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Can China Think?

Anne Cheng

Can China Think?

Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 11 December 2008

Anne Cheng
Traduction de Sean Moores

Texte intégral

  • 1 The title of this lecture, La Chine pense-t-elle ? [Can China think?] is an allusion to Guy Bugault (...)

1Dear Administrator,
Dear Colleagues, Dear Friends1,

  • 2 Quoted by Simon Leys (alias Pierre Ryckmans) in Le Bonheur des petits poissons. Lettres des antipod (...)

2“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.” This is how Samuel Butler, the author of The Way of all Flesh2 saw things, and how I myself perceive my own life right now.

3I was born of Chinese parents in post-war France, at a moment when the country was busy rebuilding itself and trying to turn its back on colonialism, and grew up during the Cold War period. My childhood and youth were marked by my parents’ separation, with my father staying in France (with the success everyone knows of) and my mother returning to China, which was completely cut off from the rest of the world at the time, only to be caught up in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. However, school in the French Republic enabled me to receive a full education, from nursery school right up to the École normale supérieure, nourished by classical and European humanities, and critical reflexion.

4Ever since then, it was crucial for me to know how to transform a somewhat uncomfortable, and even painful, situation, in which one is forever seen as being “another”, into an experience capable of giving greater value to this twofold affiliation of mine (I prefer the term “affiliation” to “identity”, which I realized very early on is really just a non-issue). I was able to carry this out thanks to teaching and research on the intellectual history of China, which for the last twenty-five years has enabled me to maintain close contact with colleagues and students not only in France but also elsewhere, in Europe, China and America. For me, China has never been, and can never be, merely an object of study or curiosity; it is a concrete and living reality which I have espoused in the most literal of manners.

5As if my uneasiness were not enough like that, I have never felt completely comfortable with the way our sinology departments separate ancient and modern China, since my study and use of classical texts only has meaning in the way I live my relationship with the current fate of China. My colleagues have seen for themselves my going back and forth, in a suspicious-looking manner, between the classicist and the modernist tribes, both of which inhabit completely different spheres and have relatively little contact with each other. Born between two worlds, my life has thus been a succession of opposites, a movement between separate worlds, however close or far away they may be; a perpetual coming and going, just like a boatman tirelessly connecting two riverbanks, which are sufficiently far apart to need his intervention, but not to the point of making it impossible to go between one and the other.


6Paying tribute to one’s teachers and acknowledging just how much one is indebted to them is a rite that I willingly perform, inasmuch as it is both eminently Confucian and universally salutary to do so. In France we have a tradition of sinology going back at least two centuries. We could even assert that sinology was a French invention, producing a number of exceptional personalities such as, to mention only a few names who left their mark on the first half of the twentieth century: Édouard Chavannes, considered the father of modern sinology; Paul Pelliot, the great scholar who was recently the subject of a symposium right here at the Collège de France, Marcel Granet, whose sociological method inspired by Durkheim and Mauss was an important milestone, and Henri Maspero, who gave a decisive impetus to Taoist studies.

  • 3 An allusion to Léon Vandermeersch’s magnum opus, Wangdao ou La Voie royale : Recherches sur l’espri (...)

7Paul Demiéville who, in 1946, succeeded Henri Maspero (who had died in Buchenwald) at the Chair of Chinese Language and Literature at the Collège de France, and who instructed our post-war teachers, was a distinguished representative of humanist and encyclopaedic sinology implicitly inspired by Greco-Roman classical scholarship. Sinologists here in France in fact had a background of classical humanities, and were more often than not themselves the sons of eminent classicists. Amongst those who meant the most for my own education, and here I can name only the very first ones, I would like to mention in particular Jacques Gernet, who was and will always be more than just a teacher for me; he who not only gave me inspiration and guidance but also had confidence in me and encouraged me to become independent. What’s more, it was almost natural that sixteen years after him, and with a difference of only one word in its title, I inherited his Chair here at the Collège de France. I also had the great privilege of studying under Léon Vandermeersch, who has always given me his unfailing support and shown me the “royal way”3 connecting antiquity to modernity. Finally, along with a number of my fellow students at the École pratique des hautes études, I studied under Jean-Pierre Diény the demanding discipline of the critical appraisal of ancient texts. All of these teachers were peers with Chinese and Japanese scholars, who themselves had received a traditional education in which philological and textual expertise were of paramount importance. This was true also of other teachers that I had the privilege of having elsewhere, such as Michael Loewe, the great historian of the Han Dynasty at Cambridge University, and Zhu Weizheng, the eminent specialist of “canonical studies” (jingxue) at Fudan University in Shanghai.

