Dangerous Thinking – Early Qing Intellectuals

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Your average sleepy Qing scholar.


-by Ernie Diaz


Children and the thoughtless assume so, but by no means does society advance simply by virtue of time passing. We tsk at the idea of owning slaves and binding feet, and leave it to future generations to tsk at us for eating animals and choking the air for transport.


Great men and their actions are the agents of change, but great minds are the catalysts of progress. Today, the intellectual enjoys less respect than at any time since the Dark Ages, but only because never before have so many believed themselves free and well-informed.


In China today, as in the West, true intellectuals are largely viewed as troublemakers, slowing the progress towards a day when every third-worlder has satellite television. Besides, ideas have little currency in times when any fool can broadcast his to the world, almost any idea, even on China’s Twitter, Sina Weibo.


In days gone by, governments had to make no show of respect for the individual and his opinions. In those days, the intellectual was a hero. Gu Xiancheng of the late Ming Dynasty was a hero for re-branding the Dongling Academy, a Song-era school, to move a stale society forward and most of all, to curb the predatory excesses of the all-powerful court eunuchs.


Eunuch Wei Zhongxian crushed leaders of the Donglin Movement, but you can’t crush ideas. The movement paved the way for early Qing intellectuals who wrestled with the ideological constraints of foreign occupation. Their victories paved the way for much more well-known Chinese intellectuals, midwives for the birth of the Chinese Republic, and later the People’s.



Huang Zongxi

Huang Zongxi never lived to see the 18th century. So his work A Plan for the Prince is truly prescient, arguing that royals and ministers should serve the people, as opposed to the time-honored reverse. Imagine a liberal humanist, fuming that laws should replace imperial edicts, in China of all places, while Voltaire was still just a gleam in his daddy’s eye. Radical enough for the lettered Mandarin of the time, but Huang’s suggestion that the emperor cut down on wives, to curtail the power of eunuchs? Scandalous! Much more palatable were his recommendations for the imperial exams, that they be made more practical and dispense with the eight-legged essays, by which a promising scholar could ruin his future through the wrong use of a solitary Chinese character. A rebel to the end, Huang declined to work on the legendary, 332-volume Ming History, opting instead to compile a history of philosophy during the Song and Yuan eras. He died before its completion, but his ideas lived to spark much more radical philosophies..



Gu Yanwu

Hard not to be anti-Qing when your own mother starved to death hunger-striking against the regime. Yet Gu Yanwu was just as critical of the Ming, analyzing the political decadence that made China so vulnerable to a horde of half-civilized Northmen. In fact, he was the progenitor of modern Chinese historical criticism and philology. His conclusions: too much central government divorced officials from the people, bred over-regulation, and stifled economic initiative, basically a Ron Paul platform. When not urging greater local autonomy, Gu studied geography and economics, traveling constantly to gather evidence. He wrapped all disciplines up in the context of original, empirical research, in a book that would not be published until 13 years after his death, in 1682. Posthumous impact, true mark of a life well lived.



Yen Yuan

What Huang Zongxi thought on Chinese educational reform, Yen Yuan (1635-1704) put into practice, dispensing with the ultra-refined, Neo-Confucian claptrap and turning his Hebei Academy into a center for imparting practical skills: military prep, archery, riding, boxing, mechanics, mathematics, astronomy. Teddy Roosevelt himself would have been proud to matriculate. Insisting that anything on a school curriculum must have a real-world application, he would have stultified in today’s universities, but flourished in our technical colleges. Yen never knew wide acclaim, but his disciple Li Gong went on to spread radical educational reform, giving scholars China-wide an actual skill set.



Dai Zhen

To thine own self be true, or as 18th century luminary Dai Zhen out it: “One must not let oneself be deceived either by others or by oneself.” While his contemporary run-of-the-mill, uninspired fellow philosophers were content with the concept that men could all be mini-Confucii with the right training, Dai believed that morality must incorporate the undeniable drives of hunger, lust, and competition. Make no mistake, he was all for the Dao, the Way, but argued that we could not delude ourselves into thinking we were aught other than the ten thousand things. The upshot – he encouraged individualism, self-expression, the right of all to think for themselves and act accordingly. Chinese managers should all have shrines to Dai Zhen, and burn joss sticks for what could have been, and what yet might be.



Yuan Mei

Hard to pitch accolades to a man with concubines who claimed to support women’s rights, but in 18th century China, a respectable gentleman had to have a little side action just to keep up appearance. When not composing verse, Yuan Mei spoke out against polygamy and foot-binding, hypocritically enough, but at least he moved all his women, mother and lawful wife included, to Harmony Garden, where they at least were not confined to their quarters whenever men were about. Yuan Mei recognized the love of wealth and sex as natural human desires and suggested that without them the human race would have become extinct. He also observed that some people Like Dai, and Freud, Yuan recognized that suppressing natural drives for sex and wealth turned men wicked more often than righteous. Most admirably, he advocated chasing the Dao with artistic pursuits unhampered by musty forms and strictures. Singing one’s poetry, Yuan wrote, would bring a man peace, and only a man at peace could discover his true nature and inspiration.



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