Universal values or Chinese values? Historicist thought in contemporary China

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Universal values or Chinese values? Historicist thought in contemporary China

byJilin XuBy the same author

Professor in the Department of History, specializing in the history of modern Chinese thought.

East China Normal University, Shanghai.


“The river has flowed to the east for ten years, and to the west for ten years”: one couldn’t find a more precise description of the shifting currents of Chinese intellectual life. The great polemic between Liberalism and the New Left ended just ten years ago, at the turn of the century. The two sides that emerged when the Enlightenment camp split were caught up from the eighties onwards in fierce debates about modernity, freedom, democracy, and justice. Going into the twenty-first century, the internal divisions of Chinese intellectual life have solidified. Dialogue has become monologue; sarcasm has replaced debate. The decade following the turn of the millennium marked ten years of China’s rise to power. After the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the global financial crisis, this rise has been universally recognized. But what direction will the newly powerful China take? As a great nation, what values will Chinese civilization show the world?


In this new context, intellectual controversies turn on ideas once again. It is a question of the validity of the values underlying Chinese development. Should we continue with these past thirty years’ openness and reform, holding with universal human values in order to participate in the dominant global civilization? Or should we seek distinct Chinese values in order to bring the world a different kind of modernity? While the underlying clash between “universal values” and “Chinese specificities” has not been worked out explicitly in the public sphere, the conflict’s underlying presence is felt in virtually every issue relating to China. The contest between “universal values” and “Chinese specificities” is not a fair one. The former have been seen as part of the Western “peaceful evolution” or “green revolution” and suppressed, able to express themselves only indirectly. [1]  Mao Zedong used this concept to designate the desire...[1] Thanks to “political correctness,” the latter have been able to circulate freely in the world of opinion, much like many other narratives about “Chinese values,” “the Chinese model,” and “Chinese subjectivity.” There is a common theoretical presupposition underlying these stories, one fashionable in the Chinese intellectual world: anti-Enlightenment historicism and universal anti-Reason. Historicist thinking begins the new century powerful and prosperous, a prominent school in modern Chinese thought.

1. Challenging universality: the rise of historicism


Historicism (Historismus) is a reaction to the Enlightenment. According to Friedrich Meinecke’s classic study, while historicism in Europe is as old as rationalism, it emerged as a current of thought only at the end of the eighteenth century in Germany. Its two central concepts are development and the individual. [2]  See Friedrich Meinecke, Historism: The Rise of a New...[2] Ancient Greece, medieval Catholic ethics, and the secularized reason of the Enlightenment found guarantees of objectivity in historical values, whether universal nature, divine will, or humanity. Historicism holds precisely that there are no objective rules underlying history, no transcendent will or universal human nature, and that history exists only in individuals; the state is just the concentrated embodiment of this individuality. There are no values that are universally valid, no universal order transcending cultural history. All human values belong to a given historical world, culture, civilization, or particular national spirit. The validity of particular values can only be judged by situating them in a concrete cultural tradition and the perspective of a particular nation-state. As Georg G. Iggers has written, historicism’s central thought is “the rejection of Enlightenment reason and the idea of humanism” and the “assertion that man has no original nature, and that there is only history.” [3]  Georg G. Iggers, The German Conception of History:...[3]


China is not the birthplace of historicism. It is one among many non-Western countries that reacted against Universal Reason once the Enlightenment ebbed, developing various forms of historicism opposing the spirit of the nation to the spirit of the world. The criticism of Enlightenment values begins with the deconstruction of the universality of Western civilization. Zhang Xudong (1965-), a professor at New York University, uses the Hegelian dialectic to reverse the established understanding of universality and specificity: “universality is only the specific expression of specificity; it is an extreme statement of specificity. . . . To use a term from Hegel’s dialectics, universality is the self-awareness of specificity, but it is not at all its objective truth.” [4]  Zhang Xudong, Quanqiuhua shidaide wenhua rentong: Xifang...[4] Universal civilization is only a specific, self-proclaimed civilization where self-consciousness is extended as far as possible. Once universal civilization is reduced to its concrete, original European historical context, it becomes nothing more than a specific manifestation of Western civilization. It is a historical myth deliberately constructed by a Western civilization in the process of extending globalization: “starting from private property, subjectivity, law, bourgeois society, public space, and the constitutional state, and extending gradually to international law, to world history, and then to its inverse, [Western civilization] uses world history to argue, in the name of universality, for its own specific approach and its own interests.” [5]  Ibid., 18. [5] As Zhang Xudong reminds us, “this specific conception of values which, in the name of a false ’universal,’ has determined the uniformity and cultural repression intrinsic to globalization,” led the Chinese to believe “that there existed something universal, a main current of civilization, and that China had to conform to it and integrate itself into it.” Having subscribed to these universal values, China has gained “modernity,” but at the cost of losing “China.” [6]  Zhang Xudong, “Quanqiuhua shidaide Zhongguo wenhua...[6]


