Li Ling: Marxism, the CCP, and Traditional Chinese Culture
Li Ling is a historian and a professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University. He wrote the following essay commenting on Marxism, the Communist Party, and traditional Chinese values. While it invokes the revolutionary tradition, it is tacitly opposed to the present order. He also offers a critical take on “traditional values” and “national studies”（guóxué 国学) — the study of traditional Chinese thought, including Confucianism, that has been promoted by the country’s leaders in recent decades as a way to stoke patriotism and counter the influence of the West. As he concludes, Li quotes a poem by Gong Zizhen (1792-1841), placing this essay in the tradition of moral critique of an era, not unlike an Old Testament prophet — albeit with a sense of humor.
After this essay was published, Li published a longer version of the same essay in Aisixiang, with an editorial note that said: “[In later versions of the essay] some technical touching-up was made out of the needs of publication, without the knowledge of the author, and which changed the overall appearance of the original to some extent, and was posted to public internet channels. Professor Li Ling was very disturbed that this version was circulated. In hope that a majority of readers would be able to see the whole picture, he specially asked to change the wording in the finalized edition to clear up any public impression. The following is the full text of ‘I advise heaven to reawaken.'” That full version is available here; the translation below is from one of the later, abridged versions posted on Aisixiang Magazine.
Marxism, the CCP, and Traditional Chinese Culture as I Know Them
Li Ling, June 20, 2017, Aisixiang Magazine
The ‘Marxism’ I know
Marx was a doctor of philosophy, his wife the daughter of an aristocrat. They were rebels against the old world. Engels was a capitalist, a red capitalist. He used the money he earned to support Marx’s scholarship. Marxism is a branch of Western learning. This knowledge has three major sources, Germany, Britain, France, all of which are European countries. If you do not study the West, do not study capitalism either—it would amount to shooting arrows without a target.
What are the hallmarks of Marxism? It is anti-capitalist. Capitalism was a ubiquitous world system that dominated everyone’s brain, everyone was subservient to it, and only Marx said no. In the realm of study, those who depart from Yang Zhu will embrace Mozi, and whoever takes capitalism to be the natural order of the universe will certainly oppose Marxism; whoever opposes and criticizes capitalism will often return to Marxism.
Marx’s books used to be banned. Precisely because they were banned, people read them. I too read them because they were banned.
In the past, when I took a politics class, I took no notice of what the teachers taught and preferred to study on my own; the reason was they were terrible teachers, offering nothing but “Party eight-legged essays,” whereas I got a totally different impression from reading the original texts.
Of Marx’s many books, “The Communist Manifesto” and “Capital” had the greatest impact. “Capital” is a hard read, but some of its reasoning is very simple. Take “let’s all look at who supports whose life.” Now everyone says wage earners and the unemployed are people whose lives are supported by the boss, and if your boss isn’t kept comfortable, you’ll have nothing to eat. Marx said, this is wrong: the opposite is true. The word “capital” means funding stock, i.e., an initial pot of gold. Many myths about a first pot of gold myth are lies. When capital enters the world, Marx said, it is dripping with blood at every pore. This was right on target. He speaks of commodity fetishism in a really”well-written chapter; the “invisible hand” Adam Smith spoke of dominates everything and the world “does a handstand.” Marx’s original words are “turned upside down.”
Now, making one’s fortune is the fundamental principle. The market is omnipotent, money comes first, the god of gambling is the Almighty. Isn’t such a world just what we see every day?
The “Western Marxist” deconstruction of Marxism mainly opposes the “early” to the “late” Marx, arguing that “The Communist Manifesto” and “Capital” were not good, departing ever farther from his original intention to the point of opposing it. His early works are [they say] the real deal. The two most important manuscripts of Marx’s early works are the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” and “The German Ideology.” There have been a good many translations of these two books and I have read them all. Marx and Engels never made reference to the former manuscript; to the contrary, Engels repeatedly said that Marx’s materialist conception of history – one of his two discoveries (another discovery is the theory of surplus value), is brought to fruition in the later original manuscript of his essay on Feuerbach.
