Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Reading Leo Strauss in China

The American political theorist has gained a cult following among Chinese scholars hungry for Western classics

Matthew Dean
February 01, 2022
Courtesy the author
Liu Xiaofeng, Gan Yang, and Bei Dao (a major figure in modern Chinese poetry) in Sweden in the ’80sCourtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Liu Xiaofeng, Gan Yang, and Bei Dao (a major figure in modern Chinese poetry) in Sweden in the ’80sCourtesy the author

Around 2004, Heinrich Meier, a German scholar of philosophy at the University of Chicago, welcomed to his home a guest that changed the face of Western classical studies in China. The Chinese professor told him “in excellent German” that in the 1990s he had come across Meier’s book Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue. Although he initially read the book because of its treatment of Carl Schmitt, whose work he had been studying, the Chinese professor told Meier that the book drew his attention away from Schmitt toward Strauss’s work. Meier claims that this shift in attention was the intended effect of his book. But the encounter of the Chinese professor with Meier’s book was also the beginning of the reception of Leo Strauss in the Chinese-speaking world. “For after his discovery, the Chinese professor used all resources at his disposal to have the writings of Leo Strauss translated into Chinese. Today, Chinese is the only language in which the oeuvre of the philosopher from Kirchhain and Chicago, including the correspondence so far published, is almost fully accessible,” reports Meier via Christopher Nadon in “Leo Strauss’s Critique of the Political in a Sinophone Context.” Meier had met Liu Xiaofeng, “the first Chinese Straussian.”

Today, Leo Strauss is more popular in the Chinese-speaking world than he has ever been in the English-speaking world. At the very least, this fact is attested by user reviews of his work on Douban, a Chinese website comparable to Amazon’s books pages, where, as of this writing, there are 874 reviews of Strauss’s most famous work Natural Right and History, averaging 9.1 stars out of 10. Amazon has for the same title 63 reviews averaging 4.3 stars out of 5. Perhaps more importantly, Chinese is the only language apart from English in which Strauss’ full body of work is in print. As a matter of fact, more Strauss is available in print in Chinese than in English, since Chinese scholars are several steps ahead in publishing new transcriptions of Strauss’ lectures.

The German-born American political philosopher Leo Strauss has left a complex legacy. His dense, careful writings in political philosophy have earned the admiration of generations of scholars. However much one has read, Strauss seems always to have read more and more carefully. His work was also highly influential on American politics, and specifically on the neoconservative movement—Paul Wolfowitz was a student of Strauss and Allan Bloom, for example. It was around the same time that Strauss’ profile began to rise in China, which had begun to embrace globalization by joining the WTO.

The fact that Chinese scholars are reading and writing about Strauss is well known by now, but what they are reading and writing about is less clear—to say nothing of why they’ve gravitated to him in the first place. It is rare to find scholars with both a command of the English and Chinese languages and a deep knowledge of the unholy trinity of Strauss, Schmitt, and Heidegger. Hence, translations of China’s Straussians are few.

Perhaps the two leading names in Chinese Straussian scholarship are Gan Yang and Liu Xiaofeng, who were classmates at Peking University. After graduation, they started an influential book series introducing Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Benjamin, and more to a culture-starved post-Mao China that was eager to rekindle a relationship with the West. This series fueled the “culture craze” of the 1980s by injecting Western philosophy into the hermetic kingdom. Of course, any expectations of subsequent political liberalization came crashing down with the Tiananmen massacre in the summer of 1989. That fall, Gan started a Ph.D. at the Committee on Social Thought in Chicago where he studied with Allan Bloom, Edward Shils, and Francois Furet, among others. At the same time, Liu went to the University of Basel to start a Ph.D. under Heinrich Ott, the Swiss theologian and student of Karl Barth. Gan left Chicago without a Ph.D. for the University of Hong Kong. After ten years, however, Gan set his sights on a return to the mainland, where in 2009 he founded Boya College, the first liberal arts college in China to take the great books model seriously. Gan at first required undergraduate students of Boya to learn Classical Chinese, Ancient Greek, and Latin. After founding a second college in the model of Boya, Gan moved to Beijing and finally established a liberal arts college (of which he is now Dean) in one of China’s most prestigious universities, Tsinghua University.

While Gan has exerted the greater influence on China’s institutions, his old classmate Liu Xiaofeng is more prolific, widely read, and controversial. In one of his most famous books, Delivering and Dallying, he charges China’s three great intellectual traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism) with nihilism, by which he means that the traditional moral systems of China rejected a theistic, suprahuman basis for absolute values and never developed beyond belief in the moral essence of man to a more robust doctrine of sin. Against this he contrasts the “Judeo-Christian spirit” which is able to contend with nihilism because in it “man is very tiny and humble, he cannot rely on his own nature, he cannot be proud, since all self-reliant and self-glorifying people can only bring suffering and sin to mankind.” Chinese nihilism is both deeper and more durable than Western nihilism, he claims, since it is rooted in the doctrinal tradition of Confucianism, which has resisted interpreting mankind as needful of help from without.

