Yesterday’s Stray Dog 喪家狗, Today’s Guard Dog 看門狗

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Dog Days (VIII)


This latest addition to Dog Days — a series of canine-themed articles, essays, translations and art works marking The Year of the Dog (16 February 2018—4 February 2019) — takes as its theme China’s most famous ‘stray dog’ 喪家狗, the pre-Qin thinker and latter-day Sage, Confucius. In it, the irrepressible thinker, critic and essayist Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 reviews the controversy surrounding Peking University professor Li Ling’s 2007 book, Stray Dog: Reading ‘The Analects’ 李零著《喪家狗——我讀論語》. Continuing his two-decade-long critique of the intellectual world, Liu then discusses the history and fate of China’s intellectuals as Homeless Dogs, Guard Dogs, Lap Dogs, Whipping Dogs and even Running Dogs.

Liu’s observations on State Confucianism, as well as on the benighted state of China’s intelligentsia, are even more relevant today, in 2019, than when he made them in 2007.


Lin Yutang on China’s Homeless Wandering Dog

On 25 November 1930, Lin Yutang 林語堂 — essayist, humourist and editor — made a speech at the Winter Institute of the YMCA in Shanghai titled ‘Confucius as I Know Him’. Lin concluded his remarks with a famous anecdote about the hapless sage:

… Confucius and his disciples had lost track of each other in the city of Cheng. Some one saw Confucius standing at the East Gate, and told Zigong:

‘There is a man at the East Gate, with a head like that of Emperor Yao, a neck like that of Gao Yao, and a shoulder like that of Zichan, but from the waist downwards is shorted than Emperor Yu by three inches. He appears crestfallen like a homeless wandering dog.’

When they had found each other, and Zigong had told the story to Confucius, the latter said:

‘The first part of the description is not quite right, but “like a homeless wandering dog”, he’s quite right, he’s quite right!’

孔子適鄭,與弟子相失,孔子獨立郭東門。鄭人或謂子貢曰:東門有人,其顙似堯,其項類皋陶,其肩類子產,然自要以下不及禹三寸,累累若喪家之狗。子貢以實告孔子,孔子欣然笑曰:形狀,末也。而謂似喪家之狗: 然哉,然哉,然哉。

——《史記 · 孔子世家》

I believe here we have at last arrived at the true Confucius, erring, struggling, sometimes elated and sometimes despondent, but always retaining a personal charm and a good sense of humour, and able to laugh at a joke at his own expense. This is the true Confucius and not the immaculate saint of irreproachable character which the Confucian scholars and the western Sinologues would have us believe.

originally published in The China Critic, IV: 1 (1 January 1931): 5-9
reprinted in China Heritage QuarterlyJune/September 2012
the romanisation has been converted to Hanyu Pinyin and
the Chinese text from Sima Qian added 


The following essay is taken from Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012, pp.188-200. We are grateful to Perry Link and Lindsay Waters for supporting our request to reprint this essay, to Thomas Moran for his skilful translation and to The Belknap Press for their kind permission. (The typographical style of the original has been retained.)

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 January 2019


Liu Xiaobo in China Heritage

Yesterday’s Stray Dog Becomes Today’s Guard Dog

Liu Xiaobo

translated by Thomas E. Moran


Chinese people are talking excitedly these days about the rise of China as a great nation. First we spoke of an economic rise, then a cultural rise; we started spreading money around the globe, then exported soft power. There have been fads for reading the classics, for honoring the memory of Confucius, and for promoting Confucian ethics. China Central Television (CCTV), pressing to reestablish an orthodoxy in China, has used its program Lecture Hall to touch off a fad for reading The Analects. The government has put big money into “Confucius Institutes” around the world in an effort to spread soft power. The dream of ruling “all under heaven,” repressed for a century or more, is now resurgent and is taking Confucius the sage as its unifying force. The craze for Confucius grows ever more fierce.

In my view, the government’s real goal in promoting Confucius is not to give new life to an ancient culture but to restore the tradition of venerating Confucius as a sage, a restoration that fits hand-in-glove with the promotion of radical nationalism. In the years since Tiananmen the government has used a two-pronged strategy of mounting campaigns against liberalization and “peaceful evolution” on the one hand while whipping up “patriotic” sentiment and channeling it in support of itself on the other. This “patriotism” has become a new pillar of the regime’s ideology, and the Party’s advertising of what it calls a “Golden Age of Prosperity” swells the nationalist tide. This could not be more clear than it is in the concluding lines of the official “Address at the Ceremony to Honor Confucius at the 2005 International Confucius Cultural Festival in Qufu, China,” which read: “Prosperity is at hand; Great Unity is the dream; revel in our Golden Age and the glory of strong nation.” Is this Confucius? Or a paean to nationalism and the new Golden Age?