Lukàcs said that Marxism was humanism; Althusser argued to the contrary that Marx was never a humanist. It was Althusser in fact who was more in line with the original. China had a version of this kind of argument: Zhou Yang’s and Wang Ruoshui’s assertion that Marx stressed “human alienation” was wrong. Hu Qiaomu said that Marx “abandoned [talk of] human alienation.” He never actually ceased talking about alienation, but never referred to human alienation after 1845. The alienation discussed in “Capital” is not human alienation, but labor alienation.
It is said that Marxism is religion, communism is utopian. Engels said that Roman Christianity was an early socialist movement. Mao Zedong and the Wutai Mountain monks said that what they had in common was saving sentient beings from suffering. Marxism resorted to mass movements, but Marxism was not a religion, was not about being rewarded for taking vows. Atheism, non-belief in religion and advocating for the poor have been the “number one crimes” of Marxism.
The “Communism” I know
As I’ve have said, I’m not a Communist Party member; I’ve read Marx’s books, and never regretted it.
Offering their minds to speak for the world’s suffering people, risking their lives, could you strike down or kill such communists? Externally, the Communist Party is unbeatable, unable to be killed.
The U.S. is one of the most anti-communist countries in the world. You are questioned on entry as to whether you are a Communist, but Americans are very ignorant of the Party. In American films, Communist Party members look like Japanese devils in our movies: the standard dress is a tunic, buttons buckled to the throat, on the head a military style of cap, talking fiercely, completely evil. I have seen two anti-communist films from the United States. One of them starts by lumping Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin together with Darwin, all consigned to hell for not believing in God. The other said that all socialism had been a failure, from Fourier’s attempted “harmonious society” in the USDK to Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet Union; not even the best example, the Israeli Kibbutz, actually worked.
The husband of an American friend with whom I once stayed in Chicago was an economist. He asked me, “Are you a communist?” I said no. He did not believe it. I asked why. He said, I heard that in China, you can only get a good job by being a member of the Communist Party; since you are a professor at Beida, how could you not be a Communist Party member? I told him that Communists were everywhere in China. Many are just ordinary workers, farmers and soldiers, not necessarily rich and mighty. Of course, there are those who hope that it will soon be transformed into a “Wealthy” or a “Rich Man’s Party.”
I am no communist, but have met Party members. During the period of the Great Revolution, during the War of Resistance Against Japan, during the period of the War of Liberation, after all the times of liberation, I met both officials and ordinary people who were Party members and I could tell they were all good.
Studying history, we all know that had there been no Kuomintang [Nationalist Party, or KMT], there would be no Communist Party. The KMT was once a revolutionary party. There are many lessons worth pondering in how it changed from a revolutionary party to a party for getting rich, declining from celebrating victories and reducing taxes to applauding corruption and losing popular support, all the way to military collapse. The ancients knew that people can carry a boat, but can also overturn it. Not permitting the people to speak up can only bring great catastrophe. The approach of King Li of the Western Zhou dynasty will not work. When the defeated KMT went to Taiwan, they adopted an ostrich policy. In the history of the 1946-1949 years, they permitted neither speaking not teaching, which was very stupid.
I have heard many old people say that the KMT was a bunch of losers, whereas in the schools the Communist Party were the best elements, not only good at studies, even good at sports; they were awesome when speaking at meetings—factual and truthful with people.
The “Western values” I know
Hayek wrote a book called “The Road to Serfdom.” The opposite of serfdom is freedom. His term “road to serfdom” means “collectivist” societies, including both Hitler’s nationalism and Stalin’s socialism. Fascism most hated communism; the Germans launched a huge attack on the Soviet Union, but were finally defeated by it. The reason Hayek placed them in the same category was because in the Western concept, any collective placing itself over the individual is fascism. According to their argument, for example, what we term dàgōngwúsī (大公无私, nothing private in the great public) is a fascist concept. Arendt wrote a book called The Origins of Totalitarianism. Totalitarianism means this.
This issue is related to Western history and culture, to their understanding of state formations. States generally evolve from small to large, from division to cohesion, from isolated dispersion to pluralism; grand unification stands for complex societies, management by the higher levels, and cosmopolitanism.
