Prof. Tong Shijun Delivers Lecture on Bertrand Russell’s “The Problem of China”

On May 10, Prof. Tong Shijun, Chancellor of Shanghai New York University (NYU Shanghai), delivered a lecture titled “Bertrand Russell’s Problem of China (1922) and its Three Chinese Readers: Liang Shuming, Lu Xun and Mao Zedong” as part of the Topics in China Lectures Series for the 2022/2023 Spring semester. Hosted by Yenching Academy Director of Graduate Studies Lu Yang, the class reviewed Russell’s thoughts and predictions on China in his book, the content and significance of the responses by the three selected Chinese intellectuals, and the relevance of the book and comments in understanding contemporary China and its place in the world.

Prof. Tong started the lecture by discussing Bertrand Russell’s stay in China. Russell arrived in Shanghai on October 12, 1919, delivered four lectures in Changsha, Hunan Province, moved to Beijing on October 31 that same year to teach as a Professor of Philosophy at the Government University of Peking, and left Beijing for Japan in July 1921. On his return to Britain, Russell published numerous articles and gave speeches about China, based on which he published the book “The Problem of China” in 1922.

Prof. Tong considered why the class focused on Russell’s work despite the availability of many other renowned Western intellectuals, including John Dewey, Paul Sartre, Jurgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida, who had also visited China in the past. He mentioned that Russell’s visit was important as he published a particularly influential book on China. Russell’s prediction of the problem of China is that “China, by her resources and her population, is capable of being the greatest power in the world after the United States.” Nonetheless, he worried that China might embark on foreign conquests as it becomes strong enough to preserve its independence. Despite this worry, Prof. Tong explained that Russell expressed a hope for China that deserves more attention today: China would have given humanity new optimism in the moment of greatest need if it could abstain from imperialist and materialistic activities and instead focus on science and technology, art, and the formation of a better economic system on its path towards modernization.

The “Problem of China,” as espoused by Russell, has been proven true, especially when one compares the situation described in the book and China’s current domestic and global stature. However, Prof. Tong raised another concern bordering on how we should address what he described as the “Russell Problem” of China. To answer this question, the guest lecturer explained the perspectives of the three readers – Liang Shuming, Lu Xun, and Mao Zedong – and why their comments were being reviewed despite many Chinese intellectuals, including Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, and Zhao Yuanren, having read and critically responded to Russell’s work.

Liang Shuming wrote a paper in 1972 titled “The outsider sees the most of the game”, with the subtitle “A review of the fact that the British philosopher Russell foresaw the bright future of China 50 years ago”. Liang Shuming’s treatise discussed two concepts – li xing 理性 (reasonableness) and li zhi 理智 (rationality) – inspired by Russell’s distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘mind’. Prof. Tong explained that Russell used the term “being reasonable” in lauding Chinese culture, and it was not out of place for Liang Shuming to consider li xing as superior to li zhi. He also noted the essence of Liang’s conception of li xing lies in the notion of mutual communication and understanding among peoples. “We can understand each other most easily when we talk to each other, on whatever topics, calmly and disinterestedly.”

Prof. Tong further noted that Liang Shuming divided the development of human society into three stages: li 力 (strength) is dominant in the first stage, li 利 (interest) prevails in the second stage, and li 理 (reason) drives the third stage. “The main cause of the current conflicts in the world today is the absence of li 理 (reason) since countries pursue their interests while solely relying on their strengths,” Prof. Tong explained, adding, “However, Liang argued that the essential aspect of the Chinese culture is that li 理 should prevail to stimulate world peace.”

Arguably the most important figure of Chinese literature, Lu Xun was also one of the most critical of Russell’s perspectives on China. Referring to Russell’s praise of the Chinese sedan-chair-bearers who smiled at him at the West Lake, Lu Xun said in 1925 that Russell “may have been actuated by other motives.” Notwithstanding, his comments on Russell’s work were objectively clear, focusing on min qi 民气 (national spirit) and min li 民力 (national strength). Prof. Tong explained that Lu Xun used these concepts to explain the decline and advancement of nations, adding that a country will grow weak where ‘national spirit’ is the dominant ideology and grow strong where ‘national strength’ is the central principle. The guest lecturer explained that Lu Xun’s conception of the national spirit pertained to building China's identity and national strength was more concrete or measurable as it focused on building the institutional foundations China needs to develop itself and positively impact growth in other parts of the world. “So, while we are forced to encourage the people empty-handed, we should do all we can at the same time to build up our country's strength. Indeed, we should continue all our lives to do so,” Prof. Tong cited Lu Xun.

Referring to Russell’s suggestion on addressing “Chinese problems” first expressed in October 1920 in his speeches to an audience in Changsha, Mao Zedong gave his extremely significant response weeks later by characterizing it as “makes sense in theory but not in practice.” Prof. Tong stated that Mao systematically stressed the place of culture and its perpetually evolving state – Chinese culture is not fixed; it is something to be renewed. Despite the difference between this idea from Russell’s, some connections can be found when one deeply considers Mao’s and Russell’s thoughts on Chinese culture. “Mao has expressed the idea against great-nation chauvinism on many different occasions, stressing that China should be modest and refrain from oppressing other people even when she attains modernization,” Prof. Tong explained.

The class discussion also covered Mao’s comments on the other readers: his critical take on Liang Shuming’s idea of uneven distribution and his appraisal of Lu Xun. Nonetheless, Prof. Tong stated that Mao’s take on Lu Xun as “the bravest and most correct, the firmest, the most loyal and the most ardent national hero” was the direct opposite of Russell’s outlook on the weaknesses in the Chinese character.

Prof. Tong concluded by summarizing the current state of the world, which is popularly described as great power competition between the United States and China. He compared the ideas of the Thucydides Trap (structural stress that raises the prospect of war) and the Russellian outlook (contact and mutual learning as landmarks for human progress). He asked the students which one they thought would best define the course of history in the 21st century.

Several Scholars commented and raised questions during the Q&A session. 

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