“The intellectual is supposed to be heard from, and
in practice ought to be stirring up debate and if possible controversy”.
If we accept this definition of Edward Said’s, quoted on page 141 of the
book, Lin Min and Maria Galikowski are without any doubt intellectuals because
this book will spark debate, controversy and indeed, some serious exchanges of
invective in what Tu Wei-ming describes as “cultural China” (wenhua
Any attempt to present the different currents of thought
that have appeared on a given intellectual scene can in fact only trigger serious
conflicts. When the scene in question is dominated by a political party that is
founded on ideological hegemony, and the thinkers are able to express themselves
only after having crossed an intellectual desert for almost twenty years, passions
are bound to be all the stronger. Moreover—and the authors have not stressed
enough that point—the protagonists in these debates are spread around the
world and often express their thoughts through journals that are outlawed in China
(unless they support the powers that be). For all these reasons, the courage of
these authors has to be congratulated. Perhaps the fact that they live far from
the great capitals of the world (in New Zealand) has helped.
Noting, like many before them, that the 1980s and the 1990s
saw a true renaissance of intellectual debate in China, the writers have divided
the ideas that appeared into five currents, of which they have chosen to present
the leaders. This classification is arguable— and discuss it we shall—but
it is not an outrageous.
One shall regret however, that Lin Min and Maria Galikowski
did not include an introductory chapter giving the reader a brief history of the
appearance of these currents of thought and placing them in the course of the
country’s development. This would have made for a better understanding of
the process of emancipation that intellectual as against political debate has
undergone (and of the numerous ties that still bind them). Had they showed the
importance of the 1989 events, and reminded us that controversies often take place
outside of China, they could have made the reader aware of just how difficult
it is for intellectuals to escape the pressures of power.
The absence of this chapter is not unintentional however:
it seems to me that the decision to omit it corresponds with the “post-modernist”
positions of our authors who do not mould their critiques with regard to the “neo-rationalists”
— the first of the currents that they describe — who are blinded by
an outdated universalism and only dream of going back to the May 4th tradition
according to which the intellectuals’ task is, before anything, to bring
Enlightenment to China. Yet is Lin Min pretending not to know that without rationalists
such as these the post-modernism debate could never have taken place in his native
land? It is sometimes regrettable that those who present themselves as historians
of ideas pay so little attention to history.
What can be said in their favour however, is that the authors
do not try to cover up their own position. Their book could be entitled: “the
long march of the Chinese intelligentsia towards the radiant banks of post-modernity”.
In fact they do not hesitate to maintain that: “The deconstruction of the
sacred myth of a unified world is an important step in the search by Chinese intellectuals
for a multidimensional understanding of the world and reality” (p. 191).
The poets Bei Dao and Yang Lian (both of whom have been living overseas for more
than a decade), and the novelists of the absurd Liu Suola and Xu Xing who, are
in their eyes the nec plus ultra of the contemporary Chinese intelligentsia.
Lin Min and Maria Galikowski hammer it home to us that China’s intellectuals
have deconstructed the monist visions of the truth and blind belief in reason
etc., thus rejecting deeply-rooted Chinese tradition. Thus, it is the “privatisation
of belief” rather than the “universalisation of knowledge and faith”
that now marks out the contemporary Chinese intellectual (p. 192). They are beginning
to stop reasoning according to Western-Chinese type binomials, even to the concept
of “good-bad” (p. 196), and in this sense the authors of this book do
not hesitate to refer to the critique of orientalism as offered by Edward Said:
“Questioning the universality of Western theory, critically
reflecting on their own cultural tradition, and looking to ordinary people and
the Third World for new inspiration, signifies the epistemological liberation
of Chinese intellectuals” (p. 201).
Yet the return to purely academic studies that is so characteristic
of the 1990s, no longer means a rejection of things social (p. 208-9). The intellectuals
of the 1990s focused on the study of problems of modernity rather than on great
ideological controversies. It sounds like the victory of Hu Shi, who stressed
the importance of problems (wenti), over Chen Duxiu, who insisted on the
importance of ideas (zhuyi). What the authors do not say is that the day
after the massacre of June 4th 1989, ideological debate was banned in the Chinese
One can, and we actually do, not share this basically linear
and pre-modern vision of the history of ideas. That being said, the book is interesting
because it presents in a relatively objective way, the emergence of the five currents
of thought that it considers.
