In China, if you talk about the study of the classics, and of ancient Greek and Latin, the name of Leopold Leeb, a professor of literature at Renmin University in Beijing, will likely pop up. According to a recent profile in supchina.com, his textbooks and dictionaries are standard references. Despite growing Western hostilities, the study of classical Western texts has been as strong as ever at China’s institutions of higher learning, and not only there. Leeb also offers popular annual summer Latin courses for teens and even preteens. He has been riding a wave of Western-civilisational interest in China as well as contributing to its popularisation, perhaps more than any scholar in the country. By contrast, in the United States, if you talk about the study of the classics, and especially the “dead” languages today, the name of Dan-el Padilla Peralta will likely come up. A tenured classics professor at Princeton University, his main contribution to the discipline has been to denigrate, if not to kill it altogether. He himself has said as much. At an academic conference in 2019, a critic of his called Mary Frances Williams, herself a classicist, tried to defend the Western classics as the political, literary and philosophical foundation of European and American culture. “It’s Western civilisation. It matters because it’s the West,” she said. This position, incidentally, is completely out-of-fashion in Western academia today. It’s no accident that Williams is an independent scholar; it’s unlikely you would find a young university scholar with a full-time job teaching in the humanities to make such a statement, at least publicly. The splendid futility of reading philosophy Peralta’s response was: “Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined. I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.” Elsewhere, he has written about “the demolition of the discipline itself” for “reparative intellectual justice”. This is because the classics, allegedly, have been the intellectual sources of “whiteness” and “white privilege”. For those who live outside North America, Britain and Australia, it may surprise you but it is actually the currently respectable – and career-promoting – position to take in the humanities. Thanks to Peralta and his like-minded colleagues and administrators at Princeton, students majoring in the classics no longer need to study Greek or Latin. The West’s own cultural revolution Mao Zedong and his Red Guards trashed the Chinese classics. During the Cultural Revolution, anyone caught in possession of them was liable to be publicly humiliated, beaten, tortured and jailed. A less violent but no less insidious cultural revolution is taking place in Western universities, even high schools. The problem is worse in English-speaking countries. The Lawrence High School in Massachusetts recently removed The Odyssey by Homer from its curriculum. But it’s not just Latin and Greek classics, rather English-language classics, as well as French ones in Canada, too. The Burbank Unified School District in California has removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Cay by Theodore Taylor and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Their “racist” language was considered harmful. In Canada, more than 4,700 books deemed “racist” were removed from the libraries of 30 schools in Ontario. A book burning “celebration” was held in 2019 by the supervising school board of French-language schools in a fight against racist literature. Oxford University’s classics department has recently considered dropping Homer and Virgil – in English translations – from its core syllabus. The ensuing public controversy has stalled the decision. Many have justified such developments in education as the struggle for racial and gender justice; others call it wokeness and an extension of the “cancel culture” to the classics. It was in response to such developments that the French government under President Emmanuel Macron instituted programmes last year to promote the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek in lower-grade classes as well as at vocational schools. The classics initiative was joined by the governments of Italy, Greece and Cyprus. A China market for Western classics But who would have thought that China may be offering the biggest academic “market” for Western civilisational studies and their classics? The West is turning increasingly hostile towards China while young Chinese, turning nationalistic, are becoming sceptical and critical of Western societies. Paradoxically, the study of Western ideas and classics has been as strong as ever in the country. When a Chinese migrant worker reads Heidegger In the late 1990s, China expanded higher education enrolment by 50 per cent in just a few years. This also means an expansion of academic subjects; some of them, such as medieval theology, Islamic civilisation and the ancient history of the Middle East, can be quite obscure. They may not be popular, but they are available. The complete works of Aristotle became available in Chinese in 1997. The Chinese Journal of Classical Studies began publishing scholarly studies on ancient Greece and Rome in 2010. The most commonly cited and studied Greek and Latin classic texts are now available in Chinese translations. In 2011, Peking University launched the Centre for Studies in Western Classics. Renmin University has had its own Classics Institute since 2017. Latinitas Sinica is an institute exclusively devoted to Latin studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In medieval times, as Christendom and Islam were locked in mortal struggles, many of the greatest Arabic thinkers and writers were busy preserving and contributing to the sciences, philosophy and literature of the ancient Greeks. Is history about to repeat itself in China?