Universalism in redemptive societies: A potential threat to the rule of government

“A: It is the source of all things (wanyougenyuan). It is not a single religion; it has the power to clarify the good. . . .Actually the dao has no name, but we in the human world have to give it a name to show our reverence. So, we revere the founders of the five religions. . .. We also respect nature and morality, and cultivate the self through charity”

This is a quotation in Prasenjit Duara’s book Sovereignty and Authenticity. It was a statement made by a leader of the Daoyuan to a Japanese surveyor, demonstrating the spirits of Daoyuan, the predecessor of the Red Swastika Society. These are redemptive societies that embraced a boost in the early 20th century in China. Most of them possess the characteristics of synthesis of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Redemptive societies adopted a syncretistic worldview in their discourse of civilization. Their speech contains the awareness of self-cultivation; through the effort made by men in charity and philanthropic activities, a person’s good nature can be recovered.1 This seemingly idealistic idea of universalism proved to be a real threat to governments in China and Japan. The universalist view of religion extends to the potential overthrowing political worldview.

“Cultivate the self through charity” can be interpreted as the combination of Confucianism and Pure Land Buddhism. The awareness of self-cultivation comes from Confucianist teaching of rites and rituals; by practising them, people could achieve the state of a gentleman; this belief remains in the doctrine of Redemptive societies, it became to be Jiaohua.2 And “through charity” reflects a Pure Land Buddhism idea of doing good to accumulate good karma so that one day one can receive a good result. From this statement, we can see that these Redemptive societies possessed a complete framework from the most abstract ideological level to the most practical instruction to the secular life of people. It also reflects how these metaphysical philosophies were brought into real life by these redemptive societies in the historical context in China in the early 20th century. According to Duara, they were one of the leading intellectual forces to form a new discourse of civilization, complementing the influx of Western ideas, representing an Eastern attempt to find solutions for contemporary society.3 Redemptive societies’ success of ‘secularizing’ all three schools of thought was why they could gain such significant influence among the public. Both people from higher and lower classes can take part in the societies.

This universalism, accepting all kinds of religion and thinking, and people from different classes proved to threaten Chinese and Japanese governments. Duara suggests that the redemptive societies, in a way beyond the boundary of government, conduct their world-saving activities, which is why the KMT sought to prohibit all redemptive societies. ((Ibid, p. 109.)) For example, the Red Swastika Society had a universalist view to see all nations, races, and religions as the same. The concept of boundaries is eliminated from the framework. They see the world in a transcendent view; they believe that the boundaries like nation-states will disappear one day.4 This cosmopolitan idea can be seen as the attempt to find a unique way to reform East Asia exclusively. Kang Youwei, as a prominent figure for his cosmopolitan thinking in Ta Tung Shu, was one of the leaders of redemptive societies. These characteristics of redemptive societies sometimes could remind us of Cooperatism anarchism in Japan; both believed in a boundary-free world.

Its popularity among the public and its potentially dangerous ideas all become why governments like KMT and Manchuria were highly concerned about redemptive societies. In complementing Duara’s argument, Sun Jiang’s analysis on the Red Swastika Society also proves the government’s worry about the universalism of redemptive societies.

  1. Prasenjit Duara, “Asianism and the New Discourse of Civilization” in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), pp106. []
  2. Ibid, p.108. []
  3. Ibid, p.109. []
  4. Ibid, p.106. []

He Zhen and Qiu Jin: Feminist thinking in contrast

He Zhen and Qiu Jin are both prominent feminist figures in the early twentieth century in China. When we investigate their thoughts on a superficial level, they share many similarities; for instance, to fight for the right and interests of women. If their revolutionist ideas are put into the contemporary context, their explanation of feminist movements has an opposite causality with the national revolution. Qiu Jin argued that feminist goals could be achieved as a part of the nation revival project; He Zhen argued that women liberation could not be simply considered to be the by-product of revolutions; only if women’s liberation is achieved, then the revolution can be successful.

