BMCR 2023.11.41

Plato goes to China: the Greek classics and Chinese nationalism

, Plato goes to China: the Greek classics and Chinese nationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780691229591.



As the subtitle indicates, Shadi Bartsch’s new book examines the ways in which the Greek Classics have been used by Chinese nationalist thinkers in their political reasoning. According to Bartsch, this began “during the years of crisis and revolution leading up to and following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911” and was resumed “recently by a second wave, one that coincides with the surge of Chinese confidence and nationalism” (2). Bartsch is particularly concerned with the difference between these two movements. The Chinese reform-minded thinkers of the early twentieth  century, in view of the political and military superiority of the West, saw in its classic texts a potential source of inspiration for China’s own modernization. Recent Chinese nationalists, by contrast, have searched the Greek classics for arguments to use against western democracy and for the Chinese socialist system. Bartsch identifies the crackdown on Tiananmen Square of 1989 as the decisive turning point, after which “a conceptual revolution took place among a group of Chinese intellectuals, public thinkers, and even government officials as to how they read these classical texts” (x). As to her procedure, Bartsch announces that she will not deal with “the readings produced by ‘institutional Greco-Roman classicists’ at Chinese universities” (xi), who are in her view “essentially apolitical professors” (15) and whose “engagement is mostly with classical scholars outside China” (xi). She will investigate only scholars who “promote public and ideological responses to classical texts, … are widely influential and well represented in the public arena” (xi), and for whom “ultimately the study of the western classics must be for the greater good of China” (15).

The investigation is divided into seven chapters. In Chapter 1, Bartsch shows how important, in the early twentieth century, Athenian democracy and Aristotle’s political thinking were for people like Liang Qichao, Yan Fu, and others in their effort to promote political reforms. She discusses the economist, communist, and dissident Gu Zhun (1915–74), who saw important traits of the Greek city state (e.g., democracy and the rule of law) and factors connected with Greece’s maritime position (e.g., trade and cultural exchange) at the roots of western supremacy. Gu’s ideas were taken up in the TV-documentary River Elegy, which was broadcast in 1988 and became a catalyst for the student movement of 1989.

According to Bartsch, after the crackdown “silence descended upon students, protesters, intellectuals, and professors. By the time their voices – and their comments on the texts of classical antiquity – began to be heard a decade after the massacre, there had been a dramatic shift in what prominent intellectuals, including some at major universities, had to say” (49). This shift is the subject of Chapters 2 to 6, the main part of the book.

In Chapter 2, “Classics after Tiananmen,” Bartsch gives examples of ways in which the scholars she is interested in present the classical past as “supporting the values of the Chinese government” (53). Some use Thucydides’ and other ancient authors’ censure of Athenian democracy to criticize modern western democracy. Some discredit Aristotle and his concept of citizenship by referring to his justification of slavery. Others look at antiquity to bolster the claim that China, like Greece, went through the historical stage of the (democratic) city state, etc.

If Chapter 2 provides an introductory survey, Chapter 3 “focuses specifically on Plato and the question of how the Republic’s hierarchically ordered ideal state, and the alleged necessity of a “noble lie” for making such an order acceptable to the people, have fared with Chinese interpreters. Bartsch’s answer is clear: “scholars in general did not applaud the conditions of Kallipolis in the decade before the crackdown” but “the majority of recently published  … views on Plato’s Noble Lie are in its favor” (94, my emphases).

Chapter 4, “Rationality and its Discontents,” deals with the phenomenon that, in the last decades, numerous Chinese authors, inspired by Max Weber’s distinction between “instrumental rationality” and “value rationality” and by the related Enlightenment skepticism of thinkers like Horkheimer and Adorno, have “seized the opportunity to suggest the horrors awaiting instrumentally rational western society” (115). In this discourse the reference to the respective philosophical traditions and, in the end, to the Platonic and the Confucian canons, has played a significant role.

Chapter 5, “A Straussian Interlude,” deals with the followers of the German-American philosopher and politologist Leo Strauss, Gan Yang and Liu Xiaofeng, who presented themselves from the late 1990s onwards as neo-conservative nationalists. Replacing “the former opposition of China and the west” with “a new opposition of Antiquity and post-Enlightenment thought” (135), they played the alleged agreement of the Confucian and the Platonic traditions off against the modern west with its esteem of freedom and democracy. Through their own publications, editorial activities, and the establishment of study programs at universities in Guangzhou and Beijing, Gan and Liu exercised considerable influence both in the academic sphere and beyond, although recently they seem to have parted ways.

Chapter 6, “Harmony for the World,” starts out with “the return of Confucius” (147) at the beginning of the 2000s into the ideological cosmos of the CCP after his relegation through Mao many years before. The mantra under which the return took place was和谐he xie “harmony,” a concept which could serve as an orientation mark both for national and international politics – and which allegedly could also be found in Plato. At the end of the chapter, Bartsch discusses a recent system-critical study that uses Confucius (and Plato) to plead for “a modified Confucian system with socialist characteristics” (172).

In the final chapter, Bartsch adds some “Thoughts for the Present,” expressing inter alia the hope that studies like hers “can contribute … to national introspection and greater understanding of different cultures” (180).

Bartsch’s book has the indubitable merit of presenting a subject which so far has pretty much escaped the attention of Western classicists. It impresses by its comprehensive study of different kinds of sources, including digital material, which rarely finds its way into classical scholarship but which is of particular importance for her topic.

