Reimagining Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought, Part 3, Michael Nylan

One of the best things about reading this particular masterwork of Li Zehou—several of his writings have secured that status—is Li’s steadfast refusal to ignore the material basis for realities in the remote past. Li’s history may be the perfect antidote to toxic comments by those who disdain “the reality-based” crowd in East Asia and in EuroAmerica. While many anti-Communists prefer to ignore Li’s trenchant reflections on Marxism, if we are to understand Li, we would do better not to avert our gaze … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Editor’s Note:

Michael Nylan’s essay review will be presented in three parts. This post serves as Part 3. Please refer to Part 1 and Part 2 of the essay review.

Article citation: Nylan, Michael. 2020. “Reimagining Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (2): 40-54.

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Li Zehou’s Grounding in Marx

One of the best things about reading this particular masterwork of Li Zehou—several of his writings have secured that status[1]—is Li’s steadfast refusal to ignore the material basis for realities in the remote past. Li’s history may be the perfect antidote to toxic comments by those who disdain “the reality-based” crowd in East Asia and in EuroAmerica. While many anti-Communists prefer to ignore Li’s trenchant reflections on Marxism, if we are to understand Li, we would do better not to avert our gaze. (To ignore Marx in Li’s theory would be akin to reading Adorno without Marx.) After all, the young Marx is invariably interested in the human scale and human motivations, like Li Zehou. For that reason, presumably, Li writes, “Only when this issue [the relation of humans to nature] is approached from within the Marxist idea of humanized nature can there be an adequate answer” to the conundrum.

Beauty and aesthetic appreciation must be introduced to all forms of life, rather than being confined to the “inner realm of mental quietude,” as Li puts it.[2] His call is to rehumanize the world, to reintroduce the notion favored by experts in the ecology: that human habitats and human beings are co-dependent and one. (My sense is that Li prefers the early Marx to the later, just at he is more interested in early Adam Smith on moral sympathies than on the theory incorrectly attributed to Smith on the market’s “the invisible hand.”)

Li is a wide reader in multiple traditions, and few are so deeply steeped in the human sciences. For that reason, Li ably directs our attention to issues of social justice in a way that puts John Rawls to shame as a relative naif, to take one example. An accomplished aesthete if ever there was one, Li Zehou nevertheless continually confronts us with the counter-question, Is the cost of civilization acceptable (186) and do people have any choice in the matter anyway? In defiance of the norms we inhabit, Li is comfortable coupling the phrases “brutal new regime” with “rapidly developing material civilization,” in ways that few aside from leftist economists do.[3] In other words, like He bucks the trend to adduce rapid GDP growth as justification for a majority of citizens living in dire poverty. On those grounds, Li Zehou’s work recalls the more recent work by David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins entitled On Kings, which delves into the perennial brutality of the political processes that impose concordia, “to ask how we might, for once, refuse to play.”[4]

Li admits that authenticity and freedom, no less that culture itself, are ill-defined concepts,[5] but he deems them nonetheless to be of supreme value, and indeed post-modern liberal humanism stumbles whenever it ignores the human duty to weigh its priorities in light of human values. If this new translation of an earlier classic takes just a few readers back to the Zhuangzi, which insistently asks us to consider what is life’s meaning, and how can one survive, even flourish in a chaotic age (188), then the effort will have been worth it, to my mind. There is a unique vision here, one that embraces the dual necessity of acknowledging one’s own desires and those of others, also one that credits intuitions drawn from daily life as much or more than logic-chopping, and eschews the pernicious fiction of the “individual, autonomous rational being” (222).

Li’s chapter devoted to the Art of War ascribed to Sun Wu, a sixth-century BC general, is the smartest piece I have read in a long time, for, as Li shows, the Art of War, superficially just another Machiavellian conceit advocating deceit and deception, is, upon closer reading, a far more demanding argument for trust. Another chapter pairing the Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism also surprises. There Li makes a very good case that the category of Daoism is incoherent, since the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi and the Laozi have little in common (183, 187), whereas the Zhuangzi shares with Chan Buddhism an “ontology centered on the pursuit of the ideal character and realm of human existence” (184). (Historians of religion and philosophers take note!)[6]

