Interviews | Society | East Asia

China and the Ways of Heaven

An interview with Roel Sterckx.

Catherine Putz
China and the Ways of Heaven

The image of China as a uniform giant, notes Roel Sterckx, either as sleeping, restless, or rising frames much of how the Western world views China. Sterckx, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Cambridge, aims to introduce the breadth of Chinese thought as rooted in its own distinct philosophical traditions to readers with his latest book, Ways of Heaven. An Introduction to Chinese Thought. Rather than treat Chinese “thought” as a stereotype, Sterckx lays out the roots of Chinese philosophy with more complexity than it’s often given. In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz, Sterckx explains why it’s important to delve deeper into Chinese history to understand contemporary Beijing.

In the introduction of your book, you note that the average Chinese student probably knows more about “us” than “we” know about “them.” Why is this the case? And why do you think it’s important to remedy?

I believe several factors are at play, including gaps in our secondary education curricula, the desire (and pressure) among China’s youngsters to get educated and an increased information flow through the internet and social media. Let me take the example of the average teenager in Britain, which could equally apply to American college freshmen such as those I taught in “general education” classes at a large public university earlier on in my career. To the well-educated secondary school graduate in Britain, China evokes images of the Opium Wars, revolution, communism, Hong Kong or the Great Wall at best, with the Terracotta Warriors and World War II creeping up on the charts. We insist that our youngsters should be educated to become global citizens, yet we teach them next to nothing about the core social, political, and philosophical values that have shaped China over centuries. Only rarely do our students get to hear about China beyond its very recent past: We introduce them to the foundations of Western civilization starting, roughly, with the Greeks and the Romans. Yet, China only shows up on the educational radar if and when it becomes relevant to the West, usually beginning in the 19th century. 

However, if one takes a long-term perspective on Chinese history, one could argue that the great ideologies of China’s 20th and 21st centuries such as Marxism or Maoism have played a relatively minor role in shaping the worldview and cultural fiber of Chinese society today. Its core ideas about power, leadership, community and loyalty were conceived during the classical age in the teachings of the Warring States masters of philosophy, who lived 25 centuries before the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. By contrast, Chinese students and the new middle classes are now discovering the world as never before through travel, overseas exchanges, summer schools, etc. It is a generation extremely keen on getting educated (learning and self-improvement being another key virtue in Chinese thinking) and eager to chase those opportunities many of their parents and grandparents were deprived of. To be sure, their information about “us” is filtered through a lens of supervisory authority and creative censorship. But, one could argue, so is much of ours. We all tend to eat what our search engines feed us.

What ideas and concepts from the breadth of Chinese philosophy are most relevant in today’s China?

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Politically, it is highly significant that no major thinker in China ever questioned the notion that society must be led by one single powerful figure: the monarch. This is a remarkable continuum up until today. The overlord in pre-imperial times, the figure of the emperor, or China’s president and general secretary of the Communist Party today are reincarnations of one and the same age-old principle: Authority should be concentrated in the hands of one single ruler or figurehead. Confucius envisaged the ideal society as a harmonious community managed by an exemplary elite. Legalist thinkers such as Lord Shang or Master Han Fei (many of whom are quoted again today by Chinese politicians) argue that, even when an incompetent ruler is in place, it is essential that the institution of monarchical power itself remains safeguarded. One may take the person out of politics, but the principle that power issues from the top is deeply embedded. 

Fundamental in Chinese political thought then is the notion that the default order in society should be one of managed harmony and concord, and that good leaders should promote the wellbeing of the collective over that of the individual in order to achieve this. Any elements or developments that may undermine this ideal of centralized power require control or intervention (subtle or not). To run China in essence means being charged with the challenging task of keeping its various regions in line with the demands of the political centre. The latter has been the single most pressing mission of any ruling house that has governed China, be it the imperial courts of the past, or the Communist Party and those at its helm today. And so, there is nothing new or contemporary about China’s predilection for population control, moral and political discipline, tight administrative control and household responsibility. After all, these are values enshrined in its earliest legal codes that go back as far as the First Emperor who unified the Chinese empire in 221 BCE.

