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Discovering Jefferson in the People’s Republic of China

ISSUE:  Summer 1981


Strange Encounters: Chinese in Jefferson’s Country

By John Israel

We met them on West Lawn in front of the Rotunda. They appeared on schedule, clad in their mass-produced overseas traveling uniforms— black or charcoal grey suits, white shirts, and thin, dark monochrome ties. They were architects and the first delegation from the People’s Republic of China to visit the University of Virginia.

Knowing that they had come from visits to Williamsburg and Monticello, I could not restrain myself from asking: “Well, you have just seen some examples of the architecture of the American Revolution. How revolutionary did it appear to you?”

“Oh,” replied one of them, taking the question in stride, “we all understand that there are two kinds of revolution, the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution. What we have seen obviously is the architecture of the democratic revolution.”

That was in 1976. The following year the university’s East Asian Center hosted what was then the highest-ranking Chinese delegation ever to visit the United States. Headed by Hao Deqing, former ambassador to Hungary and North Korea, they represented the People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, a “people-to-people” organization and therefore an appropriate conduit for Sino-American contacts before full diplomatic normalization.

Since they arrived on July 4, we offered to take them to the annual naturalization ceremony on the lawn at Monticello, but they politely declined. Though they gave no reason, we assumed that they didn’t want to compromise themselves by being present when citizenship might be conferred upon Chinese from Taiwan. The delegates did, however, agree to attend a colloquium on Thomas Jefferson. After presentations by two of our Jefferson specialists (my co-author and the late Bernard Mayo), Hao Deqing rose to respond on behalf of the group. They appreciated the fact, he said, that Jefferson was “revered by Americans” and was “known throughout the world.” In diplomatic language that meant that nobody but Americans held Jefferson in reverence.

Moreover, continued Ambassador Hao, they appreciated the role that Jefferson had played as a leader of the newly rising class in the American Revolution. In Marxist language that meant that Jefferson represented the American bourgeoisie—an amazing statement, we thought, for a man who had just seen the gentlemanly estate of Monticello!

Since Hao Deqing’s remarks, events have moved swiftly in China. Deng Xiaoping has risen to the top and has committed his government to an all-out drive to modernize. Foreign contacts have burgeoned; from a handful of carefully-selected delegations in 1977, more than a hundred Chinese groups a month now visit the United States. In the other direction, tourism has developed from a few “friendship” delegations to China to some 60,000 Americans a year bouncing through the paddy fields in their air-conditioned buses.

At the same time, China has gone through an uneven process of liberalization. Instead of mouthing Maoist platitudes, Chinese intellectuals now are encouraged to “seek the truth from facts.” A “hundred flowers” movement has spurred renewed creativity in literature, drama, films, and art. Under a revised constitution and legal code, individuals are assured that they cannot be arbitrarily arrested and punished without at least some form of due process. And, even though Beijing’s Democratic Wall has now been converted to commercial advertising, there is more freedom of speech in China today than at any time since the mid-1950’s.

All of this has been a heady experience for Americans as well as Chinese. Inheritors of a missionary tradition that sought to remake China in our own image, we have ever been flattered to see Chinese move in our direction, whether it was Chiang Kai-shek’s ardent embrace of Methodism or Deng Xiaoping’s limited endorsement of free market economics. And yet, when it came to the vital core of the American tradition—the commitment to individual freedom and democratic values represented by Jefferson—we couldn’t help but wonder: could people who affixed American democracy with the modifier, “bourgeois,” ever truly understand the values that were so precious to us, let alone share in them?

Suddenly, as if in answer to this question, something phenomenal happened. In the Aug. 15, 1980, issue of Lishi Yanzhou (Historical Studies)—China’s most authoritative historical journal—appeared an article entitled, “Thomas Jefferson’s Ideas of Democracy.” The author was Liu Zuochang, identified as a 59-year-old associate professor at Shandong Teachers College in Jinan, who had also written a History of the American Civil War. Who was this man and what had motivated him to study and write about the political ideas of the framer of our Declaration of Independence? Was his voice a lonely one in the groves of Maoist academe or was there a coterie of Jefferson scholars in China? I immediately wrote Professor Liu to find out. Four weeks later I received his answer:

Dear Professor Israel:

I was very happy to receive your letter of December 22, 1980. And I feel so great a joy to find that you are teaching at the university founded by the very man whom I have admired for a long time.