Culture resists civilization. When, in the early nineteenth century, English and French thought spread through Germany, the German intellectual elite used German culture to resist these two civilizations. In modern-day German, “Zivilisation” means the values or essence belonging to all mankind, while “Kultur” emphasizes the difference between nations (minzu) and the specificities of national groups (zuqun). The manifestations of civilization are everywhere: they may be material, technological, institutional, religious, or philosophical. Culture is necessarily a spiritual state, referring not to the existential value of abstract “man” but to the values produced by particular nations or national groups. [7]  See Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process; Sociogenetic...[7] Iggers observes that “in the cultural warfare that developed between German Kultur and Anglo-Saxon Zivilization—borrowed by German elites to establish an ideology of the German masses’ right to take power—the ‘1914 conception’ of the Germans and the ‘1789 conception’ of the French are very different.” [8]  Iggers, German Conception, 3. [8] The “1914 conception” is the German historicist culture that resists a universal Anglo-French civilization. Civilization possesses eternal principles that belong to all mankind; it keeps its validity when spread across the world. Whereas culture is historicist, belonging only to specific nations or groups and varying from age to age. The great war between culture and civilization is a clash between specificity and universality. Partisans of national culture defend its original nature against universal civilization, past and present.


From the point of view of Chinese historicism, Western universalist modernity presupposes a historical, Hegelian teleological position, a destiny unavoidable for non-Western nations in the modern world. As they evolve from tradition to modernity, they strive to become universal states, homogeneous with those in the West. The contemporary Chinese thinker Wang Hui (1959-) has written that “the ‘modern’ is a temporal concept, one that excludes other periods from modernity. In this sense, ‘modern’ is a discriminatory concept: it rejects all other living elements in the same space-time, establishing a hegemonic hierarchical structure.” [9]  Wang Hui, “‘Zhongguo zhizao’ yu lingleide xiandaixing”...[9] Hegel’s historical teleology, traversing the temporal order of tradition and modernity, backwardness and progress, recasts world history as a process of development towards a unified end. All national development tends towards a common “divine moment,” the attainment of Western-style modernity. Drawing its sole model from the West, this modernity formed a unilateral, hierarchical, hegemonic structure by excluding other possibilities of development. Even if one tries to find a path of modernity with Chinese characteristics, one still cannot escape the grasp of universalist Western civilization. Nobukuni Koyasu similarly criticizes the path taken by modern Japan, which manages only to “reflect on the modern with modern thought”: even when we want to surpass modernity, we fall back into the laws of Western universalism. [10]  See Koyasu Nobukuni, Nihon kindai shisō hihan: ikkokuchi...[10]


Are we condemned to this unilateralism? How can we resist? Historicism starts from resistance to Western universality, resisting everything universal in the world. Since there is no objective eternal value and everything changes with history, the only true value is the nation’s original nature—that is, the collectivized national spirit. Since universal modernity is a constructed, illusory myth, non-Western nations should “reflect on the modern without modern thought,” and follow their own path out of Western modernity. Such would be a pluralistic modernity. Wang Hui believes that “pluralistic modernity involves, on the one hand, recognizing both the value and the inevitability of modernity, and on the other hand recognizing that different models of modernity derive from the conditions of different traditions and societies, and that one cannot simply sort these models with the category of ‘tradition’ just because they differ from Western modernity.” [11]  Wang Hui, “Zhongguo zhizao.” [11] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the project of a unilateral modernity of civilization led to “the abandonment of temporalization,” a considerable change: modernity no longer had just one guiding light, but many. The paths different nations take towards modernity all have equal value and meaning in terms of self-determination, with no criterion of value standing above them. The Chinese project of pluralistic modernity is clearly inspired by Japanese and Korean thought on Asian modernity. Researchers familiar with Asian history like Sun Ge, Wang Hui, and Daniel Bell, who teaches in China, are shifting the study of modernity from Europe and America to Asia by studying Asian and Chinese historical culture. They have shown that Asian modernity is not the result of Western influence and does not share its origins with Western history. The resulting model of Asian modernity is a challenge to Western universalism. [12]  For accounts of East Asian modernity, see Sun Ge, Zhuti...[12] The project of universal modernity has been historicized and spatialized.


