CDT Bookshelf: Interview with Sam Crane

Sam Crane is a Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Williams College, where he teaches contemporary Chinese politics and ancient . He also blogs at The Useless Tree: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life. His third book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao, was published by Wiley-Blackwell Press this October and garnered praise from writers including Ian Johnson, James Fallows, and the New York Times China correspondent Edward Wong who remarked: “Sam Crane’s erudite writing on ancient Chinese philosophy in the modern era gives us a new window on some of the most hotly discussed issues in American society today, from democracy to sex.” CDT’s Natalie Ornell corresponded with Professor Crane via email about the book and about the influence of ancient Chinese philosophy in the West:

China Digital Times: Your new book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao, explores how Confucian and Daoist texts offer unique ways of examining problems that arise in America. What do you make of recent reports about the growth of Chinese philosophy as an academic subject in the West? How would you describe the quality of current academic studies of the subject compared to when you first started in the field? Have you observed any changes in the motivations and responses of American students who study Chinese philosophy now as opposed to a decade ago? And how do academics of ancient Chinese philosophy in the East and West respond to your application of ancient Chinese texts to contemporary American problems?

crane border Sam Crane: On the one hand, reports of the expansion of Chinese philosophy in American academia are great. As my book suggests, I obviously believe that everyone can benefit from reading the classics. But, on the other hand, my sense is that, outside of a rather small circle of comparative philosophers and their students, ancient Chinese thought has not had much of an effect on American thinking and culture more broadly. Just about every day I come across something in the news or in commentaries and I say to myself: Well, theres a great example of what Mencius or Zhuangzi or Mozi was saying. But the connection is hardly ever made by American authors. People just dont have and Daoism in their minds. These great books need much more exposure outside of the academy.

And the resources for bringing the ancient texts into contemporary debates have never been stronger. We are living in a golden age of sorts when it comes to Chinese studies generally. There is a great deal of excellent work being done by comparative philosophers and historians and linguists and others that opens up an extraordinary expanse of Chinese experience to readers who care to take the time to engage.

As to student motivations, I have witnessed, in the past 25 years or so, an increase in interest in China that is driven, to a significant degree, by material and career interests. The rise of China economically has created a certain incentive for students to learn Chinese and travel and live in China in hopes of getting a piece of the financial action. Culturally, there is a dynamic attraction as well, certainly more than in 1983 when I first traveled there (there was, for example, no Mao Live House then). Ultimately, however, these are not the best motivations for studying philosophy. I regularly tell my students, when we are reading Zhuangzi, that my job is not to get them a job; my job is to get them to appreciate a marvelous book, which, in and of itself, may have little to do with what happens to them in their working lives.

I can’t yet speak to the academic reception to my book. It is too new and has yet to be reviewed widely. I can say, however, that my academic papers and my blogging on these topics have been graciously considered by scholars in both China and the US. As with any academic enterprise, there are differences and debates on many issues, and I am happy to accept constructive criticism. I consider myself a student of ancient Chinese thought, and I learn a great deal from many magnificent teachers all around the world.

CDT: If you had to introduce yourself to a stranger in a Confucian manner and in a Daoist manner, what would you say?

SC: There is no specifically defined Confucian or Daoist manner of introducing oneself to a stranger. Both philosophies tell us to attend to context. How we might carry out a particular introduction would depend upon the circumstances of the moment. If, for example, my mother had just passed away, Confucians would not expect me to take very much time working out a proper introduction to a stranger; the exigency of my familial duty would come first. Such a situation might justify a certain gruffness with strangers. Generally, however, under most conditions, Confucians would be respectful and courteous with strangers. In Analects 10.25 is said to be considerate to people he encountered who were in mourning. In most circumstances, a Confucian would follow local customs of salutation. In a culture of hand-shaking, Confucians would shake hands; in a culture of bowing, Confucians would bow. Daoists, too, would be respectful to strangers, since all things in Dao move as one and the same, but they might hesitate to initiate an introduction: why press in and possibly disrupt a person as they were going along their way?

CDT: You explain in the introduction of your book that your objective is to offer readers a more challenging and rewarding study of Chinese philosophy that is also relevant to their lives. In saying this, you note that others have attempted the same including “book titles beginning with ‘The Tao of’.” Were you referring to Benjamin’s Hoff’s Pooh books here? What are your thoughts on his attempt to apply Chinese philosophy to modern day life inThe Tao of Poohor in The Te of Piglet?

SC: I was not thinking of Hoff in particular, but, rather, the many ways that ‘The Tao of’ is deployed. Hoff, however, turns out to be quite prominent: when last I looked, The Tao of Pooh is the #1 book under Taoist philosophy on Amazon. On balance, this is fine: it seems that the Pooh stories are a rather effective vehicle for introducing Americans to certain Daoist ideas. But I do hope that that is not the end of the story. Daoism has much more to offer, and more serious academic scholarship, when presented in an accessible manner for the general reader, which can open up many more aspects of the world of Daoist philosophy.

CDT: Early in your book, you explain the Zhuangzi story about the useless tree, which is also the name of your blog, in order to introduce what ancient Chinese philosophy can do for modern American life. You explain that there is a tree which everyone deems useless but it ends up providing a shade which becomes useful to all. By not seeing this trees’ utility, we fail in our aspirations. If the tree, and everything else in life, have always been useful, why continue to use the word “useless”?