For Qiu Jin, women liberation and female rights can only be won when the current corrupted government is replaced by a better one. During her stay in Zhejiang, where she took an active part in the radical revolutionary circle, and their main goal was to overthrow the dynasty and purge the corruption and injustice that existed in the society. It is clear that fighting for equality between men and women is not a specific task in the revolution purpose for Qiu Jin, rather than treating it as an individual task that requires extra attention and effort, Qiu considers the improvement of women’s conditions as a part of national and social revolutions, as long as the polity is changed, women liberation can be realized under the new and more advanced government in a strengthened nation. Margery Wolf concluded that she placed revolution ahead of the feminist goals.1

He Zhen, on the contrary, held a different faith. Her theory on women liberation is closer to anarchism; she does not believe that men and women can share equal status with the existence of government or any other kinds of ruling organizations. Women’s emancipation is a part of the revolution, not one of the outcomes of national and social revolutions. In her cases, she criticized those who treated the feminist movement as a mere tool for national revolution; for example, Jin Tianhe saw women’s emancipation as a part of a larger project of enlightenment and national self-strengthening.2 The goal of emancipating women was not to establish a more civilized and mighty nation, but it should be the goal itself. The causality of women’s liberation and national self-strengthening plans believed by Qiu and He Zhen leads to their differences in practising feminist movements in reality. For Qiu Jin, her actions did not always directly relate to women emancipation; she did both feminist-related activities and nation-saving projects. For He Zhen, according to Kazuko Ono, He Zhen failed to bring a practical theory to conduct her ideas in reality.3

In the later time, the general trend of feminist movements followed the idea of Qiu Jin. Many women chose to participate in revolutions in 1911; they chose first to emancipate the country then restore social status for themselves. Women assisted the revolutionist activities in many ways; for instance, women were rioters in the Rice Riots, Xu Zonghan transported three hundred pistols from Hong Kong to Huanghuagang uprising. Women’s army was organized in Wu Chang Uprising. After the establishment of the ROC, women did not get suffrage as promised.4 Just like Kazuko Ono stated in the book, Women suffrage movement failed eventually, the result of this series of feminist movements in pre-1911 time did not bear a good result.5  Though women had devoted a lot of effort to the revolution, like what Qiu Jin believed that if women wanted to be liberated, they need to first liberate the country. The final result ultimately disappointed them. To some extent, what He Zhen had said became true, women would not share equal rights with men, even the government is changed, the change of polity cannot change the social and political status of women. Qiu Jin did not have the chance to see this later event after her execution.

These two ideas on feminist movements have their own results. He Zhen’s idea lacks a solution for the problems she brought up; it lacks practical action; her ideas are stagnant on an ideological level. Qiu Jin, by tying feminist movements with the national self-strengthening program, leads the later trend of women emancipation. However, it still failed to prove itself to be the right path for women.

  1. Margery Wolf, “The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch’ing: The Case of Ch’iu Chin” in Women in Chinese Society, p58-9. []
  2. Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko, “Introduction: Toward a Transnational Feminist Theory” in The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013, p.1-2. []
  3. Kazuko Ono, and Joshua A Fogel, “Women in the 1911 Revolution “in Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950, (Stanford University Press, 1989), pp.69-70. []
  4. Ibid, pp. 70-73. []
  5. Ibid, pp. 80-85. []

Taiping Rebellion: What differs it from other peasant rebellions in China?

The Taiping Rebellion is an uprising led by Hong Xiuquan in late Qing. This uprising is attached to great importance by many historians. What makes it so special compared with other rebellions and uprisings in China? One pattern of Chinese history is in a repeated rising and declining cycle of dynasties. When the power of a dynasty becomes weak, it loses control of its territory, then uprisings come in follow until someone takes the place of the previous dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion seems like one of those peasant uprisings which takes place in the phase of declining of a dynasty, the reasons why historians take it so seriously are revealed by Kilcourse’s analysis on Taiping Rebellion;  the significance of the Taiping Rebellion can differ between Chinese scholars and Western scholars due to their distinctive focuses.

Chinese scholars’ focus has a specific emphasis on the historical context of the Taiping Rebellion. It took place in the latter half of the 19th century when the Qing government was encountering the western world, many new ideas were flowing into China. It was the time when the belief in old traditions was trembling, and many people sought to find a new way to reform and strengthen the nation. Putting Hong’s attempt of building a different society in this context, Chinese scholars tend to interpret Hong as a predecessor of promoting capitalist or communist society, the starting point of following revolutions, he challenged “feudal autocracy” in China, and sought a new version of the society by importing Western ideas. They do not interpret him only in the contemporary context but also in the latter period. The Taiping Rebellion is seen as an important node in the development of China in the late Qing period, without the attempt of the Taiping Rebellion to overthrow Qing, there would not be Xinhai Revolution.1 So, for Chinese scholars, why the Taiping Rebellion is different from other peasant rebellions is due to its significance of trying to replace the decadent social structure of Qing, Hong’s ideal model is an immature prototype of a more advanced version of society. Though other peasant rebellions may also raise similar promotions, only Hong successfully put it into practice, and he was the only one who was influenced by western ideas and lived in the era when Chinese traditions were shattered by the west.

