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Restore Chinese Culture of the Axis Age
By Zhai Yuzhong (翟玉忠)
2019-01-01 12:51:17
 
    • From 800 BC to 200 BC, it was the period when ancient Indian, ancient Greek, and ancient Chinese civilizations reached their peak at almost the same time. The German philosopher Karl Theodor Jaspers called it the age of the axis. About the structural characteristics of world history since the Axis Age, Jaspers has had a very wonderful exposition: "To this day, mankind has been living by everything that is produced, contemplated and created in the Axis Age. Every new leap has been a revisit of that period, with flames rekindled by it. Since then, things have been like this: The recovery of and the return to the potential of the Axis Age, or called a renaissance, has always provided the spiritual motivation."[1] (Trans. from a Chinese version.)  

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    • It turns out that in the past two thousand years, any great change in the history of either the East or the West has to undergo a painful process of regeneration. Only by returning to the spiritual origin of civilization with a view to develop the new can ideological resources that are needed for a great era be generated. The spiritual origin is no other than what Jaspers called the Axis Age. 

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    • In this 21st century, mankind faces unprecedented crises and challenges: Capital has alienated all achievements in human civilization; Democracy has become partisan fights at the ballot box; Society has degraded into a rabble of atomized individuals; and even the value of human survival has been widely doubted -- Easterners no longer pursue sanctification, and Westerners choose to indulge material desires the minute they walk out of the church. All this shows that humans need to reorient the general direction of our civilization by re-drawing inspiration from our spiritual origin and start another new era. 

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    • Shall we go back, then, to Greece of the Axis Age? Hijacked by trends of thought ranging from atomism to democratic politics to hedonism, modern civilization seems to have dried up the rich ideological resources of the Greeks of the Axis Age. The history of suffering in the past hundred years and the past thousand years also tells us that, no matter whether it is returning to the hollow and shallow neo-Ru scholasticism [2] of Song and Ming dynasties or to the pedantic textual studies of classics of the Han Dynasty, we would not be able to adapt ourselves to this new era of globalization, commodification and secularization.  

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    • We should not return to ancient Greece and Rome like the Renaissance, nor to the neo-Ru scholasticism [2] of Song and Ming dynasties or the pedantic textual studies of classics of Han and Tang dynasties. The only choice for mankind is to restore the Chinese culture of the Axis Age, which, succeeding Western Zhou royal official learning and initiating the later new era of a "hundred schools of thought contending”, can be summarized as the "four fields of Confucius’s teaching", i.e., moral cultivation, government administration, language skills, and classical studies. 

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    • Therefore, in the past fifteen years, we have only done one thing: to sort out the academic system of the Chinese civilization, focused on “internal sanctification externalized into kingly (non-hegemonic) statecraft” (内圣外王) and represented by Daoism-Legalism (plus matching tactics) as a consistent whole, that is, to restore the Chinese culture of the Axis Age! 

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    • This process has been a strenuous one, passing through three major academic "gates of hell”: Western learning that interprets Chinese learning in Western terms, neo-Ru scholasticism that interpreted Ru [2] doctrines in Buddhist terms, and Han (dynasty) scholarship that replaced Daoism with Ru ideology. Only after successfully breaking through these “gates of hell” did we have a taste of Confucius’s teaching and learning, where lies the Chinese wisdom relating to the great Dao. 

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    • The rationale for Westernization assumes that, since Western science and technology lead the world, everything in the West is advanced. This is a wrong view from a wrong logic, as you can’t say that somebody must be noble in character just because he is tall in stature. The fact of the matter is that China’s humanities and social sciences are centered round the Great Way of internal sanctification being externalized in kingly (non-hegemonic) statecraft” in a consistent way. In this, China does not only not lag behind the West, but is actually more advanced than the latter.  

