How to build a good public life?

This is the 1510 Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

This week’s digest brings together two recent pieces which, in different ways, show the influence of the Western cannon on Chinese intellectual life. In ‘How to build a good society’, Zhant Tianpan reviews professor Ren Junfeng’s book on civic virtue and civic government, itself based on a reading of Toqueville’s “Democracy in America”. In ‘Love and Justice’, Professor Chen Hongguo proposes a ‘reading list’ of nine key texts for thinking broadly about this topic, a majority of which reflect ‘universal’ European and American experience.

How to build a good public life?
By Zhang Tianpan, 16 October 2012

In this post, Zhang Tianpan reviews of a book recently published by political scientist Ren Junfeng on civic virtue and civil government.
The book is based on Toqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’, and questions the current situation of Chinese public life in the light of this analysis. For Toqueville, three main factors contributed to the development of American democracy: the natural environment, the legal system, and public sentiment – the latter being the most important. In turn, this democratic public sentiment came from people’s experience in American townships, which gave rise to tightly knit communities, and formed a breeding ground for democracy.
Based on that understanding the question raised is: how come Chinese village autonomy did not spontaneously give rise to a democratic society, life it happened in America? Various historical factors can explain it: partly the decomposition of traditional village ethics under the influence of modernity; partly the fact that village autonomy is largely promoted top-down by the Executive; and partly the pressures of urbanisation on the land and the people.
Civic virtue is the foundation for a solid civil government. But the reasoning presents a particular difficulty, as civic virtue is fed by massive participation in public affairs – which is in itself the characteristic of a civil government. In other words, civic virtue and civil government cannot easily be set apart, but reinforce each other. The end of this post attempts to clarify the two core concepts. Civic virtue can be defined as each person’s capacity to follow their own internal morality and exercise self-restraint, while allowing for public discussion. Civil government is defined as self-management by communities, where each person shows an interest for, and participates in, the management of public affairs.

Marco Polo translation: How to build a good public life?
Original link: 好的公共生活何以成为可能?

Love and Justice
By Chen Hongguo, 21 September 2012

In this post, professor Chen Hongguo proposes a reading list as a basis for reflecting on the broad question of love and justice. Aside from giving titles, he sums up the core argument of the book, and reasons for proposing it.
His selection starts with three cornerstones of the Western cannon: Job, Antigone, and Socrates’ Apology. The remaining ones – some novels, some essays – will take readers through Nazi Germany (‘The Reader), American ships (‘Billy Budd, Sailor’), or the works of Shakespeare (‘Law and love: the Trials of King Lear). The selection only contains one Chinese piece: ‘曼陀罗’, a play recounting a tale of seduction in Nepal. And the only book in this list set in a familiar Chinese setting, ‘The death of Woman Wang’, was written by Yale Professor Jonathan Spence. This post is remarkable not so much for the way Chen Hongguo analyses each of these books or his justification for choosing them, but for this very selection, and the cosmopolitan literary world it encourages readers and students to inhabit.

Marco Polo translation: Love and Justice
Original link: 谌洪果:有关“爱与正义”

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

The China Story, China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are publications of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

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