The Joining of Two Confident Cultures



  Cite this article:

  Xu Qi, "The Joining of Two Confident Cultures," Confucian Academy, no. 4 (2021): 12–19.

The Joining of Two Confident Cultures


  Xu Qi

  Professor and doctoral supervisor from Yunnan University, vice president of the International Confucian Association, and executive chairman of the Academic Board of the Guiyang Confucius Academy

  The Chinese Revolution in ‘Western Theoretical Perspective’

  It was at the turn of the twentieth century that Marxism arrived in China via Japan and Russia. In just a few decades, it brought tremendous and fundamental changes to Chinese society, completely remodeling the country. Marxism, a Western theory, has successfully gained a foothold, taken root, and grown vigorously in the East and becomes the mainstream ideology of an old and great country noted for her Confucian cultural tradition of over two thousand years. This is a thought-provoking geocultural phenomenon worthy of further study.

  What makes Marxism constantly succeed in the remote East rather than in its Western birthplace? The answer is complicated. Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), one of the founders of the Communist Party of Italy, held that the reason might lie in the fundamental differences between the social structures of the Eastern and Western countries. According to Gramsci, unlike in the East, where politics was almost everything, the Western capitalist state was made up of two overlapping spheres, a “political society” (which ruled through force) and a “civil society” (which ruled through consent). Consequently, people’s revolution could hardly break out in the West. Furthermore, even if the proletariat had controlled the state apparatus, a civil society would see its revolutionary fruits gradually dissolved from within.[1]

  As implied above, the revolutionary plan which was embodied in Marx and Engels’s assertion that exploiters would finally be exploited really struck a chord with countries in the East such as Russia and China and could easily be adopted by revolutionaries there. Consequently, when the working class in the West was heedless of the Marxist call, the laboring people of the East rolled up with full force and threw themselves into the revolution whereby they could become the true masters of the country, as soon as they grasped the basic content of Marxism.

  In terms of the consequences, it is true that the capitalist mode of production in the West fails to corroborate the Marx-Engelsian predication that internal contradictions in a society bring about a social crisis which will catalyze social revolution. Marx and Engels could only respond to economico-politico-social issues of their own time, while preparing a basic theoretical framework forecasting changes and developments in the future. Therefore, it is unreasonable to deny the scientificity and rationality of Marxism merely because Marx and Engels did not predict what took place in the capitalist world. So long as Marxism has a humanistic, practical, revolutionary, and critical theoretical character, it will never lose its vitality.

  China has made great achievements since 1978, when reform and opening-up was successfully launched. Why were reforms needed in the socialist China? The present author contends that one of the basic reasons is that the planned economy initiated after World War II has been outperformed by the market economy in terms of the configuration of economic resources and the ensuing quantity and quality of economic development. Precisely because China boldly absorbs remarkably effective elements of capitalist relations of production and at the same time upholds basic principles and universal truths of Marxism, she has enjoyed unprecedented success in reforming herself. The reason why the theory and practice of the socialism with Chinese characteristics are amazingly vigorous, creative, and glamourous lies in its comprehensive reform. Over the past four decades,

  [It has enabled] China to transform itself from a highly centralized planned economy to a socialist market economy brimming with vitality, and from a country that was largely isolated to one that is open to the outside world across the board. It has also enabled China to achieve the historic leap from being a country with relatively backward productive forces to the world’s second largest economy, and to make the historic transformation of raising the living standards of its people from bare subsistence to an overall level of moderate prosperity, and then ultimately to moderate prosperity in all respects. These achievements fueled the push toward national rejuvenation by providing institutional guarantees imbued with new energy as well as the material conditions for rapid development.[2]

  In 1841, when the young Marx was discussing the realistic significance of Kantian philosophy, he regarded it as “the German theory of the French revolution,”[3] which meant Kant shed light on the progressive significance of the French revolution in history by virtue of an intellectually analytical and abstruse philosophy. The present author, taking inspiration from Marx’s analogy, compares Marxism to “the Western theory of Chinese (or Eastern) revolution” in the light of the cultural transformation and social change driven by Marxism in the most recent century. Marxism itself is powerfully and theoretically convincing, on the grounds that it is the universal truth. The integration of Marxism, traditional Chinese culture, and the real national conditions of China makes Marxism well prepared for gaining a foothold, taking root, and pervasively influencing Chinese society. This is one of the most powerful proofs of the proposition that Marxism does indeed work in China.