As far as I know, aside from my article, no other articles on Thomas Jefferson have been published in China since Liberation for the simple reason that between the United States and China there had been abnormal relations for a long time and students of history in China did not want to study American history from a positive point of view. Only after the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries, scholars in China began to turn attention to American history. But for the time being, I am the only one who writes about Jefferson.

From this letter and subsequent ones, I learned that Professor Liu’s path to becoming China’s only Jeffersonian scholar had been a long one. His biography encapsulates the experience of a generation of Chinese intellectuals who sandwiched academic careers between the interstices of war and revolution.

Born in 1921, Liu grew up in Liaoning province in China’s northeast. When he was ten years old, the Japanese staged the famous Mukden Incident, seized the vast, rich Sino-Soviet-Korean borderland region, and ruled it as the puppet state of Manchukuo. Liu received his middle school education in Japanese-occupied Mukden (now called Shenyang) and in the summer of 1940 entered the Catholic-operated Fu Ren University in Peiping, by then also under Japanese occupation.

Spurred by patriotic sentiments, young Liu fled Peiping in the summer of 1941 and found his way to Kunming, in the distant southwest corner of China, where three of his country’s finest universities had formed a wartime conglomerate called Southwest Associated University. The citadel of liberalism in unoccupied China, S.W.U. boasted the most distinguished and cosmopolitan faculty in China. More than a hundred of its 200 professors had American Ph. D.’s, To these men and women, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms meant as much as they did to American New Dealers. S.W.U. had a Democratic Wall nearly 40 years before its ill-fated successor in Beijing, and the university proudly wore the accolade, “Bastion of Democracy.”

Liu’s first encounter with American history, however, was not in Kunming but at Sichuan University to which he transferred in 1943. There he took a survey course in U. S. history and read Morison and Commager’s The Growth of the American Republic, He immediately fell in love with the subject. In a recent letter, he explained:

This was chiefly because I liked the national character of the American people: their love of freedom, their enterprising spirit, etc. Moreover, the fact that, although the United States has a history of but two hundred years or so, she has attained the highest development in the field of science, technology and economics, has inspired me with a desire to scrutinize the secret of the miracle. This is another reason why I love American history so much.

Liu’s graduation thesis was entitled, “The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.”

In 1945 Japan surrendered and Liu, now a college graduate, returned to his native northeast to teach Western history and English. After the Communist Liberation in 1949, he taught Western history, First at Northeast Normal University in Changchun and, since 1956, at Shandong Teachers College.

Liu Zuochang’s scholarship has had scant opportunity for uninterrupted development. His 146-page Short History of the American War for Independence appeared in 1954. As early as 1957 he contemplated a history of the American Civil War, but he had been able to do no more than collect materials when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. “During the years of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four,” he writes, “I and many of my colleagues left our study and classrooms to participate in physical labor, sometimes in the countryside, sometimes on the farms attached to the college. Only after 1971 have we been able to return to our original tasks.” In 1974 he completed writing his History of the American Civil War, which was published in 1978. He is now at work on a detailed “History of the First American Revolution,” after which he plans to write a biography of Jefferson.

Though the warm climate of China’s current “hundred flowers” movement has obviously been favorable to scholarly productivity, students of U.S. history work a dry, barren soil. Jinan, a city of a million and a half, is capital of a province of 80 million people, but its American history resources are meager. Holdings of neighboring Shandong University, superior to those of Liu’s teachers college, are still pitifully inadequate. The American Historical Review is available only for the peak years of American influence in Chinese education, from the 1920’s to Pearl Harbor. Liu also managed to borrow books from the Beijing Library via interlibrary loan, but a personal trip to Beijing proved necessary. “Even there,” he wrote, “because it was very troublesome to borrow journals from the Library,” he was “unable to utilize periodical literature dealing with Jefferson’s thought.” Professor Liu eagerly accepted our offer to send him works by Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson for, he laments, he has “no books” on Jefferson.

