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Why the Chinese Are Reading Plato, Aristotle, and… Leo Strauss?

The Chinese Pursuit of World Hegemony

The Chinese government, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has made it clear that it intends to pursue world hegemony. This is evident through its military buildup, aggressive posture towards Taiwan, and the Belt and Road initiative that extends across central Asia and beyond. China is also creating a world of “Sino States” from Cuba to Angola to Pakistan, obtaining strategic concessions such as seaports, discounted oil, and naval routes in return for unrepayable loans. Amid Xi’s claim to cultural, military, and political superiority over the West, Americans may be surprised to learn of a growing interest in Greek and Roman texts among Chinese academics—sometimes even cited in party editorials.

The Growing Interest in Greek and Roman Texts Among Chinese Academics

In her book Plato Goes to China, University of Chicago classicist Shadi Bartsch explains her aim to escape the “hall of mirrors” generated by Westerners taught to believe in the universal validity of such concepts as the superiority of democracy and the notion of individual rights. Bartsch’s outlook is one of cultural relativism, refraining from making derogatory comparisons between Chinese and Western cultures. This interest in Greek and Roman texts is especially remarkable at a time when many American universities are closing their classics departments, sometimes claiming such studies are elitist or imperialistic.

  • Bartsch describes the unsuccessful endeavor of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to introduce elements of classical thought (blended with Christian theology) to China, which left the Chinese still thinking that their culture was superior.
  • During the economic liberalization under Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Gu Zhun’s thought achieved wider visibility with the posthumous (1982) publication of his book celebrating the polis.
  • As post-Tiananmen party leaders purged reformers and “disciplined” dissidents, Chinese classicists either turned their study in a purely apolitical direction or else tried to accommodate the regime by representing “the classical past … as supporting its values.”

Leo Strauss and the Transcendence of Cultural Horizons

While Bartsch’s book is an interesting read, it falls short in its endeavor to transcend a parochial worldview. However, Chinese scholars have found the intellectual alternative proposed by German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss appealing. Strauss’s endeavor to promote the serious reconsideration of classical thought so as to question the premises underlying modern political philosophy, in view of the problems in which it had culminated, has been embraced by Chinese scholars seeking to transcend their cultural horizons.

  • Contrary to Bartsch, Strauss’s endeavor has nothing to do with basing government on a “noble lie.”
  • Readers seeking a more instructive guide to Strauss’s role in contemporary Chinese thought should consult the volume edited by Kai Marchal and Carl K.Y. Shaw, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss in the Chinese-Speaking World: Reorienting the Political.
  • Joining in Plato’s (and Strauss’s) quest to discover those things that are by nature true, rather than merely reflecting one partial cultural perspective or another, is the key to transcending cultural horizons.

As China continues to pursue world hegemony, it is important for scholars to engage in a dialogue that transcends cultural boundaries and seeks to discover universal truths.



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