Was Zhuangzi the first text to theorize alienation? Possibly. Surely, the Zhuangzi is one of the first texts (productions by the Stoics and Epicureans come to mind) to articulate the dangers of enslavement to things and powerful people. Does the Zhuangzi actually advocate a return to primitive society? I don’t see it myself, but Li’s rumination on the romantic calls to return to primitivism in and the course of historical evolution fascinate nonetheless (186). And, as Li notes, such lines as “The man who steals a buckle is put to death, while the man who steals a kingdom becomes a prince” “provoke profound reflection” today (ibid.). Above all, Li Zehou battles complacency, hatred, and lack of curiosity wherever those demons rear their ugly heads; he does so with grace and humor. These battles are important, especially in the Chinese and American contexts, perhaps. And Li, unlike many, generously acknowledges those who have conveyed important insights before him (see, e.g., 191n35, 228, 243).

Historians, sociologists, and my favorite philosophers share certain preoccupations, among them, What is the relation of the individual to the group and to the larger society? How can order and purpose be brought together, even momentarily, via the embrace of life’s constraints and pleasures (compare 194)? Is it ever enough for a human being to derive delight or joy or pleasure from “common causes and shared norms” (270), as these may lead to in-group oppression of an out-group? And finally, what, if any, are the advantages and disadvantages of a “regime of truth” (Foucault’s useful term) in antiquity and in today’s world? Academics should acknowledge the threat posed by those would say that some lies are acceptable because they are useful lies, so long as they serve identity constructions.[7]

I do not know Li Zehou well, though I have read his work, critiqued that work, and met the man. But, to do him justice, I need to ask what issues would he, a profound humanist, be addressing, in all likelihood, were he to rewrite his history of classical thought today, forty years on? Recall that Li is widely regarded as one of the chief inspirations for those who gathered at Tiananmen Square to ask for greater democracy. Today’s world is vastly different from the world of 1989 in some respects, when Gorbachev recently had overseen the dismantling of the Soviet Union and people like Francis Fukuyama were so foolish as to think we were about to live in a world defined by the “end of history.”

Today “populist” authoritarianisms (with their harshness towards ethnic, religious, and ideological Others) in new and stronger alliances, East and West, have joined forces with predatory capitalism to dismantle the remnants of the old Cold War Fordist capitalism. We could begin with the array of companies, EuroAmerican and Japanese, that hail the “favorable business climate” in Xinjiang, using forced and indigent labor. But should the rest of us point fingers? How many still kid themselves that it’s fine to use Facebook, despite everything we know about Facebook’s misogynist origins and invitations to hacking, on the excuse that it’s more convenient than uploading multiple jpgs to their emails?

Marxism lacks any strong ethical teachings, because Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels assumed that workers freed from the burdens of making their livings under oppressive circumstances would adopt benign “internationalist” towards their counterparts. How wrong they were. Historians know that the comfortable captains of industry have long had their ill-paid workers join forces to exclude others by every anti-democratic means at their disposal, including voter suppression. Acknowledging that capitalism has brought us to today’s ruthless competition and naked fears, to counter that ethical void, and to account for factors beyond the economic mode of production, Li has sketched for us a complex picture of an evolving Chinese culture that holds out the potential for ethical behavior in the face of dreaded competition. Indeed, any culture may do, as it is a balance of forces that is required, if humanity is to survive its worst impulses to know nothing.

Why use this opportunity to foreground Li Zehou’s commitment to Marxism, when I am no Marxist? Li himself has identified Marxism as one of the three major influences on his thinking (the other two being what he identifies as Confucian classicism, and Western science and democracy). I hope, then, to remedy a flaw in most treatments of Li’s writings that underplay or ignore that commitment for two related reasons:

(1) They don’t consider Marxism to be a good concept “to think with”; and

(2) A surprising number of people in academia today have not read much Marx, only the critiques of Marxism or a few catchphrases that they impute to Marx (in my limited experience, often incorrectly.

So what does Li derive from Marx? He doesn’t precisely tell us, but, as Lukács noted in 1971, “Orthodoxy in regard to Marxism refers exclusively to method.”

I would like to sketch Li’s method here, which consists of a type of phenomenological dialectical reasoning, a method probing the grounds or presuppositions of our knowledge of social life.[8] Such a dialectical phenomenology has three distinguishing features:

(1) Its treatment of subjects and objects as unified/united;

(2) Its treatment of this unity of subject and object as purposive activities or “forms of life,” to adopt Wittgenstein’s memorable turn of phrase; and

(3) Its treatment of subjects and objects as grounded in their forms of life.

