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Missionaries of Humanity: Popular Confucianism in China

Guide the young with virtue, regulate them with rituals, and they will have sense of shame and become upright.
                —Confucius, Analects

In a state where one may not criticize the regime, one learns the art of the unsaid. In China, as in the premodern West, a citizen can complain freely about bad roads or corrupt officials, but it is considered seditious to criticize the form of government. If a citizen does criticize rule by the Communist Party or disobeys the Party’s com­mands, those violations of law will go into her dossier and may affect her career prospects and freedom of movement. But what if you loved your country and harbored a strong conviction that the government’s ideology was doing damage to it? What if, for instance, you believed Chinese state education was damaging the character of its citizens, leaving them with kōng xīn bìng, the disease of an empty heart? What if you believed that ancient Chinese culture, the culture of Confucianism, offered cures for this condition, cures that would make China stronger, better, more humane? In this case, you would have to be careful what you said. You would have to learn the art of the unsaid.

Earlier this year I was invited to a conference on classical education in Hangzhou, organized by the Wenli Academy and the Acca­demia Vivarium Novum in Italy. The conference was to begin on June 7. It was not a coincidence, I learned, that this was also the date of the Dragon Boat Festival, traditionally the first day of China’s col­lege entrance examination, the Gaokao, a test believed to determine a student’s entire future. Each year around ten million Chinese teen­agers sit this notoriously rigorous nine-hour examination. Tens of thousands were in Hangzhou for the exam, many accompanied by their parents. Chinese high schools and private tutors compete to prepare students for the Gaokao, and studying for it is famously a stressful experience for young people that can lead to breakdowns and even suicides. The examination places particular emphasis on mathematics and the sciences, given the state’s goal to produce as many engineers as possible. China graduates three or four times as many engineers as the United States, where the number of degrees in engineering has actually been declining. But is there a human cost when the educational system is so rigidly subordinated to the material goals of the state?

At the conference in Hangzhou, called “The 2019 Global Forum on the Promotion of Humanism through Classical Education,” an entirely different vision of education was offered. It was held in a quiet corner of the lovely West Lake in Hangzhou, far—but not that far—from the fretting crowds of students and parents in the city center. The gathering was the brainchild of two visionaries, Wang Tsaikuei and Luigi Miraglia. Miraglia is descended from a noble Nea­politan family and has devoted his life and fortune to reviving the study of classical Latin, especially spoken Latin. Years ago he found­ed the Accademia Vivarium Novum, named after the ancient monas­tery where the Roman scholar and statesman Cassiodorus strove to keep classical culture alive amid the ruins of the Roman Empire. It has had several sedi, but is currently located in a beautiful villa near Fras­cati, south of Rome. The Accademia now runs programs teaching classical Latin to students from all over the world, including China. Miraglia is a Catholic of the anticlerical Italian kind and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Latin. But his real passion is for humanitas. He understands humanism in the manner of Renaissance literati rather than of modern, anti-religious humanists. For him humanism is a form of literary and moral education that is compatible with reli­gious belief but aims primarily at restoring civility, virtue, and the full humanity of human beings. In doing so, it seeks to rescue them from the damage caused by corrupt forms of state education that try to turn men into machines or products to be bought and sold.

Many of Miraglia’s Chinese students in recent years have come from Wenli Academy, founded by Wang Tsaikuei (or Caigui). Wang was born in Taiwan and became a disciple of the famous New Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan, then a professor at Taiwan’s National University. Foreseeing (as he says) that China was going to become a great country again, he came to the mainland in 1994 with the aim of teaching Confucianism, not to undergraduates in a uni­versity setting, but to ordinary Chinese citizens and young people before their college years. His lectures, popularized through DVD recordings and online videos that have been viewed by millions of Chinese, project the quiet charisma of total conviction.

As documented in a monograph by Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, the last twenty years have seen a remarkable revival of Confucianism across China.1 The phenomenon is a “bottom-up” one, looked on by the authorities with a mixture of suspicion and acquies­cence. Several thousand private academies have been founded to teach Confucian philosophy to ordinary Chinese citizens, from shopkeepers, real estate agents, and office workers to businessmen, doctors, and even a few Party officials. These academies can be small or large. They can consist of a few dozen like-minded people who get together with their children at the back of shops to chant the Analects and hear a lecture, live or video-recorded; or they can be a kind of student club that meets after classes in a public school; or they can be larger groups, hundreds of people meeting in Buddhist or Daoist temples that host resident Confucian teachers. Wang Tsaikuei is an authoritative figure in this movement of popular Confucianism and is often called upon to bestow appropriate names upon the new academies spreading across the country. His own foundation, the Wenli Acad­emy, is one of the nine largest in China and the most prestigious—the “Harvard of Confucianism,” as one of his disciples inevitably de­scribes it to me. But more of the Wenli Academy later.

