By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

President Xi's Thought

In 2023, Hunan TV, China’s second-most-watched television channel, unveiled a series called When Marx Met Confucius. The conceit was literal: actors playing the two thinkers—Confucius dressed in a tan robe and Karl Marx in a black suit and a leonine white wig—met at the Yuelu Academy, a thousand-year-old school renowned for its role in developing Confucian philosophy. Over five episodes, Marx and Confucius discussed the nature of politics, concluding that Confucianism and Marxism are compatible—or that Marx may have subconsciously drawn his theories from a Confucian well. In one episode, Marx noted that he and his companion “share a commitment to [political] stability,” adding that “in reality, I was Chinese for a long time,” suggesting that his thinking had always been harmonious with traditional Chinese worldviews.

The series was backed by the Chinese Communist Party and formed part of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping political project to reconceptualize his country’s ideological identity. Since taking office in 2012, Xi has made it imperative for Chinese people to understand his interpretation of Chinese ideology, which he calls “Xi Jinping Thought.” Bureaucrats, tycoons, and pop stars have been required to endorse it; students now learn it in school; CCP members must use a smartphone app that regularly communicates its precepts. Key to Xi’s thought is pairing Marxism with Confucianism: in October 2023, he declared that today’s China should consider Marxism its “soul” and “fine traditional Chinese culture as the root.”

Xi’s efforts to redefine China’s ideological underpinnings feel increasingly urgent as a slowdown in growth has fed doubts among investors and public distrust at home. He leads a country whose economic might is far more respected than its form of government: China has now won a place among the world’s major economies but remains an aspirant within the international order. To the frustration of Xi and other Chinese leaders, Western countries will be reluctant to accept China’s global influence unless China conforms to modern liberal values. But his attempted synthesis of Marx and Confucius has prompted bafflement, even mockery, among observers outside and inside China.

Over the past century, Chinese communist thinkers have tended to believe that a flourishing future demands a complete break from the past. China’s formative early Marxist thinkers, in particular, generally condemned Confucianism, a philosophy that stresses hierarchy, ritual, and a return to an idealized past. Mao Zedong and other Chinese Marxists believed that Confucianism was theoretically incompatible with Marxism, which celebrates revolution and perpetual change, and that its practical influence on politics had made China weak. Confucian thinking, in their view, had generated a moribund bureaucracy that failed to adapt to the challenges of modernity; this renunciation found its ultimate expression during Mao’s Cultural Revolution when the Chinese Red Guards dynamited the philosopher’s tomb before hanging a naked corpse in front of it.

But erasing the past in a country with so rich a history was always a struggle. It has consistently also seemed to matter to Chinese thinkers and Chinese people in general, that their country should be seen as responding to political change with methods derived from a recognizably Chinese source. Even as many of China’s early-twentieth-century political theorists condemned Confucianism, other thinkers strove to show that China did not have to imitate Western ideas—be they nationalist, liberal, or Marxist—to modernize. They found a road map for a different but potentially effective kind of modernization within the universe of traditional Chinese ideas.

In The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, his magnum opus, Wang Hui, a scholar of Chinese language and literature at Tsinghua University, returns to the late-nineteenth-century thinkers who worked to reshape Chinese philosophy. First published in Chinese in 2004, it appeared last year in a new English edition, the work of several translators under the direction of Michael Gibbs Hill. Although the translation clocks in at over 1,000 pages, it represents just over half of the four-volume Chinese original. Wang analyzes the connections between political theory and more concrete issues of governance over a millennium of Chinese history. But he notes that “explanations of modern China cannot avoid the question of how to interpret” the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1912. Wang’s deep exploration of the work of a group of late Qing thinkers implies that China’s embrace of Marxism did not arise from a wholesale rejection of Confucianism. Chinese Marxism may have had the space to emerge precisely because these late thinkers sought to apply Confucian thought to the challenges of modernity.

The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought is densely detailed, but a fine introduction by Hill helps situate the English-language reader. And the text brilliantly reveals a China that has always been lively and pluralist in its political thought. That picture is at odds with the typical perception held by outside observers—and even some Chinese historians—that Chinese thought has been monolithic and prone to sudden ruptures.