  Weapons of Criticism and Criticism of Weapons

  Marxism, one of the greatest intellectual fruits of ripening human wisdom, consists of two parts—one idealistic and the other realistic. The idealistic part of Marxism is the longing for and conception of the good life for humankind. Not only did Marx formulate an idealistic theoretical system, but also, together with Engels, he proposed specific paths and methods by which the ideal could be realized in people’s real endeavors. Thus Marxism is a theoretical system in which idealism and realism integrate and complement each other. This is one of the distinguishable embodiments of the theoretical persuasiveness of Marxism.

  The idealistic character of Marxism has a threefold meaning. First, it is the longing for and conception of the good life for humankind. To put it another way, there should be not only the unity of highly efficient economic growth and a fair, reasonable mode of distribution but also complementarity between a continuously improved material life and a constantly ameliorated spiritual condition. Marx himself knew well that the configuration of resources by means of a market was the most efficient relation of production. But in his time, the wage labor system adopted by capitalist society founded on the liberal ideology created a shocking polarization of wealth, in which the disparity between the rich and the poor and the estrangement of labor were unprecedentedly extreme. Marx hoped that his criticism could awaken the class consciousness of the people, give impetus to the endeavor to change their unjust economic system, and finally improve the spiritual world of all laborers. Second, it pays great attention to the all-round development of humankind. Marx specially discussed how humans could grow in a free, unconstrained, and all-round way, stressing that the way of life of human beings was highly diversified. Resenting interpersonal hostility and estrangement, he sincerely looked forward to a rehabilitating love and harmony among human beings. Third, Marxism has every confidence in returning the estranged state of labor back to normalcy. Marx envisaged that his criticism could lead to such an ideal situation, in which labor would no longer be forced, objectified, and purely material, instead returning to its normal condition, in which labor is the essence of the human being, their primary need in life, and a free, pleasant, and enjoyable process.[4]

  This is the idealism embedded in Marxism. In this sense, Marxism is a lofty and beautiful humanism and humanitarianism. For Marxism, the most important thing is not making the greatest economic profit but freeing humans from their millennia-long oppressive economic needs and helping them gain spiritual emancipation.

  Marx said, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force.”[5] In reality, “[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[6] This means Marxism is not only an idealistic humanistic theory but also a realistic revolutionary theory bringing change to the world.

  The realistic part of Marxism, namely, the Marxist-Engelsian theory concerning social change, is mainly found in works such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Capital, The Condition of the Working Class in England, and Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx and Engels, revealing the exploitive nature of the capitalist economic system, awakened the class consciousness of wage laborers and reorganized them into a proletarian revolutionary force which would take the lead in political reforms. At this point, as they wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

  The first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.[7]

  Early CPC leaders, such as Chen Duxiu陈独秀, Li Dazhao李大钊, Mao Zedong毛泽东, Cai Hesen蔡和森, Zhou Enlai周恩来, Qu Qiubai瞿秋白, Li Da李达, Li Hanjun李汉俊, and Zhang Shenfu张申府, all came into contact with Marxism during the New Culture Movement launched in the early twentieth century. As soon as this avant-garde more or less rethought Marxism and other Western thought, they admired Marxism’s logic and power to interpret and persuade and believed that Marxism was able to lead the Chinese people, who were agonized by disaster and foreign oppression and guide them to rehabilitate the nation and make the country prosperous and powerful. Soon the October Revolution, which broke out in Russia in 1917, introduced China to a new type of Marxism, namely Leninism, and leading Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries were especially thrilled with Leninism. Walking the path pioneered by Russians was thus their best choice. If the Marxism introduced into China was essentially a weapon of criticism, that is, an intellectual system, Leninism was the perfect unity of the weapon of criticism and criticism of weapons. For the Chinese nation of a hundred years ago, this unity was the most theoretically convincing and most practically deconstructive.