The Restoration of Classical Education

The conference in West Lake is opened, strategically, by a party offi­cial from the nearby city of Wenzhou who professes his love of Confucianism and the Wenli Academy. He has visited it many times, he says, because there he feels “baptized by five thousand years of Chinese culture.” (Five thousand is the official figure; actual historical records stretch back slightly more than three thousand years.) He praises the goals of classical education and, gesturing to Prof. Mi­raglia, alludes gracefully to Wenzhou’s centuries-long commercial re­lations with Italy.

The tone and theme of the conference is set by the first speaker, Dr. Wang himself, whose students and disciples fill the large hall and applaud after almost every sentence. Dr. Wang talks about the spread of popular Confucianism and claims that it is satisfying a deep long­ing in China for old ideals and values. He does not want to denounce state education, he says, but many people are not satisfied with what is taught in government schools. Confucianism can supplement and perfect what is offered by the state. But the problem of inhumane education in China is a problem found across the world, and that is why he and his friend Luigi Miraglia have organized this conference with representatives from Europe, America, India, Japan, and Korea.

The material achievements of modern times have been great, but the world has suffered losses in the realm of values and ideals. We have lost contact, says Dr. Wang, with our ancient civilizations—the source of our humanity. This happened a hundred years ago in China and India, fifty years ago in Europe. If we are to maintain our hu­manity, the connection with our ancient traditions must be restored, and that requires the deep study of classical languages. Humanity can only be maintained by the humanities. Other animals follow natural instinct, which is why there are no dogities or catities (the younger students in the audience giggle at that), but human beings need the humanities to attain their full human potential. By organizing this conference, he hopes to make common cause with others around the world who feel their cultures have lost contact with humanizing traditions.

At Wenli Academy Dr. Wang promotes the study of classical lan­guages from across the globe, Sanskrit as well as Latin and Greek, the great vehicles of humane wisdom. But he is firm that such study should not come at the expense of “our great Chinese culture.” Truth is universal, and the dao is transparent to the universal reason of man­kind. Heaven and earth do not change, nor does dao and humanitas. But truth comes to us through our civilizations and their traditions, not through disembodied scientific reason. “In education the only important thing is filling human beings with humanity, actualizing their capacity for goodness. Since humanitas remains eternal and immutable, men have had that as their common bond from ancient to modern times, from East to West; through kinship in the humanities human beings are united. It is fitting, therefore, that all humans recog­nize the force of humanity as among the causative principles of nature.”2

Prof. Miraglia then speaks of the need for a new humanism. He speaks in Latin, with simultaneous translation into Chinese offered by a member of the Wenli Academy. A new global alliance among humanistic educators is needed, he claims, to ensure concord among peoples at a time when their leaders seem bent on conflict. True humanism, however, is not global but civilizational, rooted, as Dr. Wang had said, above all in the study of classical languages. Modern humanistic education has become impoverished and unambitious in its goals; it needs to be renewed according to the educational models of the past. Nowadays it is conceived at best as an ornament or as a means of adding to our capacity for intellectual pleasure. But it needs to remember its ancient purpose of knitting together the human community, inculcating moral goodness and restraining selfish indi­vidualism. Miraglia brackets the question of whether there are trans-cendent human ends, citing the Stoic assertion that virtue is its own reward.

As paper succeeds paper I realize that what I am attending is less an academic conference than a congress whose aim is to elaborate the ideals of a movement. The general tone is one of frustration with the manner in which the study of classical languages and ancient ethical teachings have been distorted by the alien norms of modern universities. Modern universities are said to be driven by the desire for ma­terial wealth and status as well as by goals dictated by great power competition. Chinese speakers loyally stop short of criticizing their own university system but try to explain why traditional Confucian values can benefit the civil order of the state. Roger T. Ames, a pro­fessor at Peking University and the greatest living expert on Confucian ethics, explains that Confucian philosophy is about soulcraft; it is a philosophy of education. The civil order of a Confucian society is maintained 70 percent in the family and only 30 percent in the state. He quotes the example of a Confucian official who had been deprived of office and was being mocked as powerless by his rivals. His re­sponse was to say, “I am still ruling in the most important spheres of life: I rule myself, and I rule my family. What do you rule?” Ames leaves unsaid the conclusion that China cannot be ruled without Con­fucianism.

