The past few years have been anxious ones, no less so in China than in the rest of the world. Despite the country’s growing international profile, many Chinese — and especially young Chinese — feel uncertainty about their place in China and China’s place in the world. Youth unemployment is rising, good grades no longer seem to promise good prospects, and perhaps for the first time since the 1980s, making money no longer feels like enough.
These anxieties might explain how “Self as Method: Thinking Through China and the World” became one of 2020’s unlikeliest bestsellers. A meditative, dense text consisting of three wide-ranging conversations between anthropologist Xiang Biao and journalist Wu Qi, it hit the Chinese literary world like a thunderbolt and was named the “Most Impactful Book of the Year,” by the social media platform Douban.
Xiang currently heads the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Wu is an editor of the Chinese literary magazine “One Way Street.” Both are well-known figures in China, and their book rewards readers’ attention with probing discussions of issues like mobility, education, family, the relationship between individuals and authority, the center and the margins, and China and the world.
This month, Palgrave Macmillan published “Self as Method” in English. As translated by David Ownby, Professor of History at the Université de Montréal, Xiang and Wu’s easy chemistry and penchant for digression shine through, offering international readers a rare and surprisingly intimate glimpse into the minds of two of China’s leading thinkers.
In the excerpt below, Xiang and Wu discuss the complicated legacies of another era of confusion and possibility: the “cultural craze” of the 1980s. In the process, they try to nail down why the popularity of intellectuals proved so short-lasting, the elite background of populist politics, and what a truly “mass” intellectualism might look like.
A student reads while walking at Peking University, Beijing, 1981. Dean Conger/Corbis via VCG
Wu Qi: The background to globalization also has a domestic context, in other words, everyone’s unreserved embrace of and expectations for the discourse of opening and modernization might be related to what we talked about when discussing the 1980s, which may be a more recent starting point. Your description of the changes in Chinese society and thought since the 1980s is different from some mainstream views in China. Many people have a certain nostalgia for the 1980s, seeing it as a sort of golden age, especially compared to where we are today in the twenty-first century, with the passing of the humanistic spirit and the Enlightenment, with intellectuals having been pushed from the center to the margins, falling from the altar of the gods. This is how those intellectuals tell the story. But from another perspective, in terms of popular opinion, with the spread of Internet technology, the debate is still possible, and even more, people can express their opinion. This perspective seems to challenge intellectuals’ nostalgia for the 1980s, which is also backed up by the rise of Trump and populism. What went into your understanding of the 1980s?
Xiang Biao: My view of the 1980s was basically emotional, something like when Lu Xun (Translator’s note: 1881–1936, considered modern China’s most talented writer) said “my heart could not but be suspicious.” “Suspicious” is a lovely word, I like it a lot. I also like Hu Shi’s (1891–1962, a well-known scholar and politician in Republican China, known as a pragmatist and a promoter of Westernization) style a lot. He’s a British-style empiricist and pragmatist. Once, Gao Pingzi’s (1888–1970, considered the founder of modern astronomy in China) grandson told Hu Shi that he wanted to carry forward Zhang Zai’s (1020–1077, a Confucian scholar and politician) vision of “building up the manifestations of Heaven and Earth’s spirit, building up good life for the people, developing the endangered scholarship of past sages, and opening up eternal peace for the world.” (This passage is taken from Zhang’s “Western Inscription,” often considered a concise summary of Neoconfucianism.) Hu Shi asked him to explain what he meant by “building up the manifestations of Heaven and Earth’s spirit,” and told him that his grandfather was an astronomer and that he should not use incomprehensible language like that. For Hu Shi, words have to have some empirical basis, and words like Zhang’s are empty, nothing more than fleeting emotions. On this question, I feel really grateful to the New Left scholar Wang Hui (b. 1959). The conscious distance I took from the 1980s is to a large degree the result of his influence. He lived through that period, and not as an elitist. He believes that intellectuals should unite with workers and peasants and follow the mass line.
