Posted: May 2, 2012
"Why are you interested in Leo Strauss?" Professor Harvey C. Mansfield asked me when we first met at Fudan University in 2008. I took great pains to use my terrible English to answer the question, but it seemed that I didn't satisfy him or myself. Evan Osnos, a columnist at the New Yorker, wrote about the Harvard professor's trip and gave his own answer to the question. In "Angry Youth" (New Yorker, July 28, 2008), Osnos connected Chinese nationalism with Strauss's influence, which I think is mistaken. From then on, Mansfield's question kept haunting me. When I came to Harvard to study the American Founding as a postdoctoral fellow in 2010, I saw a widespread concern in the American media about China's so-called rise and the influence of Strauss on Chinese scholars. Mark Lilla's article in the New Republic, "Reading Strauss in Beijing" (December 30, 2010), only exacerbated these concerns. Though Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, refrained from making rash judgments about the intentions of the scholars and students who are said to have been influenced by Strauss, his analysis of what he observed is nonetheless faulty. I think it is probably necessary to explain how Strauss has been received in China, who has been influenced by him, and in what ways his influence has taken effect there.
Strauss Comes to China
Although Chinese scholars' interest in Strauss did not emerge until the late 1990s, there were a few Chinese translations of his works a decade earlier. For example, one can find Strauss's article "What is Political Philosophy?" (1959) in the Chinese version of Contemporary Political Thought: Issues in Scope, Value, and Direction (1985), edited by James A. Gould and Vincent V. Thursby. But it took a long time for scholars in China to note Strauss's significance. In the 1980s, those who had been disconnected from Western thought for decades wished to go back to the European Enlightenment to rebuild their belief in modernity and their hopes for modern China. After shaking off the bonds of official Marxism, they found the concept of subjectivity in Kant. Then Heidegger was introduced in the 1990s and soon became extremely popular. Heidegger made Chinese scholars reconsider Western philosophy as a tradition of metaphysics and see the connection between this tradition and the Western crisis. Although they didn't get the final answer from Heidegger's attempt to return to pre-Socratic philosophy, they learned from him the existence of the inner problems in the tradition of Western metaphysics, particularly the problem of technology or rational control.
During this period, more and more Chinese scholars and students went to Europe and America to study and do research. Western academic trends—Weberian sociology, the Frankfurt school, analytical philosophy, structuralism, deconstructionism, hermeneutics, Rawlsian liberalism, communitarianism, and so on—began to creep into the Chinese academy. These "isms" quickly became established in Chinese philosophy departments and began to prevent scholars from inquiring into the fundamental questions of human society and from truly understanding Chinese life. The news from the West was that God is dead (Nietzsche's declaration), and so is human reason (Foucault's). But these claims did not put a stop to Chinese scholars' interest in Western philosophy.
China's interest in Strauss emerged in response to this situation. At the beginning, Strauss's works were brought into the country because of a general interest in the study of Western political thought. China, an ancient civilization, had to meet the challenge of the modern world, and the introduction and study of Western thought had become an indispensable part of modernization. If we look at the introduction of Strauss to China in this historical context, the translation of his works was just part of a larger effort to make Western scholarship available in Chinese. It was not initially inspired by a concern with particular themes in his thought, and the translators and editors regarded his works as just one part of a large body of important scholarly writings. The Chinese translation of Strauss and Joseph Cropsey's edited volume, History of Political Philosophy (first edition, 1963), for example, was published in 1993 and regarded as a general reference for political science students, together with George Sabine's old A History of Political Theory (1937). The former was listed as one of the required readings for the comprehensive exam for Ph.D. students in political science in some Chinese universities. The earliest series of books that included Strauss's and his students' works is the Chinese translation of the Humanities and Society Series (2000), published by Yilin Press. This series included Strauss's The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis, Harvey Mansfield's Taming the Prince, and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. It was interesting that this series also included the works of Isaiah Berlin and some other liberal thinkers. Other Straussian works were published in the general series, for example, Nathan Tarcov's Locke's Education for Liberty and Stanley Rosen's The Mask of Enlightenment.
The First Chinese Straussians
The man who first studied Strauss's thought and made Chinese readers aware of its significance and relevance to China was Professor Xiaofeng Liu, an important intellectual who now teaches at Renmin University in Beijing. Born in the late 1950s, he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and went to college in the early 1980s. Most scholars of Liu's age were intellectually stimulated by the radical change in Chinese society over their lifetime. Although his main field is German philosophy, his interests range widely.