Over the past year the promotion of traditional culture in CCTV’s Lecture Hall has helped to turn Confucius into a commercial product—to become, in Lu Xun’s phrase, a “sage in vogue.” (Much the same thing happened in the Mao Zedong fad a few years ago.) Today books on Confucius in a variety of genres are making big profits for publishing houses, and adult education classes on traditional Chinese culture and the Chinese classics have been highly profitable as well. At Tsinghua University, a course on traditional Chinese culture costs 26,000 yuan; at Fudan University, it costs 38,000 yuan, and the fee for an after-school course on the classics for children is even more astronomical.

The CCTV program has also helped to turn pseudoscholar Yu Dan into a national celebrity. Yu Dan has been hawking Confucius with a sales pitch that combines tall tales about the ancients with insights that are about as sophisticated as the lyrics of pop songs. Her often arbitrary and always shallow interpretation of Confucius injects a bit of the narcotic of pop culture into the current Confucian renaissance. The take-home message of her book Confucius from the Heart is that Confucius teaches that we can all have peachy lives if we just live like cynics: no matter what befalls us, if we just smile at our troubles and do not complain, we can get along and live in bliss.

Just as the Yu Dan-inspired fad to “read Confucius” was taking off, Peking University professor Li Ling published a book called Stray Dog: My Reading of “The Analects.” Li uses his own research to “exorcize nonsense” about Confucius and to try to capture the philosopher in his original form. Li writes in his preface:

My book is the product of my own ideas about Confucius. I do not repeat what others have said. I do not care what Mencius. Wang Anshi, or any of the other greater or lesser scholars have said. If something is not in the original text, then sorry, I reject it … If we want to know what Confucius himself thought, we have to read the original texts … I am not out to join intellectuals in their squabbling, nor am I out to pander to popular taste.

And Li concludes:

After reading The Analects, I find it most fitting neither to put Confucius on a pedestal nor to drag him through the mud but to say he resembles Don Quixote.

Li’s rejection of both idol worship and favor-currying debunks the two-thousand-year-old habit of venerating Confucius as a sage. He writes:

In this book I explain to my readers that Confucius was not, in fact, a sage. The Confucius to whom emperors paid homage in dynasty after dynasty was not the real Confucius, but a “manufactured Confucius.” The real Confucius, the one who actually lived, was neither a sage nor a king-much less, as the popular phrase has it, “inwardly a sage and outwardly a king” … [He was] a mere mortal, a man of humble birth who believed that the ancient aristocracy (his “true gentlemen”) set the standard for how one should conduct oneself. He loved antiquity, studied it assiduously, and never tired of learning. He was an indefatigable teacher who transmitted the culture of the past and encouraged his students to read classic texts. He had no power or status—only morality and learning—and dared to criticize the power elite of his day. He traveled around lobbying for his policies, racking his brains to help the rulers of his day with their problems, always trying to convince them to give up evil ways and be more righteous. He was bighearted and dreamed of restoring the reign of Zhou so that peace could come to everyone in the world. He was tormented, obsessed, and driven to roam, pleading for his ideas, more like a homeless dog than a sage. This was the real Confucius.

In both research and interpretation, Li Ling goes well beyond the shallow and careless Yu Dan as a reader of The Analects. More importantly, he feels a strong empathetic connection with a fellow intellectual of two thousand years ago. He notes that Confucius himself thought of himself as a sort of homeless dog:

Confucius was in despair about his homeland and, with disciples in tow, set out on foot to travel far and wide, living among strangers. He met dukes and princes, but got nowhere with them, and in the end returned to his place of birth, where he ended his days brokenhearted. Before he died he lost a son and others who had been near to him—his disciples Yan Hui and Zhong You—and wept until his tears ran dry. He died at home—but in another sense had no home. He may or may not have been right in his teachings, but in either case his life does illustrate the fate of Chinese intellectuals.