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    • Those who guard the "gate of hell" are humanities scholars fostered in Western-style universities who are bent on returning to Greece of the Axis Age. They have usurped almost all resources and are virtually opposed to the whole Chinese culture by interpreting it in Western terms and taking things out of Chinese context to fit into Western patterns. When they happened to know about one of the Eight Diagrams from the Book of Changes, or one sentence from Laozi, they would claim to know about both Chinese and Western cultures. If any among them has written one or two books about Chinese culture, he/she would immediately claim him/herself to be an expert in Chinese studies, swaggering and swindling all around.  


      This "gate of hell" has been put up over the past 100 years. The cost for breaking through it is our being marginalized in academic circles for long. The demons who guard this "gate of hell" have always hoped that we will be self-defeating, but, to their disappointment, we have miraculously survived to this day and will continue to grow in influence and strength! 

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    • Guarding the second "gate of hell" are the neo-Ru [2] scholars of Song and Ming dynasties and their later followersThough keeping themselves at an eight-thousand-mile distance from Buddhism in appearance, they actually transplanted Buddhist argumentation into their doctrine, thus “Buddhismizing” Ru ideology while hollowing out and mystifying the whole Chinese culture. Its negative influence still persists today. 

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    • The fundamental characteristic of Chinese culture is moral cultivation achieved through dynamic human relationships and even political activities, i.e., proceeding from human ethics to the Heavenly Dao. But Ru scholars, following Buddhism or the Zen schoolattempted character cultivation in isolation from worldly activities, starting from "knowing about virtue" (“明明德”) and conscience (“致良知”) to finally achieve the highest good and perfect sanctification. This is as misleading as if having first-grade pupils learn calculus! 

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    • To break through this "gate of hell", we applied the new materials unearthed in recent years on early Ru [2] school approach to character cultivation, especially the piece of writing entitled "The Five Elements" (《五行篇》) belonging to the core classics of the Zisi-Mencius sub-school (思孟学派), which says: "Bell chiming first, followed by stone qing () – this is what a virtuous person is like. Bell chiming symbolizes kindness; stone chiming sanctification. Kindness serves human relationships; sanctification the Heavenly Dao. Only the virtuous can chime like a bell first and then like a stone qing." (金声而玉振之,有德者也。金声,善也;玉音,圣也。善,人道也;德,天道也。唯有德者然后能金声而玉振之。)The author uses music-playing as a metaphor, comparing kindness in human relations to bell chiming as the beginning and virtue in following the Heavenly Dao to stone chiming as completion of the whole process. According to the classic The Great Learning, moral cultivation begins with "accomplishment of the highest good" (止于至善) and ends in "knowing about virtue" (明明德), instead of beginning with "knowing about virtue” before "accomplishment of the highest good" as Song and Ming neo-Ru [2] scholars advocated. We have pointed out their error so as to make sure of the right approach to be adopted by scholars in their character cultivation, but this at a high cost: Some of our long-time supporters also mistakenly believe, to our great regret, that we are opposed to "moral cultivation". 

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    • The third "gate of hell" is even harder to break through with its over 2,000 years of history. From classical studies, one of the four fields of Confucius’s teaching, gradually evolved the Ru [2] school. Since Dong Zhongshu of the Western Han Dynasty proposed “honoring Ru school alone while dismissing all others”, the former replaced the whole of Confucius’s teaching and learning and at the same time also replaced Daoist learning, thus stemming from further developing the other fields of Chinese culture: moral cultivation, government administration and language skills. What Ru scholars paid attention to after the Han Dynasty was only classical texts. The great Way of internal sanctification externalized in kingly (non-hegemonic) statecraft does not only require textual “studies of classics” but also “moral-cultivating practice” and such other subjects of learning as political affairs, economics, diplomacy, and legal affairs, which were included in the fields of “government administration” and “language skills”. But all these were ignored and left behind as textual fragments without a soul! A people without souls would inevitably become weaker and weaker. Unfortunately, this has been the general trend of Chinese history since Han. 

