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Cai Yuanpei and Charter 08

Today is the birthday of Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940).  A classically-trained scholar who later decided to broaden his education and study in Germany, he was Minister of Education (briefly) under Yuan Shikai and (more famously) the chancellor of Peking University during the New Culture Era.  Chancellor Cai took over a campus squalid with the scions of the idle rich and transformed it into a hotbed of intellectual dynamism for a new age.  Cai took risks, hiring firebrands such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, and luring young scholars such as Hu Shi back from abroad.  The dining halls and classrooms of the school brimmed with the kind of debate that forges ideas and ideologies, and the campus became the epicenter of one of the most fertile and exciting times in China’s (or any other country’s) intellectual history.

Hu Shi revitalized the study of China’s past, introduced new ideas of philosophy and learning to the student body, and changed the way Chinese was written and read.  Chen Duxiu’s magazine La Jeunesse (New Youth) was snatched up immediately whenever a shipment dropped, young students and intellectuals rushing to buy the few precious copies printed and distributed.  In those pages Li Dazhao introduced Marxism, Mao Zedong published his first essay, and a whole generation learned the language of individual liberation and political revolution.

But most people didn’t care.

The vast majority of the Chinese population had never heard of Chen Duxiu or Li Dazhao, hadn’t ever seen a copy of New Youth and were too busy making ends meet to read it in any case.  For most people, Peking University was as lofty and remote an environment as the far side of the moon.

And yet during the May 4th Movement of 1919 the new youth took to the streets in anger and frustration, a movement that — much to the shock and dismay of the government — spread throughout the different classes of society.  Workers joined students joined urban residents in a potent alliance and the government fell.

Today’s “kinder gentler” CCP does tolerate dissent…to a point.  And that point is when dissent looks to have the potential to spread to different geographic regions or among disparate social classes and thus link together areas or groups in common cause.  This is the CCP’s nightmare.

This brings me to Charter 08Charter 08 is the product of a single class: the intelligentsia, a group which Roland Soong aptly notes is hardly unified in ideology, ambitions, or style.  Nevertheless, there has been some snickering among the usual suspects that Charter 08 is simply the work of eggheads, out-of-touch bookworms who don’t understand (or don’t care about) the priorities of “real people.”  More conspiratorially, some suggest Charter 08 to be the work of US-government backed moles in the Chinese intelligentsia, that the signers of Charter 08 have been “pallin’ around with splittists.”  Anti-intellectualism and innuendo:  It seems those who seek to defend the CCP against such ominous harbingers of doom like “not arresting people for voicing their opinion” and “relaxing controls on the media” have taken as their rhetorical role model Sarah Palin. Good luck with that strategy.

The truth is, however, that Charter 08 is unlikely to have a major impact, at least in the short run.  First of all, the government is up on its history, and takes great pains to isolate and denigrate groups who express inconvenient opinions.  In a recent interview with the NPR show “Fresh Air with Terry GrossAtlantic Monthly national correspondent James Fallows expressed grudging admiration for the current regime’s ability to influence debate; not merely blacking out information, but spinning the conversation by controlling what information remains easily accessed.

But to dismiss the importance of Charter 08 because it is the product of a single class (or sub-group within that class) is to miss a lesson of history.  With a nod to Margaret Mead, I might suggest that modern Chinese history has had its own share of small groups of committed individuals whose ideas did not receive their due when first published or spoken but whom we now look back upon as transformational figures: Wang Tao, Yan Fu, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, Li Dazhao, even Mao Zedong.  This is not to say that the authors of Charter 08 are destined to enter such a hallowed pantheon, only that history warns us not to immediately dismiss their ideas because “only” 2000 intellectuals signed the document.

In 1919, our birthday boy Cai Yuanpei wrote:

“With regard to ideas, I act according to the general rule of the various universities of the world, following the principle of “freedom of thought” and adopting the policy of tolerating everything and including everything…Regardless of what schools of academic thought there may be, if their words are reasonable and there is cause for maintaining them, and they have not yet reached the fate of being eliminated by nature, then even though they disagree with each other, I would let them develop in complete freedom.”

Hear, hear.

27 Comments on Cai Yuanpei and Charter 08

  1. “Anti-intellectualism and inneuendo”

    Wah, now it all sounds like the Sinophone edition of New Zealand. No wonder I feel so at home here.

