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Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China

January 29, 2010

Joseph R. Levenson. Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Rachel Scollon (2000)

Levenson’s book is about the conflict between history and value in the mind of Liang Qichao. By history Levenson means a person’s emotional and psychological commitment to the tradition that formed [in this case] him, and by value the ideas to which he holds an intellectual commitment. Levenson traces Liang’s thought through three stages. In the first, Liang reconciled China (history) and the West (value) by finding counterparts of Western ideas in China’s philosophical tradition. In the second, Liang shifted his efforts at preservation from culture to nation and, feeling it imperative to draw upon the achievements of other times and places, made this possible by breaking down what had been a monolithic concept of the West. By locating the genesis of ideas in individual genius rather than cultural developments he could use these ideas without implying Chinese inferiority, for chance, not necessity, placed their development outside of China. In his third stage, following the demonstration of Western fallibility that was World War I, Liang returned to culturalism with a conception of the superiority of Chinese spiritual civilization over Western materialism.

Levenson demonstrates how Liang’s thought in each stage can be construed as a different answer to the same general question of how China can draw upon the experience of the West without having to devalue its own experience. To Levenson, this was the question that unified not only Liang Qichao’s thoughts, in all their psychologically necessary inconsistencies, but all the minds of his society, allowing the biographer to read in Liang’s writings the mind of modern China. In Liang’s early years the question was a new one, whereas by the end of his life it had, while retaining importance, begun to share its central position with new questions of economic and social equality.

When this book was published it may have seemed to some that half a century of a chaotic jumble of varied and irreconcilable ideas in China had, suddenly and surprisingly, resolved itself into a Communist state. In this context, the Marxism that seemed to lurk behind Levenson’s attempt to explain Liang Qichao through the dialectical unification of contradictions rendered him suspect to some eyes. (See Arthur Hummel’s review in The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 110-112.) But at a time when everyone was seeking an explanation for the success of the CCP, the power of his argument to illuminate the common origins of disparate ideas as well as the changing significance of the “same” idea over time must have been welcome.

Levenson’s assumptions about the staleness and rigidity of the Chinese cultural tradition and the necessity and nature of “Westernization” led him to view Liang’s psychologically necessary attempts at synthesis as doomed to failure. By Levenson’s own argument, however, logical inconsistencies are not only ineradicable from but even necessary to the products of human intellect. If inconsistencies are integral to an individual mind, how much more so to a broader tradition. It seems an exaggeration to declare the moribundity of the Chinese tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, since centuries of inconsistency should have made it rich in resources for reinterpretation. In addition, the idea of “Westernization” seems to indicate the externally imposed adoption of ideas that shape, more than they are shaped by, their thinkers. Perhaps there was more potential for success in an effort at creative synthesis, and Liang was therefore a less tragic figure, than Levenson was inclined to think.

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