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Are China's Ancient Philosophers Relevant to China's Modern Rise?

April 26, 2010 // 2:00pm3:30pm

Ancient thought has gained an increased level of popularity in China in recent years. Yan Xuetong, Director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, analyzes the relevance of pre-Qin philosophy for China's modern-day rise in his forthcoming book, A Comparative Study of Pre-Qin Political Philosophy. At a 26 April, 2010 event, Dr. Yan discussed his views.

Dr. Yan began by noting that, contrary to popular perception, overlap exists between schools of ancient Chinese thought and modern international relations thought in the United States as well as in China. He pointed out that this overlap includes similarities between Confucianism and Idealism, Daoism and Constructivism, and Legalism and Realism. Similar to modern thought in the PRC, ancient Chinese philosophers held the belief that social disorder stems from the anarchical nature of the system. Within a hierarchical system, however, social norms govern behavior and promote for stability. Ancient Chinese philosophy focuses on norms rather than power, and advocates adjusting policy as opposed to attempting to change the entire system.
According to this system of thought, improving a country's international status and maintaining that status require different strategies. Force can be used for a country to gain status, but maintaining a position of power requires law and social order in addition to material force. Philosophers have examined two different possible systems of norms: equal norms and diversified norms. The first system is based on the premise that each person or state is equal to each other person or state. The second system, which was embraced by ancient philosophers, is based on differences. Those with more power must undertake more responsibility.

Dr. Yan then went on to discuss leadership. He asserted that while the modern Chinese government focuses on economic conditions as the most important factor in creating a stable society, and scholars in the United States focus on the system, ancient Chinese philosophers focused rather on leadership. Dr. Yan outlined three types of theoretical leadership: human authority, hegemony, and tyranny. Considered to be the highest form of leadership by ancient philosophers, human authority focuses on morality in the use of power. Hegemony, on the other hand, focuses on material power, but also credibility. The worst form of leadership, tyranny, focuses on control through the use of material force.
Philosophers claimed that the type of leadership affects systemic and economic conditions. The international system today has been shaped by the United States as a world leader. If China were to rise to a position of increased importance in the world system, the leadership style pursued would undoubtedly be different, in turn affecting the system as a whole. Dr. Yan predicted that a new generation of Chinese leaders would favor a leadership system somewhere between hegemony and human authority.

Finally, Dr. Yan addressed to what extent these philosophies will affect China's foreign policy in the future. He pointed out that Chinese leaders have begun to make more references to ancient philosophers in their speeches. In response to a question about whether or not China would apply some of the aforementioned theory and use force to gain an initial position of power, Dr. Yan explained that he believes China can not adhere strictly to one system of thought when conducting foreign policy. He later pointed out that Marxism, which is the ruling communist party's main ideology, conflicts with Confucianism in some important ways. This creates difficulties in adapting ancient theories for use in modern China.

 
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