Western and Chinese intellectual traditions are in many ways different
from each other. In their studies on correlative thinking in the Chinese tradition,
David Hall and Roger Ames argue that the different cosmological assumptions of
European cultures on the one hand and the autochthonous philosophical
traditions of China on the other are greatly significant and worthy of
scholarly attention. The kind of differences Hall and Ames
point out may cause a large number of scholars in both the West and China to doubt
that the two traditions can be fully understandable to each other in their own
My personal experience is that the more understanding I gain of the Western intellectual tradition, the more I realize that the differences between it and the Chinese tradition are more numerous and run deeper than I had previously thought. Some outstanding ideas of the great thinkers in the Western tradition sometimes do not make too much sense to me. (For example, even now I still have difficulties in experiencing the well-known thesis of Descartes “I think, therefore I am” as a kind of exciting philosophy.) In the meantime, some ideas of the great thinkers in Chinese tradition have been read and interpreted very differently by various people. I realize more and more that in many cases the knowledge I gained of the ideas of Western thinkers when I was in China was either inaccurate or very different from what I read in the English texts when I was abroad. Thus I have come to believe that while gaining a better understanding of the link between the two cultural traditions is possible, misunderstandings and pitfalls also seem difficult to avoid.
Here, I would
like to draw my colleagues’ attention to the possibility that as a historical
phenomenon of civilized engagement since the turn of the last century, the
Chinese conversation with Marxism in the West is no exception. Many Chinese
intellectuals may have since then come to understand Marxism in Chinese terms;
and in the meantime, a surprisingly large number of writers have come to
believe that Chinese Marxism can be understood fully in terms of Western categories.
Many writers – for example Stuart Schram, Joseph Needham, and Nick Knight –
have said that there is something distinctly Chinese about Chinese Marxism, but
have failed to make clear what this implies, in terms of both what makes Chinese
Marxism distinct, and of how Chinese Marxism differs from the one of Marx or of
Unlike previous scholarly efforts, this paper addresses a fundamental issue, namely, that certain cosmological assumptions of the Western tradition have led to the differences between Western Marxism and particular philosophical currents in the Chinese tradition. I would like to argue that “dialectics,” wherever one finds it in the West, is different from what appears to be the Chinese analogue. Marxian dialectics in China is not the same as the inherited legacy of Marxian dialectics in Europe.
My study is primarily intended to show that bianzhengfa 辯証法 is a very strong and useful strand of thought in Chinese Marxism, which draws on the Chinese tradition and which may overcome some of the difficulties that have attended an understanding of Western Marxism. This may help us to see that many standard readings of Chinese Marxism are problematic. Like the Marxism which became codified in the 2nd International, Chinese Marxism finds its roots in Friedrich Engels, but it reads him in a distinctly different way. What Chinese Marxism takes from Engels is interpreted through the lense of tongbian , a distinctive style of Chinese thought.
In the following I would like to first introduce tongbian – which can be identified in the classical text, the Yijing 易經, as a form of correlative thinking. It appears as functional analogues in the section of “Xici” . Then, I will employ Qu Qiubai’s 瞿秋白 (1899–1935) discussion of “materialism” and “dialectics” as an exemplary case, to show how Chinese Marxism draws on tongbian and reads Marx and Engels in a distinctly different way. Chinese Marxism has developed from a culture and tradition that cannot be fully understood in terms of Western categories.
Tongbian is a clear style of “thought” (or philosophy). The key concepts of tongbian can perhaps be described as follows:
(1) The world is one of correlations and “self-so-ing,” or one of continuity through change;
(2) The types of correlations are many and diverse, multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-fold, and multi-categorical. Continuity exists through change, by which heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things come to correlate with each other.
(3) Man thus reaches continuity with nature through correlations, as well as through a thorough comprehension of nature.
(4) In tongbian, there is no conception of God, but rather a spirituality that entirely depends on how much man can develop his intelligence.
(5) Change itself is an embodiment of correlation in motion, or continuity between differences and varieties that are not strictly contrastive.
(6) Tongbian involves constantly alternating forms changing into each other, exchanging with each other, displacing each other, and so on; that ensures the occurrence of change, in which shen 神 (usually known as “god” in the English language) describes the efficacy of these interactions of complementary opposition.