When Li Ling tossed his stray-dog comment into the midst of the popular discussion about Confucius and traditional Chinese culture, it was like tossing a big rock into a pond: it caused huge waves of protest from the new Confucian defenders of the Way. Li became the target of sputtering vitriol and curses from those whose shame turned to humiliated rage. He was denounced as a “prophet of doomsday” and (oddly, given what he stood for) an “angry youth.” People who had not read his book nevertheless felt qualified to judge it “garbage.” All this happened because he had called Confucius a stray dog. It shows that the Confucius fans of today have taken their reverence for the Master to the point where nothing actually meaningful can be said about him. Thank goodness the fans do not have much political power; if they did, we would be back to an era in which (as Lin Biao said of Mao Zedong) “every word is true, every word is worth ten thousand words from others.”

Li Ling, as a serious historian, writes that “I regard The Analects as a subject for historical inquiry, not as a sacred book.” When he calls Confucius a stray dog, he is reminding us that during China’s Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE) intellectuals lived lives of uncertainty, even fear, because their talents were often unwelcome, and in that context “an idealist who can find no spiritual home” does resemble a stray dog. In my own view, to say that Confucius lacked a “spiritual home” is already giving him too much praise. The truth is that he was roaming the land to look not for a spiritual home but for a place where he could go to work for someone who held power. His cherished goal was to be the teacher of a king, and in that he failed. He was a stray dog who lacked a master. Had he found a ruler to take him in, the stray dog would have become a guard dog.

Li Ling was not the first to call Confucius a stray dog. Scholars of antiquity have evaluated him that way, too. The biography of Confucius in the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145?-86 BCE) states that, at the age of 40, and having accomplished nothing, Confucius wailed, “My Way has reached its end!” and “There is no place in the land for me!” According to the biography in the Records, people in Confucius’ own time noticed that he was “haggard and worn as a stray dog,” and Confucius, hearing of the remark, allowed that the comparison was apt. Today’s “true defenders of the Way” claim that when Confucius made his acknowledgment he was in fact hinting at some abstruse and profound truth about cultivating humanity and governing countries. For Li Ling to take the response more literally, in their view, is heinous heresy and enough to make his book garbage not worth reading. Some “angry youth” went so far as to say “Professor Li is insane!”

Today’s Confucius worshippers can heap all the scorn upon Li Ling’s book they like, but it remains true that what he writes about Confucius, especially in his plainspoken and captivating preface, far surpasses anything that Mr. Jiang Qing and the other “new Confucian thinkers” have to offer. An impressive range of well-known scholars have given Stray Dog high praise.

In an essay called “On the Feasibility of Benevolence and Righteousness: A Review of Li Ling’s Stray Dog,” historian Wu Si writes, “Li Ling has done a fine service. Cultural projects of the future must be based on reliable core texts. In my view Li Ling, in his work on The Analects, does even better than Zhu Xi (1130-1200).” In a similar review essay, Professor Qian Liqun of the Department of Chinese at Peking University writes, “Li Ling’s reading of The Analects stands out for its powerful ‘heart to heart’ empathy with Confucius, one intellectual to another. This empathy allows him to see the ‘stray dog’ problem clearly … When I saw the ‘stray dog’ phrase, I sensed a touch satire in it, but more than that I sensed Confucius’s perseverance, and his sorrow.” In an interview, Liu Mengxi, director of the Institute of Chinese Culture at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, praised Li Ling’s conscientious textual research, his critical attitude, and his dispelling of myths about Confucius.

Professor Qin Hui of Tsinghua University, in an article entitled “How Did The Analects Become a Classic?” writes that “nowadays there are those who would elevate The Analects to the status of a Confucian Bible, just as, once upon a time, people elevated a thin little book called Quotations of Chairman Mao to the status of a ‘pinnacle’ of Marxism. Did the fervor for Quotations of Chairman Mao enrich Marxism or wreck it? Does the fervor for The Analects advance Confucianism or run it to ruin?”

China has a long tradition of reverence for sages, and in the eyes of the defenders of the Way, be they ancient or modern, Confucius is not to be questioned; he is a venerable “uncrowned king,” the bearer of truth and the teacher of rulers through the ages; he is the Complete and Perfect Sage and King of Culture (a title actually given him in the fourteenth century) to whom emperors must bow. For Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and his Confucian Association, Confucius was the founder of a religion and a god; for the “new Confucians” of today, he is the symbol of Chinese culture. For them, every maxim in The Analects expresses astounding insight into either the management of state affairs or the cultivation of a person’s innate morality. In ancient times the most outlandish claim was “half The Analects can govern the world”; its rival today is “Confucian teachings have governed the world for five thousand years and are ready for five thousand more.” Some even say, “I f you don’t read Confucius, you are not really human.” Today’s “Confucians” go so far as to make up eye-catching fake news—such as the story, spread during the recent fad, that in 1988 seventy-five Nobel Prize winners from around the world gathered in Paris to name Confucius as the greatest thinker in human history. (Does someone covet the approval of Westerners?)