  • 4 See Pierre-Étienne Will’s inaugural lecture, Collège de France, 1992, p. 33.

8In his own 1992 inaugural lecture of the Chair of Modern Chinese History, Pierre-Etienne Will, whose idea it was to present my candidature and who tenaciously maintained his support of it (even when faced with my own personal reluctance), echoed the new spirit of human sciences by emphasising the fact that a chair of the general history of China was no longer imaginable, and that it was becoming increasingly necessary to leave behind a certain type of “sinological chauvinism”, as well as the “old tradition-modernisation paradigm4”. Though working on very different material, I most wholeheartedly agree with such an idea.


9Now that we have well and truly embarked upon the twenty-first century, we are faced with an increasingly paradoxical situation: whereas China has changed, right before our eyes, and continues to do so at an astonishing speed, especially in the sense of its opening up to the world (or, rather, to globalization), there continues to be a worryingly high level of ignorance (or, what is even worse, preconceived ideas) amongst our fellow citizens, including our elites, when it comes to China and Chinese culture. Certain media, even the most prominent ones, still don’t seem to know that in China (and in a number of other Asian countries) surnames come before forenames; and this has led to, for example, references to Mr. Ping or even Mr. Xiaoping, when it should be Mr. Deng Xiaoping. On a different note, the “spirituality” or “well-being” sections of our bookshops are always full of books on “Chinese wisdom”, which continue to keep alive the most hackneyed clichés about an eternal, smooth and consensual China, floating in a mythical “elsewhere”, or like some frozen ahistorical picture.

10Finding a solution for this ignorance, but also, and especially, making China part of our fellow citizens’ general culture, is without doubt a mission of public utility that we can legitimately propose to fulfil here at the Collège de France. However, what a most difficult mission it is, since, unlike our colleagues working on subjects closer home to Europe, we sinologists still have to establish a basic amount of knowledge on China before being able to think of going any further. If I talk to you about Confucius, Laozi or the I Ching —the usual winning trio, more or less in this (dis)order—, then you will know, or at least think you know, what I am talking about. However, as soon as I mention Zhu Xi or Wang Yangming, these names won’t mean anything to non-specialists, even though they were just as important in China and East Asia in general as Thomas Aquinas and Luther were in Europe.


11Needless to say, it is not I, as an individual, who am called upon to hold this Chair; but rather an entire discipline of contemporary knowledge, and all that this implies in terms of research and collective initiatives. French sinology today can proudly boast to be a true “community of scholars”, with researchers of great quality, including the young generation, whose abilities in their respective specialities often go far beyond my own; all the more reason, then, to ask them to help give life to this chair in a truly collegial spirit! This is because, once again, I see my role as being that of someone passing from one side to another; but this time in the sense used in collective sports to describe the person who passes the ball to a better-placed teammate to score. We live in a formidable age, in which we are able to be extremely specialised in our own domains while at the same time having the possibility of drawing on the intellectual resources and questioning of other disciplines. The romantic attitude of the solitary genius or philosophical hero is not really plausible any more, when we see just how diverse and specialised social-science disciplines are.