Classical writers like Herodotus spoke of the Graeco-Persian war, which was much like the burning of ships at Red Cliffs: the Cao Wei camp, while strongest, was defeated by the Wu-Shu coalition. Herodotus was an ethnic Greek Persian citizen whose feelings were with the Greeks. He created a classic duality: small states must be free, large states must be autocratic. That Greece, a bunch of small states like “toads by the side of a pond,” was actually able to defeat the monster of Persia was in his view freedom defeating slavery. This idea has dominated the Western mind.
Greece in fact suffered long-term internal conflict, and was finally replaced by Macedonia. Defeating, absorbing and imitating Persia, Macedonia built the Macedonian Empire, the culmination of Greece, after which came the Hellenistic era. The Romans too were also proud of their history from Republic to Empire. But since the Middle Ages, Europe has been “five tribes and sixteen countries,” a plate of loose sand, torn apart, beyond anyone’s control, able to rely on God alone for leadership. God is its virtual leader.
In Western tradition, if the government is not much good, neither is the monarch. Their revolution relied first on monarchs opposing the church, later on democracy opposing monarchical power, with the way cleared mainly by civil (commercial) society. As a result, neither the monarchy nor church fell completely.
The West lacked such a supremely authoritative emperor as China’s, nor does it have China’s vast territory. They are convinced of two kinds of governance above all; one is God, the other money. God is now money and money is God. Apart from these two, no one can exert control: this is called freedom. China’s [military deity] Guan Yu, our sages of the Western Hills, are deities both of arms and wealth, actually quite like America’s deity of freedom. The U.S. emblem, a bald eagle, clutches an arrow in one claw, an olive branch in the other. Such is the business ethic.
Different from Greece, we are more like Persia. Near Eastern civilisations are in the background of European history. In the Near Eastern pre-Islamic world there were three dynasties: Egypt, Assyria and Persia. Our “the trio of Xia Shang and Zhou reunited as one” were unified in the Zhou Dynasty, Europe’s great unity was the Persian Empire. The Persian Achaemenid Empire, while relatively late, coincided with China’s Warring States era. This grand unity relied on a fusion of politics and religion. Zoroastrianism was the earliest universal religion.
Confucius had a saying, “barbarians who have a king are not on a par with the Xia dynasty that did not” (Analects, Bayi chapter). This saying has always been controversial, but one point is clear: the hallmark of barbarians in the eyes of China and Huaxia was that they had tribal chieftains but lacked a suzerain, though there were some senior lords. Their dwellings were scattered, they could not be contacted, had nothing intelligible to say, muttering incantations on horseback, singing their epics in this way. This was the freedom of the steppe. In intertribal disputes, they had to hold discussions to settle them, the leaders had to take turns chairing, such was the democracy of the steppe. The situation was similar in the case of those who sailed or live on islands.
China was not the same; it was characterized by suzerains. Above minor officials there were senior officials, above them the emperor, with each level controlled by someone. These were secular leaders. The latter served at their posts for decades at most. After they passed on they let their child take over, just like practitioners of a craft. In China’s revolution, there was no church to overturn, any overturning was directly against the monarchy, they simply struck down the emperor. China was the first republic of Asia, and its revolution was very thorough, having struck down the emperor he was not killed, unlike in the West.
Western states were not advanced: appearing late, many so-called modern nations (sic) were won by arms, artificially cobbled together. Benedict Anderson called this sort of state an “imaginary community.” What he termed the “empire of print” is what we call “unification by writing.” But in China this was a pre-modern thing.
The European tradition of autonomy is very strong. Whether of the person or of the locality, they liked to hold themselves autonomous, with the scale of the unit generally not too big—apart from Russia, which accepted the Mongolian Empire legacy of land colonies, and established a state bridging Europe and Asia. Larger states are all [former] colonies, e.g. Canada, the U.S. and Australia. The U.S. was a model of national independence and unity, but it was the world’s chief hegemon after the war.
The European self-government tradition also influenced Marx. In his early period he was mainly at loggerheads with anarchism, the “singular” spoken of by Max Stirner, somewhat resembling existentialism, but also criticized by him. But he also showed the imprint of European culture. He said for instance that communism is a union of free people.
What I understand about Western values:
* Freedom is mainly the freedom to buy and sell, and to work.