Written under these trying circumstances, “Thomas Jefferson’s Ideas of Democracy” is a testimony to the spirit and dedication of its author. Still more significant, considering the political climate during recent years, the publication of a single article may be a bellwether of change. Although the People’s Daily has written approvingly of Jefferson’s concept of the division of powers, Liu remains China’s sole Jefferson expert, and we cannot take his views as “representative” of a widely held consensus or even as an emerging trend. Nonetheless, since it appeared in an officially sanctioned publication approved for export, it is indicative of how far Chinese scholars are able to go in dispassionate, even sympathetic, evaluation of American political ideals. It is, moreover, a dramatic reaffirmation of Sino-American affinities by a member of the last generation of Chinese to receive an unadulterated Western-style liberal education.


Liu Zuochang’s Jefferson

By Steven H. Hochman

To find Thomas Jefferson introduced not only as a founder of the American democratic tradition but as a spokesman for “the capitalist class in the anti-feudal struggle,” gave me pause. Professor Liu does not start off like a typical Jefferson scholar. Nevertheless, as John Israel pointed out when he handed me his 55-page English translation of Liu’s article, the essence of the piece is not to be found in its Marxist terminology. Liu’s Jefferson is a pretty familiar fellow. Examining Jefferson’s ideas in their original words and context, this Chinese Marxist finds the apostle of freedom portrayed by liberal American historians.

One might have anticipated a different interpretation. American Communists have depicted Jefferson as a radical revolutionary. By quoting with approval his most extreme statements, they tried to use the Virginian to legitimize their own ideas. Some scholars of the New Left take the opposite approach. More boldly critical of the American liberal tradition, they assault its ideals by attempting to discredit Jefferson. His liberal ideology, they argue, served the interests of the racist, slave-holding South. Rather than study what they consider his hollow, hypocritical rhetoric, they believe in searching for underlying economic and social problems.

Liu eschews such cynical views. He sees Jefferson as a progressive leader for his time. In keeping with his purpose of giving his fellow Chinese a sympathetic understanding of Jefferson’s ideas, Liu expounds four Jeffersonian principles: (1) Human beings are endowed by nature with certain inalienable rights. (2) If these are denied, revolution is justified. (3) To prevent despotism, governmental powers must be divided. (4) Governments should promote human equality. The first two of these are straight out of the Declaration of Independence; the third is fundamental to American constitutionalism; the fourth inspired Jefferson’s efforts at social reform.

Liu credits Jefferson with giving the theory of natural rights a more democratic coloration and with being the first to incorporate it into official documents. Jefferson’s advocacy of the rights of freedom of speech, press, and religion is described in detail. Most readers, Chinese or American, will be struck by Liu’s sympathetic treatment of the right of the people to criticize their government. He raises possible objections, but lets Jefferson answer them. Though noting allegations that Jefferson failed to live up to his ideals, particularly in regard to freedom of the press, Liu concludes that “Jefferson’s contribution in upholding freedoms of the people should be emphasized.”

The right of revolution would seem to be axiomatic in the People’s Republic, and Liu Zuochang, in fact, declares that Jefferson (like Mao) approved of “a little rebellion now and then.” Liu’s emphasis, however, is on how a state may avoid the conditions justifying revolution. After the American Revolution, he points out, Jefferson was not a public agitator; his approval of rebellion was expressed privately, intended to calm down members of the ruling class and keep them from overreacting against disturbances which had already occurred. Jefferson, as Liu observes, did not approve of extreme revolutionary acts. Although, says Liu, such cautious views can be attributed to a decline of “revolutionary will,” Jefferson always believed that revolution was an extraordinary step. In “free” countries, Liu emphasizes, reform will come through law.

Jefferson proposed that the institutions of government be reviewed and revised at 19-year intervals, once every generation. Believing that the earth belongs to the living, Jefferson insisted that constitutions and laws “must advance in step with the progress of the human spirit,” according to Liu.

Along with an openness to change, which Jefferson thought imperative, Liu stresses the division of power as a means of ensuring free government. To oppose and guard against tyranny, says Liu, Jefferson “approved two great mechanisms in the organization of the nation.” These were the division of governments into legislative, executive, and judical branches and the division of power among the various levels of government. Liu describes vividly Jefferson’s fears of the concentration of power in any of the three branches. Not only must their powers be separated, but the branches must be able to check and balance each other. The tripartite division was to operate on both the federal and state levels.

