Clash of Ancient Philosophy and Modern Politics in China

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2019

A building of Yuyuan Garden in the foreground, and Shanghai Tower (and Jinmao Tower) in the background, juxtaposing old and new along China’s landscape. Source: Kenneth Lu via Flickr.

Victor Mair

University of Pennsylvania

A new round of censorship in China is sufficiently significant that it should be called to the attention of readers, because it has not been brought to the surface outside of China, and even inside China the censors have done their best to hush it up.

In a nutshell, there’s a well-known scholar of ancient Chinese thought, especially Lao Zi (the fictive author of the Tao Te Ching / Daode jing), who has recently and suddenly run afoul of the authorities.

The imbroglio of Yin Zhenhuan 尹振环 and Lao Zi 老子 are occasionally mentioned online. News of Professor Yin Zhenhuan’s troubles surfaced on WeChat about two weeks ago.  It’s rather hard to figure out how research on an ancient thinker could arouse such a sensational reaction, even though from the contents of Yin’s book one may perceive slight, indirect indications of current politics.

Perhaps the best way to expose the complex nature of the current contretemps is by relaying the personal communications of three People’s Republic of China (PRC) scholars on the subject, which I reproduce below.

I. Source One

It seems, as what you’ve said, Prof. Yin Zhenhuan 尹振环 has been “harmonized” on Baidu and I could only find 13 results about him, none related to the banned book. Google provides more information. Prof.Yin, apart from his research on Lao Zi, has published political books like《毛泽东皇权专制主义批判》( Critique of Mao Zedong’s Imperial Power Autocracy) and《邓小平的皇权专制主义》(The Despotism of Deng Xiaoping).  I wonder if his political standpoint plays a part in the banning of his latest Lao Zi research. Nevertheless, the authorities are showing zero tolerance and seeing every bush and tree as an enemy.

II. Source Two

This is unbelievable, especially when Yin Zhenhuan 尹振环 is a professor at the Communist Party School in Guizhou province, and his Laozi project is funded by [the] National Social Science Foundation.

It seems that this book has been banned before publication. There is no access to the book now, except for pictures of the cover and the table of contents. Nobody knows the exact reason why this book displeases the Communist Party.

There are some guesses on the internet:

    1. The subtitle of the book is “老子向君上的建言” (Laozi’s advice to the ruler). It is very likely that the advice discussed in the book is considered “inappropriate”. Some people joke that this book could have gotten through if the subtitle was “孙子向君上的建言” (What a cunning pun! Father’s advice vs grandson’s advice).
    2. Some chapter titles may seem unfriendly to the ruler. For example, “治大国忌折腾”* (Avoid abuse? when ruling a big country), “国君要知道自己的无知” (A ruler should know his ignorance), “功成身退” (Retire after winning merit – I think this one could anger Xi Jinping), “百姓之不治,责任在君” (The ruler should be responsible for the disorder of people), “事事亲躬的君王必败” (The ruler who deals with everything in person is doomed to fail). *”Sino-English neologisms” (4/14/19)
    1. There are many scholars questioning the authenticity of Peking University manuscripts and claiming that they are forgeries of the Cultural Revolution.
    1. The video on YouTube says Laozi’s ideas of ruling a country contradict those of the Communist Party, and Laozi’s philosophy, like the way of Heaven, conflicts with those of Marxism and Materialism.

2019 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Things have become extremely sensitive recently. Anyway, this is so crazy!

III. Source Three

I think this case once again proves that Xi is really afraid of Chinese intelligentsia!! Xi wants to control the political ideology of top universities in China, but I think a hopeful phenomenon is that more and more intellectuals would love to stand out and resist this control.

In this case, the issue is not Lao Zi, since Lao Zi is not around to say anything bad about today’s political environment. In fact, it is about the interpretation of Lao Zi. I saw that many people believed that this “反老” (“anti-Lao Zi) is similar to the “Criticize Lin (Biao), Criticize Confucius Campaign 批林批孔運動” during the Cultural Revolution.  But I don’t think they are the same since Xi does not want to criticize Lao Zi; on the contrary, he wants to criticize Yin Zhenhuan, and his interpretation of Lao Zi.

I think Yin is right-wing, and I found that he published many works criticizing the Communist Party, such as 《鄧小平的皇權專制主義》and 《毛澤東皇權專制主義批判》[VHM:  see above for English titles]. This time, Yin interpreted Lao Zi, but with a subtitle “老子向君上的諫言 (Admonitions to the ruler from Lao zi)” which is believed as an allusion to the government of Xi Jinping. I think that, in China, there is no pure philosophy. Instead, we have Communist philosophy, and it means that all our interpretation of the ancient texts should be based on our political background. If Yin could analyze Lao Zi from a supportive view to the government, then he will not be criticized.

For several years, people haven’t talked much about “contradictions” in the Chinese political system, but I submit that the case of Prof. Yin Zhenhuan shows that they are very much in existence and that they have serious implications.  Here is a Communist Party ideologue who directly criticized Mao and is paying the consequences.  On the other hand, we have true scholars like Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University who speak out against the Party from a completely different vantage.

Victor Mair is Professor, Chinese Language and Literature, at the University of Pennsylvania. JPR Status: Report.