Iggers has argued that historicism believes in the will, the irrational, in individual self-development and a moral order constructed by the will. It opens the way to the relativization of all values. [13]  Iggers, German Conception, 25. [13] By challenging universality and believing there are no human universal values underlying modernity, that neither absolute evil nor absolute good arise from human nature, Chinese historicism reinforces—in a roundabout way—the crisis of values in contemporary China. This crisis directly demonstrates the death of all universals. There remains only a void, “a clear, white, empty surface.” We can paint all sorts of new and beautiful images on this blank white page. We can set our originality to creating all sorts of different, made-in-China modernities. Faced with universalist globalist civilization, the Chinese historicist loudly responds: “No! I believe in nothing!” He believes in himself alone, in the superhuman will it takes to create his own values. The individual creating their own values is not just the active individual but also the active nation—the national community bringing about the miracle of China’s rise to power.


As these various universalist narratives have been questioned, the living body of the nation, of China, has offered the only sure value. But what is China? Behind all these national accounts of “Chinese values,” of the “Chinese model” or “Chinese subjectivity,” is a still-unconscious dualist presupposition that conceives of China and the West as totalized wholes. The China/West duality is just an abstract sign functioning reciprocally as “otherness”: when collectivist China becomes a symbolic sign with its sense fixed by the West, a unified, homogeneous, homogenizing West is also assumed. Behind this existence reduced to signs there lies an illusory ideology, one that diminishes the challenges of modernity that different civilizations typically face in the process of globalization, casting them instead as a conflict between the civilizations of East and West. After more than half a century of openness, a transparent China entirely distinct from the West no longer exists. Different traditions of Western civilization—from the rationality of capitalism, with its liberal values and ideas, to the socialist theory of Marxism—have embedded themselves deeply in the composite reality of contemporary China, and have become part of its own historical practices and modern discourses. Seeking a national community unaltered by the West, some extremist Chinese nationalists have emphasized this dualist opposition between China and the West. They want to get rid of the other, to resist the Western foreigner, and so to extract a pure, clear China. Contemporary China is ambiguous: its existence as a national community, as a “we,” depends on the Western “other.” Even more regrettably, dialogue with the “other” supposedly makes Chinese subjectivity disappear; “we” can be identified only by opposition to the enemy. This policy of identification is based externally on “the need to distinguish friends from enemies,” while internally the situation places extreme emphasis on identity and military reinforcement. We had a well-formed identity when we opposed the “other”; “we,” though, have become a truly vague subject, for it is only by relying on “the other” that one can obtain provisional self-recognition. Even if one’s values are contrary to the West’s, this national identity is illusory. It lacks critical feedback, distance, and reflexivity. It is an imaginary, fragile identity; its “China” is mysterious and semiologized. At a time when universal values are constantly historicized and contextualized, China—to which historicism has conferred an essentialist significance—is still just a sovereign consciousness, void of substance: not only political or economic sovereignty, but also cultural, academic, and so on. It is precisely the consciousness of the national state’s sovereignty, a modern construction, that supports almost all “Chinese subjectivity.” The underlying connotation of value has been suppressed. China was once an empire of civilization, its subjectivity maintained by Confucian civilization; but in the “subjectivity” of today’s China, what remains but sovereignty? When in conflict with Western diplomacy, politics, and culture, one has to explain oneself through one’s own values. And so, one is forced to face the outside world, abruptly demanding “sovereignty for China and its internal affairs.” This consciousness of a “subjectivity” concerned only with sovereignty and inattentive to civilization deeply reinforces the crisis of self-identification. A great nation with five thousand years of civilization has changed with half a century of struggle into one of “pure sovereignty,” devoid of any civilization.

