By Yiding Chu 4:27 pm PST

The May Fourth Movement has formed a simple but fixed idea in the minds of Chinese people: traditional culture serves the feudal rulers or emperors. This is, of course, very ridiculous and uses reverse logic.

In a centralized feudal system without democracy, culture was the last and most powerful control of the emperor’s words, actions, and powers. Throughout history, no emperor has been able to stay outside the constraints of culture. Only those emperors who conformed to the mainstream values of Chinese culture could become wise rulers. Those who do not conform to these values are dim monarchs.

The reason why Confucius is known as the teacher of the emperors was not only because his doctrines told the emperors how to govern the world but also because those doctrines were superior and were the benchmark and criterion for measuring the wisdom of all emperors.

A few years ago, I talked with a scholar from the Chinese institutional system about American-style democracy. This scholar was a reformist in the system advocating for change in the human system and law ruling the country. He believed that the most important thing that makes the American system successful is the rule of law, which has little to do with faith and morality. Therefore, if China can realize the rule of law within society, all problems will be solved.

I asked him two questions: 1. Can he find a single President out of more than 40 presidents in the history of the United States who did not believe in God? He answered: No, he couldn’t. 2. If a candidate for the presidency of the United States publicly said he was an atheist, would it be possible for him to be elected? He listened to my question and was speechless.

We should not think that Confucianism is the imperial culture of the emperors just because all the emperors of China have revered Confucianism. We should not believe that Christian culture is exclusively for American Presidents just because all American Presidents have believed in Christ.

For a society that does not yet have the rule of law, there is nothing wrong with aiming to achieve it. The problem is that the rule of law is only a minimum standard, and a society that merely has the rule of law is far from a harmonious society.

This is like a person; if he can only be law-abiding in everything, then this person cannot be a good person – he can only be said to be a person not yet in prison. A society where the rule of law is the highest standard can only be described as a society in which the ideal is not to go to prison.

In Analects of Confucius – Government, Confucius said, “If the people are disciplined by penalties and decrees, they will not break them out of fear, but they will have no shame; only if they are guided by morality and propriety, they will have good character.”

In other words, if one society relies too much on the rule of law, it will most likely end up with a world full of “law-abiding citizens” who are not yet in jail. The degree of harmony in this society can then be imagined.

This is why the rule of law is not enough; having a culture is more important. This is why people who do not believe in God cannot be elected President of the United States. This is why those who believe that ‘traditional culture is for the feudal rulers’ have gone to a dead end in their culture. The purpose of Confucianism is to achieve a benevolent and harmonious society, not to serve the emperor.

But then again, finding an anti-imperialist doctrine among the hundred schools of traditional culture is difficult. The problem is that ‘not opposing the emperor’ and ‘serving the emperor’ are two completely different concepts. The May Fourth Movement was the biggest driver of the deliberate equation between the two.

Why is traditional culture not anti-imperial? Instead of asking this, we should ask Why traditional culture opposes the emperor?

The so-called anti-imperialist essentially aims to change the dynasty. In the 5,000 years of Chinese history, there have been less than 20 dynasties combined. The matter of changing dynasties may not happen once in several generations or even a dozen generations.

Which sage or scholar will invent a culture specifically for something that does not occur once in several hundred years? They are just afraid of a world without chaos! This matter can only be left to those “Vertical and Horizontal Alliance” guys to show themselves off. Or else, just leave it for those future generations that want to “smash the chains of the old world” to push their way through.

Look at the world today. Europe has many royal families, the elected Prime Ministers of Britain and Canada have to kneel to the hereditary Queen or King of England, and the members of the Japanese royal family are hereditary “stars” that are under the spotlight of society from birth. Why are we so squeamish about our ancestors “not being against the emperor” hundreds or thousands of years ago, when post-industrial democracies of the twenty-first century are so keen on royal life?

The most important element in both Eastern and Western cultures is the definition of the relationship between humans and Heaven, and only secondarily, the relationship among humans. This is true of both the modern universal “natural human rights” and the traditional Eastern “unity of man and heaven” (see also my article “The Confusion of May Fourth”).

The May Fourth Movement only decided on the trade-offs of a culture based on whether or not to oppose the emperor, which is like losing a great deal through trying to save a little, throwing away watermelon, and picking up sesame seeds.

The relationship between humans and Heaven in Chinese culture can be seen in four great works: Three Kingdoms, which concentrates on the ideas of Taoism and Confucianism; Journey to the West, which is mainly Buddhist with Taoism; Dream of the Red Chamber, which collects the great achievements of the three schools of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism; and Outlaws of the Marsh, which covers the ideas of the four schools of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Mohism.

Throughout the history of China, the pre-Qin dynasty’s hundred schools of thought had the greatest influence on the three schools of thought: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. From Han to Tang dynasty, Buddhist thought gradually replaced the doctrine of Mozi, forming the core of Chinese culture with the heart of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Mozi’s idea of “acting in the name for Heaven” gradually declined in history because it intended to act “for” Heaven. The three schools of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, which are about believing in Buddha, seeking the Way, and respecting Heaven, are, in essence, about obeying the will of Heaven.

The Mohists, on the other hand, add the word “for” in addition to their obedience to the will of Heaven. This raises a big question: How can “for” be practiced concretely? How can humans replace Heaven? The difference created by one word determines the rise and fall of a culture. This is the lesson of history.

If we use this lesson to look at the history of the past hundred years after May Fourth, especially of the past century, we should say: this is a history of “monks holding an umbrella – no law (hair), no heaven.”

“For the Heaven” is not even possible, let alone “no Heaven.”

Throughout the East and West, the experience of history tells us that in the orthodox culture, with the relationship between Heaven and humans as the core, there can be emperors (ancient) and no emperors (modern). But there can never be without Heaven.

Translation:  Sherry Peng