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Out of the wreckage

I have another piece on the Sixties up at Crisis Magazine. It orginally started with an epigraph from The Doctrine of the Mean by Confucius that got ditched because the site software couldn’t accommodate it:

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the empire, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.”

The epigraph was the source of the “solid advice” I refer to about the middle of the piece.



Better refer to Aristotle, not Confucius. Confucian cultures in practice have been pretty fucked up. For instance, if one’s father commits a crime, even a serious one, loyalty to one’s father is more important that loyalty to the law. The scholar elite in China has traditionally been corrupt, nepotistic, and is to this day. In China this is accepted as normal. Lying and cheating have also been widely condoned. The rule of law is a foreign concept, as is the notion of individual responsibility. Google China and lying, China and Corruption, or Chinese Characteristics for lots of examples. We like to imagine that China has traditionally been a highly civilized country when as a matter of fact it has been barbarous. Some great art and poetry, granted, but lousy architecture, a thousand years of foot binding, institutionalized prostitution and concubinage. There are many marvelous individuals in China today, and no doubt in the past, but their culture and system of government has always been corrupt, tyrannical. There has never been a true middle class. Of course I may be wrong about all this, but it is the overall conclusion I reach after reading a couple of hundred books over the past year – history, literature, biography, memoirs, sociology, anthropology, travel, journalism, etc. Pious platitudes about China are a big mistake. Whether China will ever conform to anything remotely resembling “Western” values is, while not inconceivable, is highly problematic. “Poorly Made in China” is a good book for insight by the way. Just happens to be the last thing I read.

I’m not sure of your point:

Is it every appropriate to quote a Chinese thinker with approval?

Do you have a quotation from Aristotle that would have made the same point?

Was Euthyphro obviously right to prosecute his father?

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Is it ever appropriate to quote a Chinese thinker with approval? There are some good modern ones. Lu Hsun’s early stories and essays are full of good things. He is the Chekhov of China. I recommend volumes I and II of his collected works. But when you get into the Confucian classics and their later interpretations, things become more problematic. As for Euthyphro, I’m afraid I am not up on my Plato. My reference to Aristotle was to his doctrine of the mean, which may or may not have application to what happened in the 1960’s. Though you might quote Blake: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” I’m afraid we are having as much trouble recovering from our cultural revolution as China does from hers. We’re both in trouble.

Sincerity, btw, is not a virtue in China anymore, if it ever was. Google A.H. Smith’s Chinese Characteristics. If I woke up in a hundred years and learned that the Catholic Church was now the most important institution in China, I must say that my initial reaction, besides disbelief, would be that this was probably a positive development. China needs the Christian ideas of forgiveness and redemption. They have nothing like them. And they need to be plugged into a more universal organization of ideas, traditions, and values. For all its human failures the Catholic Church has much to admire.