, the return of prostitution, and alienation not of the socialist kind, but of a brand that Harper's deemed marketable. Appearing in the magazine were translations of slogans on the "cultural T-shirts" that Chinese urban youths loved to wear before they were banned in June 1991: "Depleted," "There is no tomorrow—get drunk today," "I'm terribly depressed! Keep away from me!" "Life is meaningless," and the climactic narrative, "I don't have the guts to be a smuggler, I don't have the capital to be an entrepreneur, I don't have the cunning to be an official. I mess around, I break my rice bowl, I am nothing."[65] How neo-Confucianism can bring relief to such social dislocations while planning for a merger with capitalism is both a paradox and an impasse that the neo-Confucianists should examine in their own critical discourse.


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