(7) The correlative tongbian philosophy can also be called the philosophy of Dao 道 (the Way). The nucleus, or the most salient feature, of tongbian is that it is not God but Dao, the complementary and contradictory interactions of the two basic elements of a polarity like yin-yang that constitute the key forces in the universe, and produce change.
We will return to this discussion. Here, let us review the historical
background of the period when Chinese intellectuals began to consider Marxism
seriously. This period began after the 1917 Russian Revolution; the Chinese
debates over historical materialism arose following the publication of a
special issue of Xin Qingnian 新青年 (New Youth) in 1919, translations of treatises on dialectical materialism from Russian in the 1920s
and 1930s, and Qu Qiubai’s lectures in Shanghai during the same period.
Qu Qiubai was
one of the intellectuals who first “enlightened” the Chinese about contemporary
theories on dialectical materialism. He was born in Changzhou, Jiangsu, in
1899. In October 1920, he was dispatched as a special correspondent for The Morning News (Chenbao ) to work in
the Soviet Union, and to send back direct reports on the first country to be
ruled by Communists.
return to China in the
beginning of 1923, Qu became an enthusiastic advocate of historical materialism
as well as the first teacher of dialectical materialism in China.
Like many other intellectuals of his time, what Qu found in “dialectical materialism” was something similar to the style of tongbian in the Chinese tradition. This was the beginning of a dialogue in which a very Chinese version of Marxism was developed.
However, few people in China (including Qu himself) understood that, following the appearance of Marx’s manuscript of 1844, almost all major Western Marxists intuitively knew the distinction between the scientific and revolutionary old Marx – the founder of socialism – and the philosophical young Marx whose Hegelian inspiration is much more romantic and humanistic.
further problems. “Dialectical materialism” as a philosophical materialist
dichotomy was probably used first in 1891 by Plekhanov, who, speaking in 1908
for the mainstream of the 2nd International (founded in 1889 and controlled by
“Marxists”), asserted that with Anti-Dühring,
Marxist doctrine has taken “its final shape.” Thus, presumably, mind and matter are opposites, joined “dialectically” but
with matter being of primary importance. That is to say, bodies can exist
without minds, but minds cannot exist without bodies. The same would hold true vis-à-vis the objective economic base and the superstructure. This dualism and dichotomy
is rooted in the philosophy of Descartes.
Later on, dialectical materialism became the official philosophy of the Soviet Union. In this historical environment, the Marxism accessible to Qu was therefore Russian. It seems plausible, then, to assume that Qu’s pioneering essays on dialectical materialism could have included strong elements of positivism and dualism as well.
was Chinese. Our sensitivity ought to be aroused by the fact that he came to a
reading of all the texts on dialectical materialism through the lenses of his
own experience and cultural tradition. Qu was very learned at the age of
twenty; he had diligently studied classical philosophers, particularly Laozi and Zhuangzi . He even had a substantial command of the Shuo
wen , a classical
lexicon. He cherished an obvious sense of being Chinese. As he once said to one
of his friends:
As a Chinese, particularly as an intellectual, one must be highly developed in Chinese literature, history, and philosophy – literature includes Confucius and the Five Classics, the poems of the Han Dynasty, the diverse styles of the literatures of Jian’an , Taikang , and the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and the characteristics of the poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties, the verses of the Yuan Dynasty, and the novels of the Qing Dynasty; ... there are diverse schools of thought in the Pre-Qin period, the Confucian classics of the Han Dynasty, Buddhism of the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, and the li studies of the Song and Ming Dynasties. One must have at least some general idea of all these, or how could one be called a Chinese?
Judging from all the testimonies to Qu’s deep roots in the Chinese tradition – his knowledge, his skillfulness in using Chinese language, and, particularly his awareness of being a Chinese – one can readily accept that Qu gained his understanding of Western ideas from the perspectives of Chinese tradition and his own experience and cultural background – in particular, through the eyes of the type of correlative thinking called tongbian.
terms Qu used in his discussions of dialectical materialism appeal to the
correlative mode of tongbian. The
terminology and his discourse can indeed be viewed as a scheme organized in
terms of continuity and suggested in analogical relations, and therefore,
involving associations of image- or concept-clusters related by a meaningful
disposition. It is critical to realize that what dialectical materialism means
to Qu is the natural cosmology of tongbian.
