plus a testimonial
Our last episode presented Tong Zhiwei’s legal opinion on the Shanghai lockdown. On posting, a response came in from Jerome Cohen, a testimonial for Professor Tong reprinted here with his approval:
I have had the pleasure of knowing Professor Tong for over twenty years and think I once wrote a preface for one of his books. He has been a courageous pioneer in the effort to develop constitutional principles that could bring about government under law in the PRC. He is also a personally admirable human being who as a legal educator and administrator has contributed much to society.
Jerry Cohen is a name to reckon with in the study of law in China. Rather than attempting a summary, his Wikipedia page is eye-opening. We’ll get back to the current crisis in Beijing soon—it’s not about to go away, it seems. For now we’ll delve a little more into classical ‘cultural’ matters.
Liang Shuming against prigs
a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others.
"she was religious but not a prig"
Those who do not enjoy Malvolio would reduce him to a conventional killjoy, a scapegoat who deserves to be held up to ridicule because of his officious humourlessness. There would be a need to expose Malvolio if he pretended to be something he is not, but he never puts on a false manner; his absurdity is native and his egotism so openly displayed that even Olivia, who appreciates his talents, very early accuses him of being ungenerous and "sick of self-love". Incapable of hypocrisy or sanctimony, he is genuinely outraged by Toby's revelries, which offend his sense of propriety and defy his authority. He is a prig with an instinct for grandeur that at once muddles his statements and endows them with an ineffable grandiosity.
Rabindranath Tagore and Liang Shuming
In 1924, The celebrated Bengali literatus Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), then visiting China, held a dialogue with the Chinese philosopher and social reformer Liang Shuming (梁漱溟 1892-1988).
Liang offered the following exposition of Confucianism:
It is correct that Confucianism is not a religion, but Confucius’ principles were not exclusively ethical norms. Ethical norms belong to what is social. The Lun Yu [Analects of Confucius] says, ‘When I was five my heart was set on learning; when I was thirty I stood up; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the decrees of Heaven; at sixty I was obedient to them; at seventy, I could follow my heart’s delight without transgressing.’
We can see that these varying stages are references by Confucius to his life, though we don’t completely grasp the details. And it’s not about society at all.
Another example: Confucius praised his disciple Yan Hui for two things: ‘…he did not transfer his anger, nor transfer a fault.’ These both point to matters of the individual person, and say nothing about externals.
No matter whether in his own studies or in teaching others, Confucius’ point of emphasis is surely clear. How can we see envisage simply in terms of crude externalities like ethical norms? This is the first point.
As for the second, Confucius did not at all times invariably demand order and stability and striking the Mean. See where he says, ‘since I cannot get men pursuing the due medium to whom I might communicate my instructions, I must find the ardent and the cautiously-decided. The ardent will advance and lay hold of the truth; the cautiously-decided will keep themselves from what is wrong.’
The ‘ardent’ have strong wills, are violent and unconcerned with externalities. The ‘cautiously-decided’ are honest and straightforward: there are some things they will not do, but inwardly they are quite earnest. Both may seem somewhat one-sided, mutually opposed, and out of accord.
Yet Confucius finds value in this, as the least of all evils when the Mean is unattainable. What makes it acceptable is that the living truth emerges, without prevarication or forcing. Actually, what Confucius hated most of all was hypocrisy.
For instance, he said, ‘The xiangyuan is the thief of virtue,’ and also, ‘Those who pass my gate but do not enter my house cause me no regret, they are such xiangyuan.”
What is the meaning of xiangyuan? He is one who lacks true strength in his own life, but makes the right responses in all directions socially so that everyone thinks he is a good person. Mencius pointed this out very clearly, saying, “If you would blame them you find nothing to allege, if you would criticize them you have nothing to criticize. They agree with the current customs. They consent with an impure age, their principles have a semblance of righteousness and sincerity. Their conduct has a semblance of disinterest and purity. All men are pleased with them, and they think themselves right, so that it is impossible to proceed with them to the principles of Yao and Shun.”
This is someone who is seemingly impeccable from an external point of view, but who lacks inward truth. Although the “ardent” and the “cautiously-decided” are one-sided, and one-sidedness is not a good thing, yet the truth within them is good. This is the true spirit, the true attitude of Confucius and Mencius.
Tagore responded enthusiastically, saying that now, hearing the true meaning of Confucianism for the first time, his understanding was heartfelt.
Some points worth noting: Liang’s willing concession that Confucianism was not a religion among religions was no idle comment. His strategy here is delicately to make the issue hinge entirely on spirituality, seen as an attribute of humanity’s subjective inwardness. He then argues that the Confucian tradition embodies a spirituality whose main feature is an inner truthfulness, set squarely against hypocritical worldliness.
Very often the maxim of Shakespeare’s Polonius, “to thine own self be true,” may be taken over directly as a paraphrase for the doctrine to which Liang makes reference. This is the doctrine of sincerity, beloved motif of this Substack
Confucianism’s major offence to Chinese philosophers like Deng Xiaomang (see ‘Cats and Dogs’, episode 17, 15 March 2022) was its systematic recourse to ethical apriorism, to the assumption of a fixed set of rights and wrongs, especially as regards the regulation of social conduct.
Yet as we have seen, Liang Shuming was (at least by 1924) able to dissociate himself from such a view of Confucianism. His statement that the xiangyuan is one who does not have “the true strength of his own life” is highly revealing, not only of his mode of reinterpreting Chinese intellectual traditions, but of the common ground shared with a dissenters from Confucianism like Tan Sitong. Liang’s remark picks up a statement made previously by Tagore, namely that religion is rooted in ‘life.’ Liang, as noted, deflects the subject from religion to spirituality, and focuses on what we have termed ’sincerity’ as the centre of Chinese spirituality.
In adducing the classical writings of Confucius and Mencius, Liang uses a number of expressions—’the living truth,’ ‘the true strength of one’s own life’”, ‘the truth within’—to describe this spiritual quality. It is worth noting that these expressions and their interpretative use draw heavily on certain Western writers, particularly Bergson and Eucken, to whom Liang had already turned for support in his book Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies.
I wrote the above long ago, but only recently stumbled on the concept of prigs and priggishness (see above). The word, as a Google search will show, is in use, though not much in the last century. It feels like and is something out of Dickens—Martin Chuzzlewit features a horrific Betsy Prig—so I had a vague image of what it meant. But Liang’s discussion of the xiangyuan, and Confucius’ detestation of them, suddenly rang a loud bell. A xiangyuan is surely a prig, though he/she may also be something else as well.
Just bear that in mind for now, good subscriber. We’ll be putting it to work.