I am happy to know that we are having this debate today. I think the original mass line was too romanticized and not well implemented, which means that we don’t have successful examples to follow now, but we should practice the mass line in today’s intellectual and artistic work because when you look at the degree of social media penetration and the educational level we have achieved, it is no longer the same “mass” as before. At present intellectuals are not doing their job well. It is not feasible to completely rely on the masses in intellectual and artistic work, because we still need tools and guides. We do not have to lead them, necessarily, but they have to be organized, like into groups and subgroups, with topics for everyone to discuss.
Wu Qi: Could you be a bit more specific on how the “culture craze” wound up being separated from life practice?
Xiang Biao: It sounds funny when you say that, because in the 1980s there were so many intellectual debates, so much “thought,” and many intellectuals today are nostalgic for the excitement of the 1980s. I am not going to deny the importance of all of that, but at the same time would like to remind everyone that at present it is not worth it to bring back the fervor of the 1980s. What we need to engage in now is a reflection that is much more down-to-earth, much more concrete. We need to link up directly with mass experience, an analysis of the political economy, with our understanding of technology. If we think about Wang Yuanhua’s (1920–2008, a well-respected intellectual who served the Party for much of his life, becoming more “liberal” in the most-Mao period; he was an inspiration to many Chinese intellectuals active in the 1980s) characterization of the early 1990s as a time of “deemphasizing intellectual thought and promoting academic research,” then looking at it now, it seems that it is entirely possible to bring thought and academic research together. Indeed, today’s thought must be based on professional investigation and research, as well as careful reflection. In fact, it all comes down to being clear on what has actually happened, and not what we should do; I don’t really buy the so-called top-down design theory, because it’s too hard to do. When politicians are doing important strategic planning, they of course need judgment and a sense of direction, but this is not really top-down design, but instead just a good grasp of strategy. The word Wang Hui uses to describe the 1980s debates among intellectuals is “gesture.” I think this is an apt description, in that there really are a lot of us who are constantly making gestures, arriving at big conclusions without having explained what happened clearly.
Wu Qi: Where did things go off the rails?
Xiang Biao: Intellectuals in the 1980s were a lot like educated youth. As I wrote in my “The Age of Educated Youth,” “educated youth” did not in fact refer to educated young people, but more primarily to youth educated in big and middle-sized cities, and finally, they represent something close to the idea of “children of high-level cadres.” When we say the word “educated youth,” everyone immediately thinks of the youth of Beijing and Shanghai. There are many things here that have been completely blown out of proportion, like the stories that have circulated for many years of female educated youth that were raped by village cadres. Rape is of course a crime, but there’s a reason that stories like those have lingered, and that has to do with the relationship between the countryside and the cities, a narrative on the suffering of the educated youth. Female educated youth are portrayed as the purest of things, and when they were despoiled by village cadres, it was the most beautiful thing being destroyed by the vilest thing.
Many of the questions people thought about in the 1980s were very important, and given the place in history occupied by the period, the fervor was normal and valuable. At the time people talked about an “intellectual realm,” which meant, in my understanding, that at the time, there was no division between the state and the intellectual world, and the most important thing was the divisions that appeared within the intellectual elites themselves. The reason for that was that elites at the time were indulging more and more in gestures, for example, the debate in the Shanghai World Economic Herald over whether the entire public ownership system should be abolished, which from the standpoint of practicality made no sense.
A student rides her bike to Peking University while wearing a veil to protect against the city's notorious dust storms, Beijing, 1981. Dean Conger/Corbis via VCG
Wu Qi: This is a lot like today when everyone thinks that populism means the rise of the masses, but in fact behind populism are the elites, and all of this is a new struggle within the world of the elites. If we were to cut our ties with the world of elite gestures, and take leave of the established world of intellectuals and their cultural circles, what position should we take up?
Xiang Biao: There are still some differences. In the 1980s, everyone thought that intellectuals represented the wisdom of the people. There was a strong moral tint to things, and intellectuals were speaking in the place of the state. Now intellectuals feel like they are just another social group out to make money and have a good life. They are not trying to represent anyone. Beginning in the 1990s intellectuals were increasingly marginalized, and were no longer spiritual leaders. At the time I had just entered university and learned the word “disenchantment,” which meant that people who had been talking about spiritual excitement were now more realistic, which is a general trend within modernity. A typical example was Liu Zaifu (b. 1941), the writer who said that in the United States, everyone believed that basketball players were more important than university professors, and at the airport, everyone asked basketball players and celebrities for their autograph. Liu thought this was a good thing, an example of commercialization increasing democratic participation. At the time I sympathized with this view because I disliked pretentious posturing.