  The Joining of Marxism with Traditional Chinese Culture

  Xi Jinping proposes quite a significant thesis known as the “two unities,” according to which “[w]e must continue to adapt the basic tenets of Marxism to China’s specific realities and the excellent aspects of its traditional culture.”[8] The second unity, that is, combining “basic tenets of Marxism” with the “excellent aspects of traditional [Chinese] culture,” is the internal reason why Marxism has been able to take root and spread in China and play a leading role. Not only should it never be neglected, it is also the most remarkable characteristic of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and Marxism’s adaptation to the needs of the times.

  In fact, Marxism, as a Western cultural form derived from ancient Greece, makes a non-Western evaluation of human nature, especially for Marx himself. Marx did not think that human nature is inherently evil; nor did he agree with the doctrine of original sin. Rather he believed that humans have many intrinsically good features to their nature and inclinations, such as their natural love for labor “in its original meaning,” aspiration to eliminate spiritual alienation and return to original nature, and yearning for personal all-round development on the premise of overwhelming material abundance. These indicated that Marx was indeed in agreement with the idea that human nature is innately good and positive. These ideas harmonize very well with such Confucian teachings as that ideal morality will prevail, that there will be a world of Great Harmony, and that everybody can be as sagacious as the legendary sovereigns Yao and Shun. In addition, the aspiration for equitableness, righteousness, and common prosperity is the common denominator of both scientific socialism and traditional Chinese culture. Confucius sought the creation of a society of Great Harmony in his lifetime. Unfortunately, the society of Great Harmony never came about at any time during the entire span of time of feudal society. It should be noted that this Confucian ideal is, in many aspects, in accord with the utopian socialism that emerged in the wake of the European Renaissance. As soon as that utopian socialism metamorphosized into scientific socialism, the rejection of wealth disparity, longing for common prosperity, pursuit of fairness and justice needed never again be just a spiritual endeavor but could become a real mission. It is in the theory and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics implemented by China since the twentieth century that these ideals gradually come true.

  A common feature of Marxism and traditional Chinese culture is that both are solicitous of, care about, and focus on the people. This deals with many significant and profound theoretico-practical issues, including human existence and its attributes; humanity’s spiritual needs and the ways of fulfilling them; the freedom and all-round growth of human beings; the interrelated social elements influencing human existence and development; the interaction between and common development of humans and society, humans and nature, and humans and the self; the natural endowment of humanity to seek common ground while reserving differences, do good turns, overcome estrangement, and return to Great Harmony; and the human capacity to elevate their lives by means of positive practice, economic endeavor, meritorious service, and humanistic pragmatism. The priority and primacy of practice in Marxism and the Confucian aspiration for the unity of knowledge and action have a lot in common. The Marxist scheme of the common dream and good life of humankind can be well fused, internally and externally, with the traditional Chinese dream of a world of Great Harmony and solidarity. Moreover, Marxist dialectics concerning the unity of opposites can be theoretically consistent and practically connected with Chinese wisdom regarding the integration of such opposites as heaven and earth and knowledge and action.