Indeed, the authors reject simplism. It is clear that they
have no real sympathy for the neo-rationalists who they reproach for adhering
to a Hegelian-Marxist view of history, and who think that economic progress, democracy
and science will lead society to perfection (p. 11). However, they do not lack
admiration for Li Zehou who, in their eyes, best represents this current of thought.
They go so far as to maintain that: “Li is perhaps one of the most complex
figures on the Chinese intellectual scene. In one sense, the complexity and comprehensiveness
of his theoretical system can be compared to Hegel’s” (p. 64). After
having presented an in-depth philosophical analysis of his writings, they maintain
that this old protégé of Zhou Yang could be a philosopher of Dengism,
the man who, during the controversy about humanism in 1983, criticised the abstract
moralism of humanists such as Wang Ruoshui and his old boss, considering that
“ahistorical assumptions about humanity” could lead to a Maoist-type
idealism” (p. 53). Thus, despite having little sympathy with the spokespersons
for neo-rationalism, they recognise that this current of thought played an important
role in intellectual debate in the early 1980s. Yet never as much as those who
showed an interest in hermeneutics and tried to develop “pluralistic
explorations” and are therefore interested in essential problems.
The best representatives of this current are Gan Yang and Liang Zhiping who denounced
the neo-rationalist approach as a kind of scientism (p. 13). They went beyond
the ideology of the Enlightenment and are aware of the limits of scientific rationality,
which should not be considered as the ultimate criterion. They also have a modern
view of tradition. Tradition should not be considered as a given element, as either
“good” or “bad”; one should understand its constant interaction
with the present and the future. It “is a rich resource to be incorporated
into a cultural construction of modernity”. These philosophers have clearly
seen the dilemmas of modernity, and they have tackled the issue of the reconstruction
of a stable intellectual foundation in order to understand them. They go further
than the neo-rationalists and develop a sort of “critical skepticism”
The next category, the iconoclasts, is more controversial
as it is difficult to group the “political iconoclasts” such as Fang
Lizhi and the “cultural iconoclasts” such as Bei Dao and Yang Lian together.
The former is almost a scientist while the latter two are more sceptical about
the idea of progress. It is because the members of these two groups refuse all
compromise with those in power that Lin and Galikowsky put them in the same category.
The next current of thought represents the “negative
example” dear to Mao Zedong ; the idealism of Liang Xiaosheng, attached to
the old collective values of the 1950s and 1960s of the Red Guards (lao sanjie):
the merchant South against the virtuous North, and the old charismatic revolutionary
leaders against the pragmatic technocrats (p. 128).
Liang is a nostalgic of the “patriarchal leaders”
such as Mao. Becoming Marxists once again for the needs of causes, Lin and Galikowski
maintain that the debate between Liang and the more interesting intellectuals
“is the contrast between the pre-modern and the modern, or kinship-based
agricultural and individual-based industrial” (p. 135). The frustration of
Liang Xiaosheng is easy to understand: “Facing this new wave of intellectual
skepticism and anti-dogmatism, and the post-modern deconstruction of many key
concepts of traditional discourse, many intellectuals feel frustration at losing
their conventional role as the teachers and judgers (sic) of social values and
morality” (p. 137).
Before denouncing the neo-nationalists, the authors introduce
us to the one towards whom they appear to be the most sympathetic, Liu Xiaofeng,
born in Sichuan in 1956 who studied theology in Switzerland and has since been
living in Hong Kong. It is his reading of the West that fascinates the authors.
For Liu, Christian theology represents the height of human knowledge and it is
by this yardstick that he analyses the current crisis. He (they) reproach(es)
China’s intellectuals their all-consuming interest in scientific rationality,
while the Christian tradition is an important element of Western culture (p. 149).
Liu criticises the lack of a sense of what is sacred, of transcendence in the
Chinese tradition, which he judges to be more serious than the lack of scientific
If the reader is aware of the bias of the authors, and
is able to look beyond their jargonning narrative, then The Search for Modernity
is a useful book. Indeed it enables the non-specialist to assess the intellectual
renaissance that has occurred in the Chinese world in the last two decades.
from French original by Tina Frow