The characters Qu used as a translation for “dialectical materialism” were hubian fa weiwu lun , or “a mutual
changing view of materialism,” which is, in fact, the modern expression of the
concept of tongbian.
Perhaps shuliang zhiliang de hubian (the mutual change of
quantity and quality), fouding zhi fouding (negation of negation), and zhengti–fanti–heti (thesis – antithesis –
synthesis) are more easily comprehensible as denoting alternate
characterizations of the functional analog of a door’s opening and shutting as
depicted in the Xici commentary to the Yijing. “Quantity” refers to the continuity between opening and
shutting, “quality” to either opening or shutting, and “dialectical,” (or
“mutual changing,” in Qu’s terms) to the succession and alternation of opening
the “negation” of opening, and vice versa; and opening and shutting are a “negation of the negation” – an “antithesis” – to each other; that is, the succession
and alternation of opening and shutting can be seen as a “synthesis,” thus
“synthesis” refers to the continuity between opening and shutting. To many philosophers
in the West, this sounds like an egregious misunderstanding of Marx or Hegel.
However, in an examination of Qu’s discussion of dialectical materialism, we can discern a sound modality of tongbian corresponding to the seven key concepts I introduced earlier:
(1) A World of Correlations. “Dialectical materialism” is taken as a philosophy of continuity (or correlations) in the sense of the mutual “becoming” (hubian ) of each of the ten thousand things (or events) under heaven; and the world seen through “dialectical materialism” is one of the correlations, in which everything constitutes a continuum with everything else. For Qu, since continuity (lianxi ) goes through all events and things, one simply cannot draw any strict line of demarcation. The type of causal implication or entailment of Aristotelian and modern Western logic – natural kinds, part-whole relations, an implicit or explicit theory of types – has been transformed into a discourse on continuity in Qu’s discussions. As Qu claims, bufen and quanti (part and whole), and huanjing and geti (environment and any individual thing or event) are linked by continuity, and thus there are no absolute boundaries between them. In particular, Qu points out that any minor change in a part may have an impact on other parts, thus leading to a change in the whole.
(2) Types of Correlations. In Qu’s discussions of dialectical materialism, I find some suggestive answers to the question “In which ways do all things correlate with each other?” Qu has not construed dialectical materialism as a development of formal concepts that set finite boundaries on diverse types of correlations. In his way of suggesting differences, Qu depends upon exemplary instances rather than strict definitions. Therefore, by using the terms “norm” or “law,” “clue,” “cause,” “relations,” “impact” or “influence,” “system,” “law of movements,” “logic” and so on in their Chinese translation, Qu means that differences are all diverse types of continuity and correlations rather than causal relations. There are fundamental and structural differences between correlativity and causality.
(3) Humanity as
reading of dialectical materialism in my view reflects a type of tongbian thinking that takes into
account humanity as continuity and even the inseparable constituent of a world
that consists of the ten thousand things. As he plainly states: “Humanity is
part of nature ... man is able to think not thanks to God ... [rather] humanity
is a product of nature, a part of nature, and belongs to the realm of nature.”
Qu stresses that there are no strict boundaries between things and events. His view reflects the traditional idea that there is no single constituent amid the ten thousand things that in any strict sense transcends the rest or stands independent of it; all are interrelated – for instance, male and female, husband and wife, and so on. For Qu, any single act on the part of humanity would produce an effect on nature and society, albeit a very slight one – often too slight to be observable. Still, the effect does occur.
(4) Shen Depends on Humanity. From the perspective of tongbian, the mysterious is not God but
something that is too intriguing and wonderful for words or explanation (or miao bu ke yan 妙不可言) but
requires human intelligence and comprehension. It is indeed the spirit-like
continuity that goes beyond changes and differences. So to speak of the
“mysterious,” is only for those who are not able to comprehend continuity and
who need to gain some feeling of certainty, and who name it “God.”
As a reflection of this idea of tongbian correlative thinking, Qu states plainly in his essays on dialectical materialism that continuity (guilü ) in the universe is not teleological.
As Qu holds, people in the primitive stages of society (or yeman ren ), who could not compass the mysterious, unfathomable and incomprehensible, appealed to a god (shen) and believed that everything in nature has a goal, assuming there is something like an enigmatic power that has established the goal. Qu asserts that teleology attaches itself to religion, and that it eventually turns into the idea of God. He argues, “[a]ll religious explanations insist that the goal is hidden in some mysterious power which defies human intelligence,” and that religion advocates dependence upon the God of Heaven, who has made certain plans and goals for everything, including humanity.
