Humanism in China

By Lawson, David | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Humanism in China


Lawson, David, The Humanist


I recall a distinction made in a book in my library--now unavailable to me in China--a book, as I recall, by Erich Fromm. It is that between Western logic and Eastern (or paradoxical) logic, the former as in the expression "it is either A or B " (exclusion) and the latter as in "A" is not A because A is also B" (inclusion).

Ancient Chinese thought boasts no system of logic like that of Aristotle in the West. Rather, the Chinese "both-and" tradition seems something attitudinal--an interest in arriving at centrality, harmony, and synthesis. The expressions "A" is not A" or "A is also B" represent dualities, and the inclusiveness of "both A and not A" applies to various considerations. For example, humankind is at one with nature, heaven is conceived naturalistically, the inner and the outer are conjoined, knowledge and action can be unified, theory and practice go together, and ethics and spirituality are all of one piece. Even so, there seems room for a "bedrock" or original duality such as the yin and yang-heaven and earth, or male and female principles.

It has been noted that the efforts of nineteenth-century Western missionaries in China met with a response that was to them--to say the least--curious. Having worked to convert Chinese people to one or another denomination, and concluding that they had been successful on the basis of church attendance, they discovered that their "converts" considered themselves Christians but, at the same time, they were still Buddhists, Confucians, or Taoists. This is an illustration of the above-cited attitude regarding the oneness of the ethical and the spiritual, since the real meaning of religion was being understood broadly in ethical terms rather than as a special doctrinal, otherworldly denominationalism. I do not know what the missionaries did in response to their discovery, but if they were unaccepting of their "converts," this only illustrates the Western "it is either A or not A."

According to Kenneth L. Patton in Chinese Humanism (Meeting House Press, 1985), China's own ancient humanist tradition dates back some 3,000 years. I shall paraphrase some of his points: it abolishes human sacrifice, promotes a this, worldly view of the heavenly, and understands spirituality as the fullest development of ethical character. It places art and poetry alongside philosophy and centralizes both Confucian humanist (albeit feudal) and Taoist naturalist positions. This tradition dwarfs, in terms of duration, twentieth-century Western influences in China in the form of Marxism and pragmatism, both of which will now receive attention.

As to Marxism, which came to China from Europe via Russia as the initial term in the expression Marxism-Leninism, it suggests the economic dimension of the expression economic-political and can hardly be identified with humanism, though there is an overlap. This is because those seen to be exploited are to better their condition in the name of their human status. Here, attitudes vary; there is, of course, a tradition of protest against social exploitation (non-Marxist poet Edwin Markham's "The Man with the Hoe" provides an example) and Sun Yat-sen, as the leader of China, disavowed Marxism and doubted the exploitation of workers by capitalism, thus taking an opposite view.

Not the least important commonality for humanism and Marxism is that both "isms" are secular-though one rarely, if ever, hears of "secular Marxism." Speaking of "Marxist humanism" involves as much of a half-truth as does, say, "Christian humanism." On this point, Georg Lukacs took the position that the early writings of Marx were humanistic in character. But as a later expositor of the necessity of class conflict and of the dialectical materialism which provides its rationale, the humanism of Marx recedes.

Nonetheless, from the standpoint of the Chinese "both-and" attitude, the dialectical approach can provide illumination, and it may be no accident that dialectical materialsm took root so quickly upon being introduced to China. …

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