2. A “discourse on Chinese specificity” centered on power and prosperity


2008 was an extremely important year for China and the world: Beijing successfully organized the thirteenth Olympic Summer Games, putting on an opening ceremony of a brilliance unlike any before it and finishing in first place, ahead of the United States, by number of gold medals. The world was stunned by China’s rise; at the same time, a financial crisis broke out in the United States that was to affect the whole world. Negative growth was nearly universal. Only China’s situation was good, having met its goal of increasing GNP by 8 percent in 2009 at the cost of heavy government spending. China quickly established itself at the heart of the international scene. According to Western analyses, if China sustains this trend it will replace the United States as world number one by 2050. [14]  Cf. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World (London:...[14] Before 2008, people said “the world was discovering China”; since then, they talk about “China’s global rise.” This abrupt change produced a psychological shift among Chinese intellectuals with a tendency towards historicism. Shortly before they were offering cautious demonstrations of the specificity of Chinese modernity. Their tone now became insanely arrogant; the faltering “Chinese experience” was elevated to a systematic “Chinese model.” Where this model had previously been connected to specific Chinese national conditions, it was now sublimated into another kind of modernity, one capable of rivaling the West—an example and lesson for non-Western countries. In the past, “Chinese specificity” was used to resist universal values; this specificity now became universal. “The Chinese model” takes on all comers in the international arena as it fights against the hegemonic discourse of globalized civilization.


Pan Wei (1960-), a political scientist at Peking University, advocates waging intellectual war against the West through competing discourses: “First, we must deconstruct the so-called ‘universal’ values, denounce these ‘Emperor’s new clothes,’ unmask the absurdity of thinking a single cure exists for a hundred different ills. Secondly, we must precisely and systematically assess our Chinese way of life in order to give intellectually convincing theoretical explanations of the ‘Chinese way’ and the ‘Chinese model.’” [15]  Pan Wei, “Gan yu Xifang zhankai zhengzhi guannian douzheng”...[15] All sorts of explanations have been invented in recent years to account for the “Chinese miracle” and the Chinese model. Joshua Cooper Ramo has proposed what he called the “Beijing Consensus.” He believes the Chinese model of development differs from the neo-liberal “Washington Consensus,” possessing distinctive features that can spread globally. The country’s history and experience have given it a pragmatic way of “groping for stones to cross the river.” It keeps experimenting; it seeks sustainable economic development; the government dominates the domestic market, firmly protects its financial sovereignty on the international stage, and so on. [16]  See Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Beijing Consensus (London:...[16] In Pan Wei’s version, the Chinese model is at once a social model of the “country”/state (she-ji) where people and officials form a single body; a political model taking “the people as its base,” administered by a party representing the masses; and a “national” economic model led by state-owned enterprises. [17]  Pan Wei, “Zhongguo moshi, renmin gongheguo 60 niande...[17] Yao Yang (1964-), another economist at Peking University, believes the Chinese model has four characteristics: neutral government, decentralized finance—that is, division of power between finance and politics—a new means of democratization, and a pragmatic political party. [18]  Yao Yang, “Shifou cunzai yige Zhongguo moshi?” (Is...[18]


All of these different “Chinese models” are tinged with a nationalist insistence on power and wealth. There have been some striking occurrences in Chinese intellectual life in recent years. Nationalism has changed from a moderate cultural conservatism to an extreme political conservatism, with modern Straussianism and Schmitt’s reason of state working together. A large part of the radical left has turned rightwards, recognizing the current political order’s nationalist dimension. The emergence of contemporary Chinese nationalism has close ties with historicist thought; subterranean logical connections lead from philosophical historicism to political nationalism.