Can studying Chinese thought help us understand how the Chinese state operates on the global stage?

For quite some time now, especially since the 1980s, schools and university programs have caught on to the idea that expertise in the Chinese language is a valuable commodity in the world of business, politics, and diplomacy. A profound linguistic proficiency will remain a non-negotiable foundation for anyone who has ambitions to work with China. Yet, over and above language expertise, what our future policymakers and business folk would benefit from even more is to learn how to “think” Chinese. Without a basic knowledge of the worldviews China’s key thinkers have ingrained into the Chinese mental DNA, we are barely touching the surface of what competent interaction with China should and could be. Without a familiarity of how China has looked upon the outside world over the centuries, or how China’s philosophers conceive of power, there is a real possibility that we misread China. To understand China’s stance of passive aggression in world affairs, or to appreciate the idea that power springs from remaining hidden and unknown I recommend reading Master Sun’s Art of Warfare or the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing). To appreciate Chinese concepts of reciprocity, public honor and shame, or its understanding of legal versus customary behavior one would do well to learn about ritual, its relationship to the law, and the intricate tensions that exist in Chinese thought between the obligations of the individual versus the collective. 

You note early in the book that the study of China in the wider Anglo-Saxon world had been “propelled onto university curricula in the wake of the new geopolitical order” established following World War II. Do you think that context influenced the ways in which China was studied? How so?

One influential consequence of our discovery of China in the context of the post-WWII area (and the Cold War) is that we were led to believe that China is a monolithic civilization and unified modern empire that arose from the ashes of a century of humiliation by Western powers. This image of China as a uniform giant – either sleeping, restless, or rising – is still with us today. We live in a media world in which the default headlines connote China with a very limited set of memes: rising, threatening, challenging, superpower, autocracy, trade war, industrial espionage, global workshop and warehouse. The fact that our study of China rarely reaches beyond the modern and contemporary period also means that we have continued to conceive of China and its people as an entity that is in perpetual “catching-up-with-the-West -mode.” This is no longer tenable. The alarm, astonishment or surprise many of our politicians express about China’s path today partly results from a lack of historical depth and an unwillingness to familiarize oneself with Chinese social and political philosophy as it has evolved from its origins. Education has a massive role to play in this: it is not until we pay attention to China’s roots and make the study of Chinese philosophy and thought part of our regular curricula, that we will be able to gain an informed perspective on developments in China today.

Where does Chinese philosophy most diverge from Western philosophical traditions? Are there areas where the two converge?

Chinese philosophy is mostly this-worldly and practice-oriented. China’s brightest minds were not so much concerned with who and what we are, but, rather, how we should live our lives, how we relate to others, how we should organize society and how we can secure the well-being of those who live with us. So instead of speculating about metaphysics, Chinese thinkers focus on human-centered questions and ethics: What makes a good person; what type of person is fit to govern and lead others; how can we create order in society; how can past traditions inform the present; what strategies will enable us to outmaneuver our enemies and competitors; how do we persuade others? Chinese philosophy rarely obsessed with intellectual debate for the sake of debate. 

A central concept in Chinese thought is the notion of a path or road (Dao). And since the only way to discover where a path leads to is by walking it, most ideas are offered as guidance to be lived, experienced, and practiced. Many university departments of philosophy in the West do not even teach the Chinese tradition since a good number of professional philosophers, myopically, claim that China does not have philosophy but merely “thought.” It is as if philosophy should only dabble with the abstract universe of metaphysics or the intricacies of the mind or logic. Chinese thinkers remind us that ideas can rarely be separated from their social context and lived tradition. As such Chinese philosophers converge with all those in the Western philosophical tradition who are concerned with the question of how humans find a path through the challenging labyrinth of challenges that life throws at us. And perhaps there is some merit in asking ourselves how we should live rather than trying to define what life is.