This post has only tangential relevance to our project, but I thought I would share it anyway.
When I was in Taiwan last spring, a member of the group I'm working on (the 天帝教) gave me a copy of Yu Yingshi's latest book: 余英時，論天人之際： 中國古代思想起源是談 (Taibei: Liangjing, 2014). This is because the unity of heaven and man was one of Tiandijiao founder/leader Li Yujie's 李玉階 major teachings. In fact, Li first named his group 天人教 in 1943; 天帝教 came along in 1979/1980. The practitioner who gave me that book was fairly typical for the group: she is a well-educated young lawyer, who did at least one degree in London, England. She joined the Tiandijiao in large measure because she felt that she never learned anything about Chinese culture while growing up, and for various reasons felt an emotional, spiritual need to connect with the tradition. At the group's request, she enrolled to do a PhD in Chinese philosophy on the mainland (I think at Beida, but I'm not sure), even as she continued to work full-time in her law firm. This is how she would have happened upon Yu Yingshi. I was intrigued by this because it once again confirmed my suspicion that groups like Li's (we in the sub-field call them "redemptive societies," the best known representative of which is 一貫道) are not marginal "cults" peddling some variety of "heterodoxy" but instead perfectly "normal" groups whose constituencies are made up of the rather large numbers of Chinese who never really embraced the secularism preached by the CCP and/or GMD and who continue to value traditional Chinese culture.
The question of what "traditional Chinese culture" means in the early twentieth-first century is harder (for me) to answer. Of course it means different things to different people, as traditions are reinvented by various people and groups in various contexts for various reasons. In any event, I finally looked at Yu Yingshi's book in the hopes of learning more about the "unity of heaven and man" and the links between this concept and Li Yujie. In the preface, Yu mentions an essay that his teacher, Qian Mu 錢穆, wrote in 1990, when he was 96 years old. The essay is about the unity of heaven and man. I tracked this essay down in about 15 seconds and translated it yesterday morning, just for fun. Here's the translation, and here's the Chinese original. The essay apparently kicked off an internet debate, on Taiwan and the mainland, that lasted for several weeks or months. I haven't tried to find these rejoinders to Qian, but I might.
My question is: what are we to make of Qian's essay? On the one hand it seems trite. He insists that man is part of nature and part of "heaven's will" and insists that this insight is the touch stone of traditional Chinese culture. Furthermore, this belief will save mankind from European, scientific civilization, which has entered a period of inevitable decline. So one the one hand, Qian seems thoroughly unoriginal as he channels Wang Yangming and Liang Shuming. The Westerner in me is irritated by this kind of assertion: how do you know, after all, that our lives unfold as part of heaven's will? What kind of proof can we offer? What kind of research test can we design? And the way Qian talks about Confucius reminds me of how the Southern Baptist preachers of my youth talked about Jesus Christ--whose life and death on earth were indeed presented as the working out of heaven's will.
On the other hand, I think we should try to take Qian Mu seriously. After all, this man knew more about Chinese traditional culture (among other things) than I ever will. If this is where his thoughts took him as he reflected on a life of scholarship at the ripe old age of 96, why not indulge him? And indeed, completely by chance I had been reading a few days before Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2011). I knew about Robinson because she published a novel this year that made a huge splash in the Anglophone world. The novel is called Lila and is the third in a trilogy (the first two are Giliad (2004) and Home (2008)) in which Robinson explores themes of faith and grace in a way that is--to me--deeply engaging. The books are quietly astonishing and well worth reading. In any event, in Absence of Mind, Robinson offers what might be taken as a sophisticated, Westernized version of Qian Mu's argument. She attacks modern, positivist forms of thought such as sociobiology and Freudian psychology because they provide no space for a healthy, reflecting mind. She insists that subjectivity "is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method." Consequently "it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses." She is asking for respect for intuition, much as did Wang Yangming and Qian Mu. And writing best-selling novels that explore those themes.
Enough for a Sunday morning. But I remain intrigued. Timothy: where do thoughts like Qian Mu's fit in your history of Chinese intellectuals? Alex: do your Shandong Confucians talk about stuff like this? Xue: what do you make of Qian's essay? Josh: what do Japanese sinologists make of Qian Mu? His textbook, 國史大綱, was widely read in the 1940s...