Today’s fans are so smitten with their sage that they have lost the ability to distinguish ordinary human life from sainthood and ordinary language from ritual worship. Pardon me, good people, but Confucius was a human being, and must have farted. Are you sure those, too, had deep meaning? Could it be that the words of The Analects are common sense, not mystical wells of unfathomable wisdom? Let’s look again at the two modest, clear lines that begin The Analects: “Is it not a pleasure to make frequent use of what one has learned? It is not a joy to have friends visit from afar?” Where, exactly, is the mind-bending abstruseness that warrants more than two thousand years of annotation and explanation? Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967), in his “Notes on The Analects,” had it right: “The Analects tells how to be a good person and how to interact with the world … It can be useful a guide for future generations, but we must not take it as immutable truth or moral dogma, and still less should we claim it to hold brilliant political philosophy that can regulate nations and bring peace to all under heaven.” The great German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel considered The Analects to be no more than a collection of daily-life truths.

It was when Emperor Wu of the Han (156-87 BCE) announced his ruling to “venerate Confucianism alone” that the man named Kong Qiu posthumously turned into Master Confucius. The skeleton of that stray dog sprang back to life as a guard dog to defend emperors and the Chinese autocracy. When the autocrats realized how useful Confucian principles could be, the position of court guard dog began to offer excellent job security; once in place, the incumbents stayed for more than two thousand years. The moment when the paragon of China’s intellectuals was elevated by political powerholders to a place of exalted honor, the moment statues of the paragon were gilded and placed inside the ancestral temple of the imperial clan, was the moment Chinese intellectuals arrived in hell on earth, because now they were nothing more than hand- maidens to power. An early example was Sima Tan, father of Sima Qian. Both men had served as “grand historian” at the Han court. When Sima Qian was castrated—his punishment for offending Emperor Wu—he wrote a lament to his father:

My father achieved nothing that merited any mention in the imperial records. He was responsible for astronomy and the calendar, which was mere fortune-telling and communion with the dead. The emperor used him for personal amusement and treated him like a court musician or other performer, and the common people never took him seriously.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Western powers forced China to open itself to the world, China’s imperial system and its ideology fell into sudden and rapid decline. In 1911, when a revolution finally brought an end to centuries of imperial dictatorship, Confucianism, which had been the ideology of the dictatorship, lost its institutional support. The Confucian scholars who had been guard dogs went back to being stray dogs. Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) did manage to get himself appointed emperor in January 1916 and did make a big show of reviving the Confucian rituals, but that farce was short-lived. Yuan died six months later. By that time, the complete collapse of traditional institutions and their supporting ideology had become inevitable.

This felt dreadful, of course, to the Confucian scholars who lost their imperial doghouses and were put back out onto the streets. But from another point of view, the transition was a great blessing. It was an opportunity for Chinese scholars to become modern intellectuals, to leave behind the authoritarian props they had been depending upon and to venture into a new world of independent, critical thought. The opportunity was upon them whether they welcomed it or not. Unfortunately, this era of being “stray dogs by necessity” lasted only about fifty years. Once the Chinese Communists brought their totalitarianism to China, it was hard for Chinese intellectuals to be anything quite so comfortable as stray dogs. Most became whipping dogs, the targets of persecution and violent attack, while a fortunate few secured positions as guard dogs for the Mao regime. Guo Moruo (1892-1978), who earlier had dared to make open criticisms of Chiang Kai-shek, after 1949 turned into Mao Zedong’s lap dog.

The fate of Confucius’s reputation in the twentieth century would likely have puzzled Confucius. Twice he was made the target of major political campaigns, once during the May Fourth movement that began in 1919, and once when Mao Zedong launched a campaign to “criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” in 1974. In the years since Tiananmen, a trend in Chinese intellectual circles has opposed “radicalism,” and some people have lumped the radical anti-traditionalism of May Fourth and the radical anti-traditionalism of Mao together, rejecting the two as a package. But these two “anti-Confucius” campaigns were radically different things.