  Marxist materialism, dialectics, epistemology, historiography, and values, along with Marxist theories about the all-round, well-balanced development of economy, politics, culture, society, and ecology, inspire and illuminate the traditional Chinese view of nature and humanity, knowledge and action, substance and function, harmony and coordination, and candor and trustworthiness, and traditional Chinese humanism, ethics, interpersonal relations, moral fortitude, and national integrity, and vice versa. Marx’s ideas, such as “overcoming estrangement and returning to human normalcy as it is,”[9] “the community of free individuals,”[10] and “the free development of all on the premise of freed development of each,”[11] are complemented, spiritually and theoretically, by such traditional Chinese teachings as “investigating things to extend one’s knowledge,” “making one’s intentions sincere and rectifying one’s mind,” “being morally self-disciplined,” and that “when impoverished, people made themselves good on their own; when successful, they made the whole world good.” In addition, Marx’s assertion that “the proletariat can no longer emancipate itself without at the same time freeing the whole of humankind”[12] is, intellectually and emotionally, consistent with a great ambition within traditional Chinese culture, which aspires to “have the beneficial mind of heaven and earth prevail, the life of the people be well established, the dormant teaching of past sages reawakened, and a world of great peace brought about for all time.”[13]

  Obviously, there is a lineal spiritual connection between familiar core socialist values, such as civility, harmony, equality, justice, integrity, and friendliness, and the moral essence of traditional Chinese culture as generalized by Xi Jinping, who suggests that we identify and explicate such essential features of traditional Chinese culture as benevolence, people-orientation, integrity, righteousness, concordance, and common ground.[14] Additionally, in the history of human thought, it is Marxism that pays the greatest attention to the primacy of the people, something embodied in Marxist philosophy, political science, economics, historical study, sociology, and anthropology. And at the same time, Marxism as a practical system gives priority to the work of caring for, expanding, improving, and protecting the most basic interests of the people. This can be corroborated by observing a series of endeavors, such as the development from utopian socialism to scientific socialism, the view of history that “the people are the true heroes who create history,” the governing principle of serving the people, the long practice of making the people the true masters of the country, and the experience acquired through the reform, innovation, and development initiated by socialism with Chinese characteristics. People-orientation is a distinct feature of Marxism, which is intrinsically congruent with such traditional Chinese political ideas as “good governance by virtue devoted to benefiting the people,” “the decisive role of the people in a country’s stability and prosperity,” “the people outweighing the sovereign,” “the people’s assent as that which makes or breaks a regime,” “top priority to the interests of the people,” “substantially reducing the burden of the people,” and “respecting the will of the people.”

  Not only does the foregoing discussion indicate that Marxism is inherently consistent with an old Eastern country’s moral aspirations and social ideals, they also make clear that it is an important, urgent task to lead Marxism continuously to be a theoretically and practically convincing mainstream culture in twenty-first-century’s China by means of the creative transformation and innovative development of Marxism and better and more effective interpretation of the interconnectedness of Marxism and the grand legacy of traditional Chinese culture.

  CPC Members’ Perception and Practice

  In 1917, when Mao Zedong was in his twenty-fourth year, he penned a famous article titled “The Power of the Mind” [心之力]. This article fully exhibits how the young Mao, considering saving his country as the burden that he himself should sustain, made a grand resolution to reform China and rehabilitate the Chinese nation. Mao’s aspiration perfectly reflected his understanding and furthered elaboration of the intellectual essence of traditional Chinese culture and laid a spiritual foundation for his metamorphosis into a Marxist.[15] At the very beginning of “The Power of the Mind,” he wrote:

  The universe is my mind, and my mind is the universe. The mind can be as huge as heaven and earth, and as small as the end of a hair. The world, the universe, and the myriad things are all driven by the power of the mind. I, digging into the past and the present, realize that the reason why humanity is the most intelligent among the myriad things is that the power of human mind is actually the most advanced.[16]

  The phrase that “the universe is my mind and my mind is the universe” was taken from Lu Jiuyuan陆九渊(1139–1193), a renowned philosopher of the Southern Song. It was intellectually similar to the propositions of “the mind being principle” and “exercising innate knowledge” put forward by Wang Yangming王阳明(1472–1529), a great thinker of the Ming dynasty. Just like many advanced Chinese intellectuals of the early twentieth century, Mao thought highly of the basic principles and practical values of the Lu–Wang school of mind. The extraordinariness of the young Mao was that, as early as the late 1910s, he observantly understood and recognized the theoretical and practical power of Marxism, a great Western teaching.