12It is also no longer plausible due to the fact that China’s historical evolution this last century or so, and especially ever since it turned its back on Maoism at the end of the 1970s, makes it necessary for us to be increasingly participative observers, as anthropologists would say. We can no longer look upon China from a distance (be it due to fear, contempt or even admiration) and subjectively construe it in a quintessential manner. In many ways, we still rely upon ideas which were formed three centuries ago during the Enlightenment period, and which are neither enlightened nor enlightening any more. It is impossible not to be struck by just how contradictory and persistent representations are today: how can we conciliate on the one hand the image so dear to Voltaire of a rationalistic, atheistic and aesthetic “philosophical China”, the pinnacle of civilization and universality and, on the other, that, à la Montesquieu, of a Machiavellian, cruel and brutal China, a product of “oriental despotism”? We most probably have to accept to observe and listen from closer by and thus give up rash generalization, however enticing and convenient it may be. All said and done, it is probably such culturalist distancing that makes us see China as a sort of monochromatic forest, whereas we are so prompt to grasp even the slightest nuance of colour of the most insignificant leaf when it comes to a culture which is more familiar to us.

13During the half century which has gone by since the end of the Second World War, it is not only sinology and its relationship with other disciplines which have changed, but also China and its place in the world. As a result of their involvement in Asian issues during that war, the Americans were the first to realize that China could no longer be considered as an exotic and fascinating “Other”, and that it was necessary to take it truly into account when building the future of the world: first as an ideological enemy to be beaten and then, more recently, as an economic partner (and competitor). Since the 1950s, benefitting from the United States’ hegemonic position following the war, their elite’s realisation of the importance of the Asia-Pacific region and the power of their university and publishing system, American sinology has developed in an unprecedented manner. Ever since China turned away from Maoism and started opening up to the world in the 1980s, we could say that a bridge or, rather, a highway, over the Pacific Ocean has enabled a continuous flow of Chinese or American-born Chinese academics. Many of them have already become an integral part of the American academic world, thereby establishing dialogue in real time between two worlds, which, ever since the end of the Cold War, have ceased to face each other with animosity. There is hardly a university or college in the United States which does not have at least one section dedicated to the study of China or East Asia, and a number of our American colleagues teach in history or philosophy departments which are not specifically related to Asia. It is therefore hardly surprising to see that European sinology (and French sinology in particular), brushed aside by this new centre of gravity, finds it somewhat difficult to survive; when more and more of its researchers are attracted by universities on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, or adopt American modes of questioning or intellectual models; and not counting the fact that publishing in English has become almost obligatory now in Europe.


14For its part, China no longer wishes just compliantly to stay put and be a mere object of study. It has started to play an active role in our debates, for the simple reason that for the last thirty years or so (in other words, since a generation ago) it has worked hard to assimilate everything that has been produced by western human sciences, and has recently started to lay a claim upon its own intellectual and cultural tradition, starting with what is hidden underground. Archaeological discoveries in China which, paradoxically, started when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, are comparable, in terms of their reach and the consequences on our vision of Chinese antiquity, to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls: while confirming the authenticity of certain traditional sources, they totally change conceptions handed down to us, and which we have tended to take for granted.

15Ever since the end of the Maoist period, Chinese intellectuals have devoured everything new coming from the western academic world, particularly North America; and Chinese intellectual elites have ironically taken in “French theory” (i.e. Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida etc.) thanks to its being in vogue in the social sciences in America. As a result, there has been a succession of various different “fevers” which have marked the last few decades: cultural, Weberian, pragmatist, structuralist, deconstructivist, postmodernist and so on.

16Since the beginning of the new millennium, another fever has taken hold of the Chinese intellectual world: the revival of tradition and “national learning” (guoxue). China intends to actively reclaim its past, and is already asserting itself in this regard. We can therefore not ignore its point of view, even though, I hasten to say, it would be wrong of us to think that contemporary Chinese are by essence better placed or more authorized than we are when it comes to appraising their own tradition, having been cut off from it by the ruptures of modernity and a century of wars and revolutions. When they are not influenced by Western interpretations which they sometimes unconsciously internalize in the well-known process of self-orientalization, they seem to fall under the effect of theories which are more often than not culturalist; while at the same time thinking that they can claim to possess the truth, due to their “authentic”, not to say genetic, origin. We must therefore remain wary about the conditions and purposes of this reclaiming process, which is taking place in a very explosive ideological context: the desire to avenge humiliation and alienation endured for more than a century and a half, and the exaltation concerning what is seen as the rise of China in the new globalized context. Of course, debate and research run the risk of being speciously influenced by such issues, of which we should be fully aware so as not to be misled. However, when they are original and innovative, it is just as important to take them into account.