The second significant point of the Taiping Rebellion is its embrace of Christianity, drawing the attention of western scholars. Uprisings in a religious framework are also not new for peasant rebellions, for example, the White Lotus uprising. What is different for the Taiping Rebellion is that Hong did not solely adopt Christianity in his ideal world model, Taiping heavenly kingdom was the product of both Christianity and Confucianism. According to Kilcourse, Hong’s adaptation of Christianity was not just a mere distorted transplant from the West into China.2 Many Taping texts show his familiarity with Christian texts and doctrines, for example, the borrowing of Noah’s era from Great Genesis.3 This combination and rationalization of Christianity with Confucianist traditions is neither a total denial nor a yield to Western thoughts. Taiping is an alternative to investigate how Western and Eastern ideas are conflicted, combined, reshaped, and practised at the beginning of the 20th century. Since after Qing was forced to open to the rest of the world, it was inevitable for Chinese to face a different kind of thinking from the other end of the earth. Taiping is one of the early cases, after it, there would be more.

  1. Kilcourse, Carl S. Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China, 1843–64. Springer, 2016, P8. []
  2. Ibid, P2. []
  3. Ibid, P65-66. []

Russian literature: An important and popular media to disseminate ideas in Japanese anarchism

In the book Anarchist Modernity, the author Sho Konishi reveals the interplay of Japan and Russia in the formation and evolvement of anarchist ideas. On the side of Russian thinkers, like Mechnikov, are fascinated with the cause and result of Meiji Ishin. His view on modernity and civilization is based on the observation of Ishin later influenced Kropotkinism and Japanese intellectuals who would turn this vision into one of the most important conceptual foundations for modern cultural life in Japan.1 On the side of Japan, a huge amount of translated literature flows across the boundary of these two nations and becomes popular and very influential among Japanese thinkers. That’s why Sho Konishi pays particular attention to translation as a methodological strategy. Russian literature is an important medium for the intellectual communication between Russian and Japan. These translated texts are very popular among Japanese readers, even some of the texts are banned by the government, they are still circulated by readers privately. Reasons for their importance and popularity among Japanese anarchists are the unique function of Russian literature and the cultural foundation of Japanese anarchism.

Literature and novels can become important media are not just because they are more entertaining than any other genre. In TSFL, the program established by Mechnikov and continued by Russian revolutionary exiles, translation courses are taught, many graduates from this program later become active participants in translating Russian literature into Japanese. One of the most prominent figures in this group of people is Futabatei Shimei.2 Compared to the literature style in other nations, Russian literature carries the responsibility of educating the people and improving society. Writers in Russia are convinced that literature should contain intellectual and ideological meanings and they will act as the tool of awakening people to fight for a better life and world. Philosophy, ideologies, and thoughts are expressed through literature.3 Futabatei also shared this similar thought: “To awaken the people, they had made the pen into the point of a spear. There was a difference of only one step between the pen and a bomb.”4 The belief in the capability of literature also affected Chinese writer Lu Xun, who imitates Gogol wrote A Madman’s diary in the hope of awakening Chinese people. Russian literature is an honest mirror of Russian ideology, by investigating what kind of Russian literature is popular among Japanese anarchists, Sho Konishi is able to find out what kind of ideology or thoughts was welcomed and embraced by them.

The other reason why Japanese anarchists are attracted to Russian literary works is because of their social and cultural focuses. The themes of Russian literature are mostly social, cultural, and religious. For example, Tolstoy’s Resurrection has a focus on the social and everyday life aspect with religious elements, a nobleman comes to realize the miserable life commoners live in. Japanese anarchists have the focus on people of the society rather than the people of the nation. Both Kotoku’s definition of the concept of heimin and artists Yamamoto’s creative print Ryofu (Fisherman) reflect this idea.((Ibid, p. 169-70.)) Anarchist revolutionaries do not aim to reform the political structure, they believe that only social revolutions can ultimately improve and change the lives of people, and advance the civilization process of humans, any form of government cannot achieve this goal. The emphasis of Russian literature fits the core idea of Japanese anarchists. This similarity becomes the motivation of Japanese anarchists to be more interested in and to promote the reading of Russian literature.