Liu explains that his introduction to Strauss was through Heinrich Meier's studies on Carl Schmitt. Mark Lilla wrote that he had heard from a journalist that Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate in China, but Liu's account shows that this is not the case. It was from Schmitt that Liu learned of the defects in the pure formalism of liberalism and in the legal positivism of Hans Kelsen. But Liu indicates that Heinrich Meier's brilliant books, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt(1998) and Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss (2006), exposed the theological basis of Schmitt's thought, and revealed to Liu the profundity of Strauss's critique of Schmitt. Through this critique, Liu began to notice Strauss's effort to save modern rationalism from nihilism.
After Liu had studied Strauss for a while, he published several works, including The Docility of the Hedgehog: Five Essays in Political Philosophy (2001) and "The Path of Leo Strauss" (2002), which had a profound influence and made many scholars begin to pay attention to Strauss. In "Nietzsche's Exotic and Esoteric Teachings" (2002), Liu applied what he had learned to interpreting Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Besides his study of Strauss, Liu has endeavored in recent years to promote classical studies (both Chinese and Western classics) and liberal arts education in China. He has also edited Classics and Interpretation, a series of books that reconsider Western and Chinese thought, some of them translations from German, French, and English, and others original studies done by Chinese scholars. In 2010, to provide a forum for young Chinese scholars willing to devote themselves to studying the classics, he founded The Chinese Journal of Classical Studies. This journal is not limited to any particular school of or approach to classical studies, but encourages the interpretation of classical texts from the perspective of political philosophy. He invited Ronna Burger, Michael Davis, Harvey Mansfield, and other American and European scholars to join the journal's honorary editorial board. Today, this journal is one of the most influential publications on classics in China; and due to his efforts, the study of classical texts has acquired an important place in the liberal arts curriculum at Renmin University. As Liu has said, the Chinese encounter with Strauss is a meeting of classical mentalities.
Yang Gan is another important intellectual who contributed to the introduction of Strauss in China. He belongs to the same generation as Liu. While Liu was at the University of Basel, Gan studied with Edward Shils and Francois Furet at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Although they are friends, it seems accidental that both have an interest in Strauss and worked to introduce him to the Chinese academy. Gan wrote a very long introduction to a Chinese translation of Strauss's Natural Right and History, which introduction later appeared as an independent booklet, Leo Strauss as Political Philosopher (2003). While Liu focused on Strauss in the context of Greek and modern German philosophy, Gan analyzed not only Strauss's thought and his teaching but also the phenomena of Straussianism and the neoconservative movement in America. He described Strauss and his students in a sharp, concise way so that many Chinese were attracted to their works. Probably due to Gan, many more students now read Strauss's and Straussians' books. Soon after, a few liberal scholars began to criticize Gan and Liu for corrupting students' minds and organized Chinese translations of Shadia Drury's books in order to counteract Strauss's influence.
Enthusiasm for Strauss among students has cooled down considerably now. This is a very good thing for reading and thinking seriously about Strauss. After his introduction to the Chinese translation of Natural Right and History, Gan did not write about Strauss again, though you can clearly see Strauss's influence on his thinking. Compared with Liu, Gan is more active in intellectual debates, initiating several discussions concerning the path of China's reform, the reform of Beijing University, and the nature of liberalism. More recently, he, like Liu, has promoted the liberal arts; he is now the dean of the Liberal Arts College at Sun Yat-Sen University.
One reason Chinese scholars are so interested in Strauss is that, before they even knew his works, they had a stark sense of the conflicts between ancient China and the early modern West—and therefore the conflicts between the ancients and the moderns. Some scholars younger than Liu and Gan are very familiar with ancient Chinese thought and ancient and modern Western thought. They had the habit of reading the classics in groups when they were undergraduates or graduate students. Although their reception of Strauss was in some sense influenced by Liu and Gan, most of them did not directly write about Strauss's thought, instead carrying Strauss's approach and perspective into their own research.