17Finally, let us not forget that all of this is taking place in the context of technological globalization. The highway I have just mentioned connecting the United States and China is also the highway of information: the globalized context in which we are currently living pushed us towards more diversity, more mobility, more reactivity, ever more quickly. Thanks to internet which, incidentally, the Chinese use much more extensively and intensively than we do, there is nowadays access to a potentially illimited amount of information, which can go from one end of the world to the other in real-time, and requires of us constant alertness and a tremendous ability of absorption and reactivity. Changes in contemporary Chinese reality perfectly reflect this unprecedented speed, which in turn imposes a frantic rhythm upon sinological research. It is therefore understandable that researchers of the new generation call for a renewal of sinology, spurred on by fieldwork, international contacts and interdisciplinary approaches.


  • 5 Cf. Zhuzi yulei, Zhonghua shuju, Beijing, 1986, vol. 6, chap. 80, p. 2091.

18While being fully aware of this new state of affairs, I would nevertheless like to be the advocate, if not of slowness, then at least of the time needed for understanding, reflection and maturation; as opposed to the urgency and instantaneousness of information. Our basic work needs to begin not only by reading texts, but also with the patience to listen to them and become familiar with them, enabling what I would call “musical listening”. Inasmuch as we make an effort to educate, train and perfect our ear, so as to listen to what texts and their authors have to say in their own language and context, we may end up understanding the music that is theirs. However, nobody has ever claimed that this is an easy task: even Zhu Xi (whom I have just mentioned), probably one of the greatest Chinese exegetes ever, admitted having to read a particularly thorny passage of the Classics forty to fifty times before understanding only sixty or seventy percent of what it meant5. Which, I must say, is somewhat reassuring for us! The fact remains that no theory or model, regardless of how extraordinary it may be, can stand alone or exempt anybody from gaining a foothold on this basis: that is why, as it happens, sinology is first and foremost a school of humility.

  • 6 Cf. François Dosse, La Marche des idées. Histoire des intellectuels, histoire intellectuelle [The M (...)

19Understanding texts does not mean considering them as dull and disembodied abstractions. On the contrary, it means trying to catch them living and wriggling, like the fish in the water of the Dao, as mentioned in the Zhuangzi. That is to say, to try as much as possible to recreate the conditions in which they made sense; but also, to make an intellectual and social effort to perceive how they were read and received. There are, as is well known, two ways of reading and, subsequently, keeping a text alive: we can wonder what it could have meant for its author and readers, which involves a philological and historical approach on an object recreated in the past; we can also wonder what it can mean for a reader nowadays, as a universal text capable of producing meaning, whether it be philosophical or otherwise. Any way of reading implicitly and simultaneously gives rise to these two types of questions. However, we should always remember that the answers to the second one can only really mean something if those to the first one are based upon thorough research. The ideal thing would be to manage to “articulate rigorous contextualism, so as to avoid anything anachronistic to a hermeneutic interpretation of the various layers of meaning between yesterday and today6”. In this way, we would avoid the temptation, which our students find so enticing, of subjecting texts to predefined interpretations and thus going off into a hermeneutic frenzy which no longer has anything to do with any reality whatsoever.

  • 7 An allusion to Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaki (...)
  • 8 Cf. Zheng Jiadong, in Anne Cheng (ed.), La Pensée en Chine aujourd’hui [Thought in Present-day Chin (...)

20The proper thing to do nowadays seems to be to go on about “intercultural dialogue”, which is undoubtedly an angelic way of countering the pugnacious idea of the “clash of civilisations7”. However, this dialogue is often carried out on different wavelengths, as a Chinese social science researcher recently pointed out: “For a long time, the idea prevailed amongst western sinologists that only thinkers of pre-imperial ancient China could be considered as being philosophers (and changes in mentalities in this regard are very recent). These thinkers were compared to the wise men of ancient Greece. This interest in ancient Chinese thought strongly contrasted with the appeal modern western philosophy has long had for the Chinese. The implicit understanding of historical developments was identical, but China was taken up with a post-enlightenment Western world, whereas the West dreamed of an ancient China which had not yet entered the medieval period and was disconnected from its modern evolution and problems8.”