(5) Bian as Continuity. Continuity endures from one time to another, from one place to another, from something to something else, and from one fashion to another. Becoming – or change – is correlation in motion; and becoming as continuity makes it possible that there is a process, from one process to another, and that there is an event, from one event to another. Continuity always presents itself in change, in motion or in movement. The idea that becoming is continuity is expressed in this kind of analogue in the Yijing: “As long as there is change, this means that there is going through, a continuity; and ‘going through’ is to be enduring.”
Qu uses many terms in suggesting the idea of bian (or change), to cite some here: bianyi (becoming and alternating), biandong (changing and moving), fazhan (development), hudong (mutual moving or acting), xianghu xingdong (mutual actions), hudong guanxi (mutual acting or moving relations), xianghu dongzuo (mutual actions), and hubian (mutual becoming or changing).
Those that he
uses to denote continuity are (rule), licheng (process or the passed road), xianghu guanxi (mutual relationship), guilü (law), huxiang yingxiang (mutual influence), and tiaoli (orderliness).
these two kinds of terms entail each other, and are correlative and often
indistinguishable from each other in suggesting either bian or continuity. For instance, “mutual moving” may suggest becoming as well as continuity, and, as
“relationship,” it is both becoming and continuity at the same time.
in such language, continuity of mutual becoming (hubian lü ), continuity of change and alternation (bianyi ), the process of becoming and moving (biandong de licheng ),
continuity of development (fazhan ), and continuity of movement (dong lü ), Qu suggests both continuity and change in referring to the process
from one event to another.
the expressions such as lü, licheng, xianghu guanxi guilü 相互關係規律, huxiang yingxiang, and tiaoli indicate “becoming” in the
light of continuity, or in other words, continuity is “becoming.” Again, all the expressions such as bianyi, biandong, fazhan, hudong, xianghu xingdong, hudong
guanxi, xianghu dongzuo, and hubian signify “becoming” in the light of the continuity between differences and
varieties, or in other words, a “becoming” occurs from one event to another simply because one event varies from the
other; otherwise, if there were no differences, a becoming would never happen.
Apparently, when Qu writes that the constant continuity in becoming and alternating is fundamental to all things, to him bian (change or “becoming”) as continuity constitutes an important element in dialectical materialism, that consists in the idea of mutual “becoming.”
(6) Polarities of Complementary Opposition. When Qu states that polarities of complementation in contradiction constitute a nucleus for “dialectical materialism,” he clearly reads dialectical materialism as entailing this element as tongbian.
Qu explains all social, political, and cosmological processes in terms of conceptual polarities and the interaction of complementary contrasts. The terms he uses are: mutual change materialism (hubian fa weiwu lun), obverse and reverse complementarity (zhengfan xiangcheng ), law of mutual change (hubian lü), law of mutual moving (hudong ), reciprocal movement of changing and alternating (bianyi hudong ), and contradictoriness (maodun xing). As Qu holds, the relationship of the mao and dun (contradictoriness) of things and the mutual becoming of events is the most basic proto-continuity (zui genben de yuanli ), and there would not be any motion if there were not mutual becoming in contradiction. He states that there would be no life, no event, no thing, if there were no movement at all in the world.
For him, in the process of studying the becoming and interacting of things, besides their attributes (shuxing ), we can discover many important types of proto-continuity about events or things, the first of which is the concept of contradictoriness in society (or social relationships seen as mao and dun); maodun is the fundamental attribute (genben shuxing ) of the real universe and society. Qu argues, “dong (moving) by itself means maodun (complementation in opposition);” dialectic (dialectique) is a philosophy of mutual becoming (or inter-change).
The contrastive concepts entailing continuity that are qian/kun , yin/yang , gang/rou , etc., in the Yijing become mao/dun in Qu’s texts. On the one hand, maodun is a loan term for the concept of contradiction; on the other hand, however, it has become a correlative polarity embedded in tongbian, mao is “becoming-dun,” and dun, “becoming-mao.” In the continuity of the two pairing elements of a polarity, neither one stands by itself but is rather seen as going through the other.
