New look at an old way of thinking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am


Talk about ancient Chinese thought! New Age followers and serious thinkers alike find guidance and inspiration in its millennial insights. No less an authority than Yan Xuetong , the great mainland politics scholar and dean of Tsinghua University's Institute of Modern International Relations, has vouched for its authenticity and originality.

In an influential essay translated and published in The New York Times this month the author of Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power wrote: 'I [studied] ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius. They were writing in the pre-Qin dynasty period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago - a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage. It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought.'

Yan found the lesson of moral superiority in these Chinese philosophers as the basis for contemporary China to reassert its supremacy in the international system today. Is it really necessary to go back so far into Chinese history to find something worthwhile?

If Yan is right, there is something depressing about China having no great thinkers to offer the world for 2,000 years and counting. That would be such a terrible track record for such a smart and gifted race. Or perhaps in China, the statesmen are the real thinkers.

Deng Xiaopeng would qualify in this regard, according to Ezra Vogel's new biography. In Vogel's view, Deng's challenge was to save the Communist Party and modernise China. Deng's insight was that the two goals were one and the same: China's path to modernisation must be led by the Communist Party, and the party's survival depended on the nation's modernisation. The result speaks for itself. As is often the case, in a dictatorship it's only the ruler who is allowed to think.