These inner qualities of Russian literature, as the carrier of Russian ideology and the lens of looking into commoners in cultural and social life, are factors of its importance in disseminating ideas in Japan, especially its influence on Japanese anarchist movement.

  1. Konishi, Sho, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013, p.32. []
  2. Ibid, p.130. []
  3. Liu, Wenfei, E Guo Wenxue Yanjianglu, The Commercial Press, 2017, pp.185-6. []
  4. Konishi, Sho, Anarchist Modernity, p83-4. []

The Nature of Xunzi: Comparison between Mencius and Xunzi on the nature of human essence

Xunzi, as a prominent Confucianist thinker in the period of Warring States, has a very distinct point of view on how to interpret and practice Confucianism from that of Menzi. The core difference in their philosophies is the different understanding of human nature. Mencius argues that human nature is good; Xunzi holds an opposite point that human nature is bad. This divergence leads to the distinct interpretations of functions and practices of ritual which are emphasized by Kongzi. According to Mengzi, the ritual and standard of being righteousness originate from the good nature of people, and Xunzi does not believe that people could follow what is virtuous, “deliberate effort” which is the teaching and learning of rituals and standards of righteousness set up by sages is required to educate a person to become a gentleman.

This divergence between Mengzi and Xunzi leads to different ways of applying their philosophies to real politics. Xunzi’s theory, in the later time, contributes to the development of Legalism which is the fundamental ideology of the rulership in Qin. Comparing to Mengzi’s doctrine of good human nature, Xunzi’s theory seems to be more practical and welcomed by the ruling class, since it leaves more space for an external agency to intervene in people’s life. Soles differentiates these two by defining that Mengzi’s virtue-based theory is agent-centred and Xunzi’s theory is rule-based which makes it consequentialist. People do not have to have a good intention or motivation while practising good and righteous behaviours, if they follow certain rules, the result will be good. This good result is the harmonious social order.1 It seems that Mengzi holds a more idealistic philosophy, and Xunzi is more practical, since the effort of a government is valued, and the outcome of this external effort is a stable society longed for by every ruler.

Despite Mengzi and Xunzi hold opposite opinions on the nature of human essence, and practices based on their philosophies differ in real life. They are not naturally in opposition to each other. Though Xunzi denies that human nature is good, he admits that there is an internal motivation of people to become good. In Chapter 23 of Xunzi: “People desire to become good because their nature is bad.” ((Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy 2nd Edition, pp298-310.)) He does not deny people’s instinct toward virtue, he only thinks that a normal person cannot learn the right concept of virtue without external help. So, Mengzi and Xunzi have the consensus that people possess the incipient power toward virtue. Instead of only mentioning the importance of external intervention, the system of Xunzi is consist of both people’s longing for becoming good and the teaching of sages.

Another similarity between Xunzi and Mengzi is that they are both Confucianists. Though Xunzi’s philosophy gives many inspirations to Hanfeizi and Lisi who are important figures in Legalism. The reason why Xunzi is still considered to be a Confucianist, like Mengzi and Kongzi, is that he believes that society operates in a harmonious way when people behave virtuously and morally which differentiate from Legalism that a prosperous country is based on laws and creeds. From this perspective, Xunzi and Mengzi’s theories are very similar to each other, people’s virtue can be improved by practising ritual and righteous behaviours to ultimately form a harmonious society. Even the core of their philosophies is ambiguously similar. It is sometimes hard to distinguish whether an action is out of good human nature or the intention of being good.

The subject described by their theory has nuance. The good nature possessed by people in the description made by Mengzi is towards the self-cultivation of a person, a person here is viewed as an independent individual. For Xunzi, the bad result of the society being chaotic and unstable is created by many people choosing to follow their instinct of self-profiting. If a person does not live in a society that requires them to live collaboratively, then human nature described by Xunzi is not evil. It is evil because it can cause social chaos, but when the concept of society is no longer included in the discussion, the judgement on people’s nature cannot be simply categorized as “bad”.

  1. Soles, David E. ‘The Nature and Grounds of Xunzi’s Disagreement with Mencius’. Asian Philosophy 9, no. 2 (1 July 1999), pp. 130-31. []