* Democracy is mainly electoral democracy, behind which are interest groups. For thousands of years, it was understood by the peasantry that, given a choice, you can only choose capable people, i.e. those with wealth and power.
* Equality is mainly equality before the law.
* Fraternity has more of a religious sense. When France suffered terrorist attacks, there were those who mourned; many people die in the Middle East every day, but no one mourns, they can’t even bring themselves to cry.
“Traditional Chinese cultural values” I know:
Nowadays, China has a “traditional culture fever.” At the very top there is the leadership. Below are the business community, academia, and the media, all of it [“Culture”] is a roiling mess, which recently was elevated by some scholars to “values.” Many universities in addition to the four major liberal arts (literature, history, philosophy and archaeology), brought out of the oven and set up Institutes of National Studies, Confucian Colleges, and even want to use traditional academies and private schools as substitutes for, or transform, the present primary and secondary schools.
Professor Qiu Xigui [Professor of Archaeology, Fudan University] is opposed to this, as am I.
What is “traditional Chinese culture”? Some people say it is Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The Confucianism they refer to is not that of the pre-Qin Dynasty, nor of the Han and Tang dynasties, but from the Cheng brothers, Zhu Xi, Lu Xiangshan, Wang Yangming, Zeng Guofan, Hu Linyi, Zuo Zongtang, Li Hongzhang, from Kang Youwei to Chiang Kai-shek, and above all the Hong Kong and Taiwan Confucianists. I think that this approach philosophizes, religionizes, politicizes, commercializes, simplifies and vulgarizes Chinese culture, specifically to meet the tastes of Taiwan, the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek, and some confused leaders. In PRC universities, departments of philosophy show most interest in this.
Some people are currently keen to establish doctrines in China. Confucianism, they claim, is the leader of the three religions; not only should it lead Buddhism and Taoism, but also should lead foreign religion; the new China’s biggest error was failure to regulate the Rites and Music, or establish respect for Confucianism. The things Kang Youwei failed to do, that Chiang Kai-shek did not dare to do, are now to be done by the Communist Party.
The guiding ideology of the Communist Party is Marxism! Doesn’t the Party’s [General] Secretary say it repeatedly? How can some people pretend to be asleep, feigning incomprehension? [Peking University President] Cai Yuanpei advocated killing the Communist Party, yet [Peking University professor] Li Dazhao was the founder of the Communist Party, how to praise one and deprecate the other? They say they obey the Party, but do they mean the Party of Chiang Kai-shek, or of Li Dazhao?
As to traditional culture, what I would like to say is that Chinese culture is not summed up as morality, still less as religion. Some say “foreign technology is all very well, but China is highly moral”; this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Morality is a pile of nice words. Nice words are described the same way the world over. the ancient Greek Xenophon said that the Persian aristocracy learned three things from childhood: riding, archery, and telling the truth. So you speak of honesty [as a cardinal Chinese value]? Doesn’t everybody? So what is characteristically Chinese about it?
Then someone pipes up, “we value filial piety.” Do [foreigners] have the “Diagram of twenty-four filial pieties”? We promote it for relations between teacher and student, monarch and minister (today between leaders and led, bosses and wage earners); do they have it?
But in my view, taking the “twenty-four filial pieties” as the core values of Chinese culture is not [taking] the glory of Chinese culture, but its shame. In publicity for philanthropy today, many are pickled cabbage jars. Take for instance “motherhood is blessed”: on the surface the offspring honor their parents, but in fact, the parents honor their offspring. What does not require money today? Having children requires money, raising them does too, children grow up, go to school, get married, buy houses, buy cars, ever more things to spend money on, endless. And you are blessed only when you have been filial and respectful to these things.
The greatest hallmarks of Chinese tradition in my view are national grand unity, religious eclecticism, and strong secularism. The great merit of Chinese culture lies in not setting up or preaching doctrines, and its strong humanistic spirit.
The “Analects of Confucius” are taken by many people as a moral textbook. It has many moral maxims. For example, “I ask myself three things every day: am I self-seeking and not moral? Do I deal with my friends faithlessly? Do I fail to practice what I preach?” I like these sayings.
