Sun Liping (孙立平): Between Civilization and Barbarism

Sun Liping (孙立平): Between Civilization and Barbarism

Tsinghua University Professor of Sociology Sun Liping last week launched the WeChat public account “Sun Liping’s Social Observations” (孙立平社会观察). In his first post, he provides an introduction to his new channel of expression, translated below:

Introduction to Sun Liping’s Social Observations

I am naturally lazy and slow to react. Now that WeChat is ubiquitous, and under the persuasion and goading of my friends, I’ve finally come to try this out.

Winter is gone and spring is here. One after the other, the black swans fly. Perhaps we are living in an era of more and more confusion, more and more uncertainty. The world, life, demand that we keep coming back to understand them, to recognize them.

That people have different opinions on myriad social phenomena is perfectly natural. But differing opinions cannot be grounds for exposing past mistakes and breeding hostility. Society needs a voice of calm and reason. A point of view, whether it is right or wrong, more often than not enhances our perception of life.

As of four or five years ago, I no longer publish lengthy articles in academic journals or in standard media. But fragments of thought rush forth from time to time. I hope this WeChat public account may serve as a platform for constructive discussion of and communication about social phenomena.

May China, and the world, progress. [Chinese]

Following the introduction, Sun reposted a recent essay of his inspired by global events, offering his readers a warning on the importance of maintaining commitment to social progress. That essay is also translated in full:

Repost of Essay from a Few Months Ago: Between Civilization and Barbarism, We Must Not Lose Our Way

In contrast to barbarism, civilization is the accumulated progress of culture, behavior, lifestyle, and institutions for the betterment of humanity.

The general contours of civilization and barbarism are indisputable. If we deny this, then there is no right or wrong in the world.

A few days ago, I said, “In the face of dazzling change, as we struggle to agree on what is right, we must not blur one essential boundary—that which divides civilization and barbarism.” I’d like to talk a bit about this now.

Trump’s rise to power. Brexit. The reassessment of political correctness. The resurgence of populism. The whole world has become confused, as if clear prospects had turned into a chaotic mass. What I want to stress is that we must not get lost during this unpredictable, dizzying time. If developed countries have some potential to lose their way, that is a price we cannot pay.

Several months ago I posed questions on China’s sense of direction, the elite’s sense of security, and the common people’s sense of hope. In the new international climate, these questions, the first in particular, seem more real.

Amidst all this, if at a certain place and time right and wrong are hard to discern, it is key that we not muddy one essential coordinate, that of civilization and barbarism.

There are those who do not recognize civilization, who say that civilization and barbarism are relative. This is relativistic sophistry.

Do we not recognize the difference between living well and living poorly? The difference between happiness and suffering? Defined in contrast to barbarism, civilization is the accumulated progress of culture, behavior, lifestyle, and institutions for the betterment of humanity. Human history is the process of moving from barbarism to civilization. Of course I must admit that no one can guarantee what the endpoint will look like.

In an example I have given before, there are often land disputes in the countryside. There are some places that resolve these disputes through archaic community battle, but today more locales rely on modern law. Is there any doubt about the distinction between the civilized and the barbaric in this case?

On a grander scale, international conflict can be solved through endless warfare, or it can be resolved by establishing international organizations, signing treaties, and negotiating compromise. Is there any doubt which is civilized and which is barbaric?

The transfer of power may be reached via a river of blood, or it may be achieved through a procedure and election that have the approval of the people. Is there any doubt which is civilized and which barbaric?

Public affairs may be handled by a small group acting arbitrarily, or with broader participation, thus embodying the will of more people. Is there any doubt which is civilized and which barbaric?

In social life, one group of people can have the power to discriminate against and oppress another, or everyone can coexist equally. When genuine equality cannot be realized, at least equality in the sense of the law and of rights can be guaranteed. Is there any doubt which is civilized and which barbaric?

I could come up with an endless list of such examples.

Of course, I agree that not every situation is black-and-white. For instance, Buddhists, Christians, and atheists clearly have different understandings of life and its meaning. But the broad outlines of civilization and barbarism cannot be denied. If we deny this, then there is no right or wrong in the world.

I will say it once again: between civilization and barbarism, our nation cannot afford the price of losing. [Chinese]

Translation by Anne Henochowicz.

See also CDT’s translation of Sun’s 2009 essay “The Biggest Threat to China is not Social Turmoil but Social Decay” (Part 1, and Part 2).


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