But today, we are not only marginalized but also isolated. At the time, my expectations were that, with marginalization, intellectuals would become more organic, would no longer be purely abstract intellectuals, and would have specific statuses. Being organic is being limited. It must be linked to society in specific ways and cannot stay at the level of general theories. We have not seen many such connections taking place, instead, we’ve gotten more narrow and more specialized. The Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) said that truly organic intellectuals were technicians, or people who promote agricultural technology, or barefoot doctors, or subaltern writers, who indeed can do a lot. Today it is difficult for university professors, including myself, to produce an accurate understanding and description of society. The real insiders are the people who can provide immediate insight into problems. Delivery people, for example, have to think through many issues too. There are people like that, there are vehicles such as social media to convey what they think, and we should encourage them to write more.
Wu Qi: So for you, what is the spiritual heritage of the 1980s?
Xiang Biao: For me, the spiritual heritage of the 1980s was all of those slogans, the bold, skeptical attitudes, and dispositions, and the demands for institutional and structural change. It came from a spiritually deep place and was based on foundational principles, a feeling that current reality had to be transcended, and needed to be changed. It had the feeling of Mao’s poem, when he talked about “pointing to our mountains and rivers, setting people afire with our words.” (The passage is taken from Mao’s poem “Changsha,” written in 1925.) Without that baptism, without that body of spiritual wealth, I don’t think I would feel much about this kind of macro-narrative. Those kinds of things excite us easily. Of course, this is two-sided, and it’s hard to say if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Especially if we want to compare ourselves to Western scholars, the good side is that we want to see big pictures, will not be satisfied with a simple explanation of the status quo, and will always make systemic criticisms, but at the same time, this attitude means that we lose the ability to observe reality in a more precise way since we’re always in a hurry to arrive at a more abstract narrative.
The bigger question is, why did this spiritual heritage not congeal into something more lasting? Why did it not become a good ecological system for the production of knowledge? The styles of the 1980s were too homogenous, and instead of coming together with others, they wiped one another out. It’s like Beida’s (Peking University) “heroic” view of itself. Self-heroism is fine, but it has to exist in a dialogue with other people to become a healthy ecosystem. If everyone is running around “setting people afire with their words,” we’ll burn everything down and it will all come to nothing.
Wu Qi: Could we say that your own research has always kept a certain distance from the main themes of the 1980s?
Xiang Biao: This is true in terms of specific research topics, but from another angle, without the 1980s’ fix on the world, I could not have hopped on the public bus to Muxiyuan to do Zhejiang Village in my second year of university, in the middle of the winter, which was a kind of romantic thing to do, one that I wouldn’t have done had I been thinking realistically. The 1980s influence on me is still important, that kind of impulse, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, the urge to do something to shock people. It is mainly a spiritual disposition, without much methodological or theoretical value.
Wu Qi: This is a supplement to your argument against elitism, and not a complete denial, right?
Xiang Biao: That feeling of transcendence, the idea that we could criticize our teachers, all of that was the spirit of the 1980s, otherwise we would not have engaged in our criticism, and would have just gone to make money. Most people see the 1980s as idealistic, and I think that’s a pretty good term for it, because what we call idealism is first a form of transcendence, and the value of existence lies in transcending the status quo, seeking after things that don’t exist in front of your eyes. In this sense, when I use the spirit of the 1980s to critique the 1980s, it is also a kind of revolt, or transcendence, or ideal. In concrete terms it’s about being bold, not obeying authority, which was the 1980s, and maybe Beida as well.
The cover of “Self as Method: Thinking Through China and the World.”
The above is excerpted from “Self as Method: Thinking Through China and the World” by Xiang Biao and Wu Qi and translated by David Ownby. The full book is available for download here. It has been republished here with permission.
(Header image: Students at Peking University, Beijing, 1981. Dean Conger/Corbis via VCG)