Peng Lin, a professor of classical Chinese at Tsinghua University, China’s leading university, offers yet more eloquent unsaying. Profes­sor Peng is critical of trying to rule people by shouting slogans. (Chinese public spaces are full of hectoring slogans from the state telling citizens how they should behave.) Peng’s view is that traditional Confucian self-cultivation and observance of the rites (li) would be far more effective. Observance of li is the correct Chinese way to elic­it good behavior. A modernized form of ancient Chinese rites, resem­bling a new system of etiquette, should be introduced in schools. It could be further reinforced by adult study of Confucian texts, pref­erably in classical Chinese, and by good music modeled on Confucian principles. Peng mentions Plato and Aristotle as Western authorities who stressed the moral importance of good music. In a more contem­porary vein, Peng argues that true environmentalism that respects animals and the natural world is backed by Confucian teaching. (Xi Jinping has recently been emphasizing sustainability as a goal of Chinese government.) Like other speakers, Peng insists that Confucianism and classical cultures generally are not religions (an interpretation of Confucianism the Party would otherwise condemn) but rather traditions of moral self-cultivation oriented to the present life.

Speakers from other countries are more unbuttoned. Three teachers of Sanskrit are present. Kashinath Nyaupane teaches in the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal, a center for Buddhist studies. He praises the gurukula system of Sanskrit instruction, an ancient Indian form of teaching where the disciples live in their guru’s house and take him for their model. This is meant to be a nurturing ambience where students are treated equally, whatever their social caste, and competition among students is considered a vice and punished. The gurukula system suffered grave damage under British rule and is only now being revived, with positive effects, Nyaupane claims, on the moral life of South Asian peoples. Nevertheless, South Asians foolish­ly continue to subject themselves to Western styles of education, hop­ing thereby to become rich and powerful. Another Sanskritist, Bill Mak, is an ethnic Chinese born in Canada who has been teaching classical Asian languages in Japan but is now relocating to China. An amazing linguist, he knows more than twenty languages, including the four languages of Buddhism (Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan). He has been inspired by Professor Wang’s vision of making China into a center for the study of the world’s classical languages. He often vol­unteers to teach at Wenli Academy in the summer months.

Another Sanskritist drawn to the ancient teaching methods of Wenli Academy is an Italian Buddhist, Mattia Salvini. (He insists on distinguishing himself from another Salvini named Matteo.) Mattia begins his presentation by chanting some Buddhist sutras, a practice he follows in his classes at Mahidol University in Thailand. Despite his own fine academic pedigree (he has a PhD from SOAS in the University of London), he is bitterly hostile to Western methods of teaching Buddhism. These, he believes, are apt to give students a sense of arro­gant superiority to the wisdom of bodhisattvas. He asks: what hap­pens when indigenous traditions of moral self-cultivation that have their own ancient teaching institutions and methods are appropriated by university departments of religion? Nothing good from a moral point of view. Professors murder to dissect. Western norms of academic rigor require a kind of pseudoscientific detachment that inoculates students against receiving spiritual wisdom.

Salvini is opposed to school rankings and educational bureaucracies. They are inimical to teaching methods that have a spiritual pur­pose. The results of traditional education in the lives of students cannot be measured. School rankings only empower educational bureaucrats, armed with intellectually fraudulent “surveys,” to engage in relentless “innovation.” Innovation in practice means global homo­genization (via “best practices”) and the destruction of valuable teach­ing traditions and school customs. Such traditions and customs need to be respected and cultivated where they produce good results in the lives of students. Salvini is also opposed to the practice of writing essays and research papers. Students who want to be imbued with traditional wisdom should memorize classical or sacred texts using ancient techniques of chanting, and study the language of the texts closely with the help of commentaries. Essay writing only teaches students to turn out acceptable slabs of claptrap on any given subject, encouraging a false sense of mastery. The proper attitude of a student in the face of ancient wisdom should be humility and reverence for texts and teachers.

