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Bernt H. Berger & Alice I. Forbess

Modern Chinese Philosophy: Between Past and Future

A report about the 'Chinese Philosophy Symposia'



  The Chinese Philosophy Symposia at Oxford, which are organised by Nick Bunnin, constitute an informal environment where Chinese and Hong Kong scholars can present and discuss working papers with their peers. They thus foster an encounter of three intellectual directions and traditions, Western, Hong Kong and mainland-Chinese. The differences as well as mutual engagement between these philosophical projects provided for a lively and fertile discussion at the 1999 symposia reviewed here. The presentations, organised around two broad themes, took place over a two day period. The first symposium focused on philosophical issues, while the second created a transition between philosophy and contemporary political, economic and cultural issues confronting China today.

 Ethics of Care and Nietzsche in China

Chinese Philosophy Symposia
4. - 5. April 1999
Center for Modern Chinese Studies
Institute for Chinese Studies
University of Oxford


  Two Perspectives of care: Confucianism and Feminism by Professor Julia Tao (City University of Hong Kong) analysed the philosophical bases of comparisons between Confucianism and the feminist ethics of care, a concept developed by sociologists in the United States.  1  The term care ethics pertains to an internalist theory of moral motivation statistically associated with women. According to care ethics theory, moral motivation develops in human beings through memories of caring and being cared for. Hence, care ethics favours contextualism over abstraction, affirms the value of acting out of love, compassion, empathy, and the value of ongoing relationships, and is opposed to a standpoint of abstraction, impartiality and objectivity and "acting out of duty".


  Julia Tao evaluates the (metaethical) claim that care ethics shares common features with Confucianism (for example, the argument that the concept of care is similar to the Chinese Jen). She argued that, while there are some superficial similarities between the two ethical models, these similarities are shared by Confucianism refer to points many other traditions share, such as the value placed on care and respectively on Jen, the stress on practice rather than ideas, and so forth. Meanwhile, the differences between Confuciansim and care ethics remain profound and significant.

»Confucianism is a form of moral conduct and absolute truth which does not provide an avenue for perspectivism. Although Confucianism is a secular concept, it becomes transcendent by its absolute status.«

Chan Wing Ming


  Professor Chan Wing Ming of Hong Kong Baptist University presented a section of his new book on the impact of Nietzsche in China. Although Nietzsche's translations have had relatively large circulation compared to those of other Western philosophers, this was partly due to the popularity of Nietzsche's critique of Christianity (with the Chinese government), while Nietzsche's philosophy had not yet achieved full relevance in relation to Chinese issues.


  Chanlooks at three points of such relevance. He stresses that Nietzsche is not irreligious; rather, he suffers from incredulity. Therefore, for Nietzsche, belief implies two points: first, to believe in God provides an excuse not to think and second, truth requires a perspective. In the Confucianist context the complex of truth -which can only be seen in perspective- is supposedly excluded. Confucianism is a form of moral conduct and absolute truth which does not provide an avenue for perspectivism. Although Confucianism is a secular concept, it becomes transcendent by its absolute status.


  A second concept which Prof. Chan considers significant for China in the context of colonialism is that of master and slave morality. In confrontation with Western civilisation and modernisation, Chinese slave morality appeared insofar as the reference to own virtues increased and »Chinese became more Chinese«, instead of adopting a perspective on the future including change and confrontation. However, to be virtuous is not considered to be weak in China. A similar concept was brought forward by the Chinese writer Lu Xun.


  The third point concerned agency. Neither Nietzsche nor Confucianism produced a general theory or principle. Instead, both approaches stress the agent over abstract dogma (i.e. Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch, or the Confucian moral agent).

 A Society in Transition

For further information about the Philosophy Summer School in China and the Chinese Philosophy Working Papers please contact:

Philosophy Project
Institute for Chinese Studies
Centre for Modern Chinese Studies
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 2HG

+44 (0)1865 - 28 03 81

external linkhttp://www.orinst.


  The third session, held by Xu Youyu (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing), focused on liberalism in mainland China. The idea of liberalism was imported to China by Yan Fu (1854-1921) who was sent to England during the Qing dynasty. However, during China's modern history, liberalism predominantly served antithetically to socialist revolutionary endeavours.


  The postcolonial discourse equaled modernisation with westernisation. However, some discourses considered communitarianism because it puts the community prior to individualism. In her response Lin Chun (London School of Economics) emphasised that changes take place in China and a new enlightenment debate is going on.


  The fourth and final paper was presented by professor Wei Xiaoping (People's University, Beijing). Wei concentrated on questions concerning theory of market socialism in the contemporary context. The socialist market reforms in China under Deng Xiaopeng were characterised by a wave of decentralisation towards an open market. However, ideas about the strategies of the transitional process towards the goal of market economy had not developed. The vacuum gave rise to discussion regarding Western liberal economic scholarship and the advantages and disadvantages a centralised socialist program had. The arising principle of market socialism was based on public ownership combined with a market economy.


  Wei discussed the pros and cons of socialism and free market socialism in the Chinese context, giving the impression that market socialism appears as the third way, which is suitable to the Chinese condition. In the context of justice this third way, however, carries the ill effects of both socialism and capitalism. While socialism has a tendency towards non-efficient productivity and dictatorship, the capitalist part leads to social inequality, lack of social responsibility and corruption.


  The following discussion focused on the differences between decentralisation and deregulation and the necessity of political institutions in order to bring about a just process of transition.

 Final Remarks

Bernt H. Berger is a Research Student in the Department of International Relations,
Alice I. Forbess is a Research Student in the Department of Social Anthropology,
both at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


  The dynamics and factors which might play a role in the process of social, political and economic transition are specific to China. Hence, the solutions are necessarily specific. Intercultural philosophy provides the ample scope of exchange in regard to contemporary questions and the reflection of actual contingencies. Contemporary philosophy and social theory can hardly be approached outside this context. Modern Chinese philosophy therefore is not necessarily culturally specific but an expression of, and approach towards stability within China, which might provide time and space for new ideas (including liberal democratic ones). This, however, needs time and for the time being the main attention has to be paid to ideas, that express the Chinese way to solve the problems within.


  The symposium was a useful and highly informative event for several reasons. It gave profound insights into the current orientations within modern Chinese philosophy, it was a forum for the exchange of ideas and provided room for thought about the priorities, on which an intercultural philosophy can concentrate. Besides the symposia, the Centre for Modern Chinese Studies is involved in the organisation of the annual Philosophy Summer Schools, which takes place in different locations in China.



Nel Noddings: Caring: a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley/Cal.: University of California Press, 1986. 

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