Liu contrasts Jefferson’s position with that of Rousseau, who argued that power could not be divided. Rousseau’s view, Liu declares, would end in dictatorship. Jefferson “was in closer keeping with realism.” Liu boldly proclaims Jefferson’s proposals “worthy of approval.”

In his thorough exposition, Liu shows that Jefferson’s goals were not simply negative. Jefferson’s concern was for self-government, and he favored keeping government close to the people. Self-government is more efficient than government by bureaucracy, Liu points out—a striking observation for a citizen of the world’s largest bureaucratic state.

Of course Jefferson believed that the people must be educated if they are to participate in government. Liu heartily endorses Jefferson’s proposals for raising the level of culture and knowledge. Jefferson believed, Liu tells his readers, that education is the best method for preventing despotism.

Education was also a means of furthering equality in society. It was one of the ways by which a man-made aristocracy based on birth and wealth would be replaced by a natural aristocracy based on talent and virtue. Liu’s Jefferson dreamed of establishing a society with social and economic equality, based on the small farmer. Liu mentions Jefferson’s successful campaign to reform the laws of inheritance in Virginia, as well as Jefferson’s unrealized proposals for a progressive income tax, distribution of uncultivated land among the landless, and the abolition of slavery.

How does Liu Zuochang’s article fit in with American scholarship? Liu’s access to American sources was limited almost entirely to works published before 1963, and even among them important studies were unavailable. Yet he was fortunate in the scope and quality of the works to which he had access. He refers to the first three of Dumas Malone’s now-completed six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time, and up through the twelfth volume of the 19 in Julian Boyd’s definitive Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Although his Jefferson resembles the Jefferson found in these model works of American liberal scholarship, Liu certainly does not follow them blindly. On certain points, he sharply parts company with Malone. He also consults alternative interpretations: that of a conservative Southern Democrat (Caleb Perry Patterson), of a proponent of New England Federalism (John T. Morse), of a civil libertarian (Leonard Levy), and of an advocate of economic and class analysis (Charles A. Beard). Liu understands these other positions and takes them into acount. He cites a 1962 American Historical Review article by Bernard Bailyn (“Political Experience and Enlightenment Ideas in Eighteenth Century America”), which points toward the new direction scholars would take in the next two decades in interpreting the ideas of the American Revolution. Isolated by China’s Cultural Revolution, however, Liu missed the explosion of works in the 1960’s and 70’s that illuminated the ideology of republicanism.

If Liu is not quite current in American scholarship, it is no tragedy, for he charts his own course. Like American historians, he selects the themes in Jefferson’s thought that seem most relevant to him. I admire Liu’s essay particularly because few foreign scholars, even from democratic nations, are producing stimulating work on early American history. The blame for this lies mainly with their university curricula, which give short shrift to American studies. The Chinese suffer the same handicap in this regard, but their venerable tradition of close textual analysis may give them an advantage. Certainly what makes Professor Liu’s article significant is that he not only read a variety of secondary works but also carefully studied Jefferson’s writings themselves.

Liu Zuochang looks at familiar things afresh. He is not caught up in contemporary American controversies. He says that Jefferson’s proposals in regard to the blacks had great limitations, and that Jefferson was not able to “completely cast off the influence of racism and of the conservative forces in society.” He makes no moral judgment, however. He would not have expected Jefferson in the context of his times to risk the social disruption that the “extreme measure” of immediately freeing the slaves might have incurred. In explaining to a Chinese audience Jefferson’s opposition to concentration of power in the federal government, he can treat this as a progressive, liberal position. Since the New Deal, American liberals have rejected states’ rights as code words for denying equal rights to citizens. American pundits often criticize our system for its inefficiency and advocate extending presidential terms or moving toward a parliamentary form. Liu, a man who has himself suffered under tyrants, enthusiastically embraces the idea of a government of limits.

Liu makes some nice distinctions that Americans often miss. Freedom of speech and press he treats as “people’s rights” rather than individual rights. Only freedom of religion is explicitly termed an individual right. Since Jefferson’s day, America’s emphasis on individualism has increased so much that both conservatives and liberals define the rights of man more as the rights of individual men, overlooking their civic importance. In this respect, coming from a society that never has accepted the notion of atomistic individualism, Liu provides us with a useful corrective to our own biases.