By contrast, positivism conceives of the subject not as a social subject in membership in a community but as a private subject whose purposes and attitudes originate internally. And only positivists can talk of objectivity (“Let the facts speak for themselves,” as if they could talk.). Li has absorbed these ideas in his work. So, unlike many sociologists who believe in objective conditions of existence that are “things in themselves,” Li, in my reading at least, casts all modes of production (including the peculiar forms of theorizing associated with high cultural learning) as embedded and implicated in and inseparable from social conditions.

For the foregoing reasons, reading Li Zehou makes for much more bracing reading than, say, reading through Adam Gopnik. Adam Gopnik calls “coincidental” every suffering inflicted by early or late-stage capitalism on societies (including the 2008 economic meltdown and Trumpism), precisely because of his refusal or inability to credit Marxism with any substantial contribution to world culture. Marxism is, in Gopnik’s view, the source of such soul-destroying regimes as Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism (which argument is just about as subtle and sophisticated as tracing a straight line to the Crusades from the Sermon on the Mount).[9] But if freedom and human dignity are a person’s ultimate goals, as Gopnik claims, to airily dismiss Marxian analyses, even or even especially when he went wrong, is to rest content with having no credible plan for the future—no sanities, if you will, only inanities.

Global warming, AGI, water rights—just to name three looming world crises—will require better insights than Rockefeller Republicanism has on offer. Read Benjamin Page and   Martin Gilens’s Democracy in America?, or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, or David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, and you begin to get the picture at the profound rot at the heart of today’s forms of life. Give me Ross Douthat any day over the “feel-good” thinkers, although I am an ardent ex-Catholic. At least, Douthat can think, he offers advice (some of it very good advice), and he keeps his eyes on his prize (right now, a Trump-free future). Arguments need to be not only ethically correct but structurally acute, in an era of institutional erosion across America plagued more surely by devil-may-care stock markets and corrupt and corrupting media empires than by the dreaded coronavirus.

On the analytical level, Li is certainly right to locate in Chinese classical thought unusual spurts of clarity. Here is one Chinese thinker, Sima Qian, writing in 100 BC:

As for the ordinary lot of tax-paying commoners, if they are confronted by someone whose wealth is 10x their own, they behave with humility; if by someone whose wealth is a 100x their own, they cringe with fear; if by someone whose wealth is a 1,000x their own, they will undertake to work for him; and if by someone whose wealth is 10,000x their own, they become his slave. This is the principle of things.

In this passage (and many others) Chinese thinkers wrestled with the paradox of living in a society made up of individuals whose relationships and hierarchies are nevertheless predicated on and sustained by the circulation of impersonal goods.[10] In this passage, Sima Qian implicitly asks readers to consider whether people can and should be content to be enslaved. Relatedly, Han Yuhai, a Beijing New Left historian, has observed that, for all too many in today’s China or the US, the much vaunted “freedom” promised by the neo-liberal market economy boils down to little more than the “freedom to want to be a slave.” What kind of cultural formations can push back against the ultimate commodification of the human being (and hence de-humanization) that we find on every level of interaction in today’s world?

Ci Jiwei’s analysis perhaps offers a latter-day assist in this connection, since Ci confirms that Communism under Deng and Xi Jinping has offered anything but freedom to the Chinese people of the People’s Republic. It has offered crony capitalism on the same order as Putin’s Russia on view in the movie Citizen K, supplemented with media whitewash and trashtalk, to encourage the same type of Group-think, We vs. They, that the Trump White House purveys (though Xi and his circle is undeniable smarter, as they take the longer view, untroubled by the specter of elections). Nihilism and true belief (the frantic embrace of a black-and-white world to stave off nihilism) have come to the fore, aided in this by many forces that lay waste to individual and community lives. Evidently, no matter what cultural formations a society once proudly embraced, they are fragile formations, liable to disruption and wild deformations. Simple decency, one might say, has been deftly outmaneuvered.

Conclusion: What Now and Wither Humanism, East or West?

Now that we can plainly see, if we choose, the effects of unregulated “zombie” capitalism,[11] we may properly ask whether Li’s prescriptions for China and indeed for humanity have any chance to be realized in China, where he is widely read, or elsewhere, given the interlocking cultural-psychological deformations of the post-Cold War era? The past two years in Hong Kong give one pause.

