The works of the Confucian masters and the Chinese classics have enjoyed a resurgence after decades of gathering dust on library shelves following Mao Zedong's condemnation of them as backward and feudal. Some say their popularity is a response to a spiritual vacuum on the mainland. People are attracted to traditional thought as a way to make sense of their lives amid rapid social and economic upheaval. Five years ago, Tsinghua University reopened its school of Chinese classics, once famed throughout the nation as a centre of leaning. Its deputy dean is Liu Dong, who spoke about the importance of the classics and the realities of working as an academic in China.
What do you think of the criticism that the authorities promote Confucian values in the hope it will make people more obedient?
What are commonly believed to be Confucian values, that people should be obedient to authority, for instance, are an invented later tradition. They are Confucian teachings reconstructed by scholars after the May Fourth Movement [in the early 20th century], at a time when Western ideals including democracy and individualism were valued and Chinese classics were largely criticised. Confucian classics promote very different values. Any individual can be a leader like Yao and Shun [two emperors in ancient China]. And social mobility in ancient China, when the imperial exam system was still in place, was much greater than it is now. Of course, there are officials who would like to make use of Confucianism today. But in general, I think the revival of Confucianism in mainland China is a bottom-up trend, not the other way around.
What is your take on the controversy surrounding the statue of Confucius erected in Tiananmen Square early in 2011, but then taken down about three months later?
Many of those who opposed having the statue did not take the chance, or bother, to explore the Confucian values that are not commonly included in textbooks. What is so wrong with having the statue in the square? Isn't it better than having a portrait of a late president? In fact, many of our top officials understand that the teachings of Confucius cover much more than what was the subject of criticism in the early 20th century. But they have yet to change the textbooks to teach this to future generations.
Many scholars have moved abroad for greater academic freedom, especially those working on China-related studies. Why haven't you?
Academic freedom needs to be measured in two dimensions - freedom of expression and the space you are given to work in. Chinese scholars abroad enjoy 100 per cent freedom of expression, but they may be restricted by limited space. They can criticise whoever and whatever they want, but how many people bother to listen to, or read, their criticisms, that is another story. When I teach, I have 90 per cent freedom of speech. When I publish academic papers, I am left with only 50 per cent. But I can edit and publish over two dozen books and four academic journals each year. I can make an impact with this 50 per cent freedom. I'm here in a country of 9.6 million square kilometres and a population of 1.3 billion - I have the chance of great academic accomplishment. If the so-called freedom of expression of being a scholar abroad only fulfils one's vanity, it's not what I define and value as academic freedom.
I've heard you are not allowed to issue a degree in Chinese classics, as the Ministry of Education hasn't recognised the subject.
Is there any ministry in China more conservative than the Education Ministry? Chinese classics do not fall into any existing subject category recognised by the ministry. As a result, we do not have a "subject code", and cannot recruit undergraduates. Why on earth do we need a code in order to teach students? It's almost the same as the planned economy, in which people needed to use a phone ticket to make a call. I left Peking University for Tsinghua's school of Chinese classics because it is a legend in our history. More than 50 out of the 71 graduates of its first class [in the mid-1920s] became the top minds of their generation. But how can we recreate this legend if we are not allowed to recruit students?
Why do you think Tsinghua's renowned scholar from the 1920s, the "Four Masters" Wang Guowei, Liang Qichao, Chen Yinque, and Zhao Yuanren, succeeded in their times?
They simply taught their students in the same way that Chinese scholars used to teach in Shuyuan [academies in ancient China], the way that had been proven to work for Chinese students. Shuyuan requires teachers to engage in study together with their students, so they learn not only from their textbooks. It is a far cry from universities today, where professors work for a school like an employee of a company and leave the classroom as soon as the bell rings. But I agree that people have been idealising the Four Masters. In a way, people's frustration and disappointment today invokes their nostalgia for the Republic of China.
How do you define Chinese classics in today's context?
Chinese classics are the study of Chinese civilisation from China's own perspective. In the 20th century, when Western subject categories prevailed across the world, Chinese scholars willingly applied these categories to Chinese knowledge instead of preserving our own. Honestly, I think it was a sense of cultural inferiority in the colonial era. Given the increasing recognition of cultural relativism, that each civilisation has its own values and terms of reference, Chinese have returned to the classics to try to make sense of our culture and history from our own perspective.
You were an outspoken scholar in the 1980s and 1990s, but compared with intellectuals commenting on social media today, you seem less active. What do you think of weibo?
The microblog is a precious platform through which intellectuals can make an impact directly on public opinion. I was impressed and even moved by the so-called Big V's [the 'V' comes from having their names verified as their real ones on their blogs] when they emerged, for their courage and their willingness to make sacrifices for what they believe in. But I've noticed the group has become less and less welcome by the public, because many of them voice opposition for the sake of it. I think the voice of the "Big V's" has become the mainstream in China. Nobody in China, including the state television anchors reading the script prepared by the propaganda department, still finds their [propaganda department's] words credible. But honestly, I think the way the "Big V's" adore liberalism is not so different from the way Communist Party members adored communism in the early 20th century. They accepted one set of values and now we accept a set that are opposite. What concerns me the most is that people still tend to take these values to the streets as soon as they think they have learned enough about them. It's exactly the same as how the "public intellectuals" mobilised students and factory workers a century ago. The most important thing for the "Big V's", at least I believe, is to remain critical, always critical, of all values.