The conference ends with a concert and performances by teenage students from the Wenli Academy, which cultivates updated versions of traditional Chinese arts. These include recitations, singing, yayue (classical Chinese music and dance) and performances on the guqin, a traditional stringed instrument like a zither to which Confucius him­self was supposed to be particularly devoted. During one of the reci­tations, I realize with a start that the text of the catchy tune I’m listening to is an ode of Horace, sung in Latin. Wenli students learned it on a visit to the Accademia Vivarium Novum, and it’s clearly one of their favorites. The students are touchingly idealistic; one announces from the stage after his performance, his smiling face wet with tears, that he wants to learn the classics to make China better and to make the world better. Even if this remark is scripted, as it may well be, the generous sentiment animating it sticks in my mind, contrasting with the destructive hatreds and self-obsession of the activists I’ve read about recently on American campuses.

A Visit to Wenli Academy

A few of the foreign scholars, I among them, have been invited to visit Wenli Academy after the conference. I am eager to accept. I have read some negative accounts of Wenli’s educational method, called dujing (“reciting classics”), and I want to see it in action and decide for myself.

I had been operating under the assumption that Wenli was close by the conference site, but it turned out to be almost four hours away by high-speed train and private van, high in the mountains of Zhejiang Province. Our van climbs up and up, passing through eleven long tunnels, and finally reaches a beautiful region of mountains and lakes. Wenli Academy is located in Zhuli Village within Wenzhou Municipal Government, an autonomous zone of the She ethnic minority, one of China’s fifty-six ethnic minorities. China gets a lot of bad press for its treat­ment of the Uighur minority, but the She seem to be flourishing among the resources bestowed upon them by the state. The effects of lavish state patronage are everywhere to be seen. The town itself looks newly restored, painted white with green and red accents. It is sparklingly clean, and all its wooden buildings are traditional in style. The overall effect is something like a mountain village in Switzerland—Switzerland with Chinese characteristics.

The village headman, who controls the spigots of state funding (I call him “the She who must be obeyed,” but nobody gets the joke), has given Wenli the use of some dignified public buildings in the center of the town. Being based in the She Autonomous County, I gather—nobody will say this explicitly—protects the Academy from closer state supervision. Tucked away from the town center is an­other, more modern set of buildings, the home of Wenli’s International School, which appears to be almost entirely empty. This is not too surprising given China’s penchant for build-it-and-they-will-come planning, but I have the suspicion that Wenli Academy’s tenu­ous accreditation as a language institute has something to do with this structure. No one will say that I am right (or wrong), however.

Departing from the quasi-Swiss theme, we stay in a kind of ryokan designed by a local architect who adores Japanese domestic architecture. This inn is complete with Japanese-style bedrooms, a ground floor open to the garden, running water, a koi pond, decorative moss, and wabi stone sculptures. In the late morning on the day after our trip, we are presented to the students in the school and called upon to give impromptu speeches. The students, all between the ages of thir­teen and eighteen, are dressed in traditional Chinese student gowns. They teach us how to perform the ritual bow of Confucian scholars (left hand over right for men, right over left for women). The session is supposed to last two hours, but the students ask so many questions that it goes on for over three. They have been up since 4:30 a.m., we’re told, and have been reciting classical texts for hours before our interview with them. They have also had a lecture from Professor Wang on the Confucian texts they’ve been reciting. After our session the students will eat lunch and will then have the long afternoon entirely free for sports, martial arts, music, artistic activities, or read­ing—whatever they choose to do, for there’s no homework in dujing education. (The library is the only place they are allowed to go online, although many prefer books.) Then a light dinner and an early bed­time.

In my impromptu remarks I praise the students for their devotion to the ancient Chinese language and the wisdom of its sages. The work they are doing to master Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek is also vital, I opine, to China’s future. In my visits to many of China’s finest universities, I have noticed this as a real weakness in its humanities education: Chinese students learn English well and sometimes a few other modern languages but have little or no exposure to the classical languages of Europe, the Islamic world, or South Asia. To understand these cultures at a deep level, knowledge of their ancient tongues is required. I liken what they are doing to the project of humanist literati in the European Renaissance: reviving the study of ancient languages and restoring the moral and intellectual standards of ancient culture. Like the scholars of Wenli Academy, the humanists of the Renaissance were eager to acquire knowledge of other classical lan­guages besides Latin, including Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. When I come to see them at Wenli Academy, I sense I have entered a Renais­sance classroom (which in fact is true), so great is the love of study and ancient traditions I feel among them.

