On Wu Mi's Conservatism

By Woei, Ong Chang | Humanitas, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

On Wu Mi's Conservatism


Woei, Ong Chang, Humanitas


Although broad tendencies that may be labeled "conservative" can be traced throughout history, to categorize any group of intellectuals as "conservative" is to invite philosophical debate. Karl Mannheim maintained that conservatism as an "ism" only emerged in the West in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and was an inseparable component of the triad conservatism/liberalism/radicalism. [1] Benjamin I. Schwartz went further. Referring to such prominent figures as Edmund Burke, he argued that "it is often asserted that conservatism was a reaction to the French Revolution, but it is probably more correct to say that the doctrine of conservatism rose in dialectic reaction to certain trends of the Enlightenment." [2] However complex the concept of conservatism may be, it should not be studied in isolation but regarded as a reaction to certain movements characterized by the intention to change the old system.

The "Critical Review" school.

Although it is probably impossible to provide an incontrovertible definition of "conservatism," the term is both convenient and useful for evaluating the thought of a special group of early twentieth century Chinese intellectuals widely known as the "Critical Review" (CR hereafter) or Xueheng school. CR was a monthly journal first published in 1922 by certain members of the faculty of the

Southeastern University in Nanjing. This school of thought was conservative in that it directly opposed the New Cultural Movement (xin wenhua yundong) led by such famous thinkers as Hu Shi (1891-1962), Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), Li Dazhao (1889-1927), and Lu Xun (1881-1936). Among the CR scholars, Wu Mi was certainly the most active. Moreover, he was the chief editor of most issues of the journal, which remained in publication until its demise, after eleven years of bitter struggle, in 1933. [3]

Influenced by Babbitt.

Wu Mi graduated from Tsinghua University in 1916. In the following year, he went to the United States to study at Harvard, from which he obtained an A.M. degree in 1921. While at Harvard, he had the opportunity to study with Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), one of the leading thinkers in the West during the first third of the twentieth century. Wu Mi was fascinated by Babbitt's ideas, which were known as the New Humanism, and by Babbitt's respect for ancient Eastern philosophy, including Buddhism and Confucianism. Other prominent CR scholars who were taught by Babbitt or influenced by his work include Mei Guangdi (1980-1945), Hu Xiansu (b1894), Liu Yizheng (1880-1936), and Guo Binhe (?).

After graduation, Wu Mi returned to China. He immediately confronted a situation in which supporters of the New Cultural Movement were attacking Confucianism and other forms of traditional thought, also known as "national essence," as the origin of evil and the source of China's backwardness. Believing that the destruction of the "national essence" would be harmful to China, Wu Mi soon engaged in resistance to the ideas of the New Cultural Movement.

The New Cultural Movement

According to Chow Tse-tsung, the New Cultural Movement, also known as the May Fourth Movement, covered a period from about 1917 through 1921. The students and intellectual leaders in this group (henceforth designated as the "New Intellectuals"), supported by the rising patriotic and anti-Great Power sentiments of the public, promoted an anti-Japanese campaign and a vast modernization movement that aimed to build a new China through intellectual and social reforms. [4] For the New Intellectuals, modernization involved two crucial elements, science and democracy, which were absent from the traditional culture. They thus regarded the introduction of Western culture into China as the most urgent task.

"Science" as a god.

The overwhelming zeal for science, however, did not really facilitate the true spirit of scientific research. Instead, as various scholars have pointed out, the primary concern of the New Intellectuals was to use "science" as a weapon to attack traditional beliefs and philosophy. …

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