Hence, when Qu
refers to dialectic as maodun hubian , or mutual becoming of mao and dun, he emphasizes the relationship of two events (external maodun), or of two basic elements in an event (internal maodun), each of which requires the
other as a necessary condition for its own being what it is; each is only
explainable by referring to the other. And yet, mao and dun are invariably
site-specific, related to specific situations, and specifically distinctive.
Qu’s modern discourse of dialectical materialism reflects the traditional discourse in the text of the Yijing, which explains all changes in terms of yin and yang. Large portions of Qu’s discussion of dialectical materialism provide insight into specific issues of social, economic, political, and cosmological processes, and are ingrained in conceptual polarities and the interaction of complementary contrasts. Qu presents dialectical materialism as a worldview in which every thing and every event in the world and society is in the midst of floating, changing, alternating, and mutually becoming. Nothing is static and unchangeable with a predetermined form. Everything is a process of becoming. All aspects of social life change constantly.
(7) Dao, the Way of Continuity through Change. In his discussion of dialectical materialism, Qu clearly conveys the idea of dao in my seventh statement, which I made earlier in the paper, in terms such as guilü, xiansuo , yuanyin , lianxi, yingxiang , xitong , lü, and tiaoli; all denote the way of continuity through change, or patterns of correlations. These terms generalize all the intricate and volatile correlations of the ten thousand things under the sky.
In addition, the term guilü, or “law,” also suggests the other way round, the correlativity and continuity through which humanity develops its intelligence to comprehend itself as being a continuum with the world by obtaining a thorough comprehension of the mysterious and wonderful laws, or dao, in which the ten thousand things change and become regularized by themselves. Just as ancient Chinese thinkers called people’s attention to comprehending and practicing dao, Qu makes the point that we study the way of continuity between things and between their movements, and that doing “science” is to look for continuity and to discover guilü.
In Qu’s understanding, guilü is something like dao in the sense that dialectical
materialism is bianhua zhi guilü (way of change or becoming).
He also refers to the latter as bianqian
de guilü (way of changing and moving) or hudong guilü (way of mutual moving). Whenever Qu uses
the phrase maodun hubian lü (way of the mutual
becoming of mao and dun) to refer to dialectical
materialism, the phrase entails the philosophical implications of yi yin yi yang zhi wei dao (“a yin and a yang are what we call dao”) in
the Yijing. Suffice it to say that
both dao and guilü signify the tongbian kind of correlative thinking, but in various phases at different times in history; both are comprehensible in terms of conceptual
pairings such as yin and yang, or mao and dun.
Guilü denotes continuity, and is the becoming of things in the sense that change at all times follows the way of such a maodun polarity. Nevertheless, guilü never stops changing, and is always different from time to time and from place to place. Guilü entails diversity; it refers to the guilü of the ten thousand particular things or events that are all different and varying, all entailing a changing process. Guilü changes; and there is no guilü that can be judged as a predicted, absolute, transcendent, and universal principle.
In this paper, I have offered examples of how Qu Qiubai reads the Western conception of dialectical materialism. The peculiarities of the Chinese language actually led Qu’s discussion of dialectics through a new process, into a new context, and onto a new field of focus. In Qu’s reading, the term bianzhengfa in Chinese discourse shows that there is a hint of similarity, on the surface, between Marxist dialectics and an aspect of traditional tongbian philosophy. This made it possible for Qu and many Chinese intellectuals to develop an enthusiasm for Marxist dialectics; in turn, Marxist dialectics has had an enormous doctrinal impact on tongbian, the consequence of which has been the application of a complete new terminology to a school of traditional thought, which led to an indigenous Chinese version of Marxist dialectics that can be seen to have existed as far back as the Yijing. This process also shows that there are fundamental differences between the original European terminology and the Chinese translation; the Chinese understanding of the terminology came closer to the concept of tongbian. The Chinese began to employ Chinese philosophical expressions in their reading of Marxian dialectics, especially as they became engaged in the campaign to “Sinicize” Marxism. It is superficial to understand Western dialectics and bianzhengfa as equivalent, or to employ a Chinese-Western dichotomy in understanding Chinese Marxism. This is because a “European” debate was precluded by a process of “dialectic-becoming”-tongbian. The Chinese did not take any stand concerning the European debate; what they did precisely was to pursue a Chinese discourse of tongbian loaded with Marxist terminology from the West.