Gan and Liu at a conference about their co-edited series 'Classici et Commentari,' 2015

Gan and Liu at a conference about their co-edited series ‘Classici et Commentari,’ 2015Courtesy the author

After their return to mainland China, Liu and Gan produced a significant body of work. In 15 years, their co-edited series Classici et Commentarii has produced more than 350 volumes of classics and commentaries, including a series commissioned to fill out the gaps of the entire Strauss oeuvre. While Liu has been busier at the pen, Gan has been busier at the podium, giving a series of influential lectures and interviews. His “Unifying the Three Traditions” lecture, which he delivered at Tsinghua University in 2005, has gained near default acceptance as the true cultural task among Chinese intellectuals. The task is to weave Confucianism, Maoism, and Dengism (capitalism) together, or to marry tradition, social justice, and market reforms. Gan’s formulation has appeared in the speeches of Chairman Xi Jinping, who believes the three traditions belong to a unified continuity in China’s history and civilization.

Apart from his influential lectures from 2005 to 2006, he also gave noteworthy interviews. In “The Modernity Critique of the 1980s and the Transformation of the 1990s,” he attempted to prove a continuity between his 1980s liberalism and his later cultural conservatism. He calls his critique of the 1980s a “poetic critique”, or a casting about for the social conditions in which a robust poetry could appear. His concern is inspired by Eliot’s Wasteland. “Modernity has transformed the West into a spiritual wasteland, a cultural wasteland.” He warned that China, if it embraces Western modernity, could become a “culture desert” of the sort described by Eliot. The idea that the modern, not the ancient, West has problems from which China should distance itself has become a throughline in Gan’s work since his return.

Gan gave another lecture that year, “On the Need for Distance between Eastern and Western Art,” in which he seeks a hermeneutic in an early 20th-century aesthetic formulation. Pan Tianshou, a painter and educator active under both the Republican and Communist governments, emphasized the need for distance between Chinese and Western art and aesthetics. There is something lost when one is no longer able to distinguish a city block in Shanghai from a city block in New York. Gan takes Pan’s phrase as a starting place for a prolonged meditation on the “need for distance” between Chinese and Western painting, but finds that the phrase could “be expanded to every humanities institution in China as well.” Gan wants to expand the phrase in order to combat the effects of globalization (only five years after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization). In language strongly reminiscent of Heidegger, Gan assails globalization as a leveling, distance destroying, modern plague. “[Because] airlines have shortened distances and electronic information and the internet have progressed even further to make distance disappear, all places, all people, all things are simultaneous and contemporary. There is no ‘tradition’, nor any care to have one, hence no modernity that even stands in opposition to tradition.”

Also in 2006, Gan and Liu co-wrote an essay “Re-reading the West” as the preface to every volume in their “Sources of Western Scholarship” series. (Yet another series!) This series is committed to the translation of commentaries mostly within the Straussian orbit, e.g. Jacob Klein, Karl Löwith, and Carl Schmitt. Gan and Liu contend that it is time for China to move beyond superficial understandings of Western classics and to use these commentaries to understand the West more deeply, since it is only then that China can decide whether to accept or reject Western influence. What subversion is snuck in behind Western imports can only be fully realized by the examination of its fundamental structure, or its mai luo (“arteries and veins”.)

If Western students of Strauss like Meier are pleased about their reception in China, Chinese students of Strauss may be less enthused about their reception in the West. University of Chicago classics professor Dr. Shadi Bartsch visited Gan’s fledgling Boya College at Sun Yat-Sen University and spoke with him there. Not long after, she wrote an essay called “Ancient Greeks in Modern China,” in which she concludes that Western classics “can be used to bolster one form of nationalism, one derived from the sense that China has its own indigenous intellectual traditions which are not only valid, but validated by the ancient traditions of the West as well.”

Gan responded in a yet untranslated 2019 interview, “This conclusion really surprised me. We spend so much energy on the study of Western classics, including Greek and Latin, and the study of Greek and Roman civilization. How could that be nationalism? ... Are the Chinese trying to learn from ancient Greece and Rome to be xenophobic, in order to exclude Greece and Rome? This doesn’t make sense!” Gan goes further, “She doesn’t understand Chinese, so how dare she write a whole book about China? … It would be like a Chinese person who didn’t understand English and then wrote a whole book about the United States or the United Kingdom ... Even as I talk about her in this interview, she won’t understand it when it is published. It can only be relayed to her through a Chinese translator.” The accuracy of Gan’s comment depends on it remaining untranslated, a likelihood which will decrease as more work from the Chinese Straussians comes under the scrutiny of bilingual scholars.

This seems inevitable—the sheer quantity of work done in a language cannot but compel eyes and ears toward that language, raising questions about what in its culture could be so animated by foreign thought. Livius Andronicus, with his translation of the Odyssey into Latin, founded Latin literature. When you introduce something foreign, you might begin something native. Heidegger was nowhere more celebrated first than in France although he was deeply skeptical of his reception there. It was this reception which formed existentialism as a literary phenomenon. It is conceivable that future scholars of Leo Strauss will need, in addition to Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, and English, a mastery of the Chinese language too.

Matthew Dean is a translator and teacher in Washington D.C. His work can be found on Reading the China Dream.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.