During Q and A the students have many questions about intellectual history, which reveal close study of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization (eleven volumes, 1935–75). As a scholar I find this rather appalling, but the Durants’ post-socialist idealistic humanism is clearly well suited to this environment. Uppermost in the students’ minds are questions about why the West discovered “science” first—was it because of Western educational methods?—and why Chinese and Western governments decided that traditional education and cul­ture was inimical to progress and innovation. Good questions, but not ones that can be addressed quickly.

Towards sunset Professor Wang takes us higher up into the moun­tains, to the future site of Wenli Academy, a new foundation he has dreamt of for many years. He loves this spot. It consists of a kind of broad shelf below a mountain peak with a 270 degree panoramic view over the mountains and a lake in the middle distance below. Wang tells us that he visited eighty mountains in China looking for the perfect site before he found this one, mountain number eighty-one, a number significant in feng shui. The site has already been cleared by bulldozers and a fifty-foot-high stone stele installed at its center, resting on a base weighing forty-five tons. It bears a sixteen-character inscription written by Professor Wang (and modeled on his beautiful Chinese script), encapsulating his educational ideals. We are shown accounts of the fundraising for this new institution, to be built in the ancient Chinese style and modeled on the Confucian shuyuan of imperial China. Professor Wang has already raised the equivalent of thirty million dollars to build the new academy, mostly from small donations. Returning from the mountaintop we are taken for a boat ride on the lake below, now silent and in darkness, where Professor Wang sings poems from the Tang dynasty. It is a magical experience.

So what did I conclude, pro et contra, of dujing education at the Wenli Academy? I was not able to witness any actual recitations of Confucian texts in the classroom, though plenty of videos of its classroom practice, no doubt carefully edited, are available online. Critics of dujing say that it consists of mere rote learning, without cognitive benefit, and that it may actually retard a student’s intellectual development. Students as young as five begin memorizing classical texts (usually the Odes, the Five Classics, and the Four Books of traditional Confucian education) in local schools. Rumors have circu­lated that younger students are sometimes punished with a bamboo ferule for poor performance. Younger Chinese are shocked by this (though many Americans my age remember holding out our hands to be smacked by the teacher’s ruler and living to tell the tale).

To be considered for admission to Wenli, applicants have to present videos of themselves reciting three hundred thousand charac­ters from a Chinese classic without stopping and without making mistakes. That is equivalent to memorizing a book in English of roughly 250 pages. Before the age of thirteen, memorization is not accompanied by any explanation or commentary, so students often have no idea of the meaning of what they are memorizing. After years of memorizing Chinese classics, some complain, students are left without practical skills or qualifications for future employment. If they want to take the gaokao, they will have to drop out of Reciting Classics programs and hire tutors to help them cram, but the deck will be stacked against them.

Some of the older students I spoke to at Wenli were plainly wor­ried about getting into college and their future career prospects. A few asked me wistfully whether they could get into Harvard with a background in Reciting Classics. A number were planning to skip the gaokao and apply to less selective U.S. colleges with flexible entrance requirements, or to go directly to work in family businesses. Yet no one I spoke to thought their education was without value. They accepted Dr. Wang’s view that what they were doing would have positive moral effects on their whole lives and would make China a better country. They also thought that dujing had given them much greater discipline and powers of concentration and memorization than most of their hometown friends stuck in poor state schools. These are qualities prized in Chinese education. They were skeptical of the value of early education in state schools, though they agreed that Chinese high schools offered the best and most economical way to prepare for the gaokao. State high schools charge on average about $86 a year for tuition and materials, whereas Wenli now charges almost $5,000 per year—a colossal sum to pay for a high school edu­cation in China.

