The Ching (Manchu) dynasty was in big trouble at the end of the 19th century. It was corrupt within, and ineffective against foreign powers without. The modern world was impinging. How could China itself become modern - become effective in the modern world - without ceasing to be Chinese? How could it get moving again, without betraying its identity in the process? There were many impulses toward reform, and many calls for national renewal. It was a time of widely perceived civilizational crisis.
Given China's idea of itself as a Confucian society, it was natural to try to revitalize of Confucianism. Steps were taken in that direction. But the identification of Confucius with the state had been so complete, for so long, that the shortcomings of the state tended to be identified with Confucius. In the minds of many, those shortcomings cast doubt on the specific Confucian answer. This made mere reaffirmation of Confucius a somewhat problematic policy.
A wider variant of that impulse of renewal was to look not just to Confucius, but to the whole period of classical thought, the Warring States, for a model of a more dynamic China. One of those who took this line was Lyang Chi-chau. Here is a quote from his book on the history of thought in the Ching period, where he sums up what he and others were looking for in the past:Our country has never had an age with more brilliance of intellect or largeness of personality than the Warring States. This was due to its freedom of thought. . .
Our researches have helped to validate that statement. They show how diverse the period was, and how its various voices, the little ones as well as the big ones, interacted to form the lively tapestry of Warring States thought. That dynamic diversity was lost under the Empire. And the history of the Empire itself shows how contested, and how intermittent, was its success even within its own borders. All this suggests that thought by itself, however free, is not enough to create and sustain a culture. Something more is needed to bring its conclusions to life in the real world. That something more is a wider input into government, over the long term, than the personal preferences of a hereditary ruler or a protected ruling group. One of the great themes taken up in the classic period's "freedom of thought" was the question of the role of the people in the state. That subject became undiscussable under the Empire. It is still undiscussable in much of Asia today. For an idea of what that discussion would look like, the Warring States period is still the primary source. As to what the interrupted Warring States discussion might lead to, if it were resumed, we do not here speculate.
Lyang Chi-chau's paragraph has been something of an inspiration to us, over the years. To keep it company on the page, we in turn leave the paragraph above, as our own time capsule for the future.
4 Jan 2001 / Contact The Project / Exit to Implications Page