Given the breadth of this topic it goes without saying that not every statement will convince everyone to the same extent. Examples of this might include the following. In her discussion of Aristotle’s attitude towards democracy and its reception by Yan Fu (38–39) Bartsch does not sufficiently consider the complexity of the philosopher’s argument and his rather idiosyncratic terminology in the pertinent chapters of the Politics. The inclusion of Wang Huaiyu among the “intellectuals and public figures of mainland China” (76–79) is surprising, since Wang has been living in the US for about 20 years. The thesis that, in his essay “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” “Max Weber traced instrumental rationality back to Plato’s Forms” and “damned Platonic knowledge … as the ultimate form of scientific knowledge” (117, my emphases) can hardly be gained from the essay itself.

These are, for the most part, matters of detail. A more general observation concerns the book’s main thesis: that there were two waves of exploitation of western classical antiquity in Chinese public discourse, that these waves were fundamentally different from each other in terms of political orientation, and that the crackdown at Tiananmen in 1989 constitutes the watershed between them and the reason for their difference. It is my impression that Bartsch’s text itself points to a slightly more complex interpretation but one that is hinted at rather than explicitly formulated. The Tiananmen incident surely had a serious effect, but it was a primarily negative one: it prevented ideas like those developed by Gu Zhun and popularized by River Elegy from being discussed any longer. Another factor, apart from the incident itself, was needed for the new argumentation to set in and develop and that was the economic and political rise of China to the position of second world power behind the US and, ultimately, to the position of “systemic rival” to the US and broader West. Only this rise – and not simply the wish or the perceived need to please those in power – could create the confidence and conviction to argue seriously for the quality and, ultimately, the superiority of the Chinese socio-economic-political system over that of the west.

While this reflection remains within the logic of Bartsch’s stated procedure, another concerns the procedure itself. Bartsch distinguishes two kinds of classicists in contemporary China, the “institutional” Greco-Roman classicists and those scholars who operate in the public arena, and her interest is exclusively with the second group. This is, a priori, fine. The problem is that such exclusiveness may lead to overestimation: the use of Western Classics by the political activists may appear as the predominant part of the occupation with Western Classics in China, which it is not and never has been. It seems to me that Bartsch’s presentation does not completely escape this danger.[1]

A look at her treatment of the years following the crackdown can make my point clear. Bartsch observes here “silence … descending on students, protestors, intellectuals, and professors” and a return of “their voices – and their comments on the texts of classical antiquity” only “a decade after the massacre” (49). This statement is only valid if one ignores “institutional classics.” As soon as one includes it in the investigation things look different.

An important landmark for the study of Western Classics in China was and remains the “Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations” (IHAC) at North-East Normal University in Changchun. Its foundation was due to yearlong efforts of Lin Zhichun, one of the most effective “institutional scholars” concerned with western [from the Chinese point of view] antiquity.[2] The institute was the first of its kind in China: beginning in 1985 it offered regular programs in Assyriology, Hittitology, Egyptology, and Western Classics and it was allowed to hire, on a regular basis, “foreign experts,” that is, Western scholars, for each of the fields. The foundation of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations (JAC) followed a year later. The 1989 crackdown did not impair IHAC’s activities; in subsequent years they intensified, leading in the 1990s to the completion of a growing number of MA theses and the first PhD theses.

And IHAC did not remain alone: around the middle of the decade, Latin and Greek began to be taught, in part by former IHAC students, at Nankai University in Tianjin, at Peking University in Beijing, and at Fudan University in Shanghai. Another marker of historic progress was in 1993 the organization, by Wang Dunshu, of the “First International Conference on Ancient World History” in Tianjin, which already three years later was followed by the Second Conference in Changchun. Both meetings were well attended by scholars from around the world and led to many new east-western connections which would prove fruitful in subsequent years. Thus, there was in China no decade of silence regarding Western Classics after 1989. The effect of the crackdown was only partial, not general.

In the period since the late 1990s, the situation, of course, has been different. Here Bartsch has good reason for calling attention to the contribution of Chinese nationalist thinkers to the actualization of Western classics in China. But the impression that everything interesting in the field is to be attributed to this group of scholars – and this is the impression that her presentation, presumably unintentionally, conveys – is nevertheless deceptive. Here, too, the full picture of Western Classics in China would have to include the achievements of the “institutional classicists,”[3] whose ongoing engagement for a deeper historical understanding of western civilization – with Greek democracy still being a highly important topic – and whose interest in international scholarly exchange may, after all, not be as purely academic and apolitical as Bartsch takes it to be.

Commendably, Bartsch acknowledges that her exclusive concentration on the political activists may be problematic. She explicitly apologizes to the institutional classicists and expresses the hope that “they will have their own book, since they are richly deserving” (15, n. 31). This frankness honors her and perhaps she herself, in an act of compensation, will take up the task. She would be qualified like few others to do so.



[1] The title of Chapter 2, for example, is “Classics after the Crackdown,” but the chapter, like subsequent chapters, does not deal with Chinese Western classics in general but only with the political activists’ Western classics.

[2] It is characteristic that Bartsch brings Lin in only as the editor of a 1989 volume on The Study of the History of the Ancient City State, i.e., as one of the earliest post-Tiananmen nationalists (66–67). But in 1989 Lin was almost 80 years old and had been known for pursuing the theory that (democratic) city states were a universal, i.e., also Chinese, historical phenomenon. So, even if we see in this theory an expression of nationalism, Lin’s nationalism was hardly post-Tiananmen.

[3] The enumeration of their activities in the 1990s could easily be continued for the new millennium.