From Confucianism to Communism
Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: the Problem of Intellectual Continuity.
by Joseph R. Levenson.
University of California Press. 223 pp. $4.00.


It Is most unusual in these days to encounter a book written by a specialist and primarily for specialists, yet which has at the same time so large a theme and so wide-ranging a grasp of comparative values as to be of nearly equal interest to the amateur. Professor Levenson’s book on Confucianism in modern China falls in this rare category—and it is unashamedly as an outsider, deeply concerned with the history of ideas but without special competence in Far Eastern studies, that I am reviewing it.

For all its brevity and the strict analytic manner of its presentation, Professor Levenson’s book deals with one of the great central issues of our time—how “the Confucian tradition, transformed and abandoned, has led directly to the Communist version of Chinese change of mind, not by preserving itself immanent in Communist doctrine, but by failing in self-preservation, leaving its heirs bereft and potentially strange in their own land, and thus commending that latest doctrine as an answer to a need.” It traces the twisting, involuted story of the inability of a purely literary and artistic culture to adjust to the contemporary world—each successive accommodation proving itself inadequate until finally only Communism is left. It is thus an account of the “modern fate” not only of the Confucian ideal underlying traditional Chinese society, but of the class that considered itself the incarnation of that ideal, the literati-bureaucrats, amateurs alike in administration and with the paintbrush, who saw no incompatibility between their lofty role as governors and their still higher function as gentlemen-scholars disdainful of the practical arts.

This brief sketch should be enough to suggest that Professor Levenson’s consideration of ideas is firmly anchored in social analysis. “If . . . one interprets intellectual history as a history not ‘of thought,’ but of men thinking, one will not see a bloodless Confucianism . . . [and] . . . a similarly abstract Communism, but Confucian generations giving way, living, feeling, and easing the strains.” This notion of successive generations, each with its particular intellectual problems, is one of the two great strengths of Professor Levenson’s book: it gives concreteness and human actuality to material ordinarily treated as a linguistic or philosophical exercise. The second notable feature is more subtle—a range of comparative reference and of sensitivity to non-Chinese cultural concerns that constantly opens vistas of understanding to those unlearned in Far Eastern matters.

Just as Professor Levenson’s sociological buttressing of his intellectual analysis gives the outsider some notion of what he is talking about in the more recondite sections of his book, so his comparative references enable us to situate Confucian thought within our own reach. When he cites a philosopher like Whitehead or a whole series of contemporary Western aestheticians, we begin to feel ourselves on firm ground. The same is true of his treatment of Chinese painting. Originally this latter may strike the reader as strained or inappropriately lugged in: its relevance may only gradually become apparent. As I see it, Professor Levenson is trying to suggest that Chinese classical literature and painting are complementary manifestations of the same tradition; we cannot fully understand the ideas without at the same time paying attention to their plastic embodiment. And this comparative concern for painting has an inestimable advantage for the non-specialist. A reader (like myself) for whom the Chinese classics are unknown and impenetrable has at least some notion of the values implicit in Chinese art and decoration.

Thus I think Professor Levenson has triumphantly solved his peculiarly difficult problems of method and presentation. I could cavil at a few matters of detail: the form of loosely joined essays that he has adopted makes for both gaps and overlappings in the chronological sequence, and presupposes a detailed knowledge of Chinese history that can be true of only a minority of his readers. But this question pales to insignificance before the really central issue—has he “proved” his point about the logical succession of Communism to Confucianism as the dominant value-system within Chinese society?



From chapter to chapter this theme—which is only glancingly suggested at the start—becomes ever more explicit and insistent. First we have the comparison between the European “invaders” of the 17th century, when Chinese society was still stable, the Jesuit fathers who “gave their actions a Chinese cast and tried . . . to accommodate their own ideas to Chinese civilization,” and the 19th-century diplomats, traders, and military men, who no longer dreamed of such accommodation. This time it was the Chinese rather than the Europeans who had to make the adjustments. And hence Professor Levenson’s second task is to trace the record of these successive concessions. Each in turn, he finds, proved pitiably inadequate. From the eclecticism of those who tried to merge the conflicting Confucian schools into one solid mass of resistance, through the compromisers who preached the synthesis of Chinese “essence” with Western “utility,” to the reformers who looked to a Chinese “Luther” to modernize the Confucian tradition—all failed to appreciate the radical incompatibility between the two competing value systems. And the same was true of the nationalist founders of the 20th-century Chinese republic: to make of China a nation like any other was to destroy the central Confucian understanding of civil society—it meant reducing China from a world in itself to a mere “unit in the world.” Hence the nationalist faith of men like Chiang Kai-shek could not offer a “final resting place” but rather “a doctrine with increasingly obvious internal tensions” whose “relativism” and “Romanticism” provided no unequivocal guide either to the past or to the future.

And so Professor Levenson leads us to the reception of Communism by the Chinese intelligentsia. Communism, he finds, alone provided a satisfactory escape from the dilemma with which the educated Chinese had been struggling for nearly a century: “The very Western origin of the Communist call to revolt, instead of putting a psychological hurdle in the way of Chinese acceptance, smoothed the path, for it guaranteed that the pre-Communist West, the West which had impinged on China, was as firmly rejected by its own critics as by the most hidebound Chinese traditionalist. A Chinese who wishes to be confident, then, of the equivalence of China and the West need not fall back on a desperate traditionalism, since anti-traditionalism, under Communist aegis, would serve his purpose. Instead of being the laggard, following in Western footsteps, a Communist China, with Russia, could seem at the head of the queue.”

This argument I, for one, find enormously persuasive. At points it may be too neat: it skirts close to a kind of historical determinism in its deft elimination of all competing solutions. But this is no more than the danger that confronts any satisfactory historical explanation. After all, the historian knows the outcome—he is dealing not only with hypothetical possibilities but with what in fact occurred, and the fact of that occurrence weights his whole account in one clear direction.

Hence implicit in Professor Levenson’s analysis is the conviction that Communism has come to China to stay. This assumption—which for a number of years has characterized nearly all professionally competent writing on contemporary China—has only just begun to penetrate the wider strata of the American reading public. At a high intellectual level, books like Professor Levenson’s cannot fail to further this process of gradual comprehension. One should note, however, a final and most important reservation. Unlike certain European scholars, Professor Levenson firmly rejects the notion that Communism is the lineal heir of the Confucian tradition. Again and again he argues that the great change in China has come as a radical break, not through traditionalist continuity. “The old saw about China’s absorbing everything should be buried once and for all.”

In this last respect, the relevance of Professor Levenson’s book extends far beyond the sphere of Asian or Chinese concerns. The “problem of intellectual continuity” with which he is dealing has an application to Europe, to Latin America, and even to a country like our own, in which the last generation has experienced so revolutionary a change in cultural values. As an explanation of how a sharp break in a long-accepted tradition can come about, Professor Levenson’s work offers a stinging challenge to those historians who view the past almost exclusively in terms of imperceptible transformations and stable continuities.



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