Of course Professor Liu has biases of his own, but these are not necessarily harmful to good scholarship. While lack of emphasis on individualism in China, even before the Communist revolution, certainly makes the Chinese historian less likely to overemphasize that aspect of Jefferson’s thought, Liu’s firsthand knowledge of tyranny might predispose him to admire Jefferson’s motto—”To resist tyrants is to obey God.” The social upheavals he has survived doubtless have made him more receptive to Jefferson’s concept of non-violent progress.

Some of Liu’s omissions are questionable. He explicitly declines to discuss all the ideas Jefferson proposed to guarantee the rights of the people. Among these, the notions of strict construction of written constitutions and of trial by jury may seem irrelevant in China. Jefferson’s arguments against a standing army may be too embarrassing to bring up in a highly nationalistic country where the army is officially revered. Nor does Liu dwell upon Jefferson’s notion of “American exceptionalism”—that American-style democracy flourished in the virgin soil of the New World, sheltered from the social and economic blight of European feudalism. The exceptionalist approach, with its emphasis on the uniquely favorable environmental and cultural background of American democracy runs at cross currents with the universalistic thrust of Liu’s thought, with its implication that elements of the American experience may be transplantable to China.

All this notwithstanding, it would be unfair to accuse Liu of evading issues or pulling punches. What he says, within the scope of a single essay, is far more noteworthy than what he intentionally or inadvertently excludes. Even though the terror of the Cultural Revolution has passed, his bold exposition of Jeffersonian principles remains a courageous statement in the China of Hua Guofeng. Liu’s most severe criticism comes in regard to the agrarian society that Jefferson hoped to improve and preserve. Liu is sympathetic to Jefferson’s motives, but thinks Jefferson lost touch with reality and was Utopian in his thought. He credits Jefferson, correctly I believe, with wanting to avoid the evils of capitalism as they revealed themselves in Great Britain. Jefferson also considered the independent farmer a model citizen for political democracy. From an economic perspective he held that agriculture produced more wealth than industry. Liu calls this view mistaken and unscientific. According to Liu, society cannot be maintained upon a base of small farmers, but “must walk the capitalist road.” Jefferson is filled with subjective idealistic prejudices, Liu contends, and “his effusive praise of the moral character of the small farmer is especially incompatible with the facts.”

It is not necessary to be a Chinese Marxist to accept this analysis. Similar conclusions have been arrived at by American historians who admire Alexander Hamilton. Big government and big business, both of which Jefferson hoped America would avoid, are very much a part of modern life. But on this particular topic, Liu may be less than entirely detached. China’s current line of the “Four Modernizations” is implicitly critical of the agrarian Mao who, like Jefferson, sought to avoid a centralized, urbanized society. Liu, one suspects, favors experts and industry and finds Jefferson a little too similar to Mao in stressing moral questions rather than economic efficiency. Anyway, his portrayal of Jefferson’s road is too simplistic. As Liu concedes, Jefferson in his later career came to accept America’s need for its own domestically manufactured goods. Only because Liu’s interpretation gives less weight to Jeffersonian practice than to Jeffersonian theory can it sustain the stereotype of a Jefferson who believed that the future would belong exclusively to the small farmer. Contrary to Liu, Jefferson had no such “fantastic, backward illusion.”

Overall Liu’s assessment of Jefferson is most favorable. He calls him one of America’s “three great men,” along with Washington and Lincoln. Yet in his praise he runs into what seems to me a contradiction. The man he praises as an agrarian who “naturally wanted America to avoid the evil of capitalism” is finally said to have been significant for laying a “foundation for the democratic tradition of America’s capitalist class.” Liu seems a captive of a Marxist tradition that equates agrarianism with a backward-looking feudalism and attributes progress to the “higher,” capitalist stage of history. Yet, much as he admires Jefferson, he cannot portray him as a “bourgeois capitalist.” I hope that Liu, in his forthcoming full-length biography of Jefferson, will come to grips with this problem. Liu Zuochang’s article is impressive. Written under difficult circumstances, it draws upon a broad range of Jeffersonian scholarship and incorporates divergent views into an original synthesis.

The reappearance of such outstanding work in today’s China testifies to a millennia-old tradition of learning and is a tribute to the courage and tenacity of individuals such as Professor Liu. Now that written communication between Chinese and Americans is commonplace and personal visits increasingly frequent, Liu Zuochang and his colleagues will become members of the international community of scholars. Both Americans and Chinese should greatly benefit.


