The Stirring Ghost of Chen Duxiu (1879-1942 C.E) Needs a Rest

The image of Chen Duxiu
The image of Chen Duxiu

Although Ruism (Confucianism) is experiencing a powerful revival in mainland China and is consequently radiating across Asia and other parts of the world, a suspicion towards it still haunts many people’s mind. This can be seen in frequent reports in English news cycles which either ignore or misrepresent the basics of Ruism. For example, these reports usually present profiles of Ruism containing ideas such as: the Ruist idea of “filial piety” (Xiao) requires blind obedience of children to their parents; Ruism is essentially an ideology of feudal society used by authoritarian governments to manipulate their political power; Ruism oppresses women and other gender minorities; Ruist education stifles creativity, etc.

These attacks, issued by people with limited knowledge of Ruism, are neither true nor new. They share one common point of origin: Chen Duxiu and the so-called May Fourth and New Cultural Movement in the 1910s of China. The movement was launched by radical anti-Ruism Chinese intellectuals who accused it of anything and everything wrong with traditional China. For these intellectuals, Chinese people needed to completely replace their Ruism-hardwired thought with Western thought in order to keep China from being conquered and eliminated by Western colonial powers. Therefore, I must conclude that the greatest obstacle to the contemporary revival of Ruism is that the ghost of Chen Duxiu still stirs in the world.

Chen Duxiu was by far the most impactful anti-Ruist intellectual in the May Fourth and New Cultural Movement. He created the movement’s leading journal of “New Youth 新青年” in the 1910s to champion and propagate the Western ideas of “democracy” and “science”, which he thought of as representing the apex of human civilization. He founded the first communist group in China in the 1920s, and acted as the most powerful political leader of the Chinese Communist Party in its early stage. Most importantly, unlike many contemporary intellectuals who regretted their anti-Ruism thoughts in their elder years, Chen Duxiu’s anti-Ruist stance remained unchanged until his death. As a result, Mao Zedong recognized that Chen Duxiu had played a decisive role in transforming Chinese society from backwards feudalism to modern capitalism and then, ultimately, to a coming “brave new world” of socialism. Mao, in 1919, stated: “May Master Chen Duxiu’s utterly firm and absolutely sublime spirit live for thousands of years!” and in 1942 recognized him as “the Commander-in-Chief of May Fourth Movement.”[1] In hindsight, it is not surprising why Mao had such a high evaluation of Chen Duxiu, which was a rare occurrence for Mao’s contemporary intellectuals at the time. It was Chen Duxiu who helped to introduce Mao to communist thought from the Soviet Union, and it was also Chen Duxiu who finally converted the young Mao (in his late 20s) into a staunch believer in communism.

Therefore, as seeded in Chen Duxiu’s provocative journal essays in the 1910s and approved by Mao, and as a central ideology of the Chinese Community Party until the 1980s, the radical anti-Ruist thought ran consistently throughout most of the history of China in the 20th century.

Nevertheless, for our understanding of Ruism’s contemporary revival, a crucial philosophical question remains to be asked: Is Chen Duxiu’s anti-Ruism correct?

Triggered by the deteriorating conditions of the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911 C.E), and also inspired by social Darwinism, Chen Duxiu held an extremely dualistic view between pre-modernity and modernity, between the East and the West. Chen viewed Ruism as essentially a pre-modern, feudal, system of thought which had nothing in common with “science” and “democracy”, the two central tenets of modern human civilization. Unfortunately, in the remaining part of this essay, we will see that Chen Duxiu’s anti-Ruist arguments were neither accurate nor self-coherent.

When Chen Duxiu talked about democracy, he mainly referred to the European Enlightenment philosophers, such as Rousseau and his theory of social contract, which inspired the French Revolution and led to the establishment of the modern French republic. According to Chen Duxiu, France’s great democratic achievement was based upon those Enlightenment philosophers’ unflinching defense of the autonomous and free use of human reason, and the accordingly inalienable political and social human rights of each individual.

In contrast, Chen Duxiu viewed the traditional Ruist ethical teaching of the “Three Bonds 三綱” (between rulers and ministers, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives) as incompatible with these democratic moral values. In Chen’s mind, the Ruist ethic of the “Three Bonds” requires that persons of a lower rank blindly obey those of a higher rank and, therefore, it is essentially an ethic designed to enslave, allowing the elite to misuse their authority and solidify an unjustifiable feudal hierarchy.