SC: Zhuangzi here, as in so much of his writing, is giving us a meta-argument. He’s undermining our conventional notions of useless. Our minds are filled with all sorts of humanly-created understandings of utility, and those are very much the target of Zhuangzi’s stories: we have to let go of our preconceptions of useful or good or happy and open ourselves to the natural unfolding of things. If we do that, we will experience new expressions of all of these values, expressions that are neither forced nor artificial nor false.

CDT: You preface the chapters with personal stories from your life before exploring issues in American society like abortion, assisted suicide, and gay marriage through Daoist and Confucian thinking. Why did you choose to structure the book in this way? What made you want to share with readers the most intimate moments of your life from your feelings about your parents, to your relationship with your wife, and to the pain you experienced over the death of your profoundly disabled son, Aidan? You explained that Aidan, especially, drew you to Chinese philosophy. How exactly did studying Chinese philosophy first impact your intellectual and/or emotional growth when it came to understanding life’s challenges?

SC: I studied and researched political science in graduate school, focusing on the politics of post-Mao economic policy. My background is that of an empirical social scientist. But when my son, Aidan, was born profoundly disabled I found, ultimately, that empiricist rationality could not help me understand the meaning of his life. I am not a religious person, either. Thus, when faced with that personal crisis, I turned to ancient Chinese philosophy, which had long been on the edges of my consciousness, especially Daoism. Quite simply, Daoism provided solace in a difficult time. That is the basis of my last book, Aidan’s Way, a personal narrative. The experience of writing that book demonstrated to me the value of rooting philosophical thinking in personal life. And I have carried that over, in a more limited way, into Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao, in the short chapter introductions.

CDT: What impact do you hope this book may have on American readers?

SC: I hope to make ancient Chinese thought available for daily consideration. Familiarity with pre-Qin classics of Confucianism and Daoism can provide people with new insights into what is going on around them. I do not expect that everyone will agree with my specific applications of these ideas. Indeed, I anticipate critics who will argue that some of my arguments are wrong. And that’s great. If we are arguing about how Confucianism or Daoism might be applied to particular modern American questions, then I have done my job.

CDT: You explain that infanticide of female infants was commonplace in ancient Confucian times but that a Confucian would reject sexist standards today. Do contemporary Confucians in China promote gender equality?

SC:Yes, some prominent contemporary Confucians in China promote gender equality, or, at least, accept the necessity of gender equality. Jiang Qing’s notion of the Way of Humane Authority suggests that women can be rulers and thus serve as exemplary moral agents. Although she might not call herself a Confucian, we must notice that one of the most influential Chinese writers on Confucianism in recent years, Yu Dan, is a woman who finds much wisdom and compassion in The Analects. The most extensive and systematic treatment of this issue that I have encountered, however, is to be found outside of China. A key article in this regard is Li Chenyang’s ‘The Confucian Concept of Jen and Feminist Ethics of Care: A Comparative Study,’ Hypathia, vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter 1994).

CDT:What is the greatest lesson that Confucians and Daoists could learn from one another?

SC: Confucians could learn from Daoists that we might not have as much control over our own lives, or the lives of those around us, as we might think; and Daoists could learn from Confucians that we might be able to bring about more positive change in ourselves and in the lives of those around us than we might think.

CDT: In your book, you note that Confucians would have disapproved of President Clinton because of his moral choices. What would the Confucians and Daoists have to say about President Obama’s leadership style and about the U.S. government shutdown?

SC: Confucians would generally like Obama, because his policies have a Mencian aspect to them. Enabling people to access health insurance in ways that allow them to take care of their families is consistent, to my mind, with Mencius. And Confucians would also like Obama because, by all accounts, he seems to do a good job in his own life as a father and husband: those things matter for Confucian leadership, which would emphasize what we now call character issues. The government shutdown would be rejected by Confucians, insofar as it deprived some people of a constant means of livelihood (Mencius 1A.7) and, thus, made it harder for them to carry out their familial duties.

Daoists, too, might find something exemplary about Obama: in his foreign policy, especially in regards to Libya and Syria, he has practiced leading from behind, allowing situations to unfold without undue interference. There are echoes there with Daodejing, passage 66. But Daoists are generally skeptical of politicians of all stripes, and they would see the government shutdown as a perfect example of how, in the end, our human efforts to control events are ultimately futile.

CDT: What’s next for you? Are there other issues you wish to examine further through Confucian and Daoist lenses?

SC: I have two book ideas. First, I want to look at contemporary China through the lens of ancient Chinese philosophy, investigating questions such as: is China now a Confucian society? (short answer: no!); how has the Legalist legacy shaped Chinese politics since 1949?; What might Chinese culture look like now had Mohism regained its prominence after the Qin dynasty?; and what would Zhuangzi do in Shanghai today?

Second, I’m thinking of returning to a somewhat more narrative style to investigate fatherhood from both my personal experience – as a son, a son-in-law, and a father – and broader philosophical perspectives, ranging from both the ideal of fatherhood in Confucianism to the famously bad philosopher father, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Working title: Fatherhood: A Philosophical Memoir.