CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


Shengshi, Chinese Values and Han Yu 韓愈 | China Heritage Quarterly

Shengshi, Chinese Values and Han Yu 韓愈

Timothy Cheek
University of British Columbia

This essay is based on the author's presentation at the 'Shengshi Zhongguo 盛世中国 Flourishing China, myths and realities' forum at The Association for Asian Studies annual conference, 31 March 2011.—The Editor

Geremie Barmé's introduction to this forum in China Heritage Quarterly sets many questions about the idea of shengshi 盛世 or Prosperous Age in Chinese public discussions, past and present. The question I would like to follow is: does the consideration of earlier uses of shengshi change the way we understand today's instantiation, and in turn, does the contemporary version change what we would like to ask of the past? This is a typical question for New Sinology: taking an active interest in the historical themes that come up in contemporary Chinese events and discourse, following them back to their specific contexts of time and place (that usually do not correspond to today's usage of those themes), and juxtaposing the two images to see if some useful perspectives emerge.

Let us start with the present. As the other essays in this forum highlight, the use of shengshi today is both highly charged and distinctly problematic. Whether in dances on national TV celebrations, or in the encomium or warnings of intellectuals, or serenades at the Seventeenth Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, shengshi is one term that speaks to the wide-spread appreciation that China has 'arrived' or otherwise moved to a new stage of prosperity and influence in the world. In this sense, it is a poetic reflection of the popular and government nationalism we see in China today. However, it is not just a synonym for 'the China Model' or a gloss for market authoritarianism. As Yeh Wen-hsin and Gloria Davies particularly note, words matter; the language, the discourses and the communities that use them matter.

Fig.1 'I look up to heaven with no regrets; I observe the earth with no regrets; I look inside myself and have no regrets.'—Han Yu

The happy pundits and paean providers evoke the glories of past shengshi, dynastic highs of Han, Tang, and Qing emperors who oversaw periods of power, stability, prosperity and cultural florescence. Worriers, critical intellectuals, and inheritors of the tradition of 忧患 (youhuan, 'worrying about China') evoke the dark side of such prosperity, the sufferings of those left out, the anxieties of those included, the worries of those who see dangerous trends emerging amidst the celebrations and the boisterous harmony. The most direct example of worrying with shengshi might well be Chan Koon-chung's 陳冠中 dystopian science-fiction novel, 盛世:中国 2013 (The Fat Years in the North American translation). Indeed, Chen's use of the term shengshi links the two divergent uses of the word. According to Chen, he got the inspiration for the title from a propaganda poster (shengshi huadan 盛世華誕) that he saw in a Beijing post office in 2009 celebrating the 'Shengshi of sixty years of New China'.[1] As others have noted, Chan's novel is a book-length mediation on precisely the dark side, the costs, of China's current shengshi.

In these worries, Chan Koonchung is not alone. Geremie Barmé has already invoked the telling example of Zheng Guanying's 鄭觀應 1893 book, Words of Warning to a Prosperous Age (Shengshi weiyan 盛世危言). Though, of course, Zheng's China of the faltering Qing regime suggests an ironic use of the term, in contrast to the economic and military-political strength of Chan's China today. Chan's worries are echoed by Tang Bi 唐璧 who lists the down-side worries of the political economy of contemporary China in a disheartening paragraph of woes from the medical system to higher education, to energy resources, to popular morality—leave aside the suffering of unemployed workers, displaced farmers, and poisoned rural communities. 'This', Tang concludes, 'this is called a Prosperous Age?'[2]

Xu Jilin 许纪霖 takes up these worries in a different register: that of a scholarly analysis of public policy. His tenor is carefully modulated and somewhat abstract, for reasons that are obvious to all of those who are familiar with public life in China today: one cannot confront current government policy too directly, or specifically, without dire consequences. Xu's recent essays and talks that relate to shengshi have been evoked in the Editorial Introduction to our Forum (and by other contributors). Suffice it here to note that Xu Jilin's identification of three streams in current 'China Model' triumphalism—statism, historicism (amounting to cultural relativism vs. universal values), and nihilism—evokes the counter discourse of shengshi. That is, in his critique of current China boosterism, Xu Jilin picks out not only the shadow self of a modernization based on the Western model, but draws also on the other resources in that same historical-ideological complex (modern thought): universal norms, human rights and a commitment to popular influence over government policy.