First, the prime movers of the two campaigns could not have been more different. May Fourth was a spontaneous, bottom-up movement by people who were making demands on the government. They were mainly independent intellectuals who had been influenced by new ideas, values, and strategies from the West, and were using Western yardsticks to try to understand why China had fallen so far behind. They had transcended the thinking of the late nineteenth century, which held that “catching up” was merely a matter of technology—or perhaps of government form—and had concluded that the problem was deeply involved with culture. “Confucius” needed to be uprooted. In sharp contrast, the 1974 campaign to “criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” was a top-down political movement launched by a dictator, Mao Zedong, who held absolute political power and who had ensconced Mao Zedong Thought in the sole position of honor in China’s world of ideology. No other ideas, whether from China or elsewhere, were permitted.

Second, the goals of the two campaigns were radically different. The Confucius whom the modern-minded intellectuals of May Fourth were attacking was not the wandering philosopher of the fifth century BCE but Sage Confucius, that artifact of Emperor Wu, the man who had embalmed Confucianism as the “only thought to be venerated.” The new intellectuals wanted to drive off a guard dog and root out an entrenched way of thinking. Mao Zedong’s campaign against Confucius, by contrast, had nothing at all to do with any effort to improve or renew culture, and in fact had nothing to do with Confucius, either. Its purpose, purely and entirely, was to aid Mao Zedong in his power struggles at the top of the Communist Party of China. The point was to utterly demolish the image of Lin Biao and to draw a line in the sand for the “chief Confucian in the Party,” Zhou Enlai.

How much different, in their fundamental natures, could these two “anti-Confucius campaigns” have possibly been? One originated with modern intellectuals who had no political power, the other with a traditional-style despot who held absolute power; one was spontaneous and bottom-up, the other engineered and top—down; one was an effort to find a way forward for the nation, the other an effort to solidify autocratic power for a dictator.

This is why I continue to endorse May Fourth’s anti-Confucius campaign and continue to condemn Mao’s. It is hardly a close call.

In a 1935 essay called “Confucius in Modern China,” Lu Xun denounces the tradition in imperial China of sage worship. He writes:

The ones who put Confucius on a pedestal, who made him a sage, were powerholders and would-be powerholders. This sage-making had nothing at all to do with the common people.

Sage-worship—a product of the joint efforts of kings, emperors, and their hired scribblers over many centuries—in my view is the most impressive piece of mythmaking in all of Chinese history. The Confucius who has been dubbed “sage” long ago lost any connection to the historical Confucius and is nothing but a shoddy counterfeit.

If one actually does some conscientious reading of China’s pre-Qin philosophers, it is not hard to see that Confucius was relatively mediocre. He lacks the grace, ease, and elegance of Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE), has none of Zhuangzi’s gift for powerful language, or beautiful flights of fancy, or genius for unconventional, arresting philosophical insight, and falls far short of Zhuangzi’s clear-eyed understanding of the human tragedy. Compared to Mencius (372-289 BCE), Confucius is no match in boldness of vision or breadth of mind, to say nothing of the ability to stand up to authority with dignity or to show genuine concern for the common people. It was Mencius who said, “The people come first; the social order next; the rulers last.” By comparison with Han Feizi (281-233 BCE), Confucius seems pretentious and crafty; he lacks Han Feizi’s gift for straightforward, trenchant, satirical commentary. As for Mozi (ca. 470-391 BCE), Confucius does not have his talent for logical rigor or the faith in humanity that undergirds his ideal of universal equality.

The sayings of Confucius, by contrast, are clever but contain no great wisdom. They are extremely practical, even slick, but show no aesthetic inspiration or real profundity. Confucius lacked nobility of character and breadth of vision. He ran around trying to get a position at a court, and when this failed he became an expounder of the Way. He enjoyed telling people what to think and how to behave, for which the sage-makers have credited him as “an indefatigable teacher of men,” but what it actually shows is a certain arrogance and small-mindedness. His famous principle of “engaging the world when it is orderly and withdrawing when it is in chaos” is, if you think about it, a formula for irresponsible opportunism. How costly has it been for the Chinese people that this particular thinker—this most sly, most smooth, most utilitarian, most worldly-wise Confucius, who shied away from public responsibility and showed no empathy for people who suffer—became their sage and exemplar for two thousand years? A people is reflected in its sages, and a sage can mold people in his image. I fear that the slave mentality in the Chinese people today came entirely from this source.

In addition to the serious intellectual project of uncovering the original Confucius, Professor Li Ling seems to have had some other targets in mind in publishing his Stray Dog book. Today’s ultranationalism was clearly one of them. Li is challenging the fads for “reading the classics” and “worshipping Confucius” and indirectly is raising questions about the “rise of China as a great nation” as well. His reference to Confucius as a homeless dog “spiritually adrift in the world” is aimed at the “new Confucians” who are promoting Confucius as a worldwide savior. Li comments, “I can imagine nothing more pointless than planting the flag of Confucius all over the world … Confucius could not save China, and he cannot save the world.”