    Tolerance, man, that’s the thing this world lacks in equal but opposite measure to its abundance of stupidity. If only we could take your quotation from Mr Cai and plaster it over every wall on earth, perhaps we could begin to make some progress.

  2. Best post yet on this topic. Great work.

  3. true to form, the DPP “splittists” in taiwan have voiced support for the principles of charter 08, while the KMT has stayed characteristically mum on anything that might displease china.

  4. Chris,

    I couldn’t agree more about tolerance of others ideas, to which I might also suggest adding acknowledgement of complexity and nuance in the world.

  5. Richard,

    Thanks for the kind words and the link!

  6. Wu Ming,

    I was wondering what the reaction from Taiwan would be. Thanks for filling us in. It’s interesting how the response from groups on Taiwan fits with the analysis by Roland Soong on other groups overseas.

  7. “The dining halls and classrooms of the school brimmed with the kind of debate that forges ideas and ideologies, and the campus became the epicenter of one of the most fertile and exciting times in China’s (or any other country’s) intellectual history.”

    As a teacher of four years on the Chinese campus, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to attribute those words to modern China’s seats of learning.

    Sadly, such an environment of open expression of ideas seems as far distant as ever. And yes, the reasons are ‘complex and nuanced’, but for sure it’s not the way forward.

    There’s a great line by the late John Spencer in The West Wing when he tells his staff:

    “… we’re not going to be threatened by issues. We’re going to put them front and center. We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country. And let that be our legacy.”

    If only…

  8. Thanks for that historical perspective. I completely agree that, even if it is unlikely that this Charter succeeds, we should not dismiss it too quickly.

    Regarding the May4th movement, the situation is of course very different today but there is especially one point that is missing: the spark. Even if you have enough social tension to get the people in action and enough intellectuals to draw the roadmap, you still need a “trigger” to start change.

    In 1919 this was clearly the treaty of Versailles, what will be the specific trigger in our times, if it ever happens?

  9. As a historian, you should at least take the historic background into consideration when you make comparisons. Today’s China is in a fundemantly different world from 1919’s China. Of course every two periods have their differences. But you really should see that what made 1919 Cai Yuanpei say those things do not exist in today China.

  10. the difficulty with fitting taiwan into roland soong’s chinese class analysis is that farmers and laborers and middle class people are actually part of the political discussion here, and have opinions on these sorts of things, if not always understood or voiced in the same academic terms as charter 08.

    which is, i suppose, why soong dismisses taiwan, and democracy generally, out of hand. it weakens his “chinese society can’t handle this/works differently than this/is not suited to this” line of argument when there is, in fact, a democratic chinese society messily muddling its way through things just to the south.

    i do tend to agree with him, though, that the charter 08 proponents would be more effective if they spent more of their effort building support amongst the working/farming classes of china, from the bottom up. that being said, i suspect that that sort of organization would get one in serious trouble very quickly, given the CCP’s own history of doing that sort of thing successfully.

  11. Jeremiah, the NED’s patronage and underwritting of Liu Xiaobo is a fact.

    Check NED’s own grant disclosure – ICPC and China Democracy, which Liu is the president and founder of, have received about US$300,000 a year for the last 5 years. There was so much money, the ICPC and Liu were sued in Queens over corruption and mishandling of funds.

    Somehow I doubt Liu’s organizations would get this kind of money from Uncle Sam, if he is in favor of socialist reform.

  12. Love it when the usual suspects actual show up on the site….

    Fatbrick, there are always differences in historic eras, I’m just not sure the open exchange of ideas is a historically specific value.

    Charles Liu,

    Yeah, heard that too. I also had the pleasure of sitting next to a fellow in an airport bar recently who held forth, with pictures and internet sites on his laptop, about how 9/11 was the work of the Freemasons.

  13. Is this just in Chinese so far, or do they have ‘official translations’? I wouldn’t trust putting it through Google translator!

    And I haven’t been able to follow any links to the text yet, anyway. I need to find me a better proxy!

  14. Froog,

    Perry Link, of T. Papers fame, has a good translation in the New York Review of Books. I’m not sure if it’s blocked or not.

    On a related note: Isn’t the strongest argument that the CCP is not nearly as strong or self-confident as advertised by its nitwit fenqing supporters is that it still feels the need to spend so much time, money, and energy on censoring inconvenient ideas?

