Chinese Utopianism: A Comparative Study of Reformist Thought with Japan and Russia, 1898-1997

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Chinese Utopianism: A Comparative Study of Reformist Thought with Japan and Russia, 1898-1997, by Shiping Hua. Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. xviii + 186 pp. US$35.00 (hardcover).

In his latest of many works on Chinese political culture, Hua Shiping widens his focus to how Utopian thought in Japan, Russia and China related to political reforms that in turn were responses to internal and external challenges. In this short work (107 pages of text and 46 pages of notes, plus bibliography), Hua utilizes a breadth of Chinese, Russian and Western sources to make bold generalizations and comparisons, some of which are provocative while others seem over-generalized. His main thesis is that the varying directions taken by reforms in the three countries from the 19 century to the present were heavily influenced by varying forms of utopianism, a term he defines as hope for a future ideal society.

Even readers skeptical of the political culture approach will find this book useful. Just as one may accept that homeopathic practices such as acupuncture or chiropractic can achieve successful results even if one doubts the validity of the theories underlying those practices, so too can one question whether the hypotheses generated by the political culture approach are really falsifiable and yet still find the approach useful as a suggestive form of analysis.

Hua finds that Japan's tradition of an "optimistic tone toward life" and a "moral relativism" based on particularistic values made social transformations easier for Japanese people. Hua claims that Japan's culture of borrowing from other countries led to a more inclusive attitude toward religions, which in turn was more conducive to the growth of a pluralistic society and made it much easier for Japan to adopt modernizing reforms, including the Meiji Restoration and Japan's democratization after WWII. In this broad generalization, Hua mostly ignores the flaws in the Meiji constitution and the militaristic elements of its political culture that led to military rale in Japan during the 1930s and '40s, a system which had to be forcibly removed by the United States before Japan could democratize. Nevertheless, even a person who questions the empirical basis of Hua's claims can still find provocative his view of the relative pluralism of Japanese society, a view at odds with that of many Western scholars.

In a similarly idiosyncratic vein, Hua sees China's political culture as based on more universalistic values than are found in Japan's tradition, especially China's Confucian tradition of datong, or "Grand Harmony", which Hua posits as a hope for a collective good which provided a more monistic and egalitarian influence on Chinese political culture. This view contrasts with Western views of Chinese Confucianism as leading to a particularistic political culture which, if not as rigidly enforced as in Japan, justified a hierarchical society that made national unity very hard to achieve in the face of modern challenges from the 19th century to the present (a view reflected in Sun Yatsen's famous phrase about China being made up of loose grains of sand). …