Further Reflections: Marx and Jefferson in the People’s Republic

By John Israel

Clearly it is no fusty academic antiquarianism that drives Professor Liu to study Mr. Jefferson. “I like both the personality and thought of Thomas Jefferson,” he wrote me, “and deem it my duty to introduce his ideas of democracy to our Chinese brethren.”

What would Chairman Mao think? In 1976—year of America’s Bicentennial and Mao’s death—Steve Hochman and I staged a dialogue on Jefferson and Mao for some bewildered undergraduates in Steve’s Jefferson colloquium. At that time it was not Jefferson the democrat who seized our imagination but Jefferson the revolutionary. Juxtaposing Jefferson’s doctrine of the natural right of revolution to Mao’s dictum, “To rebel is justified,” we compared and contrasted the two men from their activist youths to their anxious old ages—when both wondered aloud whether the next generation would have the strength and conviction to keep the torch of revolution burning.

Of course their behavior differed—the aged Jefferson built the University of Virginia, the aged Mao launched the Cultural Revolution—but the concern was mutual. Small wonder that the late Premier Zhou Enlai responded to an American visitor’s question (“Will there be further cultural revolutions?”) with a Jeffersonian quotation: “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”

Even at the University of Virginia, Jeffersonian words in Maoist mouths have been commonplace since 1969, when an impostor Red Guard dubbed “Wan Fat-lai” surfaced before the Jefferson Society and shamelessly attributed to Chairman Mao Jefferson’s ejaculation that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” At that time, most people would have relegated any scenario presuming to link Jefferson’s Virginia to Mao’s China to the theater of the absurd. That such affinities now can be seriously discussed shows how far both countries have traveled in recent years.

Before the Jefferson-China connection can be established, we must bridge a linguistic gulf—not the gulf between Chinese and English but the one between Liu Zuochang’s vocabulary and our own. Using Marxist terminology, Liu treats ideas within a dialectical framework of class conflict. Jefferson is not simply a democrat but also a spokesman for “the capitalist class in the anti-feudal struggle.”

But the reader of post-1949 Chinese historians is struck by a very different phenomenon: in spite of Liu’s affinity for Marxist categories, these are tangential to his argument. His object clearly is to interpret Jefferson’s thought within the framework of the Western political tradition and the American historical context and, even more significant, to give the Chinese people a sympathetic understanding of Jefferson’s ideas. His Marxist terminology is incidental, not central, to this purpose.

At no point, of course, does Liu explicitly advocate that Jefferson’s ideas be adopted in theory, much less put into practice, in the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, his theoretical point of departure is a Marxist relativism that relegates Jefferson to the period of capitalist revolution against feudalism, thereby implying the irrelevance of his thought for the present day. Even in the United States, one might reason, Jeffersonian ideas serve not a revolutionary function, but a reactionary one: to defend the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.

All this might logically be inferred from Liu’s Marxist assumptions. What is striking is that he refrains from spelling it out. By his silence he leaves open the possibility that some of Jefferson’s thought might play a progressive function not only in contemporary America but perhaps even in contemporary China.

Such an interpretation finds support in Liu’s detailed and sympathetic treatment of Jefferson’s effort to thwart despotism by dividing power and instituting checks and balances. He goes out of his way to support Jefferson against Rousseau’s view of the indivisibility of the Will of the People. This is, perhaps, the Rousseauian concept most compatible with modern totalitarian ideology; it is no accident that Harvard Sinologist Benjamin Schwartz has found parallels between Rousseau and Mao.

Liu doesn’t spell out the Chinese connection because he doesn’t have to. His readers will immediately grasp the applicability to their own country of Jefferson’s assault on undivided, unlimited power. If a tripartite division of power in modern capitalist states “limits despotism and protects capitalist democracy,” could not similar devices limit Maoist-style despotism and protect China’s socialist democracy?