The core of Confucius’ thought is ren 仁. What is that? It is to take people as people, to be in good faith when planning things involving people, in dealing with friends to be trustworthy; if your teacher struggles all day to teach you something, you have to study and practice it, and not fake it. Simply put it, it is to stick to your word and treat people as people. There should not be too many requirements, in my view: if we can perform these maxims we’re not doing too badly.
Morals are in decay at present; we like to blame the “Cultural Revolution,” everything harks back to the “Cultural Revolution,” which dominated the horizon in front of us. We were all newcomers, foolish and mixed-up in the Cultural Revolution, but not as deceitful as today, as evil, as treacherous, as intent on injuring others. We should be very clear what this is all about. Things like email fraud, a bunch of Taiwan children leading a group of mainland children to play, how is this related to the “Cultural Revolution”?
A wife, as the saying goes, is concerned with what others think is good, a child is concerned with what is good for itself (lions are like this). Ceremony is said to be our own Chinese child. Take drinking: Confucius clearly said, “drink as much wine as one likes as long as it does not affect the stability of one’s mind” (Analects, Xiangdang), but when some people drink, they say “we come from a ceremonial land, loving hospitality, so if you don’t drink until you are stupefied you haven’t drunk properly.” People are penalized by being made to drink, then drive having drunk their penalty. I don’t think this kind of ceremonial is good.
Western things are not necessarily all good, in my view. Not only not good: some are very bad, such as relations between countries—they are too overbearing, use humanitarian interference as a pretext, create humanitarian disaster, all very bad. But I entertain a “fallacy,” namely that foreign countries are good at ceremony. Foreign gifts are simple, and in people-to-people dealings they are very polite, and better than us in social morality. Confucius said back in those times, “When the emperor loses his position, he studies the barbarians of the four [directions].” (Zuozhuan ‘Zhao Gong year four’). In this regard, we should learn from them.
The “National Studies” [guóxué 国学] I know
When Chinese study their culture, there is so-called “Guoxue.” What is it? I have a definition, namely “denatured study of the nation” [国将不国之学]. What I mean is, had there been no Matteo Ricci teaching the sciences of astronomy and geography in China, had there been no opium war or Sino-Japanese naval warfare where China was beaten senseless, Chinese people would never have learned there was any such thing as Western learning. Had they not known of Western learning, of course, there would never have been any National Learning (Guoxue) to sing duets with Western learning (Xixue).
China’s Guoxue fever was in the first instance a reaction to the 1911 Revolution and May Fourth Movement, and now a post-1989 cultural phenomenon. Superficially, it sings a different tune to [the 1988 video documentary] Heshang’s cursing of our ancestors; while in fact it is likely to be the same bunch doing the lauding as did the cursing. To study China, Chinese do something called Guoxue; foreigners do some-thing called Sinology. Are these same discipline? Sinologists often tell me the object of their research is China, how is that different to ours? But when we get down to specifics, differences arise.
Europe studies backward nations as ethnology (sic). This scholarship bears deep colonial traces. Europeans call the study of documents recording backward ethnic groups ethnography (sic). This was more or less the same as collecting records of plants or animals; in many cases all three were collected together. Living members of non-European races could be exhibited in museums, like samples of animal and plant specimens. What in the US is now called anthropology (sic) sounds nicer. But plants are not equivalent to botany, animals to zoology, nor are humans equivalent to anthro-pology. You think of yourself, not as a fish, but as conceptually on a level with a watcher of, or expert on fish.
The West had a scholarship known as Oriental Studies (sic), specializing in ancient Eastern civilisations, e.g. Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite, Indian studies and so on. Sinology belongs with them. The recorded descriptions of various barbarians in Chinese histories, were actually our ancient “Oriental Studies.” We called it “study of the barbarians of the four directions,” but they were in all directions. “Western learning” at that time referred mainly to Buddhism coming from India.
A name that always comes up in current discussions of Guoxue is Wang Guowei. Lu Xun said, “Wang really does something that can be called Guoxue” (Lu Xun’s article on Incomprehensible transliteration). How did Wang Guowei do Guoxue? I see three main lines, firstly using new materials, especially unearthed materials, e.g. what he termed the “five discoveries”; second was research into northwest historical lands and barbarians of the four directions, studying not only Han historical data, but also the history of minorities, such as the Mongols and the Yuan dynasty; third was an international perspective, such as his focus on French Sinology trends, and Japanese scholarship on China. “Scholarship does not distinguish ancient from modern, Chinese from foreign,” urged Wang (Introduction to the ‘Guoxue’ book series). The Guoxue he studied was, in fact, neither Chinese nor Western, ancient nor modern.