21This criticism is directed towards a certain type of comparatism that is still very much in vogue today, especially as it has become a sort of academic guideline, and warrants the best of intentions to leave Eurocentrism behind us. However, it still remains part of an Orientalist perspective, since it tends to treat Chinese thought like a museum piece, an “Other” with which to be compared, to make it respond to totally irrelevant questionings. This is a way of stubbornly maintaining the idea of otherness, which freezes oppositions outside of time and space and does not allow one to detect the plurality and diversity of real differences. An unfortunate consequence of this is the constant risk of falling into some type of essentialism, and to end up, albeit non-intentionally, reinforcing diehard preconceived ideas.


  • 9 The idea comes from the Chinese-American historian Chang Hao, Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis. Sear (...)

22However, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. My sole objective is to do whatever is possible to understand. It is therefore not about excluding such and such a theoretical approach, but to establish practical priorities. Before systematically going into forms of intercultural comparatism, for which we are not yet ready, why should we not start with some intracultural comparatism? Intellectual history, as Jacques Gernet has shown so well right here, would thus appear capable of revealing the continuities and discontinuities between various different periods and moments of crisis, and also “internal dialogues9”, lingering aspects, re-evaluations, reconstructions of the past, and bring about a living and colourful panorama with all types of reliefs and rifts. Instead of reinforcing the preconceived idea of a dominant ideology or the eternal repetition of the same reality, it would mean opening up the history of ideas, both in the diversity of their socio-political contexts (in China, the production of ideas is never far away from politics) and over a long span of time (even if we don’t agree with the ideology of China and its “five thousand years of continuous history and civilisation”).

23To move between past and present in this way should lead us to perceive just how much our interpretation of the past is conditioned by presuppositions from the present, and how necessary it is to be careful not to fall into the strong temptation of projecting our ideas upon the past. However, it can also help us understand what was at stake in debates which may nowadays seem antiquated. It is (at least, I think it is) only by patiently following a tradition on its own terms, and reinstating its own type of questioning, that we can have a chance of finally bringing to light common points between the historical trajectories of different cultures.

24As well as extending our research in time, I think that it is important to open up greater space for the circulation of ideas, the intertwining of debates, intellectual and textual exchange, borrowing and transferring. Let us consider in particular the manifold and complex ways in which common elements were shared between China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam all throughout the second Christian millennium. I have no intention whatsoever of trying to recreate some sort of Chinese imperialism by unearthing the fictional unity of a “sinicized world”, with China as its origin and centre. On the contrary, it is a question of taking advantage of the existence of an area where ideas circulated thanks to the use of Chinese characters (similar to Latin, which in pre-modern Europe enabled clerics to communicate even though they spoke different languages) precisely so as to deconstruct the idea of China as a monolithic and eternal entity; and to cast doubt upon its centrality by exploring all of the creative, dissenting and contradictory ways of interpreting and making use of a common source. Such a task is obviously only possible if, once again, specialists in all related areas are called upon to participate.

  • 10 All of these questions are dealt with in the aforementioned collective work (see note 8); and in nu (...)

25In the same way, instead of just comparing Europe and China (so as to oppose them more easily), I think that it would be much more interesting to study how ideas have moved between them in the modern era. The vision we have of Chinese traditions has in fact long been conditioned by the way they were first perceived in Europe. And this is also the case of deeply-enrooted ideas of what we usually call “Confucianism”; ideas which started to take form with the reception, in eighteenth-century Europe, of a certain Chinese elite ideology, and which still have an influence on the way we think, keeping alive the idea of thought devoid of any truly religious dimension and steeped in immanence. And the same thing applies to all of the other “isms” (Taoism, Buddhism etc.) which weigh us down and complicate things instead of making them easier: these labels we consider so convenient actually cover up the realities they are supposed to give order to, and make it impossible for us to see the constant interaction and permeation between the entities they have artificially compartmentalized. Finally, this also applies to all of the various different categories formulated by historical, philological, philosophical and religious sciences all throughout the nineteenth century in Europe. The categories “philosophy”, “science” and “religion” continue to condition our way of approaching and describing Chinese realities; and even more significantly in that they were assimilated in China itself at the turn of the twentieth century, as a result of the intervention of Meiji Japan which was in the process of modernization. The latter in fact invented a whole array of terms coined from Chinese words, so as to translate new concepts coming from Western learning. Let us not be mistaken: to think in Chinese today means using words which may be of ancient origin, but whose meanings have to be replaced into the exact historical context of their modern invention.10 Being able to read ancient sources is therefore not enough: we still need to be aware of which prism we are reading them through.


