There is so much in Chinese tradition to draw on that leading intellectuals compete by cutting and pasting as they choose, almost always from Confucian classics, as their contribution to contemporary China’s greatness, the realisation of the “China Dream” and China’s exceptionalism. Their agenda is, as it has been for generations, to save China, and to strengthen it. For a century, from late 19th to very late in the 20th century, the consensus among intellectuals, reformers, modernisers and nearly all political parties, was that Confucian tradition was at the heart of China’s backwardness and inability to stand up to the west. Then, almost overnight, the magnetic poles flipped. Confucianism suddenly went from being the root cause of China’s failures to being the secret source of its contemporary strengths.

The great game of China’s establishment intellectuals, left and right, is to pick which aspects of Confucian tradition best can be made to reframe debate, make Chinese characteristics into universals, which at the least exempt China from the universals of others, such as universal human rights, and at most proclaim China as the natural global centre of all under heaven.

It is this fixation on extracting concepts from the 2500 years old Spring and Autumn Annals for contemporary repurposing that preoccupies not only the party-state and its intellectual supporters, but also the leading critics as well. Their preoccupation with Confucian precedent, a contemporary trahison des clercs, serves the interests of the party-state even when it is critical of the inequality, corruption and excesses of the regime.

These days what used to be the consensus, that Confucian tradition is largely irrelevant to contemporary China’s problems, is voiced only by lonely, imprisoned outsiders such as the gentle Liu Xiaobo, who says ”Deep down, emotionally, the Chinese remain closed off. In their heart of hearts, they want to find some superior cultural tradition of their own that will help them create a unified system of belief. They are constantly engaged in a quest to find some source of national pride with which to console themselves. Confronted with the powerful culture of the West, the Chinese search for a spiritual crutch in the ancient culture that once made them so proud.”[1] It is for these sentiments that Liu Xiaobo is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in gaol.

These are among the deeper reasons why Tibetans make so little progress when they reach out, in Chinese, to Chinese audiences.  Wang Hui’s elaborate refusal to take seriously the anguish of the Tibetans is itself exemplary. His lengthy recitation of imperial precedent, his insistence that it was the Manchu emperor Qianlong who, in the 18th century “established the Kashag system that placed the Dalai Lama at the head of the government,” repeats familiar arguments that, since the imperial annalists regarded the Tibetans as tribute-paying outer barbarians, whose “local” government is established or disposed of by Beijing, the actual voices of actual contemporary Tibetans can be ignored.

What is truly remarkable in Wang Hui’s 90 pages on contemporary Tibet is that almost nowhere does he hear Tibetan voices, or listen to Tibetan complaints that echo his own critique of contemporary China’s state capitalism, gross inequality, rapacious resource extraction and environmental damage. Seldom does he sit and talk with actual Tibetans, although he says “I have always been deeply curious about Tibetan culture and wanted to investigate the Tibetan region more thoroughly.”[2]



Wang Hui’s elaborately contrived deafness to Tibetan pain is, unfortunately, typical of educated Chinese, including critics of the party-state. Exceptions are rare. One might expect the exceptions to be social scientists, trained in empathy, verstehen, in the classic ethnographic method of standing inside as well as outside the culture being studied. No such sympathetic reports are to be found in the writings of China’s social scientists. The few open-minded accounts of the lives, values, cultures and practices of Tibetans, and other minority nationalities, come from Chinese biodiversity scientists and human rights lawyers.

For Wang Hui, the protests by Tibetans can be explained away as the strains and contradictions of the arrival of modernization in a religious society, in which Tibetans confuse the inevitability of globalization with Sinicization. The strong global sympathy in 2008 for protests by Tibetans is explained away as the delusional fantasies of Western imperialist romanticism. Wang writes: “Most Chinese have no idea that what they are facing are Westerners saturated in several centuries of orientalist knowledge, for whom Tibet is something purely internal or, rather, a wholly fabricated internal other.”[3]

Assembling his evidence that Tibet is a phantom of Western orientalist fantasy, Wang takes a long detour through Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Herder, Madame Blavatsky, Adolf Hitler, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, James Hilton, the Central Intelligence Agency and many more; a ground already well trodden by many Western scholars[4] out to clear away projections, to enable Tibet and Tibetans to come into focus on their own terms. But for Wang Hui, this constitutes evidence that, for Westerners, “the existence of the Orient/Tibet is a necessary premise upon which their selfhood is constructed.”

