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The Limits of Change

January 29, 2010

Charlotte Furth, ed. The Limits of Change: Essays on Conservative Alternatives in Republican China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Zhou Guanghui (2003)

The essays in this book, as Furth points out, represent a scholarly effort to reevaluate the relation of recent Chinese intellectual movements to the Chinese tradition, and to trace the changing face of conservatism in an avowedly revolutionary society. By examining Chinese thinkers as diverse as Liu Shipei, Zhang Binglin, Liang Shuming, and Tao Xisheng, or politicians like Yuan Shikai and Jiang Jieshi, this book attempts to reevaluate modern Chinese conservatism, a neglected subject in the 1970s when the theme of revolution almost dominated the China field. Yet, while each contributor ponders over the issue of conservatism, because of the problematic definition of “conservatism” as a whole, this book contributes only a limited, though valuable, understanding of this complex puzzle.

To be sure, each contributor seems to be influenced by Mannheim’s insights on the “conservative idea.” Yet the conservative/liberal/radical triad, originally formulated to categorize European thought in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as it turns out, is not a close fit for the intellectual alternatives of twentieth century China.

Despite these different interpretations, one common opinion shared by the contributors is that Chinese conservatism is culturally conservative with a nationalistic ring. However, to treat those who rejected Western ideas as conservative is quite problematic. It only reflects a strong European bias and optimism about modernization. Furth’s acceptance of the framework of industrial and political modernization indicates to a large degree Chinese thinkers were treated as “the Other” that mirrored or was inferior to its Western counterparts.

Indeed, Xiong Shili, Liang Shuming, and other thinkers for a long time were treated as “conservative” by the Chinese. But one should be cautious about what the word ‘conservative’ really means, as political rhetoric often instills quite different things into it over time. A radical during the late nineteenth century, like Kang Youwei, was probably viewed by young people in the early twentieth century as notoriously conservative. To complicate the issue, one might be regarded as both radical and conservative at the same time. To better understand the term “conservatism,” an analysis of its political context is necessary.

In many cases, the distinction among the conservative/liberal/radical is quite relative. As many researchers in this book admit, Chinese conservatives and radicals actually shared many ideas. The distinction between the conservative and the radical often resulted from Chinese impatience with the pace of modernization. While everyone realizes and accepts that change is necessary, those who advocate a gradual approach are often depicted as conservative by their impatient critics.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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