In one sense, The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought makes Xi’s attempted synthesis of Marxism and Confucianism seem less implausible. It has a history; serious thinkers have tried it before. Many writers have suggested that Xi’s “ideological work” does not or cannot have any relevance to ordinary Chinese people, who increasingly struggle with material problems such as making hefty mortgage payments or providing health care for their elders. But China’s anomie is also a crisis of national identity. And implicitly, Wang’s book suggests that efforts to redefine the country’s ideology could help address that crisis.

But Wang’s analysis also reveals where the CCP is going astray. The party expresses its new ideology in simplistic, brassy terms, drawing on unsubtle readings of classics and disallowing critiques. The thinkers who argued for Confucianism’s relevance at the turn of the twentieth century believed that a key to that relevance was letting thinkers debate Chinese philosophy’s very nature.


Philosophers And Kings

Wang, one of contemporary China’s most influential intellectuals, has frequently written about the period after the communist revolution. A participant in the 1989 student movement for democratic reforms, he became a leading member of what others have called China’s “New Left” in the 1990s. In his 2010 book, The End of the Revolution, he criticized China’s turn toward marketization in the 1990s.

In The Rise of Chinese Thought, however, Wang does not deal explicitly with any aspect of China’s turbulent twentieth-century history. Mao makes just one appearance. In this work, Wang is more interested in earlier Chinese thinkers who had already wrestled with the challenges posed by modernity, arguing that when China changed, it did so by drawing on internal resources. (The later volumes, not translated in Hill’s edition, do move into the early twentieth century.)

Wang’s study begins in the Song (960–1279) and Ming (1386–1644) dynasties with neo-Confucianism, a school of thought that adapted traditional Confucianism in the face of challenges by Taoism and Buddhism. His analysis gains its strongest contemporary salience when he discusses a strain of thought that emerged toward the end of the Qing dynasty. At the height of the Qing era, China doubled its population and ran immensely successful military campaigns that expanded its territory. Europeans sought to buy and copy its distinctive art and porcelain. But by the end of the nineteenth century, economic failures and a defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium Wars had brought China to a point of existential crisis. After China was forced to sign humiliating treaties with a host of rising powers including Japan, Russia, and the United States, it appeared as if it might simply be unfit to flourish in the modern era.

One potential conclusion was that Chinese traditions were antiquated and had to be jettisoned in favor of Western ideas, including nationalism and Marxism. Wang argues that the problem that bedeviled the late Qing empire was not just a geopolitical one in which other states had secured material advantages over China. It was a crisis of worldview. Scholars have long asserted that how Confucianism was applied to nineteenth-century Chinese politics had left the country sclerotic—unable to engage with modern Western ideologies such as capitalism, liberalism, and nationalism. Confucianism’s emphasis on tradition and respect for hierarchy had justified an entrenched, sometimes corrupt bureaucracy that failed to respond deftly to foreign invasions and internal revolts or to maintain sufficient tax revenue to maintain security and infrastructure.

But Wang also suggests that this kind of stagnation is not inherent in Confucianism. The Confucian thought world was capacious and flexible. Confucian thinkers often relished encounters with foreign ideas, incorporating or synthesizing them to adapt China to new historical conditions. Notably, toward the end of the nineteenth century, thinkers in the “New Text” movement—so-called because it drew on texts written in a new script unveiled by the ancient Han dynasty—explored ways in which their Confucian cultural universe might reshape itself when confronted by Western ideas.