Rereading Li Zehou, in Chinese or in English returns me to a better world where ideas still seem transformative. Yet reading the newspaper each morning, I confront abundant evidence that ideas and culture may well not matter very much in future, except when culture is weaponized in defense of the status quo. For governments around the world are now availing themselves of powerful surveillance techniques that preclude freedom of action. “China’s cyberspace is purposefully designed to be an essential component of the overall political control structure … This … has the potential to put China on a path towards an entirely new, potentially totalitarian future, while also providing precedents and tools to other authoritarian regimes” in the Belt and Road states.” “We should therefore (if no softening of policies occurs) prepare ourselves for a less welcome, and potentially nasty, evolution of the Chinese political system.” [12]

Just to list a few of the data collection activities and protocols routinely foisted on individuals:

  • DNA (including of members of family)
  • Biometric data in general, such as retina signatures
  • Fingerprints and palm textures
  • Voice patterns
  • Gestures, gait and postures
  • Habit and behavioral pattern recording
  • Mobility pattern tracking
  • Social networking signals
  • Consumption metric
  • Facial recognition for humans and animals
  • QR codes at the household door (already in place in parts of Xinjiang), which allows for the potential for patrol robots to scan, interpret and, if necessary, report and respond. The potential for robots to engage in actual intervention is in development, in China as elsewhere.

The idea underlying all these new forms of knowledge production has been succinctly articulated by Putin: “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere [of AI] will become the ruler of the world.” Xi Jinping’s regime relies heavily on the concept of military-civil fusion (MCF), a national strategy since 2013, that blurs the lines between civilian and military/defense science and technology resources. The US cannot be far behind, as domestic authoritarianism to defend against authoritarianism abroad can always find Congressional supporters.

Foucault spoke of the production of the “docile body” in his 1975 classic, Surveiller et Punir:Naissance de la Prison.[13] Docile bodies have indeed been fashioned with the utmost care over time, as these are the very bodies that function most efficiently in factories, in orderly military regiments, and in school classrooms. To construct docile bodies the disciplinary institutions must be able to (a) constantly observe and record the bodies they control; and (b) ensure the internalization of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled. Given the “unequal gaze” that Foucault spoke of, where the watched cannot observe the watcher, can Li’s quiet insistence on human equality, dignity, and freedom ever hope to convert adherents? And if China manages to become the next super-power, can the marvels of Chinese culture that Li delineates in his history of classical thought survive assault by the powerful? Stay tuned.

Contact details: Michael Nylan, University of California at Berkeley,

[1] My own favorite remains Lunyu jindu, a marvel of erudition and judiciousness.

[2] It is germane that Li grew up under the regime of pre-fab housing and national construction. Mao explicitly said there’s no time nor place for beauty in state-sponsored processes.

[3] promises a thorough review of left economists, but it ends up criticizing their data, telling us that inequality is not so bad after all.

[4] My respectful reworking of Sheldon Pollock’s account of David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings (Chicago: Hau Books, 2017), front blurbs (no page number).

[5] See Li on the “false self” and “what is not me” (194).

[6] Cf. Nathan Sivin, “What is Taoism?” Esther Klein’s 2010 Ph.D. thesis The History of a Historian: Perspectives on the Authorial Roles of Sima Qian (which Li’s Chapter 6 anticipates by decades).

[7] I am appalled by this line of thinking, which goes back to the culture wars at the NEH (and long before); on identity issues, I presume.

[8] Compare Roslyn Wallach Bologh’s discussion of Marx’s Grundrisse (in Dialectical Phenomenolgy: Marx’s Method, Routledge, 2009) from which I have taken the definition.

[9] See Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities, 152ff.

[10] Fast forward, and we live in a world where personal trust, the kind built up by face-to-face encounters, has been largely replaced by demands for impersonal trust (the ATM, the phone banks offshore, and robocalls).

[11] Economist, on liberal (Dec. 5?) stakeholder vs. shareholder capitalism.

[12] Sebastian Heilmann, in the 2016 article “Leninism Upgraded: Xi Jinping’s Authoritarian Innovations” China Economic Quarterly 20 (4): 15-22.

[13] Compare Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America(Metropolitan Books) and the 2009 movie “Up in the Air.”

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