Chen Duxiu’s argument is wrong on at least two fronts. First, it is unwarranted to identify the ethic of the “Three Bonds” as representing the essence of Ruism. The doctrine of the “Three Bonds” was formulated in Dong Zhongshu’s Chunqiu fanlu (Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals) and Ban Gu’s Baihutongyi (A General Discourse on the Meeting at White Dragon) in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E – 220 C.E). These Ruist thinkers distilled all relevant elements of pre-Han Chinese thought in an attempt to adjust Ruism to a new political and social situation. In other words, this ethic didn’t even exist in any pre-Qin classical Ruist text (including the well-known Analects of Confucius and Mencius). Since this is the case, it is impossible to use the ethic to epitomize Ruism. Second, even if we can take the “Three Bonds” as a sort of essential Ruist ethical teaching, neither of the texts mentioned above ever taught that ministers, children, or wives should “blindly obey” their counterparts. In actuality, the Ruist ethic of the “Three Bonds” requires that, although someone usually takes a leadership role, all persons have a particular role to play and a special responsibility to fulfill in order to maximize the benefits of everyone involved in a particular relationship. This includes moments when a person in a lower political or social rank sees someone of a higher rank do something wrong, the person is obliged to denounce and rectify it in an appropriate and efficient way. Accordingly, a great portion of the two aforementioned texts are dedicated to exploring effective ways for ministers, children, and wives to “remonstrate” (谏) against their counterparts’ wrong doing. From today’s perspective, it is indeed inappropriate to conceive of the relationship between husband and wife as hierarchical. However, if we focus on the social situation when the ethic was formulated and promoted, we will find that it conveys a perennial wisdom on how to deal with human relationships: no matter who we are, in whatever relationship, we need to follow rules, abide by virtue and, thus, fulfill a responsibility to bring maximum harmony to all parties involved. Quite obviously, the implementation of this ethic requires strong individuality in the sense that each individual needs to learn, manage, and discipline themselves in order to recognize and rectify potentially harmful behaviors in their counterparts, thus creating a sustainable condition of social harmony.

In this sense, Chen Yinque (1890-1969 C.E), a great historian and contemporary of Chen Duxiu, once acclaimed the ethic of the “Three Bonds” as representing the best of ancient Chinese ethical wisdom, as it champions individuals’ “independent spirit and free thought 獨立之精神,自由之思想” within varying human relationships. In other words, the “Three Bonds” ethic was not designed for slaves. Its Ruist kernel expresses a commitment of knowledgeable and conscientious individuals, i.e., the noble-minded Ruist persons (junzi), to moral autonomy and social harmony.

Chen Duxiu’s misunderstanding of the “Three Bonds” and his misjudgment on the incompatibility of Ru ethics with democratic values are also evidenced in his understanding of “science.” Chen’s idea of science as the second pillar of modern civilization was influenced by Auguste Comte’s positivism and Karl Marx’s materialist philosophy of history. He thought there are rules and laws governing natural and social phenomena, and in reliance upon scientific methods(such as the one of induction), Chen Duxiu believed that humans can generalize these rules and laws so as to make the subjective mind correspond to objective reality. This surely requires human individuals to freely use their reason to critically think of any established knowledge so that human science can be continually improved upon to become more and more able to map objective reality.

Ironically, although once lavishly lampooning traditional Ruist scientific naiveté towards the objective natural world in his early essays written in the 1910s, Chen Duxiu concluded his life-long anti-Ruism thinking in his last article on the theme of Confucius in 1937 in this way: because Confucius’ ethical teachings do not include any idea of ghosts, spirits or deities, his thought is in line with the spirit of critical thinking as embodied in the European Enlightenment which challenged the religious authority of the Roman Catholic church. Therefore, Chen acknowledged that Confucius’ thought may be helpful for Chinese people to accept Western science. However, because of the existence of the Ruist ethic of the “Three Bonds,” Chen Duxiu still thought Ruism was incompatible with “democracy” and, thus, Ru thought would be utterly useless in helping the Chinese people to embrace democratic values [2].

Nevertheless, the process of political negotiation in a modern democratic polity actually shares the same commitment to critical thinking and social collaboration as the process of rational criticism in any modern scientific project. In this sense, the values of “democracy” and “science” are generally closely tied together so that neither can function well apart from the other. In this way, Chen Duxiu’s final conclusion of Ruism’s compatibility with modern science and of its incompatibility with modern democratic values is incoherent in and of itself.

In brief, Chen Duxiu’s radical anti-Ruism attitude, which was emblematic of other key participants in the May Fourth and New Cultural Movement, was historically ungrounded and philosophically unwarranted. As a proponent of Ruism’s contemporary revival, I believe that Ruism, as a comprehensive and profound way of living, furnishes great wisdom to enable people around the world to positively engage modern life, and to perfect modern human civilization into a more desired form. In the face of all the “fake news” on Ruism, rooted in the radical anti-Ruist movement in the 1910s in China, we have to say: the ghost of Chen Duxiu needs to take a rest.

[1] 《毛泽东早期文稿》,长沙:湖南人民出版社,2008,279-282. 《毛泽东文集》(第3卷),北京:人民出版社,1996, 289.

[2] 陈独秀,“孔子与中国”,《陈独秀著作选》(第2卷),上海人民出版社,1993, 232.

(Editor: Don Li)

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