I'm back in Beijing teaching a course, "Confucianism in America," for the International Summer School at Renmin University of China, just like last year. We got started on Monday: thirty students, most all Renda undergraduates, reading and thinking about how Confucianism might move into and gain a presence in American cultural contexts.
I was quite happy with how things went last year, but I did tweak the readings a bit this time around. Understanding the kinds of cultural assumptions most Americans hold is a challenge for young Chinese students who have had little direct experience with the United States. My problem then is: how to begin to introduce them to American culture and attitudes? What summarizing concepts best capture the American zeitgeist? As a person who studies politics, political concepts often are the first to come into my mind and for this purpose "liberalism," broadly construed, seems to fit the bill.
I am thinking of liberalism as a cultural orientation, one which foregrounds individuality and the expectation of certain rights and freedoms. It emerges from a particular tradition of political thought but has taken on a wider and more diffuse cultural presence in US society. On this account both political "liberals" and "conservatives" share certain core liberal assumptions. One of the readings I gave to my students was the chapter on "Liberalism" from the Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, which emphasizes the multiplicity of its expression over time and contemporaneously, as well as its contradictions and dangers.
The second reading was the opening pages from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. It is striking how this chapter, published in 1859, captures something basic about contemporary American sensibilities. For example:
The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
Mill also writes: "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." I think Americans like to think this way, and act this way, even if we are actually more embedded in social relationships than we sometimes recognize or remember.
I also point out to students that the individuality that Mill espouses is not a kind of anarchy. Individuality relies on sociability and public duties. In the introduction he points out:
There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature's life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man's duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.
Liberalism, then, is all about balancing individuality against social good. That balance is dynamic and ever changing, but it never should tilt too far toward the former (a kind of hedonism) or the latter (which could be used to repress individuality).
Although none of my students had read Mill (and presenting it to them is a minor act of subversion on my part), my sense is that they understand very well the tension between individuality and social order. It is what they live every day here. Thirty years ago, when I first came to China, there was very little space for individuality. Now, especially among young people, there is a much wider range of self expression and invention. Although the society at large is highly competitive - getting into a good college and getting a good job requires extraordinary focus and dedication - there is a significant amount of personal choice in the social and economic realms. My students here can move in a variety of different directions in their personal and professional lives. Outside of the classroom (college student tend to be fairly socially conventional) the range of experience is even wider. As Ci Jiwei argues, there are ways in which the expanding freedom of choice in society and culture and economic life here (though not politics) has already produced "a proto-liberal-democratic society". Mill would be impressed.
I will be curious to know, in the next few days, what my students think of Mill. On the one had, the individuality that he supports might well be something they find attractive or, at least, relevant to their lives. The Oxford Handbook describe's his liberal ideology as:
...a means for enabling a full scale individual flourishing, celebrating the interior life of individuals in a form that owed much to Romanticism, with individuals ceasing to be simple maximizers of their own interests and becoming choosing agents, seeking always to improve their lives by shaping their own response to the external environment. (334)
That final phrase about becoming choosing agents seeking to improve their own lives is consistent with descriptions of the "post 90s" generation, of which my students are apart.
So maybe Mill is quite relevant in China now. But I would be remiss if I did not mention one rather large obstacle in his writing: the rather direct 19th century racism that is still to be found there. Specifically, Mill assumes that genuine individuality relies upon a certain type of rationality born of modern education and social understanding. He is quite straightforward in saying that the colonized people of his time do not have that capacity yet and, therefore, should not be expected to fully appreciate and exercise the liberty he holds dear. Perhaps the most damning line is this one: "...we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage."
In other words, Indians and Chinese and Africans are as socially immature as children - "barbarians" he goes on to say - for whom "despotism is a legitimate mode of government." It would be hard to find a stronger apology for imperialist aggression.
In presenting Mill to my students, I did not shy away from this passage. My feeling is that they should see liberalism in its full history, including its relationship to racism and imperialism. I did point out that, whatever its faults, liberalism could well provide conceptual tools to overcome at least some of its failings, as has been the case in the civil rights movement in the US, as well as with the recent consolidation of the right to same sex marriage. And I also pointed out a parallel dynamic in the contemporary revival of Confucianism, which requires a rejection of its past use as a tool to repress women. But in the end I leave it to them to decide whether whatever might be useful and true in liberalism can be detached from what has been ugly and repressive.
I was especially attuned to the tensions and contradictions of Mill in China because I re-read the introduction while sitting in the beautiful Garden of Harmonious Pleasures at the Summer Palace in Beijing. On the one hand, it is a place that dramatically demonstrates the pernicious history of liberalism: it was burnt down by an Anglo-French force in 1860, one year after the publication of On Liberty. The imperialist arrogance that brought destruction to this ethereal garden was essentially ratified by Mill's racism. On the other hand, as I sat under a willow tree I watched as dozens of Chinese tourists ambled along the banks of the lotus-filled pond. And I noticed how many of them, in their choice of clothes and cameras and iphones and other icons of consumer society were fashioning their own unique individualities within the limits of liberty afforded them in today's China. When I left, and walked through a parking lot filled with Jaguars and Range Rovers and BMWs and Mercedes, I wondered again if these commodities are a proxy of sort, the most available means here now for choosing agents, seeking always to improve their lives by shaping their own response to the external environment, to make the most of their individuality.