Humanities Day 2012: China’s reinterpretation of Western classics

In modern times, Chinese thinkers have come to view Western philosophy as how not to govern.

By Lina Li

Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Classics Professor Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer spoke on contemporary China’s use of Western classics to critique Western democracy at Humanities Day on Saturday.

Bartsch-Zimmer’s talk, titled “Alien Classics: The Western Cannon in Modern China,” followed the historical interpretations and re-interpretations of seminal Western thinkers, like Thucydides and Plato, in Chinese intellectual circles.

She posited that 20th century Chinese academics “looked to the West, its origin in democratic Athens, and its political thinkers as a source for the renewal of China.”

Contemporary Chinese academics have continued to study Western classics, no longer motivated by “an agenda based on learning and emulation, but an agenda that suggests that the West does not, after all, have all the answers,” she said. “[They now use Western classics] to make the West indict itself and to suggest that in fact the Chinese way is better…[and] using the Classics to do precisely this is the new turn in Chinese Classical Studies.”

These texts are specifically used to criticize the governmental superstructures advocated by the classics. “[The Chinese] see the very Western classical texts they study as cautioning against letting democratic values trump national or religious myths,” Bartsch-Zimmer said.

For example, in a February 2012 issue of The New York Times, Chinese venture capitalist and editorial writer Eric X. Li criticized supporters of Western democracy for not learning from past mistakes and putting government on a pedestal equal to religion, based on his reading of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

According to Bartsch-Zimmer, classics are often dismissed as obsolete, but their continued interpretations and re-interpretations have a timely application to political machinery, international relations, and intellectual renewals.