Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Chinese revival

Can conscience become a cure for China's corruption?

Forget Marx and Mao. Chinese City Honors Once-Banned Confucian.
Nearly 500 years after he died, the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming once again wielded a calligraphy brush, carefully daubed it into a tray of black ink and elegantly wrote out his most famous phrase: “the unity of knowledge and action.”…
Robot of Wang Yangming

Watching the scene unfold was Zhou Ying, who manages Wang — or at least a very realistic robot that not only looks like Wang but is able to imitate his calligraphy and repeat more than 1,000 of his aphorisms.

“This is exactly what we’re hoping to achieve with the robot,” Ms. Zhou said as Wang began writing another saying. “We feel this is a way to get people interested in these old ideas.”

Promoting these old ideas has been a priority for President Xi Jinping, who has rekindled enthusiasm for traditional culture as part of a broader push to fill what many Chinese see as their country’s biggest problem: a spiritual void caused by its headlong pursuit of prosperity.

And when China’s most powerful leader in 40 years endorses a philosopher, even a long-dead Confucian one, people rush to take action…

Since Mr. Xi began promoting the philosopher three years ago, officials in and around Guiyang have built a Wang Yangming-themed park, constructed a museum to showcase his achievements, turned a small cave into a shrine in his honor and, yes, commissioned a robot to bring him to life…

In his efforts to address the country’s spiritual shortcomings, Mr. Xi has spoken favorably of Confucius, praised Buddhism and presided over a revival of traditional religious practices that were once condemned as superstitious.

But he has seemed most comfortable praising the life and works of Wang Yangming.

During his years [in Guiyang], Wang ran a post house on the edge of town. That gave him time to meditate on the philosophical problem that would define his legacy: understanding how people know right from wrong. His conclusion: People have an inborn conscience that they must act upon, regardless of the consequences.

It was this advocacy of moral action that apparently appeals to the no-nonsense Mr. Xi, who has cracked down on vice and corruption within the party’s ranks…

However, some see Wang, with his emphasis on following one’s internal moral compass, as a risky thinker for an authoritarian state to embrace.

“Wang Yangming can pave the way for a philosophy of autonomy — that standards don’t come from outside. that they are inner,” said Sébastien Billioud, co-author of a recent book on Confucian thought in today’s China. “And of course autonomy is always dangerous for authoritarian regimes.”

During the first decades of communist rule, Wang’s works were banned as “bourgeois.”…

The ban on Wang began to lift around 2000 with a revival in the popularity of Confucian studies. Then, in 2014, Mr. Xi explicitly told local leaders to promote Wang’s thoughts. Suddenly, Wang Yangming was China’s hottest philosopher since Marx…

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