Historicism rejects the Enlightenment’s Universal Reason and does not admit the existence of an immutable human nature or of immutable laws. Everything changes with time, space, history, and culture. Individuality is therefore one of historicism’s central principles. But this is not the atomized individual of liberalism; the self is part of a larger whole, a “true self” defined by totality. Analyzing Fichte’s concept of the individual, Isaiah Berlin points out that his “ego” differs from Kant’s moral self-determination, making the leap from isolated individual to authentic subject. The ego exists only as a constituent part of a broader model: it is a racially, nationally collectivist ego. “Individual self-determination now becomes collective self-realization, and the nation a community of unified wills.” [19]  See Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies...[19] In historicist individuality, the individual does not only designate the individual. More importantly, it refers to the individual collectivist being: the state. In opposition to the abstract human nature and Universal Reason the Enlightenment constantly appeals to, historicism directs its attention to the individuality of particular nation-states. The nation-state has a dual nature: from the point of view of humanity, it is an original individuality; from the point of view of its own citizens, it is a community with a common culture and a single will. Since the state is an independent, free individual, it is enough for it to follow the laws of reason of state. It need not worry about universal human values. On the other, since the state is the most moral of individuals, it represents the nation’s authentic, collective public aspirations; every citizen has the moral and civic duty to build an “authentic self.” Historicism begins by proclaiming individuality, and ends up in mystical prostration before the body of the state; it begins by revolting against the Enlightenment’s Universal Reason, and ends up spiritually converted to state authority. Nineteenth-century German historicism went through this process; twenty-first-century Chinese historicism seems to be falling into the same rut. The various narratives cited above in connection with the “Chinese model” all stem from resistance to the West and rejection of universal values. All of them search China’s past and present for a national “individuality” different from the West’s—either an authoritarian politics of trusteeship, externally Confucian and internally Legalist, ancient examples of which exist from the Qin Dynasty (221BC-207AD) onwards, or (to sum up the sixty years since our country was founded in 1949) modernization through wealth. Convinced we’re right, we tell the foreigner: “Stop coming over here and explaining things to us with your universal values! China has its own specific democracy, its own particular constitutional government, and its own made-in-China modernity!”


Now that proponents of the “Chinese model” firmly believe the values of each nation cannot be united, and that each state has its own characteristic modernity, modernity has lost its definite, universal value. The only things to be compared are a state’s wealth, measured by GNP, and the Weberian rationalization of its systems. The “anti-modern modernity” of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) strengthened the army and enriched the country in Legalist style. What he rejected was modernity’s institutional rationalization. On the one hand, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) continued Mao’s modernization through wealth and military power, emphasizing that the difficulty of development; on the other, he adopted a non-polemic strategy that transcended ideological conflicts with the West to reconnect with it on questions of institutional rationalization. Weberian institutional rationalization refers to the process of associating all layers of society through instrumental reason, setting up an impersonal bureaucracy and proper accounting methods—generalized managerialism, in other words. Institutional rationalization is a rational reform that suppresses values and politics, increasing management efficiency and control capacity; it can be combined equally well with systems of constitutional government and with modern authoritarianism. Once nationalists reject the universal values of modernity, removing key ethical and institutional elements, their modernity is nothing more than a modern form of wealth and military reinforcement, an institutional rationalization of the neutrality of values. Having suppressed values and politics, such a modernity simply rationalizes ends and means rather than being a modernity of values and ends. Modernity no longer possesses intrinsic, indestructible values. Everything is just an instrumental means of achieving some concrete objective, like a state’s power and prosperity.


Western modernity is the civilizational compound of a number of opposing elements: the enrichment of the country, the strengthening of the army, the strengthening of liberalism, the authoritarian will and respect for the individual, capitalist rationalization and the tradition of critical reason, statist nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and so on. These contradictory elements have maintained an internal struggle throughout modern Western history. Strength, prosperity, and Enlightenment represent different aspects of Western modernity. In the early history of capitalism’s development, a modernity of strength and prosperity centered on materialism and nationalism crushed Enlightenment values, leading to the evils of colonialism and two world wars. Meinecke observes that “what made the German national character of the Hitler era possible was that, since Goethe’s time, we failed to maintain an equilibrium between the forces of the soul, between those of rationality and irrationality. On the one hand, a certain technical intelligence was accentuated; on the other, the emotional desire for power, wealth, and security, and the use of willpower, led to a dangerous situation. Everything calculable and reducible to a technical matter was recognized as right as long as it could bring wealth and power—recognized as morally right, even, insofar as it served the interests of the nation.” [20]  Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections...[20] When a nation no longer possesses universal spiritual values that can set norms for state behavior, and when it seeks only to maximize its own profit, the ethical question, “what is good?” is replaced by the question “what belongs to us?” The dangerous elements of the nation’s soul grow without limits, advancing to the crossroads of modernity.


There is a profound nihilism of values underlying this modernity of wealth and power. Different modernities do not agree on matters of value; spiritual values and political civilization are all specific, and there can be no question of universality. Only the effective material power and institutional rationalization are universal, and only quantifiable data and practical yields can be used to compare, to measure, and to tell who is strongest. With the death of God, the different divinities of value have fallen into eternal war, without any ultimate value for judging between them. Among the ruins of universal values, there is only the will to power: reason of state has become the sole value. Historicism has gradually slipped from relativism to nihilism, falling at last into the bottomless abyss of nationalism.

