The Constitutionalist’s New Robes
Yao Zhongqiu, an outspoken advocate of liberal democracy, recently came out as a Confucianist – robes and all. Is it cynical self-promotion, or a progressive attempt to blend Chinese and Western thought? NewsChina investigates
Photo by Liao Pan ￼
In April this year, at a seminar hosted by Peking University on the the I-Ching, a classical Chinese geomancy text, few were impressed with independent scholar Yao Zhongqiu’s interpretation of the ancient book.
To the astonishment of traditionalists, Yao was claiming that the book’s contents, a mystical collection of 64 diagrams corresponding to the various patterns that a set of divination sticks could land in, stood for decidedly modern concepts like “a roadmap to political order” and “the enlightenment necessary for participation in modern political life.”
Yao’s audience was, at best, skeptical. Some accused him of overanalyzing, and one warned that he was at risk of “ruining” the book. Yao explained he was only trying to interpret from the perspective of political philosophy, which he believed made good sense for China’s social governance and the rebuilding of humanitarian spirit in the country.
For the past two years, Yao, a white-haired man in his forties, has been scouring the Chinese classics to seek ideological resources for the administration of a modern society. Given that Yao had established a reputation as a liberal with a particular interest in constitutional democracy and the writings of Austrian classical liberal writer Friedrich Hayek, his proclamation a few years ago that that he had become a “Confucian scholar” raised more than a few eyebrows.
While Confucianism was an extremely important element in the statecraft of Chinese emperors over the past two millennia, it was denounced as the foundation of China’s backward ideologies by advocates of the New Culture Movement of the early 20th century. Since coming out as a Confucian, Yao, the bookish, bespectacled academic, has taken to wearing traditional Chinese robes when appearing in public.
Controversy and criticism peaked when Yao, in full traditional garb and accompanied by dozens of followers, prostrated himself and kowtowed before a statue of the sage at the Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province, Confucius’s birthplace.
Some claim that Yao’s spectacular transformation from Hayek scholar to advocate of “Confucian constitutional democracy” was motivated by a cynical desire to establish his own theory system and boost his academic profile.
“Yes, I want to build up my reputation. Doesn’t everybody, especially ambitious scholars?” said Yao. While he claims to have turned his back on Hayek, he still claims to be the late Austrian’s “academic soul mate.”
The Confucian Gene
Yao says that since the Confucian spirit is “in his blood,” his new image is perfectly natural.
Born into a rural family in central Shaanxi in the 1960s, Yao won a place at Renmin University in Beijing to read history in 1984, largely thanks to the guidance of his father, a high school graduate and the most learned man in the village.
Like other college students in the 1980s, Yao absorbed himself in the works of the Western humanities writers that became all the rage when China opened up to the outside world.
“I made my way through a lot of Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger,” said Yao.
In 1988, illness forced Yao to take a sabbatical, also causing him to miss the biggest event of the decade – the Tiananmen Square incident. It was during this time that he began reading the Buddhist and Confucian classics, a pursuit he claims to have continued ever since.
Throughout the winter of 1988, he rose at daybreak to prepare and consume traditional Chinese herbal remedies. While he was preoccupied with his recovery and future, Yao claims the care he received from his family and fellow villagers reminded him of the value of China’s traditional culture.
“Our village retained many traditions that even the Cultural Revolution could not destroy, and tradition had enabled the peasants to find peace in their tough lives.”
After recovering from his illness, Yao returned to Beijing in the fall of 1989 to pursue postgraduate studies in historiography. His master's thesis was on the work of Chien Mu (1895-1990), a heavyweight Chinese historian and an expert on the ancient Chinese classics, who lived in Taiwan at the time.
Chien’s influence on Yao was profound, especially Chien’s “sympathetic and respectful” attitude toward Chinese history, antithetical to the orthodox historical outlook prevalent in the Chinese mainland, which viewed ancient China as a feudal autocracy.
After graduation, Yao took a government job, but soon resigned to start a business with a few friends. After the business failed, he worked for a number of media outlets before eventually settling down with a newspaper as a night-desk editor.
This job offered the stable income and security that enabled him to focus on reading up on the Austrian school of classical liberalism, which was popular among the Chinese intellectual community at the time. Hayek became Yao’s spiritual mentor.
Since then, Yao has made a name for himself as a media commentator, paving the way for him to become a “public intellectual.” Around 2000, Yao quit his full-time job and became an independent scholar.
The man was a highly prolific freelance commentator, churning out six or seven incisive pieces per week under the pseudonym Qiu Feng (literally “Autumn Wind” in Chinese), usually revolving around the themes of democracy, rule of law and enlightenment.
Now, Yao’s business card boats a long list of titles, including director of the independent thank-tank Unirule, professor at Beihang University and director of the Confucianism research institute Hong Dao Academy.
While Yao had already succeeded in becoming a popular commentator, it was not until his high-profile conversion to Confucianism, with all the attending ritual and gimmicky clothing, that he became the center of attention. He refuted his critics’ assertions that he had undergone an ideological transformation, claiming that the Confucian in him had simply become too passionate to keep hidden.
Confucius Says: Turn the Other Cheek
Yao claims to be exploring the roots of Chinese civilization in an effort to cope with modern problems. In his opinion, contemporary Chinese scholars of humanities and social sciences have become rootless, and simply repeat what they have learned.
“More than a century has passed since modern humanities and social sciences were introduced into China, but nothing original has been spawned here, and there is no creativity to speak of, a pitiable state of affairs,” Yao said.
“Why is that? It’s because what we have is a set of concepts, ideas and means that had nothing to do with our own civilization in the first place. The concepts used in the research of economics, politics and law are totally irrelevant to the concepts Chinese people use in thinking, which has led humanities and social sciences to become disconnected from reality in China,” he continued.
Yao believes Chinese scholars need to return to their cultural roots – the Confucian classics. He is trying to find a way to allow liberalism, democracy and rule of law to take root in China, saying his ideals boil down to three words: Confucian constitutional democracy.
From the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) through the Qing (1644–1911), almost all Chinese rulers derived their principles of governance from the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Confucian classics, and Yao has set himself the ambitious academic goal of reinterpreting all of these texts, an endeavor he expects will take him the rest of his life to finish.
By doing this, he hopes to offer a complete picture of governance in ancient China since antiquity, and to come up with a brand of statecraft suited to today’s China.
Online, Yao tends to garner more opponents than supporters, and often engages in verbal battles with his critics on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.
“People attack me with abusive language online,” Yao said. “I’m no saint – I sometimes return in kind.”
He sometimes regrets getting tough his critics, and sometimes deletes his comments moments after posting them. But overall, he is becoming more tolerant of criticism – at the I-Ching seminar at Peking University, under a barrage of insults, he simply smiled and nodded.
“We must never pursue constitutionalism in China. We may only pursue ‘Chinese constitutionalism.’”
“Confucianism is a vitally important element in statecraft in today’s China.”
“We Chinese have to return to our own civilization to understand ‘liberty.’“
Born in the late 1960s in Shaanxi Province, Yao is one of the country’s most renowned media commentators, although he prefers to be known as an independent scholar. Since the 1990s, he has translated more than 20 works by Friedrich Hayek and various other economists of the Austrian School.
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