  In the course of leading the Chinese revolution, which a walked long and winding road to success, Mao unswervingly upheld Marxism–Leninism as “the theoretical basis guiding our thoughts.” Meanwhile he always believed in the immeasurable power of the mind. Mao praised highly the decisive role played by the power of the human spirit, firmly believing that superstructures and the spiritual, intellectual culture in particular were able to make great contributions to the economic base and social progress and that morality and conscience could greatly restrict or encourage individuals and society. From beginning to end, Mao was fully confident of that spiritual power, saying, “We should maintain the same vigor, the same revolutionary enthusiasm, and the same death-defying spirit we displayed in the years of the revolutionary wars and carry our revolutionary work through to the end.”[17]

  In 1939, Comrade Liu Shaoqi published How to be a Good Communist (hereinafter referred to as Good Communist) [论共产党员的修养] in Yan’an. This treatise was a Marxist classic specially discussing CPC members’ effort to improve their character, forge their natures into those of true Party members, and improve their personalities. Good Communist proposed that CPC members be worthy pupils of Marx and Lenin. Liu’s proposal was theoretically based on Marxism–Leninism and the Communist moral ideal. Meanwhile he also mentioned Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Zengzi, and Zhu Xi朱熹(1130–1200) and explained how Confucian doctrines such as rectifying one’s own mind and being watchful over oneself even in solitude are worthy frames of reference for Communists. In doing so, Liu fully recognized the moral cultivation performed by traditional Chinese Confucians. Good Communist was not only a paragon of a book adapting Marxist moral teaching to the Chinese context but also set an example to the integration of Marxism and traditional Chinese culture. Xi Jinping wrote:

  The Book of Rites says, “There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute. Therefore the superior man is watchful over himself when he is alone.” CPC members and cadres should be watchful over themselves even in their solitude. Comrade Liu Shaoqi regarded this watchfulness as an effective method and the highest state of the cultivation of Party character and suggested that all CPC members put it into practice. Therefore, we Party members and cadres should strengthen our convictions and ideals, hold to the correct political orientation, stick up for clear political principles, cherish personal political life, and thus acquire inner willpower. Furthermore, we should constantly examine ourselves, pay attention to our moral cultivation, and make ourselves increasingly immune to corruption and moral deterioration.[18]

  The CPC respects very highly the history and culture of the Chinese nation. The Party has always cherished all along the spiritual soil and cultural conditions from which it sprouted, grew strong, and became truly powerful. Since its eighteenth National Congress, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping as the core has implemented a series of cultural policies by which Chinese culture may “creatively transform itself and develop innovatively” and “bear in mind the essence of Chinese culture, learn from foreign cultures, and look to the future.”[19] As a consequence, the integration of Marxism and the excellent aspects of traditional Chinese culture has reached new heights. It is particularly worth mentioning that, in recent years, an increasing number of statesmen, scholars, and ordinary people pay greater attention to the historical status and academic value of Wang Yangming’s learning of the mind, which is regarded by some as the peak of Confucian thinking, and how this teaching matters to our times. In present-day China, the learning of the mind becomes increasingly significant. There is even now a concept of “Communist learning of the mind,” which indicates that, under complicated domestic and international circumstances, the CPC, a centenarian governing party, does need to perform introspection, grow more self-disciplined, become more conscientious, purify internal tendencies, restrain itself morally, conduct self-cultivation, and improve the Party’s character. In a word, the Party should continuously improve itself inwardly. This self-improvement is indispensable not only to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation but also to the work of strengthening Party governance. The key significance of building a culturally powerful socialist China is that the civility of the whole of Chinese society and the Chinese population should be comprehensively improved. This all-embracing improvement is embodied exactly in the good state of people’s spiritual lives, self-identity, and interpersonal relationships.

