What a pleasant way to end a great month in Beijing: a conversation with Yu Dan, author of the best-selling book on Confucianism in China in recent years, or maybe ever. I have followed her work since 2006, I am sympathetic to her project, and I was really pleased to be able to sit and talk about contemorary Chinese society and culture with her (thanks Rena!).
Looking back over my blog history, I first noted her work in 2006, here. And followed that with several other posts: here, here, here, and here. I will not review the various controversies that have surrounded her and her work. Suffice it say that I think her basic approach, thinking about how Confucianism might speak to individuals in a personal manner as they negotiate challenges in their lives, is valid and not out of keeping with the spirit of the early texts. Indeed, how we make decisions about some of our most personal issues - caring for parents, getting married, choosing the right action in particular circumstances - is very much what the The Analects and Mencius are all about.
I had not kept up with her since she brought out a book on Zhuangzi. She hasn't, to my knowledge, followed up with any other mega-selling books lately. So, her reputation (whatever one thinks of it) still centers on Confucianism from the Heart.
Before I get to our conversation, one point needs to be made: whatever our evaluation of Yu Dan's presentation of Confucian ideas, it seems incontrovertible that the interpretation she has put forward is what many, many Chinese people now want Confucianism to mean. If we are interested in what Confucianism can be in a modern context, and that obviously is something different from what it was in older historical contexts, we must recognize the reality of Yu Dan's popularity. Her "chicken-soup for the soul" approach to the text may not be what serious scholars want, but it has clearly touched a chord of contemporary Chinese society. People here want the Confucius that Yu Dan presents.
And that tells us something about Chinese society today, which is most of what we spoke about today. Her message is what it has been since she rose to popular prominence: the turbulent history of China in the past century or so, and now the very rapid social and cultural changes roiling the country, exploded settled ethical frameworks, and Chinese society now is experiencing a "values vacuum". This is a pervasive sentiment here. Many, many Chinese people, across generations - though I suspect younger people like my students are somewhat less anxious about it - talk and think about the decline in public morality and the loss of a kind of cultural cohesion. The society feels, to many Chinese, like it is coming apart in a bad way.
Yu's message resonates with these sorts of anxieties. For her, Confucianism can be a part of a "solution" to the broad cultural problem. She does not suggest that Confucianism is a singular and exclusive answer, nor does she see it as the basis for a governmental or macro-societal framework that should be used to regulate most people's behavior most of the time. Like me, she sees contemporary Confucianism working best from, as it were, the bottom up. We agreed that an individually based application - we might call it micro-social - that allows persons to draw upon certain ideas, like ren (仁), as they work to make their best moral choices in particular circumstances is the soundest approach to Confucianism here now.
She thinks about happiness, and why so many people in China now, while living materially prosperous lives, do not feel happy. Admittedly, happiness is not a primary concern of Confucius or Mencius. They are focused more on the establishment of common social norms that will create a basis for stability and order in a time of conflict and war. But that is not to say that happiness is irrelevant to Confucianism. My sense is that Confucius and Mencius both believe that if you live a morally good life, you will also be happy. Happiness is a modern value, and if Confucianism is to be relevant in modern contexts it must, and it can, be framed in terms of happiness. Again, I think what Yu Dan is doing by linking Confucianism to happiness is something that many Chinese people are looking to do.
She is also eclectic, seeing a role for Daoism and Buddhism in the repertoire of normative orientations that might inform a contemporary Chinese morality. In general, she has a kind of cyclical-progressive understanding of how each of these three perspectives - Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism - relate to different stages or phases of social-political development. Confucianism may be most useful in periods of material construction, or rapid social change, as in China now. Daoism could become more relevant for those seeking post-materialist satisfaction. And Buddhism might come into greater prominence when things go bad, and suffering has to be made meaningful. Personally, I don't know if we need to create this sort of developmental framework to understand the various outlooks. They all exist and circulate and provide meaning to people simultaneously now. Syncretism is just another form of hybridity.
When I asked her directly about what Daoism can mean to Chinese people now, she was quick to answer: health - 养生. Drawing on notions of qi and traditional Chinese medicine, which were shaped by Daoist religious practices, people here embrace a Daoist sensibility. Even if TCM is deeply problematic, there may well be a diffuse cultural outlook, one that seeks to balance "hot" and "cold" or attune oneself to the qi-energy flow, that is Daoist, or maybe just Dao-esque, and continues to underwrite people's faith in traditional healing. When I asked more specifically about the possible role of Daoist philosophy in China now, Yu did not think there would be much systematic application of it. For her, Zhuangzi is also a source for a kind of individualistic therapeutic practice, not rigorous ethical argument.
She asked about the United States as well, curious about how we handle the stresses and strains of modernity. When I mentioned that family continues to be an important source of support and meaning for many Americans, she seemed a bit surprised. That is not uncommon here. The Chinese stereotype of America is a society run riot with individualism, a view that misses the continuing importance of social relationships and networks for most Americans.
I gave her a copy of my book and we talked about that as well. Though we have our stylistic differences (not quite so much chicken soup in my book) we have a good amount in common in how we think about what ancient Chinese thought can be in a modern context.