Dr. Yang Mei, headmistress of Wenli International School, has elaborated the school’s educational theory in a number of books and videos, and travels the globe each year to spread its philosophy and methods, primarily among overseas Chinese who want their children to learn classical Chinese and traditional Chinese culture. She is an impressive figure with her own quiet authority, and the mother of the adorable Maya, who at fourteen years old already knows classical Chinese, English, Latin, and Greek. Dr. Yang has a carefully considered answer to the criticisms of dujing education. In her opinion state education in China is a moral desert; she treasures C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man as a penetrating diagnosis of all that is wrong with modern education. To lose contact with the classics is to lose contact with dao, and the world needs to reestablish a sense of moral order. Methodologically, Western elementary and middle schools place too little emphasis on learning languages and memorization and too much on so-called critical thought, which inevitably amounts to making students replicate the opinions of their teachers. The West has educa­tion exactly backwards: it tries to educe sagely wisdom from children before they are even fully literate. Young children are naturally suited to memorization and learning languages, and that brief period in their lives should not be wasted. Teenagers should master texts and disci­plines and should not be encouraged to be “creative” without knowledge of the traditions and arts inherited from the past. It’s obvious to her that one can’t be creative with an empty head.

As a former classicist familiar with similar educational methods used in Renaissance classrooms, I find myself having considerable sympathy with the views of both doctors, Wang and Yang. Surely a school like Wenli provides something valuable for many students and as such should be encouraged. I am persuaded most of all by meeting the students, who seem remarkably contented, well-spoken, and well-behaved. Parents, too, seem pleased with the school’s steadying effect on their children’s character. Dr. Wang says that this is no accident: to carry the classics around inside them is a priceless foundation for a student’s later life. “When we read the classics, we are not just follow­ing in the footsteps of our ancestors; rather, those sages awaken the light which is in everyone. Dujing uses light to bring out more light, therefore humanity to bring out more humanity.” The goal of reading classics is for a child to become “a gentle, honest, and sincere young person with noble character, and a decent, loving, and diligent adult with graceful temperament and consideration of others in society.”

Dr. Yang adds, “Reading classics is like climbing a mountain. Compared to some other kinds of study, it can be tedious and demanding. However, the classic books you read are great books, and when you get to the mountaintop, the vision you attain, your human horizons, are totally transformed.” Sounding for all the world like a Renaissance humanist, she continues, “Classics education is like invit­ing the best teachers—Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus—to accompany these children throughout their lives.” Students can only be transformed for the better by their study of the best human civilization has to offer, Greek and Roman, Chinese and Indian. “After reading these classics one by one, our children’s broadness of spirit will gradually expand. Such education should guide our times and the morality of our society.”

Educating the Prince

One question that remains in my mind has to remain unspoken within China, as a frank answer might be compromising. What is the attitude of Party authorities towards Wenli’s brand of classical educa­tion? What will happen to it if it becomes a little too famous and successful? Private school education in China has been expanding rapidly in the last two decades, and it was reported recently in Forbes magazine that private high schools will train a record 12.8 percent of Chinese high school students by 2020. At the same time, the CPC’s attitude to private education is becoming less laissez-faire. Will popu­lar Confucian education be restricted or suppressed by the still offi­cially Marxist state? Or will it perhaps be successful in transforming the next generations of China’s rulers? Can Confucian ideals reform even the Communist Party? It is impossible to say, but the state has officially endorsed Confucian moral and civic ideals for over thirty years, and they are now taught in all state middle schools and even in vocational schools. Confucius is the public face of China abroad in its Confucian Institutes. It would be an awkward business to restrict Confucian influence in the way the Party now tries to regulate the practice of Islam and Christianity.

For thirty years the West believed that helping to increase China’s wealth would make it more liberal and democratic—more like us. As many now realize, this has turned out to be a huge miscalculation. What China has in fact done with its new wealth and pilfered tech­nology has been to solidify, by any means necessary, the oligarchic power of its ruling Communist elite. (The top ten richest Chinese lawmakers, according to Stewart Paterson’s recent book, are estimated to have a combined personal wealth of $185 billion, more than one hundred times the wealth of the top ten legislators in the U.S. Congress.3) Perhaps the West has made an equal miscalculation about the direction from which political reform would likely emerge in China. Perhaps, when it comes—and it will—it may not after all begin among urban elites in coastal cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou who imitate the morally corrupt individualism of the West. Perhaps it will come instead from healthier springs, flowing down from the mountaintops of its own ancient culture.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 4 (Winter 2019): 185–98.


1 Sébastien Billioud and Joël Toraval, The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

2 I translate from a Latin summary supplied to me by Junyang Ng.

3 Stewart Paterson, China, Trade and Power: Why the West’s Economic Engagement Has Failed (London: London Publishing Partnership, 2018), 137.

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