26I think that everyone has understood: I like to move about, back and forth and all around, before even comparing things. I prefer conversations between several people, to pseudo-dialogues. Instead of otherness which immobilizes opposites, I search for multiple differences which grasp things in the very colours and movement of life: this life that we have always to come back to.


  • 11 Confucius, Analects, II, 4. For a full French translation of the Analects of Confucius, one may ref (...)

At fifteen years of age, I was intent on learning.
At thirty I stood firm.
At forty, I was no longer confused.
At fifty, I knew my destiny.
At sixty, my ear was well tuned.
Now, at the age of seventy, I follow my heart’s desire without ever overstepping the limit11.

  • 12 Incidentally, the grapheme of the ear is one of the elements making up the Chinese character for (...)

27This is how Confucius put things towards the end of his life. For my part, I have already passed the age of fifty; what remains for me to do is therefore to finely tune my ear, in order to learn how to play the public violin solo I mentioned at the beginning. However, so as not to overstep any further limit, I will have to stop here for now. This evening, we have certainly talked a lot about the ear12. I will finish off, therefore, by thanking you for lending me yours!


1 The title of this lecture, La Chine pense-t-elle ? [Can China think?] is an allusion to Guy Bugault’s book L’Inde pense-t-elle ? [Can India think?] (Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 1994). Great efforts have been made to “think China”. However, all things said and done, is China itself capable of thinking, and of thinking about itself?

2 Quoted by Simon Leys (alias Pierre Ryckmans) in Le Bonheur des petits poissons. Lettres des antipodes [The Happiness of Little Fish. Letters from Down Under], Jean-Claude Lattès, 2008, p. 11.

3 An allusion to Léon Vandermeersch’s magnum opus, Wangdao ou La Voie royale : Recherches sur l’esprit des institutions de la Chine archaïque [Wangdao or the Royal Way: A Study of the Spirit of the Institutions of Ancient China], published in two volumes by the École française d’Extrême-Orient, 1977 and 1980.

4 See Pierre-Étienne Will’s inaugural lecture, Collège de France, 1992, p. 33.

5 Cf. Zhuzi yulei, Zhonghua shuju, Beijing, 1986, vol. 6, chap. 80, p. 2091.

6 Cf. François Dosse, La Marche des idées. Histoire des intellectuels, histoire intellectuelle [The March of Ideas. A History of Intellectuals, An Intellectual History], Paris, La Découverte, 2003, p. 255.

7 An allusion to Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, 1996.

8 Cf. Zheng Jiadong, in Anne Cheng (ed.), La Pensée en Chine aujourd’hui [Thought in Present-day China], Gallimard, Folio Essais series, 2007, p. 392 note 6.

9 The idea comes from the Chinese-American historian Chang Hao, Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis. Search for Order and Meaning (1890-1911), Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 1987, p. 10.

10 All of these questions are dealt with in the aforementioned collective work (see note 8); and in number 27 (2005) of the journal Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident, “Y a- t-il une philosophie chinoise ? Un état de la question” [Is there a Chinese Philosophy? A State of the Art].

11 Confucius, Analects, II, 4. For a full French translation of the Analects of Confucius, one may refer to the one I published in 1981 (Paris, Seuil), and note how my own interpretation (of this passage in particular) has somewhat changed since then. Confucius demands to be forever revisited…

12 Incidentally, the grapheme of the ear is one of the elements making up the Chinese character for sageliness .

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