The Forgotten Fusionist: Review of《追寻新共和:张东荪早期思想与活动研究 1886-1932》

ZHEYAN NI reviews the excellent historical work《追寻新共和:张东荪早期思想与活动研究 1886-1932》(The Search for a New Republic: A Study on Thoughts and Activities of Zhang Dongsun at His Early Age 1880-1932) published in 2018.

To historians of Modern China, Zhang Dongsun cannot be more familiar. Yet outside of academia, he is almost unknown by the general public. Highly politicized historical narratives of twentieth century China only canonized winning or losing figures during the rise of the Chinese Communist Party: Sun Yat-sen, Yuan Shikai, Mao Zedong, etc.  As the famous historian Yu Yingshih once perceptively put, there are no true conservatives in modern China—they are simply less radical. Those, including Zhang Dongsun, whose ideas were deemed too conservative in the urgency of nation-building, are ultimately forgotten. An overarching effort in Zhang’s intriguing intellectual career was to generate a synthesis of the Confucianism sage-hood philosophy of self-cultivation and the Western moral philosophy of rationality and democracy, represented best by Kant and Russell.

Zhang Dongsun was born in Hangzhou on the eve of the Qing Dynasty’s fall. Traveling to Japan to study at the University of Tokyo, he studied the epistemology and ethics of Kant and propagated Western philosophy in China during the New Culture Movement.  After returning to China, he taught at the National Tsinghua University in the 1930s and 40s while writing and editing articles for several philosophy journals. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Zhang served in the central governmental committee. However, during the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned and died miserably in 1973 under the accusation of leaking secret information to the US government during the Korean War.

In this book of over 400 pages, historian Gao Bo, a lecturer at Chinese Renmin University, endeavors to reanimate the voice of Zhang Dongsun and the legacy of his political thoughts in light of his intellectual and political career. Gao consults primary sources from Zhang Dongsun’s own written works and 43 journals, newspapers, and magazines of various kinds, including political commentaries, philosophical essays, and news reports. He also reviews secondary literature about Zhang Dongsun (including excerpts from books by historians Yang Kuisong, Zhang Pengyuan, and Yu Yingshih) and writings on Western political philosophy, as well as modern Chinese intellectual history, more broadly, from both Chinese and Western sources.

Adopting a chronological structure, Gao Bo traces the development of Zhang Dongsun’s intellectual thoughts from his youth to his later years, even throughout his involvement with the PRC government. The book is mostly narrative-based, coupled with Gao’s balanced analysis and critique of Zhang’s ideas set against the historical context and Zhang’s own life background. The book is also comparative in nature, juxtaposing Zhang with other intellectual and political giants at his time, such as Liang Qichao, Fu Sinian, and Mao Zedong, thus providing a flavor of the diverse and debate-ridden intellectual landscape.

First, it is crucial to underline the historical context of intellectual debate at the turn of the twentieth century. Zhang Dongsun was born in 1886 among the last generation of literati (shidafu people from well-educated families who obtained access to the ruling class by taking the imperial civil examinations). By the late 19th century, the meritocracy system based on imperial civil examinations was gradually losing its grip on its importance as a centerpiece of Chinese society.  China was just beginning to absorb Western concepts of liberal democracy and science imported from Japanese scholars. Zhang Dongsun was among the first generation of students to study abroad in Tokyo and to examine the roots of China’s despondency.

In this book, Gao actually makes a fair case for Chinese conservatives who constantly struggled to have their ideas be accepted by the historical mainstream. Zhang Dongsun epitomized this conundrum. A suggestive example is Gao’s analysis of Zhang’s agenda of “governance by sages,” or xianren zhengzhi (贤人政治).  Zhang’s xianren paradigm was influenced by Italian sociologist Robert Michels’s elite theory, which argues that political elites cannot be truly democratic because they would quickly form oligarchies. Zhang also suggests that the formation of elite power-holders is inevitable, but they should still embrace ethical integrity and social responsibility to exercise the power on behalf of the public.

Therefore, a bit different from the oligarchy model in which elites are defined solely in terms of political capabilities and resources, the identity of xianren can only be endowed to those who possess both moral integrity and excellent capacity to participate in political affairs. Accordingly, Zhang had an ambiguous attitude towards universal election as the basis of democratic liberty because by his logic, universal election might end up selecting unqualified candidates for xianren politics. Zhang also cautioned against the use of congress, which, he argued, should not exercise substantive political or legislative responsibilities beyond basic political consulting and helping citizens to vent their emotions and opinions.  

This belief is probably driven by Zhang’s “conservative” temperament. First, Zhang brought up this argument in November 1917 when the newly founded Republic of China fell under the tyrant of then president Yuan Shikai. Frustrated with the failure of congress, Zhang looked to the Confucian sage model for solutions. Second, as Gao portrays, Zhang was never willing to stand firmly against the Chinese traditional political philosophy even when it was most vehemently attacked during the May Fourth Movement.

Zhang’s idea, according to author Gao Bo, contradicted the overwhelming plea for more political rights and access to the policy-making process. In other words, the public was demanding a more thorough application of republican democracy than the one Zhang offered. At a time when it was stylish to play the “progressive” card and affiliate oneself with various “isms”, Zhang’s agenda seemed too vague and conservative to be embraced by any intellectual or political camp. But why did he insist so?

According to Gao Bo, Zhang Dongsun sees the fundamental gap between elites (literati-officials, gentry) and commoners (ordinary people, mostly illiterate such as the peasants) as the most scathing obstacle for China to practice politics of any kind.  For Zhang, expanding participatory politics could be risky since common citizens are not capable enough to contribute meaningfully to policy-making deliberations. Traditional elites, however, lack incentives to speak up for the commoners. In this case, xianren can represent the general public in political conversations and serve as a mediator to narrow this gap.

This governance by sages system transcends the debate over what kind of national or political system China should adopt.  The primary concern for Zhang Dongsun was always about the human factors behind institutional constructions, and the process for cultivating citizens suitable for a participatory polity. However, this claim disappeared into insignificance when compared to the urgency of nation-building in material and military terms in the 1920s and 30s.

Towards the end of this book, Gao clearly notices a major shift in Zhang’s ideology in the 1930s: he began to identify closely with Social Darwinism and subscribe to the comprehensive social engineering proposed by the Communist Party. In Gao’s analysis, Zhang compromised his previous concern with individual self-cultivation in the face of prolonged social instability, warfare, and revolutions, which centered “society” as the main target of transformation. Here, we can see that the rise of socialist thoughts in China had a sweeping impact on China’s intellectual landscape.

Examined from a broader historiographical scale, modern Chinese historiography is inflated with hagiographies of canonized historical figures. In light of this trend, this book provides a critical lens to understand those “conservative” voices that are equally meaningful and revealing, though Gao’s facts-heavy writing style may put off some readers who do not enter with much background knowledge. Still, readers who are interested in Chinese modern philosophy and intellectual history should not miss this book.

Zheyan Ni can be contacted at

《追寻新共和:张东荪早期思想与活动研究 1886-1932》
Authored by Gao Bo
生活·读书·新知三联书店, 2018. CNY 45

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