    It’s only those with self-esteem issues who care so much about what the other kids are saying.

    Besides, proxies suck.

  15. @Froog, Jeremiah,

    I have been following the Charter events closely from the begining and I have some useful info:

    (1)- Note there is now an open link to the Charter original+translations, which, in a very weird turn of events, was provided by an PRC official newsportal. The problem is, it doesn’t cary the updated lists of signers.

    (2)- Note that Perry Link’s translation is inaccurate, to the point that is changes the spirit of the original Charter. This is very strange and has given origin to some speculation.

    1- Uncensored link:

    2- Faulty/correct Translation:

  16. i dunno, j, ideas can be very powerful things.

  17. Thanks a lot, ULN. Very useful links. I’ve downloaded Chinese, English and French texts, so that I can start spreading the subversion.

    Unfortunately, J, I think the CCP is still very strong. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also vulnerable. And insecurity doesn’t have much to do with either strength or vulnerability, but with perceived vulnerability, which may not be that well founded in reality. This year, however, I think they’re quite right to feel insecure. All those inconvenient anniversaries and the economic miracle coming off the rails – it could be implosion time. The last thing they need right now is a bunch of self-important intellectuals pointing out that the Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

  18. I’m in agreement with Fatbrick.

    Cai Yuanpei’s words here are taken out of context from the particular, and probably unrepeatable, historical context of China in 1919 (ie. modernist China). Following up from Roland Soong recent post, I’ve tried to flag up this neglected area of discussion around the Charter.

  19. TFOCT,

    Thanks for joining the party, a little late but that’s okay. I’m not sure which context you are talking about. The above paragraph I think pretty well captures the tone of the original essay as well as a pretty fair snapshot of Cai’s own views on the subject.

    As for a larger context, as I replied to “Fatbrick” (where do they come up with these names?), I’m not sure that the open exchange of ideas without fear of state persecution ever really goes out of style, unless you want to side with reactionary anti-intellectual types: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Mussolini, Rush Limbaugh, Li Peng, etc., etc.

    Along the same lines, I would have love to have checked out your post, but your site is blocked in the PRC. I’m not sure how you like your irony served, I like mine on toast.

  20. Jeremiah,

    Toasted irony, firewalls, and my own post notwithstanding, it’s fortunate that you mention George W. Bush since he too would be a great admirer of Charter 08 (I would hazard to add to the list Tony Blair too). So much in admiration, in fact, that much of the world is still reeling from his efforts to Charter the rest of us.

    Since you usher Cai’s turn-of-century comments into this larger context, I wonder, then, if ‘freedom of thought’ in places like, say, Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay were also part of what he envisioned?

    Or, to be more fair, if liberalism or neoliberalism (you’re right ideas such as these don’t just disappear overnight) are even compatible with ‘freedom of thought’?

  21. TFOCT,

    Just because we disagree about Charter 08, doesn’t mean we don’t have significant areas of agreement. I deplore George W. Bush and his policies (and I suspect that Chancellor Cai would as well) and I also share your revulsion at the hideous and heinous crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. I think injustice needs to be written and talked about and criticized no matter where it occurs or by whom, don’t you?

    Fortunately, you and I have the right to do so.

  22. Jeremiah,

    Of course, we both, as would any other reasonable human being find the policies of Bush and his cohorts deplorable. That is the easy part.

    But how do we reconcile the glaring deficiencies of neoliberalist ideology: precisely that proposed by Charter 08?

    When we all know it failed for the West, it actually failed to keep its promises of freedom: how is it responsible move to subject 1.6 Bn Chinese to it?

    These, I find, are more urgent questions, since:

    1. Replacing one deficient ideology with another spectacularly deficient one is tantamount to evil;

    2. We know that CPC has proposed yet more vigorous reforms, perhaps more time is required for its course to take place.

    3. Cultures of open discussion in the media, blogosphere does not necessarily equate to good governance. There is no strict correlation. Such a belief merely lapses, yet again, into ideological talk.


  23. TFOCT,

    This is where I think we have a disconnect. You seem to be arguing against Charter 08, which is fine, but I’m not arguing for it.