3. Competing for the universal against the backdrop of China’s rise


While some of these historicist thinkers fall into a nationalism of state enrichment and military strength, others, animated by a humanistic sentiment, have tried to surpass the limits of this definition of modernity, attempting to reform Chinese civilization, fighting the West for dominance in the way we think about universality. In 2003, the philosopher Gan Yang (1952-) proposed a model state developed on the basis of the nation-state. His “model country” is not a civilization with received universal values but a “de-Westernized” Chinese civilization. Taking the example of modern Turkey, he argues that a country that imitates the West, destroying its own cultural tradition, represents a “modernity that has emasculated itself.” The best it can offer is “a country that has torn itself apart.” Gan believes that “China will choose a path of ‘modernization that is not Westernization.’ China is not a small country. Its civilization’s long history has made it a great country with a ‘desire for civilization,’ one with its own ‘civilizational advantage.’ China will not be satisfied with being a third-tier country like Turkey, or a vassal state of the West.” [21]  Gan Yang, “Cong ‘Minzu guojia’ zouxiang ‘wenming guojia’”...[21] Against the backdrop of China’s rise, the proponents of the Renaissance of Chinese civilization struggle violently with the West to [claim] a universalist “desire for civilization.” Zhang Xudong writes that “to raise the question of ‘Chinese values in a globalized perspective’ today is to set ‘Chinese values’ at the same level as, and within the framework of, ‘universal civilization.’” From his point of view, there is no tension between Chinese and universal values because universal values are not patented Western products: “‘Chinese values’ are a necessary part of the ‘current of universal civilization.’ Speaking of ‘Chinese values’ means refusing, theoretically and philosophically, to admit that the Chinese approach does not necessarily require any external system of references.” The realization of Chinese values is a unique historical experiment with universal significance, a unique, revolutionary collective action that aims “to destroy the old world and found a new one.” [22]  Zhang Xudong, “Zhongguo jiazhide shijie lishi shiming”...[22]


How to carry out this revolutionary experiment of “Chinese values”? How to return to the mainstream of world civilization? While the radical left wing of historicism emphasizes the conflict between China and the West, seeking to overthrow Western civilizational hegemony through the subjectivity of Chinese values, classicists focus instead on the struggle between old and new, hoping to use ancient Chinese and Western values to criticize and surpass a modernity that sinks further into crisis day by day. From their point of view, the heart of the conflict between China and the West is one between old and new. Modern China has identified itself with Western modernity; to get out of the dead end of modernity, the crucial thing is to respect nature and the heavenly way, and to return to the classical traditions of ancient Greece and pre-dynastic China. As a group of young Chinese classicists has written: “The tradition of Chinese thought, with ritual and music at its heart, having begun with the three primordial dynasties of Xia, Shang and Zhou and evolved unbroken over millennia, remains to a large degree the fundamental horizon of our search for the happy life. If we think of the past century from this multi-millennial perspective, Chinese modernity is in no way another civilization distinct from China’s classical civilization.” [23]  Zhongguo sixiang bianweihui (Chinese Thought Drafting...[23] This path of civilization, specific to China, “is not the ‘Chinese way’ in the original sense, but a universal one that happens to have been discovered in China.” [24]  Chen Yun, “Tianxia sixiang yu xiandaixing de Zhongguo...[24] The cultural conservatism of the nineties conceived of a modernity specific to China, in accordance with universal civilization. The classicists of the 2000s are looking for a new civilization that was “discovered in China” but whose values are global and universal.


The time when the West wind prevailed over the East wind has passed. The “Chinese century,” where the East wind prevails over the West, has arrived.