Of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties in Chinese history, Confucius knew mainly the [Eastern and Western] Zhou, whereas our knowledge is of [things that took place] since then. History of the era prior to the two Zhou dynasties is entirely a matter of archaeology. This is historical study of long periods and large areas. In its division of disciplines, China generally placed archaeology within history. But history is long: [textual] history is but the tail of the dragon. In the study of traditional culture, archaeology is top dog. Unfortunately, archaeology is obsessed with artefacts; archaeologists have little to say, are buried in excavations, when they show the things they have dug up, laymen often just look on blankly.
“Peaches and plums do not have to talk, but the world beats a path to them.” I’m wandering under those trees.
School is the place to cultivate talent
Svetlana Alexievich recently visited Peking University to give a presentation. I read her “Second-hand Time.” Pasternak wrote of joys and sorrows after the October Revolution, and Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Stalinist labour camps; both received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Solzhenitsyn wrote “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” which was translated during the Cultural Revolution; his Nobel Prize was for “The First Circle,” not “The Gulag Archipelago,” which was published in the West. Last year, “Second-hand Time” won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in the West was called the “third milestone” after “Dr Zhivago” and “The Gulag Archipelago.” This is a tombstone on the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Some cursed the Soviet Union before [its collapse], some after: society lacked consensus, and the West was happy to see this result. This book is a set of complaints about the disintegration of the Soviet Union: when there is no reform, it is longed for, after reform takes place it is cursed: very like our China. No one records what Beijing’s taxi drivers say, but if translated into Western script, they could win a Nobel Prize.
On viewing Jia Zhangke’s “Mountains May Depart” (2015), my impression was simply of a road of no return: from the village to the mine, from the mine to the city, from the small town to the big city, from the big city to overseas, from farewell to farewell.
What was “Second-hand Time”? It was the transience of life, helplessness. “Helplessly blooming and spent, like a monk noting the swallows return” (An Shu’s Huan xi sha). Autumn flowers fall, ushering in the winter, of course, having no alternative. Spring, eight or nine swallows return, you think the weather has turned warm, but in Beijing, it can suddenly turn from warm to cool again, you don’t get a break, chances are you’ll get a late springtime chill. I used to say a word, in the preface to “He Zhi keys.” I say, one era has ended, but the next has yet to begin.
Marx said: don’t be slaves to capitalism. The first line of China’s national anthem goes “arise, ye people unwilling to be slaves.” I wonder, does no one want to be a slave? How can you live in real life? Gong Zizhen [1792–1841] wrote a poem as follows:
[This poem can be summarized as follows, translated from this gloss:
People in the southeast pass their days in idle luxury; the upper classes care only for fame and fortune.
The wealthy manipulate the community, ladies of leisure reign in triumph.
Terrified of ‘literary inquisition’, no one dares tell the truth; potboilers are all they dare write.
Where now are Tian Heng and his followers? Have they all climbed to high position to enjoy splendour and wealth?
(Tian Heng died heroically after helping depose the Qin dynasty circa 221 BC.)]
What is human talent? There is now an interpretation, in terms of “successful people.” Many people think that promotion to wealth is called “successful people.” The power of example is infinite. What to do if you’re not successful? In the past there was a period: society crazy about training classes, as were the schools; if they were not classes by the leadership they were by the president, like pyramid selling, everyone was out there developing “contacts,” which now seems not to be so lively.
I was in the Chinese Department telling some new students something of the history of Peking University. For me, Peking University is the place to cultivate the best (revolutionaries, scholars) in the land. Those who only know to wait on leaders and bosses are not called talents, but slaves.
What is the glorious tradition of Peking University? The Marxist or revolutionary tradition, i.e. the tradition of taking “all under heaven” (tiānxià, 天下） as one’s responsibility.
Do not forget one’s original intention; i.e., this tradition is not to be lost; if it is, this is to lose one’s heart. [Chinese]
Translation by David Kelly.