Yun Ding, mentioned by Osnos in his article "Angry Youth," teaches in the department of Philosophy at Fudan University. He translated Strauss's "On German Nihilism" (1941) and "The Three Waves of Modernity" (1959) and wrote a very long article on Plato's Symposium ("A Political Reading of the Symposium," 2004) and another on Heidegger from the perspective of Chinese metaphysics ("Being and Becoming," 2007) which were widely regarded as excellent studies. His field is German phenomenology, but he has an excellent knowledge of Greek philosophy, Confucianism, and Buddhism. His broad, deep scholarship allows him to prepare the conditions for a meeting of West and East, a goal Strauss mentioned in his essay "An Introduction to Heideggerian Extentialism." At Beijing University, another prestigious school, young scholars from different backgrounds have joined together to read Plato and Confucius. Meng Li, the Chinese student who figures in Lilla's "Reading Strauss in Beijing," used to have a key role in one of these groups and later went to the University of Chicago. Now Li is a philosophy professor at Beijing University who teaches Aristotle and Leibniz.
Apart from the Chinese scholars who approached Strauss on their own, some American students of Strauss have extended his influence. Professor Mansfield is the most important of those whose intelligence and intellectual generosity have attracted many young minds. At Harvard, there are always Chinese students, graduate and undergraduate, in his classes. As far as I know, none studies formally with him in the Government department, but several from the departments of Anthropology, History, and Eastern Civilization and Languages have chosen him as a member of their dissertation committees.
Fei Wu is a philosophy professor at Beijing Unversity who used to study with Mansfield, and Lin Guohua is a political science professor at Southwest University of Politics and Law who was a regular student in his classes. In fact, two interviews with Mansfield by these Chinese students—one about the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, another about modern liberalism—were published in the late 1990s in Beijing. His Taming The Prince, Manliness, Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders, Machiavelli's Virtue, and some of his articles on Tocqueville have either been translated or are being translated into Chinese. His research on Machiavelli, executive power, indirect government, rational control, and liberalism are getting more attention from Chinese political theorists. Other Straussians who have visited China and taught Chinese students include Heinrich Meier, Stanley Rosen, Nathan Tarcov, and Michael Davis.
West Meets East
Leo Strauss has influenced Chinese scholars in three ways. First, his interpretation of the conflict between revelation and reason in the Western tradition made Chinese scholars aware of the problem of modern rationalism. Second, Strauss's emphasis on the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns showed Chinese scholars the connection between the origins of modern rationalism and the drastic turn from contemplation to action, providing them with a new lens through which to reconceive modernity. Through many years' painful struggle, today's China has become a part of the modern world and is bound tightly with the West. Reflection on modernity is indispensable for thinking about the development of modern China, which looks, and will continue to look, to the West as an example. Strauss's revival of classical natural right, in particular, spurs Chinese scholars to reexamine their attitude toward ancient Chinese thought.
Finally, Strauss's explanation of the relationship between philosophy and politics lets Chinese scholars understand the inevitable conflict between these ways of life, as well as the importance of the philosophic life that transcends politics. Through his influence, some Chinese scholars have been able to overcome the narrowness and trendiness of the modern academy, and discover a very broad and deep way of understanding the future of Chinese civilization, and even of human civilization.
In "Reading Strauss in Beijing," Lilla invokes the relationship between the legacy of Chinese Confucianism and the influence of Strauss. The reinvigoration of Confucianism prepared the way for the study of Strauss and classical political philosophy. Confucianism is a complicated and long-lasting philosophical tradition that takes different forms in different historical situations. Many aspects of Confucius' thought are commensurate with Platonic political philosophy—for example, its moderate compromise between reason and revelation. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the Confucian tradition was rejected by Chinese liberals in the New Enlightenment movement and then by Communists in the Revolution who regarded it as an obstacle to modernization. Chinese scholars, including most of those mentioned above, have recently turned their attention back to Confucianism. As far as I know, they want to go back to Confucianism to deepen their understanding of Western philosophy in comparison with ancient Chinese thought, and to reconsider Chinese civilization in the age of globalization. Whether Confucianism should be revived is still a very controversial topic in China. For example, a new statue of Confucius was built near Tiananmen Square in January 2011 and caused a huge division of public opinion. Three months later, the statue was quietly removed from its original location because of these disagreements.
It is too early to predict what effects Strauss's influence will have on China. Straussians in China stand in a different tradition of civilization, inherit a different historical legacy, face totally different social problems, and are constrained by fundamentally different necessities. But whether in China or America they are partisans of classical political philosophy with its moderation and prudence, and they love human freedom, human decency, and the good life based on universal truths supported by human reason. It is precisely these differences, and this common ground, that make the dialogue between West and East so necessary.