In their attitude towards Chinese and Western civilization, Chinese historicists have adopted a double standard: they criticize [Westerners] whose particular civilization claims universality; at the same time, they affirm their own civilization’s natural right to a universal character. This pragmatic double standard is undoubtedly an unconscious instance of the “clash of civilizations” where one “distinguishes between oneself and one’s enemies.” Is civilization ultimately universal or particular? This is clearly not a question that can be answered by “distinguishing between oneself and one’s enemies.” All advanced civilizations have a dual nature. From the point of view of their historical genesis, they are related to certain traditions, cultures, and societies; such historical conditions are specific to how these civilizations arise and develop, and mean that each one is specific to itself. From the comparative point of view, these civilizations—whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Confucian humanism—all pose questions for humanity as a whole that do not proceed from a particular national individuality but from the universal perspective of God, the universe, nature, or society. Advanced civilizations all possess intrinsic universal values. Since the Axial Age of civilization, many of the advanced civilizations that have emerged within the framework of a definite cultural background have tried to break down their conditioned local situation and to reach a universal value beyond that of their own nation. It is because they share common universal concerns that different civilizations have been able to enter into deep dialogues and find points where their horizons meet. Culture and civilization are different: the first cares about “what belongs to us,” the second about “what is good.”

4. “We” and “the other”: relativism or cultural pluralism?


Chinese historicism only cares about the difference between “us” and “the other,” and about how to replace “good” values with “Chinese” values—believing that it is enough for values to be “Chinese” for them to be “good.” This closed discourse, distinguishing between “me” and “my enemies,” cannot effectively legitimate values because the fact that certain values are “ours” does not mean, historically or logically, that they are “good” or “desirable.” As a great nation with a global influence, China is not seeking to reconstruct a specific culture corresponding to a specific country and nation, but a civilization of universal human value. A value that is “good” for China—especially regarding the core values of basic human nature—should also be “good” for humanity. It would not just be “good” for “us,” but would have value from the “other’s” point of view. The universality of Chinese civilization can be based only on a universal human perspective, not on solely Chinese values and interests.


Chinese historicist discourse presupposes that “universal” and “Chinese” values are opposed—as though universal values were Western ones, with the Chinese “good” absolutely opposed to the Western “good.” Western modernity certainly has a complex duality: the values of the Enlightenment and the universal civilization they imply are accompanied by a savage extension of reason of state. Universal human values cannot be the sole preserve of the West. They are the result of the common labor of all advanced civilizations. But neither should they be stripped of any relationship to the West. The question is knowing which Western civilization to assimilate: the universal values of liberal democracy, or a wildly overextended reason of state? Chinese historicism’s ferocious criticism of the West does not target its Machiavellianism regarding power and wealth—if anything, it admires it—but instead the Enlightenment values of liberal democracy. The punitive expedition launched against Western modernity leads to an inverted rejection of Enlightenment values: it rejects the civilized values that restrict the will to power and retains only the most terrifying Machiavellianism.


In European thought, early forms of historicism made definite theoretical contributions: they corrected the prejudice of the Enlightenment’s Universal Reason, which typically neglected different nations’ cultural specificities, and laid the foundations of a diversified national culture for the realization of a universal ideal. Speaking of Vico and Herder, representatives of this early European historicism, Berlin pointed out that they were not cultural relativists, as their contemporaries thought, but genuine cultural pluralists. Cultural relativists think different cultural values are incommensurable and cannot be compared to an absolute justice or truth. All “good” is relative and partial; there is no “good” except for a particular nation, no universal human “good.” Cultural pluralism, on the contrary, recognizes universal human values but affirms that, as different historical cultures develop, these will have different cultural forms and manifestations. Outside a national cultural base, universal values lose their foundations. Cultural relativism takes one more step towards Nietzschean nihilism when cultural pluralism is associated with the Enlightenment’s universal values. Berlin considers the values of different cultures equal: equally true, equally final, equally objective, with no hierarchy between them. As far as human existence is concerned, though, even if subject to many complex and variable definitions of the good, one must still lead a human life. It still has a “human” character. There are common values that can be communicated between different cultures. Though the differences between national cultures are large, their centers overlap; these key values and final goals are open, and all of humanity pursues them. We have the need and opportunity to transcend the conceptions of value peculiar to our own culture, country, or class, and to break the bonds cultural relativism tries to trap us in. We can enter the culture of the “other.” Using our imagination to the full, we can always understand the “other’s” soul, the purpose of their existence. We can always realize a cultural community and plurality. [25]  See Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity,...[25]


Universal civilization or Chinese values? Perhaps the dilemma is a false one. China should rebuild its own values from the point of view of universal civilization.


[1] Mao Zedong used this concept to designate the desire to influence the Chinese through propaganda and ideological penetration, leading them to subvert the Chinese state’s socialist nature and transform it into a capitalist one.