Modernity did not, Wang argues, present them with an unanswerable challenge, setting up a clash between the old and the new. Instead, the New Text thinkers proposed that translating Confucian rites or principles into laws could accomplish a “grand reunification” of those principles with the new demands posed by globalization and Western imperialism. The New Text thinkers wanted to find ways to push back against the debilitating influence of government corruption. Wang describes how the prominent New Text thinker Wei Yuan challenged Chinese leaders’ presumption that Confucianism demanded they strictly privilege ideas and strategies that had arisen from within China. He sought to dissolve the distinction between “inside” and “outside”; which allowed him to argue for military modernization that incorporated Western innovations, including new measures for defending China’s frontiers and the construction of a shipyard and arsenal in southern China. Thinkers such as Kang Youwei discovered modernizing elements within Confucianism, arguing that a proper interpretation revealed it to have components that could parallel or meet the energy of Western modernizing ideas. Drawing on Confucian theories, Kang formulated the idea of datong, or “great unity,” a day “when everything on earth, great or small, far or near, will be as one.”

Kang saw no distinction between holding a Confucian worldview and advocating a world that dismissed borders as meaningless. His proposals won him influence, and he played a central role in the 1898 Hundred Days’ Reform movement, which aimed to move China toward a constitutional monarchy resembling Japan’s. Alarmed, China’s conservative ruler, the empress dowager Cixi, ordered his arrest and forced him into exile. But his ideas did not die. The late Qing era was a time of great intellectual ferment, and Chinese thinkers—some in exile in Japan—continued to debate theories such as Kang’s in an array of new journals.

The New Text thinkers’ stance arguably enabled the next generation to be open to Marxism. In 1925, the author Guo Moruo wrote about Marx “entering the Confucian temple” in a short story that partly inspired Hunan TV’s new series. In a 1939 text titled “How to Be a Good Communist,” Liu Shaoqi, a central figure in the Chinese communist revolution, referred to communist “virtues,” a phrasing more Confucian than materialist.


Crisis Of Faith

The Rise of Chinese Thought is, in one sense, historical scholarship. But its account of the intellectual world of the late Qing dynasty shines a sharp light on China today. One of the central propositions advanced by the late Qing thinkers was that China needed not merely to find a way out of the crisis facing China at that time but also to embed the solution in premodern Chinese cultural forms. The situation facing the late Qing thinkers might not appear remotely similar to that of today’s China. When they were writing, China was deeply mired in fiscal crisis and beset by internal rebellions; many of its rural areas were deeply impoverished, and its sovereignty had been hugely compromised by foreign invasions and the imposition of biased treaties. China now boasts immense economic and military strength. There are no meaningful threats to its national sovereignty.

But like many countries on the rise today, China does not feel a sense of ownership over the world’s international norms, which were largely created by the West in the twentieth century. Chinese elites believe that these norms and their universalist intellectual premises have largely been imposed on China. And despite China’s strength, it is increasingly afflicted by a sense of crisis. This sentiment is partly a reaction to material circumstances. China’s urban youth unemployment, now estimated at 20 percent or higher, and a growing rural-urban inequality are rooted in economics. So, too, is the difficulty that Chinese families now have in meeting their mortgage payments or coping with inadequate health care and pensions.

China’s sense of anomie is also sociological, however, especially for young people. It cannot be resolved by economic fixes alone. The recent era of spectacular economic growth generated a self-concept among Chinese citizens: China is a daring, rising power, and being Chinese means being on the cutting edge. The core of that understanding is now being challenged. China’s astonishing growth trajectory appears to have crested, leaving not only people’s bank accounts hollowed out but their sense of identity, as well.

Today, the word that many Chinese professionals often use to describe themselves is “depressed.” In a culture in which acknowledging mental health problems is profoundly stigmatized, 35 percent of respondents to a 2020 national survey said they were experiencing distress, anxiety, or depression. On social media, young Chinese people express disillusionment and disaffection, declaring that they are “lying flat” (tangping) or “rotting away” (bailan). The COVID-19 lockdown period eroded trust in the state.

CCP members reflected in a party emblem, Beijing, February 2019

More and more, young Chinese professionals in business, academia, and the media are confronted with restrictions that they find baffling. (For instance, many Chinese students are eager to study abroad, but many are also told that if they do, their rise in the Chinese bureaucracy will be hampered.) As China’s population starts to age, young people are becoming aware that the costs of looking after elderly parents will fall heavily on their shoulders.