Some Westerners, having repudiated the orientalist fantasies, deconstructed the Shangri-la mythos and also criticised the CIA’s use of Tibetans as Cold War pawns, have gone further, entering fully into Tibetan lifeworlds, as practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. While there may not be many Euro/Americans who have dedicated their lives to the inward journey of meditative insight into the nature of mind, under the guidance of Tibetan teachers, one might suppose their views worth noting, as an alternative to the speculations of 18th century philosophers. Wang Hui, far from ignoring such voices, includes them, as one might expect of an intellectual drawn to universals, which could include Buddhism, in that the Buddhists of Tibet say the Buddhist path of insight into the nature of mind is meaningful for anyone born human, irrespective of culture.

Wang Hui chooses to quote from Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk in the Tibetan tradition with decades of experience of the transformative inner journey: “It’s called ‘mixing your mind with the teacher’s mind,’ the teacher’s mind being wisdom and your mind being confusion. What happens then is that by means  of ‘spiritual union’ you progress from confusion to wisdom. This purely contemplative process is one of the key points of Tibetan Buddhist practice…… You can’t go and meet with Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’s feet. Yet suddenly here were these beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself: ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.” [5]

For Wang Hui, this is further proof that the West is in the grip of a deeply imprinted collective orientalist delusion about Tibet.  It does not occur to Wang to consider Ricard’s experience of decades of immersion in Buddhist practice and an attempt to find words for the deeply transformative power of Tibetan mind training, and Ricard’s unusually intense ethnographic encounter worth considering as an insider perspective. These quotes from Ricard prove to Wang Hui that the Tibetan lamas “are the creation of Westerners rather than the descendants of Tsong-kha-pa.”[6] Thus does Wang dismiss global concern about human rights in Tibet, the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition in Tibet, and the pain of the contemporary Tibetans.

Wang Hui says he wants to hear more Tibetan voices, yet seems oblivious to their presence online, in Chinese and in Tibetan, despite acute dangers, obstacles and censorship. He is also unaware of the corpus of fieldwork done in Tibetan areas. For two decades, the Institute of Biology at Yunnan University in Kunming, has published careful fieldwork accounts of conservationist practices of the many minority nationalities of Yunnan, practices based on traditional indigenous knowledge. In hundreds of reports, chapters and articles, they add up to a remapping of knowledge invisible to a party-state bent on engineering modernisation on a grand scale, through massive infrastructure projects that frequently have perverse outcomes that could have been prevented, if traditional knowledge was acknowledged and respected.

The biologists take care to adopt the conventions of scientific writing, in which the observer remains unseen, not part of the story. But when Beijing based human rights defence lawyers decide to see for themselves what the Tibetans are carrying on about, the tone is straightforward reportage, remarkable only because, in China, it is so unusual.[7]

This “Investigative report into the social and economic causes of the 3.14 incident in Tibetan areas”, by the Beijing-based Gongmeng Law Research Centre in 2009, adopts the structure and stance of objectivity of the social sciences, but Tibetan voices constantly break through: “The assistance and ‘development’ brought by the Han is often accompanied by forced change and conflicts, and the wishes of the Tibetan people themselves are not respected. ‘A Tibetan’s prosperity is more about freedoms such as religious belief, a respect for people, a respect for life, the kind of prosperity you get from extending charity to others.’ (Interviewee, Norbu].) ‘Reform and opening up brought with it new values for the Tibetan people […] forcing people to accept ‘development as the last word,’ and forcing them to accept ‘consumption as the last word’. In this process […] of transforming a people who had originally based their values on faith at the same time as transforming Tibet itself by means of modernization the lives of the people there were also transformed.’ (Interviewee, Li Xiaoshan.) From the level of actual benefits, the current rapid process of modernization has not given the ordinary Tibetan people any greater developmental benefits; indeed, they are becoming increasingly marginalized. In the course of researching and interviewing, we saw on more than one occasion the schisms, bitterness and hardships being faced in Tibetan areas today.”

This frankness, and the space provided for subaltern Tibetans to speak for themselves, were quickly repressed and the authors punished. Five years later, in 2014, the Gongmeng report remains one of the few occasions Tibetan voices were heard and reported by educated Chinese who took the trouble of going to Tibet to see for themselves.



[1] Liu Xiaobo, A Spiritual Tool, in Geremie Barme ed., New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, Times Books, 1992, 385

[2] Wang Hui, Son of the Jinsha River: In Memory of Xiao Liangzhong, 181

[3] Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, Harvard, 2011, 154

[4] Peter Bishop, Donald Lopez, Martin Brauen, Frank Korom and Robert Barnett are among many who have written extensively on this

[5] Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher: A father and son discuss the meaning of life; Schocken, 1999, 5,9, quoted in Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, 150-2

[6] Politics of Imagining, 151

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