    I really couldn’t say whether implementation of these ideas would/could have a positive impact, but what would be nice is an open and uninhibited discussion of the ideas in China by PRC citizens. Where is the downside in letting people hear a range of ideas, talk about them, debate them on television, and choose to accept or reject those as they see fit?

    The freedom to discuss, to write, to protest, and to dissent does not necessarily equate to good governance, but it’s a not a half-bad first step…and Cai Yuanpei would probably back me up on that.

  24. Jeremiah,

    You are right, we have located a disconnect, but unfortunately it is in how you seem not to notice you are speaking in liberalist tongues (assuming you do not notice and are not being underhand). You explicitly say you are not arguing for C08, yet implicitly suggest that some of its ideas are ‘nice’ in the following way:

    You idealize a PRC already reformed with the liberalist notion of ‘open and uninhibited discussion of the ideas…by PRC citizens,’ a reality you know full well cannot happen unless it has been liberalised. Only to then ask what is wrong with them not to be able do so?

    I cannot consider this ‘nice,’ because:

    1. We shouldn’t default to values when speaking of ideological documents or what they propose.

    2. Assuming that it is nice (and putting on the Liberalist-tinted specs), I’d soon realize its not so nice when ‘The freedom to discuss, to write, to protest,’ as you already acknowledged in your earlier comment, does nothing to avert atrocities in its name.

    Nothing personal, but these positions must be clarified.


  25. I don’t really want to “reform” anything. These rights are already in the PRC constitution, it would be nice however to see the CCP live up to the letter of its own law.

    And we need not have “liberalism,” “democracy,” or any of your other straw men, bogeys, or otherwise to start a free discussion. Not arresting or detaining people for expressing dissent would be a nice start.

    There’s also the following disconnect: You’re coming at this from an extreme “Liberalism in any form can never happen, at least not on my watch.” Which is fine. I also sense this is an emotional issue for you, fine as well. But it’s not for me. I think there are points of Charter 08 that merit discussion, so what? I think discussion is good. I’m an academic. I think the expression of diverse opinions is how we grow as people, it certainly makes for a more productive and dynamic classroom environment. (Again, something Chancellor Cai would probably agree with). I think too that your coming at this as an ideologue, which, again, is fine…but you need to bear in mind that 1) I’ m not and 2) we are working on two very different intellectual projects.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  26. Jeremiah,

    A few quick corrections:

    1. My position: not forgetting/ignoring Liberalism’s deficiencies. Is not ideological. How this might be considered so reveals yours.

    2. Speaking on behalf of Cai Yuanpei (and namechecking him whenever convenient) is an unfortunate projection of your ideological beliefs. He did not have the luxury of witnessing Liberalism and its promises crash and burn (as did bastion communism) in his lifetime.

    3. There is nothing “strawman” about discussing the merits/failings of democracy or any other system of governance. Why must you think this so, is it something you do not wish to discuss?

    4. I am passionate about ideas, but I do not believe it is grounds for dismissal qua “emotional.”

    5. Public dissent is illegal in China. Or, did you mean the authorities should have made an exception when it comes to Charter 08 or the motives of Liu Xiaobo?

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  27. I’m not dismissing your ideas because you are emotional, I’m just saying that I’m not as hot and bothered by this as you are. To whit: You’ve spent the last four or five mornings commenting on a history teacher’s blog regarding a three-week old post. That’s bordering on obsessive.

    You don’t like liberalism, that’s fine. It must be hard living in the UK under those circumstances. Fortunately in the UK, bashing the dominant ideology is not illegal, otherwise you would be committing a crime.

    I think authorities should make public dissent legal. Doesn’t mean I’m calling for democracy, only allowing people to speak.

    For you see, and this will be the last word on the subject because I have two courses to get prepare before the semester starts tomorrow, I believe that human beings everywhere have the potential to be intelligent, informed, aware, and active members of their community; that they have a right and a duty to read books, discuss issues, and question authority. It’s why I became an educator. It’s why Cai Yuanpei did as well. (See, I did it again.) And I believe that all humans (as there is far more that we hold in common than divides us, despite what neo-nationalists would have you believe) possess these things, not just those who were born in the USA or have the privilege to live in the UK.

    Thanks for a fascinating conversation on this subject, I wish you all the best on the new blog. A suggestion, if I may, is to get your own domain name/server so that it can read in the PRC.



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