[2] See Friedrich Meinecke, Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook [Die Entstehung des Historismus, 1936], trans. John E. Anderson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).

[3] Georg G. Iggers, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 3.

[4] Zhang Xudong, Quanqiuhua shidaide wenhua rentong: Xifang pubianzhuyi huayude lishi pipan (Cultural Identity in the Age of Globalization: A Historical Critique of the Western Discourse of Universalism, Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2005), 14.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Zhang Xudong, “Quanqiuhua shidaide Zhongguo wenhua fansi: women xianzai zenyang zuo Zhongguoren?” (Reflections on Chinese Culture in the Age of Globalization: How Should We Be Chinese Now?), Zhonghua dushu bao (China Reading Weekly), July 17, 2002.

[7] See Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process; Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations [Über den Prozess der Zivilisation: soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen, 1977], vol. 1, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 61-3.

[8] Iggers, German Conception, 3.

[9] Wang Hui, “‘Zhongguo zhizao’ yu lingleide xiandaixing” (Made in China and another modernity), Zhuangshi zazhi (Ornament) 181 (May 2008).

[10] See Koyasu Nobukuni, Nihon kindai shisō hihan: ikkokuchi no seiritsu (Criticism of Modern Japanese Thought: The Founding of One Nation’s Knowledge, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2003).

[11] Wang Hui, “Zhongguo zhizao.”

[12] For accounts of East Asian modernity, see Sun Ge, Zhuti lunshude kongjian: Yazhou lunshu zhi liang nan (The Space of the Subject’s Narrative: Two Difficulties in Asian Narrative, Nanchang: Jiangxi jiaoyu chubanshe, 2002); Wang Hui, “Yazhou xiangxiangde puxi” (A Genealogy of the Asian Imaginary), in Xiandai Zhongguo sixiangde xingqi (The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought), vol. 2 (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2004); Daniel Bell, East Meets West; Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Daniel Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[13] Iggers, German Conception, 25.

[14] Cf. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World (London: Allen Lane, 2008).

[15] Pan Wei, “Gan yu Xifang zhankai zhengzhi guannian douzheng” (Let’s Challenge the West to a Clash of Political Concepts), in Huanqiu shibao (Global Times), January 28, 2008.

[16] See Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Beijing Consensus (London: Foreign Policy Centre, 2004).

[17] Pan Wei, “Zhongguo moshi, renmin gongheguo 60 niande chengguo” (The Chinese Model, the Result of 60 Years of the People’s Republic), in Lüye (Green Leaf) 4, 2009.

[18] Yao Yang, “Shifou cunzai yige Zhongguo moshi?” (Is There a Chinese Model?), http://www.21ccom.net/newsinfo.asp?id=6112&cid=10342300.

[19] See Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (London: Pimlico, 2003), 68-71.

[20] Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections [Die deutsche Katastrophe: Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen, 1946], trans. Sidney Fay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950), 87.

[21] Gan Yang, “Cong ‘Minzu guojia’ zouxiang ‘wenming guojia’” (From “Nation-State” to “Civilization”), in 21 shiji jingji baodao (Twenty-First Century Economic Report), December 29, 2003.

[22] Zhang Xudong, “Zhongguo jiazhide shijie lishi shiming” (The World-Historic Destiny of Chinese Values), Wenhua zongheng (Cultural Review) 1, 2010.

[23] Zhongguo sixiang bianweihui (Chinese Thought Drafting Committee), “Zhongguo sixiang congshu yu jikan zongxu” (General Preface to the Collection Chinese Thought), in Wenhui dushu zhoubao (Wenhui Reader’s Weekly), December 26, 2008.

[24] Chen Yun, “Tianxia sixiang yu xiandaixing de Zhongguo zhi lu: Zhongguo wenti—Zhonguo sixiang—Zhongguo daolu lungang” (Tianxia Thought and the Way of Modern China: The Chinese Question—Chinese Thought—the Chinese Way), in Sixiang yu wenhua (Thought and Culture) 4, 2008.

[25] See Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, ed. Henry Hardy (London: Pimlico, 2013), 85-6.


  1. 1. Challenging universality: the rise of historicism
  2. 2. A “discourse on Chinese specificity” centered on power and prosperity
  3. 3. Competing for the universal against the backdrop of China’s rise
  4. 4. “We” and “the other”: relativism or cultural pluralism?