  Any civilized country and society should never cease to (re-)create, upgrade, and perfect its spiritual level. Such sayings as “remembering one’s original aspirations,” “cultivating focus,” and “turning spirit into matter,” are actually similar to Confucian self-cultivation, Buddhist spiritual practice, and Daoist self-perfection. They all talk about the same thing, namely, spiritual cultivation, which calls people to try their best to have a keen mind, an indomitable spirit, a strong willpower, an unprejudiced mind, and a good mood. In 2015 the Party launched a nationwide education campaign called the “Three Stricts and Three Earnests.” “Three Stricts” means the Party members and cadres must strictly cultivate themselves, strictly adhere to propriety in using their power, and strictly examine themselves. Among the Three Stricts, that strict self-cultivation and strict self-examination have their counterparts in Confucianism and Wang Yangming’s learning of the mind in particular. These two disciplines must be practiced by all Party members. The CPC is a governing party of nearly one hundred million members. General Secretary Xi Jinping suggests that all Party members and cadres in particular practice the Communist learning of the mind. Such learning of the mind can also be extended to the entirety of the Chinese people or citizenry. Regardless of their role in the society, each person has their own learning of the mind. To put it another way, each person needs a relatively stable, healthy, and positive mind. It can thus be said that, in the New Era, the organic integration of Marxism and the excellent aspects of traditional Chinese culture is, to a great extent, embodied in the management and improvement of people’s spiritual and intellectual lives.

  Translated by Chi Zhen

  [1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, eds. and trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: ElecBook, 1999), under “Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership” and “Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis,”

  [2] Xi Jinping, “Speech at a Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Communist Party of China” [在庆祝中国共产党成立100周年大会上的讲话], Guangming Daily [光明日报], July 2, 2021.

  [3] “The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law,” accessed November 13, 2021,

  [4] See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, Theses on Feuerbach, and Economic Manuscripts of 1857–1858.

  [5] “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” accessed November 13, 2021,

  [6] “Theses on Feuerbach,” accessed November 13, 2021,

  [7] “Communist Manifesto,” accessed November 13, 2021,

  [8] Xi, “Speech at a Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Communist Party of China.”

  [9] “Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” accessed November 14, 2021,

  [10] “Capital,” accessed November 14, 2021,

  [11] “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” accessed November 14, 2021,

  [12] Ibid.

  [13] Zhang Zai张载, Sayings of Zhang Zai [张子语录], in Collected Works of Zhang Zai [张载集], ed. Zhang Xichen章锡琛(Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 1978), 320.

  [14] See Xi Jinping, “Cultivate and Disseminate the Core Socialist Values,” in Xi Jinping: The Governance of China I (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2014), 155.

  [15] In 1936, when receiving Edgar Snow, Mao Zedong said, “By the summer of 1920 I had become, in theory and to some extent in action, a Marxist, and from this time on I considered myself a Marxist.” Edgar Snow, Red Star over China (New York: Modern Library, 1944), 155–156.

  [16] Quoted in Chen Xianda陈先达, “The Consciousness and Institutionalization of Cultural Inheritance” [文化传承的自觉性和制度化], Guangming Daily, April 17, 2017,

  [17] “Persevere in Plain Living and Hard Struggle, Maintain Close Ties with the Masses,” accessed November 14, 2021,

  [18] Xi Jinping, Selected Essays Published in Zhejiang [之江新语] (Hangzhou: Zhejiang People’s Publishing House, 2013), 272.

  [19] Xi Jinping, “Confidence in Chinese Culture,” in Xi Jinping: The Governance of China II (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2017), 381.

  Bibliography of Cited Translations

  Legge, James, trans. Liji., accessed November 15, 2021.