Not that Liu’s interpretations of Jefferson are unambiguous in their Chinese application. For example, it is possible to read Liu’s emphasis upon Jefferson’s quest for alternatives to revolution as suggesting that China’s Communist revolution might have been averted by timely reforms on the part of Chiang Kai-shek or that Maoist-style third world revolutions can, similarly, be avoided. Such a reading, however, would be unwarranted. The thrust of Liu’s remarks is most clearly to be understood against the immediate background of Mao’s Cultural Revolution that sought to perpetuate an “unbroken revolution” through the most extreme means.

Having suffered humiliation, degradation, broken careers and shattered family lives during the 1966—76 decade, intellectuals of Liu’s generation share Jefferson’s determination to avoid revolutionary violence. For them the irrational, brutal methods of the aging Mao and the Gang of Four were unnecessary and self-defeating. Only the path of peaceful, prudential reform blazed by Deng Xiaoping will lead China to revitalization. Like the aged Jefferson, Liu and his confreres prefer orderly progress to revolutionary experiments.

Enthusiastically as Liu Zuochang endorses Jefferson’s strictures against ill-considered revolution, he castigates with still greater fervor Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian America built upon a nation of freeholders. Here, as Steve Hochman has observed, Liu is in accord with other Jefferson scholars who note the incongruity between Jefferson’s arcadian reveries and the realities of an America on the eve of industrialization.

Seen in its Chinese context, Liu’s critique of Jefferson’s agrarianism takes on further dimensions, for China too had a founding father whose vision of the future was rooted in the agrarian soil of his formative years. Mao, like Jefferson, drew strength from decades of rural experience and Mao’s agrarian orientation, like Jefferson’s, offered inadequate guidelines for a nation rushing to join the vanguard of the modern world. Jefferson, of course, never had a chance to carry out his more visionary schemes; Mao did. Given the Chinese love for veiled criticism of the recent past through the use of historical example, it is not unlikely that Chinese readers will see Liu’s attack on Jefferson’s agrarian utopianism as a thinly disguised assault on the muddled ideas of their own late leader.

If Jefferson’s agrarianism reminds Chinese intellectuals a bit too much of their country’s backward peasantry, his view of education as the foundation of the political order strikes a responsive chord. For more than a millennium, the Chinese have lionized their own “natural aristocracy” composed of highly educated scholar-officials chosen through competitive examinations. The notion that education provides the key both to individual improvement and to perfection of the body politic enjoys great currency in China’s culture, as it does in our .own. Coming from a tradition that has produced fierce competition for official position—as well as a contrasting admiration for pure learning unsullied by political ambition— Chinese visitors to Monticello are pleasantly surprised by Jefferson’s self-composed epitaph, which identifies him as “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia,” but says nothing of his Presidency.

“I glorify [Jefferson] especially,” writes Liu Zuochang, “because he attaches primary importance to education and considers education to be a foundation and a prerequisite to all political and social reforms. I think Jefferson is very analagous to Confucius in this regard.”

Jefferson and Confucius! What is China coming to? Ever since the New Culture Movement, launched before Liu was born, avant garde intellectual Westernizers have execrated Confucius as symbol of the hidebound, reactionary thought that had hobbled China in her desperate race toward enlightenment and modernity. And Mao (author of a blistering anti-liberal broadside, “On Liberalism”) had good words for Washington, the nation-building general, but none for Jefferson, with his petit bourgeois libertarian scruples.

What made it possible for Jefferson and Confucius to meet on common ground was, ironically, that ultimate iconoclastic crusade, the Cultural Revolution. To the ultra-Maoists—subsequently labeled the “Gang of Four”—Chinese tradition, epitomized by Confucius, was “feudal” and Western notions of liberal democracy, championed by Jefferson, were “bourgeois.” In 1976, however, the death of Mao and the fall of the Four opened the door to a sweeping reevaluation of then-current political simplicities. A China desperate for anti-Soviet friends, foreign aid, and modernization models could ill afford to ignore the positive side of the American heritage, including Jefferson. Nor could she move forward with confidence if she continued to blacken her cherished past. If modernization meant a renewed commitment to education, what better patron saint than Confucius?

The heresies of the 70’s have become the nostrums of the 80’s. Brought together by one of China’s aging cadre of cosmopolitan scholars, Jefferson—founding father of a reexamined America—and Confucius—ancestral icon of a refurbished tradition—now unite to teach a younger generation neither to ossify nor to destroy its heritage, but to adapt it to the demands of the 21st century.


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