A second target of Li Ling’s critique is the tradition among Chinese intellectuals of cozying up to power, and the critique is timely because the Confucians of today are falling over themselves to do just that. They honor Confucius and spout Confucian teachings, but their purpose is not to use Confucianism to revive the ethics of the nation; it is to reassert the principle that mastery of Confucianism qualifies a person to be a ruler. In stressing that Confucius was an adviser to kings and emperors (even “the teacher of the nation”), in advocating that Confucianism resume its place as the nation’s orthodoxy, and in hoping that the government will use its authority to make these things happen by decree, what the new Confucians are actually doing is showing their own ambitions to be the advisers to the modern-day kings and emperors—or maybe even to be Plato-style philosopher-kings themselves, holding power in their own hands. In giving Confucius his latest makeover they are, in essence, sending China back to the era of Emperor Wu. They are hoping for a resumption of the days when Confucianism was venerated and all other schools of thought were banned—indeed, when all thought was banned, including Confucian thought, because you don’t need thought when unquestioning worship of a sage takes its place.

Li Ling sees the record of history as showing that China’s intellectuals, with all those utopian ideals bulging in their heads, have done good for China only when they find themselves out of power, taking stands as critics of authority. When they have power in their hands, it can spell danger, even disaster, for the nation. “Intellectuals, with their sharp eyes and keen minds,” he writes, “can be more autocratic than anybody. Put the executioner’s sword in their hands and the first to lose their lives will be other intellectuals.” This happens because of the habitual conceit of the Chinese intellectual that his morality, his ideals, and his insights are necessarily superior to anyone else’s. He accords himself the pedestal of being “first in the world to assume its worries, last in the world to enjoy its pleasures” [from Fan Zhongyan (989-1052 CE—Trans.] and believes he can help to save the people from calamity and build a paradise on earth. Zhang Zai (1020-1077 CE) summed up the goals of the Chinese intellectual in four sentences: “Establish morals in the world; establish livelihood for the people; transmit the lost teachings of the sages; bring peace to the world for thousands of years.” Today many Chinese intellectuals still exhibit this mentality, which shows just how deeply the ancient literati traditions of arrogance remain engrained.

Li Ling wants today’s Chinese intellectuals to take lessons from history, to stand apart from power, to give up their ambition to be the teachers of kings, and to stop politicizing the ancient classics with ideological readings. At the end of his preface, Li writes:

We must approach The Analects coolly and objectively—without any politicizing, moralizing, or sermonizing. Our sole purpose should be to fill the need we have for the real Confucius, a need that is particularly acute in this age when, to paraphrase Confucius himself, “the rites have been lost and the music at court is disordered.”

If China’s intellectuals ignore this advice, their fate, like that of their predecessors, will be to serve only as running dogs for others. A stray dog that finds favor with no one and a guard dog prized by its master both are dogs.

In my opinion the greatest tragedy in the history of Chinese culture was not the famous “burning of books and live burials of scholars” for which the First Emperor of the Qin (259-210 BCE) is famous, but Emperor Wu’s “banning all schools of thought and venerating Confucianism alone.” This latter decree led to Dong Zhongshu’s (ca. 175-105 BCE) reinterpretation of Confucianism, which substantiated the theory that the imperial system (in fact founded and maintained by violence) was a manifestation of the Way of Heaven. Dong’s principle, cited in his biography in The History of the Former Han, that “if the will of Heaven does not change, then the Way does not change” was an assertion that the cosmos endorses imperial rule. It wrapped a violent military dictatorship in the dress of benevolent rule. Emperors of course saw the utility of this disguise, were happy to continue upholding Confucianism as the “uniquely venerated” official ideology, laying out a path by which the literati could master Confucian orthodoxy and use it to flourish as lackeys. Mao Zedong got the intellectuals just right when he invoked the saying “With the skin [i.e., the state] gone, what can the hair [the intellectuals] hang onto?”

The most important responsibility of Chinese intellectuals today is not to defend sage-worship that an autocratic political authority sup- ports but to pull free from reliance on and service to such authority. We should inherit and promote the May Fourth tradition, which Professor Chen Yinke (1889-1969) captured in the phrase “independence of thought and autonomy of person.”

Beijing, August 18, 2007



  • Originally published online in Chinese on 2 September 2007 and available here
  • This translation by Thomas E. Moran first appeared in Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012, pp.188-200


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