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    • It must be pointed out that Ru school domination is not only an issue of ideological culture. In the late Western Han Dynasty, Ru scholars deviated from the original Chinese political tradition by proposing its own political economics, whose core idea is a small-peasant economy drifting on a free market. The result was Ru scholars’ collaboration with land capital owners, forming a gentry landed class that encroached on the power of the state. Only after the new democratic revolution and socialist revolution led by the CCP was such a class dumped into the trash bin of history. Today, under the strategical influence from the West and as a reaction to last century’s Cultural Revolution, Ru ideology is far more dominating among all traditional schools of thought than during the Western Han Dynasty, almost to the extent of being all-pervasive. The impact of this situation on China’s future is still not clear. The only thing that is clear is that, on noticing our efforts in studying and putting into practice the four fields of Confucius’s teaching, in restoring the study of other various traditional schools of thought including Legalism, the School of Names (名家), the School of Diplomatic Strategists (纵横家), the Huang-Lao School (Daoism), and Confucius’s character-cultivating approach – on noticing all this, some people view us as arch-villains and sly schemers. To tell the truth, we have been making advances in spite of their groundless accusations every now and then! And, to defend our worthy ancestors, we have no regrets to be called names! 
       

    • We have broken through the three "gates of hell" of Western learning, neo-Ru scholasticism, and Han (dynasty) learning and come to this day. What hardships and bitterness we have experienced may be difficult for later generations to comprehend. Fortunately, we have had the support from such prominent personages as the late Mr. Nan Huaiqin (南怀瑾) and Dr. Yu Yunhui (余云辉). Otherwise, it is really hard to imagine that we can persist to this day. 

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    • Our long march has just begun. In the future, we will face a long-time and arduous task of propagating the results of our work. There will be a subtle issue to tackle, that is, how to show to the world through succinct and reader-pleasing writings the Chinese understanding of the Dao characterized by the highly developed theory and practice of internal sanctification externalized into kingly (non-hegemonic) statecraft. 
      Returning to China of the Axis Age is the historical mission of contemporary humanity. If modern capitalism with its inward inflation of material desire and outward expansion of capital is not reformed, humanity will only be farther and farther away from the tradition of Eastern civilization based on proper and righteous social rules “following human nature and restraining human greed” and from that of religion-based Western civilization as well. As predicted by the Book of Rites (《礼记·乐记》), this will inevitably lead to humans’ loss of souls (“人化物”, "humans become soulless objects"). That would result in a great disorder under the jungle law! 

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    • For a sustainable development of human civilization, we must return to the Great Way of life, one in never-ending cycles, that is inherent in Chinese culture. China’s history of five thousand years of sustainable development is the best proof of the practical effectiveness of this Great Way.  

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    • We do not see any other options except the above. 

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    • The Western civilizational paradigm as a whole has gone wrong. More and more people will realize that today’s ecological crisis, social crisis, spiritual crisis, etc., are essentially the consequences of excessive expansion of monopoly capital. Monopoly capital has already violated the ultimate limit allowed by human civilization, not only alienating capital from its own proper self, but also from its spiritual home, that is, the Western Christian civilization, especially from the Puritan tradition of diligence, frugality and integrity!  

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    • Let the people of different religions, different ethnic groups, and different regions in the East and the West get united, borrow as fully as possible from Chinese culture its Great Way of propriety and righteousness that “follows human nature while restraining human greed”, and return to the normal track of a civilized society, i.e., that of internal restraint of greediness and external regulation of capital. That is the golden Way paved with high human wisdom!  

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    • The book Laozi says: "Those who practice the Dao are part of It." (“从事于道者,同于道。”) 

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    • Human civilization in the 21st century calls urgently for fundamental changes and, by contributing to this great transformation, we will also fulfil ourselves. 
      (Translated from Chinese by Sherwin Lu)
       

    • Notes: 

    • [1] From Jaspers (1883-1969): "The Origin and Goal of History". 
      [2] “The Ru school” (儒家) is a newly corrected English translation of what used to be translated conventionally but improperly as “Confucianism”. See for detailed explanation in “Confucianism”: Ru (儒) School Mislabeled. 

 
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