Classics Culture

Modern China, Ancient Thinking – Wen Zi (文子 – Wén Zǐ), Xun Zi (荀子 – Xún Zǐ) and others3 min read

28 February 2021 3 min read


Modern China, Ancient Thinking – Wen Zi (文子 – Wén Zǐ), Xun Zi (荀子 – Xún Zǐ) and others3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Much coverage of the Boao Forum in April 2018 the international press describes the meeting as “underwhelming”, “under-delivering”, “heard this all before”, “predictable.”

But going deeper into President’s speech at the Forum, some interesting insights into China’s thinking on governance can be found. Ancient philosophy deployed in China’s modern governance.

Aside from the headline messages of looking back, looking forward, and reiterating China is open for business, and its support of investment and market access, there are subtle messages too.

The challenge for the international audience, understandably so, is that a PhD in Chinese philosophy and literature is needed to grasp some of what is being said. And of course, any translation would never do it justice.

The speech weaves its way from leaders in recent Chinese history – Deng Xiaoping (“feeling stones to cross the river”), to deep back in time to some of China’s best known, and also less well-known, thinkers, writers, and philosophers of the last 2,500 years.

The speech combines elements of Confucianism, which is still predominant in China’s system and society today, with Daoism, a totally different school of thought, but one that is just as prevalent in China today. It gives a narrative of China’s version of the story of it’s success over the last 40 years of reform, and it sees the future.

But these messages go largely unnoticed.

The teachings of China’s ancient thinkers gives an insight into the how China sees itself, its political system, its reforms and the current trade tensions.

On China’s political system: “天行有常,应之以治则吉” (tiān xíng yǒu cháng, yīng zhī yǐ zhì zé jí)

“Nature is the true law; adapting to it in governance will deliver success”

This is from the teachings of Xunzi – a Confucian philosopher who lived in the third century BC. It reflects China’s ability to adapt its system to the circumstances it faces – as China changes and develops, the government actively adjusts and adapts the system accordingly.

On China’s reforms: 苟利于民,不必法古;苟周于事,不必循俗 (gǒu lì yú mín, bù bì fǎ gǔ; gǒu zhōu yú shì, bù bì xún sú)

If it works for the people, do not follow the old ways; it it helps make things happen, there is no need to follow tradition

Pragmatic words from Wenzi, one of China’s lesser known philosophers, who was alive around the same time as Confucius (2,500 years ago – although no one actually knows for sure), and a disciple of Laozi – a Daoist thinker.

This is used here to recognise the importance of the innovation of the Chinese people in China’s 40 years of reform – adapting and innovating in the face of rapid change, and having a system that allows this.

On trade tensions and short-termism: 不畏浮云遮望眼,善于拨云见日 (bù wèi fú yún zhē wàng yǎn, shàn yú bō yún jiàn rì)

Do not fear rising clouds that block your vision; look through the clouds to see the sun

A quotation from a poem by Wang Anshi, a Confucian philosopher, poet, economist, and politician who lived more than 1,000 years ago during the Song Dynasty. One of the “8 big thinkers” of the Song and Tang dynasties, Wang was a bold reformer who was a proponent of promoting state finance, trade and education, in order to improve living standards at the time.

On China’s pragmatism and hard work: 积土而为山,积水而为海 ( jī tǔ ér wéi shān , jī shuǐ ér wéi hǎi)

Earth can be gathered to build a mountain; water can be collected to form an ocean

This is another of Xunzi’s teachings (third century BC). Great things, even the impossible, can be achieved through hard work, perseverance and patience, and taking things one step, or hand full of earth, at a time.

Perhaps when trying to understand China, more time and effort should be put into understanding some of the though behind the speeches delivered by its leaders.

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