A Nobel Peace Prize for Cultural Self-Hatred

A Nobel Peace Prize for Cultural Self-Hatred

A politicized decision?In Liu’s world view, Western values are perfection, while China is hopelessly backward. Everything Chinese must be broken down. Only through demolition can the quintessential human spirit be rescued and elevated.

A politicized decision?New America Media – For most Chinese intellectuals, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo is a puzzling choice. Liu, who is serving 11 years in prison for subversion of state power, is being honored internationally as a human rights pioneer. But in China, he is seen as a sell-out to the West, embracing Western values at the expense of Chinese culture.

Once an admired avant-garde figure of contemporary literature and political thought, Liu has long since fallen into the extremist fringe of Chinese intellectual life.

In the literary and art circles of China in the late 1980s, Li Zehou and Liu Xiaobo were the two most influential figures, expressing opposite viewpoints that aroused a firestorm in political ideology. Their clash centered on the extent to which China should adopt Western values and lifestyles. The philosopher Li advocated a merging and coexistence between Chinese and Western cultures, while Liu launched a scathing critique of the Chinese classical tradition.

It seems strange that the global media should refer to Liu Xiaobo as “the first Chinese Peace laureate”, since he adamantly rejects the culture of the land of his birth. According to his own account, Liu reinvented himself as a child of Europe. His dream has come true, now that the Nobel Committee recognizes him as one of their own.

Liu won instant fame with his improvised speech, “The Crisis of New Age Literature”, given at a literature conference in 1986. In it, he boldly denied the value of rationality and collective consciousness, arguing instead for personal sentiment and individualism. From that point, his articles went on to further devalue China’s traditions while promoting the culture of the West.

His writings appealed to intellectuals in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and struck a sympathetic chord in academia. With new admirers and foes, Liu quickly made his mark as the “Manchurian Tiger” and “Dark Horse” of contemporary literature.

He demonstrated a mastery of Western philosophy, psychology and sociology. In “Naked Approach to God: Aesthetics and Subconscious”, Liu cites Freud’s psychoanalytical structures of id, ego and superego to warn of the hazards of rationality to an essentially irrational human nature.

Freedom, he argues, can be realized only though immediate perception – concepts similar to those of Romanticism and later the hippie movement in the West.

A pioneer in the period when China made contact with the external world, Liu veered into fanaticism with his uncritical adoption of Western modern thought.

In his essay “The Tragedy of Enlightenment: Critique of the May Fourth Movement”, he argued that the May Fourth Movement – a major student-led protest in 1919 – failed because its leaders did not adopt wholesale the Westernization required to modernize China. The essay turned out to be a premonition of the ideological debates among the student factions during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

In Liu’s world view, Western values are perfection, while China is hopelessly backward. Everything Chinese must be broken down. Only through demolition can the quintessential human spirit be rescued and elevated.

Liu led a scorched-earth campaign against Confucianism and Taoism. His arguments – reminiscent of the radical anti-traditionalism of the Cultural Revolution – assailed the values of community in Confucianism for depriving individuals of democratic rights. He said that Chinese traditional values serve to idolize the powerful elite so that people willingly surrender their rights.

His image of himself is one of a savior – a modern-day Moses who will deliver the Chinese people out of China and into the Western world. Along his path of deliverance, however, Liu sinks into contradiction by trying to replace one tradition with another. Like a convert to a foreign religion, he worships a pantheon of foreign saints – Rousseau, Freud, Nietzsche and Sartre – while demonizing classic Chinese thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu, and even modern revolutionists like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong.

Across the developing world today, including China, intellectual leaders are proposing new theories that stress indigenous modernization efforts rather than lessons from former colonial masters. Progress and democracy are being built not on the basis of cultural self-hatred, but on the foundation of the legacies left to us by our ancestors.

Certainly there remains a need for radicals to challenge our nation’s past. Yet Liu Xiaobo failed China by rejecting the genuine achievements of its civilization and culture, thereby deeply offending Chinese pride. The Chinese take their traditions seriously when dealing with an offending critic.

For Liu the Nobel laureate, the larger tragedy was not so much a prison sentence as it is his own inability to recognize the treasures behind the veil of the Chinese classics.

Channa Li is a student in the Chinese Classics department at Renmin University, specializing in Tibetan language and literature.

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9 Comments

  1. PinkMuslimah
    October 19, 15:15
    Political dissidence does not equal self-hatred. Speaking out against the inhumane practises of one's own government - especially when it is an autocracy which doesn't shrink from tyrannical practises - is in itself an act of bravery. Kudos to Liu.
    • sm
      October 19, 19:46
      Did you read the article? It is not criticizing Liu's choice because he is a proponent of human rights. Rather, it is criticizing the fact that he is on the fringes of Chinese academia (many of who are also proponents of human rights). If you study Chinese culture, there is an extremely high regard for history and tradition (even more so than Muslim societies). If you want your ideas to gain credibility among Chinese society, you have to draw on the writings of traditional writers, i.e. Confucius, Mencius, etc. By basing his arguments on Western philosophers, Liu is simply alienating mainstream Chinese society, and therefore only hurting the human rights movement.
    • sm part 2
      October 19, 19:48
      "Like a convert to a foreign religion, he worships a pantheon of foreign saints – Rousseau, Freud, Nietzsche and Sartre – while demonizing classic Chinese thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu, and even modern revolutionists like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong."<br /><br />If he seriously believes that this is the proper approach to advance the movement for human rights, he is grossly mistaken about his own culture!
    • sm
      October 20, 22:30
      Of course not. But there are certain basic concepts and values that are found homogenously through every culture. Indeed, the word "culture" is commonly defined as "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group."
  2. Jeff
    April 30, 17:58
    Hear hear to the author. Nice to know there are still some chinese people who are proud of who they are.. look around the world, you see these self hating chinese by the bucketload... sucking up to the host community at the expense of their own race by playing along with their racist jokes directed at the chinese... marrying other races knowing full well it will eliminate their chinese bloodline... the worst offenders are chinese women who have married a white man, living in a white country, loves her "white" children (and is making an effort to make sure they marry white people) - and then say how good her chinese culture is, how they do things better. Get real woman, if you meant that you wouldn't have killed your bloodline.
  3. Mookles
    July 19, 13:57
    No coincidence that the author is a student at a mainland Chinese university. It's typical of the sort of jingoistic, nationalist post-Maoist claptrap that you'd expect from a mouthpiece of the CCP. It's hardly surprising that Liu Xiaobo is considered to be a marginal figure amongst Chinese 'intelligentsia', since you have to toe the party line in order to be considered mainstream. It's depressing that someone as articulate as Channa Li is defending Confucianism, an anachronistic, oppressive and paternalistic set of strictures, without bothering to explain why their re-adoption would be in anyone's best interests.<br /><br />Mao himself tried to stamp out Confucianism, so I'm not entirely sure where that places him on your cline of worthy Chinese. Very depressing article, by someone whose worldview is coloured by a crass assumption that everything "traditionally Chinese" is inherently superior.
    • Jeff
      August 28, 05:34
      [quote name="Mookles"]No coincidence that the author is a student at a mainland Chinese university. It's typical of the sort of jingoistic, nationalist post-Maoist claptrap that you'd expect from a mouthpiece of the CCP.[/quote]<br /><br />Yawwwwn. Once again, anyone defending the Chinese, sticking up for the race, the country, the culture - are instantly called puppets of the CCP, commies etc. Change the record pal.

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