Such developments do not make life in China intolerable, as it was for the late–Qing dynasty thinkers. But they do make it unsatisfying. China may be able to go on creating solid economic growth. “Solid but not spectacular,” however, is unexciting. “Weak and fragile” would be worse.

Many Western observers point to Japan as a warning to China about what happens when a property bubble collapses and a country enters a period of aging. Yet Japan remains a powerful global economy with an important regional role and a reputation for being one of the best places in the world to live. China may well be able to follow Japan’s track by adjusting its domestic economy to create new service-sector jobs and concentrating on elder care. Such a China could be a decent place to live. But it would not provide the heroic energy that underpins a rising power.


Traditional Medicine

In this context, it makes a bit more sense that Xi has begun trying to present a refreshed ideology that fuses a Marxist view of society with a Confucian one. Marxism promotes self-criticism, and when applied to real politics has tended to lead to purges. These are phenomena Xi wishes to avoid at a fragile political moment. On the surface, his synthesis may appear to be just an effort to defend himself and the party against criticism, since Confucianism prioritizes stability and respect for authority.

Wang’s study, however, implicitly suggests that Confucianism and Marxism may not be inherently incompatible. His analysis has immense relevance for China today, even if he does not address contemporary China directly. His work shows that the effort to use traditional Chinese philosophy to face emerging challenges has a precedent. Recently, I spoke to a student enrolled in a prominent school of Marxism-Leninism in China. “What does Marxism mean to you?” I asked her. She explained that studying Marxism offered her a way of reflecting on her personal development. Marxism, she said, gave her profound peace of mind.

I was intrigued, I told her. What she described sounded more like Confucianism than Marxism to me. Perhaps she had simply absorbed some of Xi’s growing emphasis on traditional culture. But perhaps, intuitively, it seemed to her that elements of the two philosophies were compatible—and it was comforting to her to feel that her own culture had some answers to her generation’s dispiriting sense of uncertainty and driftlessness.

If a sincere effort at a Marxism-Confucianism fusion could get off the ground, it might help address this anomie by allowing China to hold two ideas at once. A Marxist worldview anticipates a future that continues to be shaped by dramatic changes and convulsive confrontations with, for instance, the challenges of a clean energy transition, U.S. hegemony, or the liberal international order. A worldview informed by Confucianism can accommodate the idea that China will need more calm, predictability, and stability in the future—and that direct military confrontation would likely undercut China’s interests.

Chinese political thought retains liveliness and diversity: it is a work in progress. In 2019, Bai Tongdong, a philosopher at Fudan University in Shanghai, published a book called Against Political Equality. Despite the provocative title, the work is a strong defense of liberalism, arguing that some forms of nondemocratic rule, such as a meritocracy based on Confucian values, could better preserve liberal values than democracy can. Other Chinese thinkers who are often considered realists also wrestle with classical ideas; in his 2011 book Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, for instance, the international relations scholar Yan Xuetong draws on premodern Chinese thinking to interpret the contemporary global order.

Given the precedents over centuries of Chinese philosophy for the kind of synthesis Xi is attempting, it is curious that he relies so heavily on very ancient sources. A television series reconciling Confucianism with modernity could easily have been longer and richer: Kang, the New Text thinker, might have appeared to discuss Confucius’s role as a reformer. The maverick twentieth-century thinker Liang Shuming could have debated Mao about what, precisely, constitutes “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” These two thinkers did conduct a lively debate about just that, in 1946. But to acknowledge the New Text thinkers, in particular, might be dangerous because they valued internal debate and plurality of thought.

Xi’s effort to synthesize Confucius and Marx is not invalid, as an exercise. It is worth lingering, however, on the fact that Wang’s original Chinese text was published in 2004. Only two decades ago, China’s intellectual environment was very different. Academics were freer to debate various political alternatives, and the media could risk more pointed political commentary. Chinese identity is still multiple, not monolithic, and Chinese thought has always best contributed to China’s flourishing when it has been free and disputatious, not closed and sterile. This is the aspect of Chinese tradition that today’s CCP cannot afford to ignore.


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