Xu's fundamental critique of the new statism represented in pop books like the 1996 screed China Can Say No! or in the nationalist essays of Moluo (王松生 aka 摩罗) and others is that they do not constitute some pure 'Chinese Way', one that exists in contradistinction to some exogenous, Euro-American 'Washington Consensus'. Rather, they are only a part, and indeed, the lesser part, of a broader, global, complex of modern thought; they've thrown out the proverbial baby and kept the dirty bath water.[3]

Xu Jilin's critique of the current trend of statist and ultra-nationalist thought that is prevalent among serious intellectuals is a reminder of the cultural resources available for making sense of China's Prosperous Age. China's directed public sphere may not be free, in the sense of publics in most Western societies, but neither is it completely controlled,[4] there is space—albeit limited and shifting room—for internal critiques such as those articulated by Xu Jilin. But what Xu Jilin's efforts emphasize is the transnational nature of the problem, or rather the cross-cultural issue in this phase of shengshi. The problem, in Xu's analsyis, is how best to adapt, incorporate, digest and in general make use of imported ideas and ideologies. His point is that the debate between neo-nationalist statism and an appreciation of human rights and the rule of law is not a choice between a Chinese way and a foreign way—all the current options are from a nativist perspective inherently 'mongrel'. There is no purely 'Chinese' alternative.

This is, in one sense, patently obvious, but it is nonetheless a point worth making since so many in the public discussions in China act as if they believe there is an 'unadulterated Chinese way'. Xu Jilin highlights the cosmopolitan aspects of contemporary Chinese statecraft and political thought, and this, in turn, offers something interesting for students of New Sinology. It suggests that we should ask about the 'international', hybrid and cosmopolitan aspects of previous shengshi.

And this brings us to Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), the great Tang dynasty Confucian—and putative father or precursor to Neo-Confucianism. As far as I have seen, discussions of shengshi that mention the Tang dynasty do not engage with the question of borrowing, adapting, or incorporating foreign influences of significance, beyond noting the confident, open-minded character of the age and the fondness at that time for 'foreign' cultural objects, something captured in terms of the regard the Court held for exotica such as golden peaches from Samarkand in Central Asia.[5] Yet scholars have long known that non-Tang influences in this prosperous age of the Tang extended far beyond exotica. Indeed, it has been a truism among scholars of medieval China that the great minds of the Tang were Buddhist, and most speak of 'the Buddhist Age in China (ca. 500-850CE)'.[6] Xu Jilin's questions about the nature of foreign influence in the 'modernity' of China's prosperous age today direct us to raise similar questions about Tang China.

Han Yu can serve as a useful entryway into asking this twenty-first century question of Tang China. To be fair, Han Yu lived well after the 'Zhenguan Reign of Virtue' (Zhenguan zhi zhi 貞觀之治; 626-649)—a period generally acknowledged as the zenith of the Tang shengshi. Yet, Han Yu's engagement with Buddhism reflects the extended impact of this foreign doctrine not only in the Tang, but on Neo-Confucianism in the long run. Debates about the 'Chinese Model' and universal values in the twenty-first century add new poignancy to Han Yu's example, possibly changing how we look at the Tang and certainly changing what it means to invoke Tang cosmopolitan splendor in the shengshi debates of today. Buddhism fundamentally shaped this classically 'Chinese' dynasty. From daily habits—tea drinking spread from Buddhists to the rest of the society during this time—to the shape of that quintessentially Chinese teaching, Confucianism. An import from India, Buddhism modified the genetic code of Chinese material and ideological life. If that is so, what does it mean to be Chinese? Or, for that matter, to be splendidly Chinese, as the Tang is seen to be?

Han Yu derided Buddhism, yet he was profoundly influenced by Buddhist ideas and practices. In this he is representative of the Chinese literati more broadly. All students who undertake China history survey courses read Han Yu's memorial 'On the Bone of the Buddha' (Lun fogu biao 論佛骨表), his denunciation of this foreign teaching and its incompatibility with the culture of previous dynasties, the Way of Confucius. Yet, as Mark Edward Lewis notes, Han Yu's understanding of Confucian sagehood 'was covertly adapted from the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva.'[7] Indeed, from Neo-Confucian metaphysical disquisitions on cosmic patterns (li 理) or 'material force'(qi 氣), to practical village moral instruction and community building through Community Compacts (xiangyue 鄉約, particularly the Northern Song first enunciation as popularized by Zhu Xi, the 'Lantian Compacts' of the Lu Brothers 呂氏藍田鄉約), this 'covert' influence of Buddhism in Neo-Confucian philosophy and statecraft is clearly evident.

The Buddhist influence on imperial China is well-known, but my point is that this exogenous resource has been effaced, ignored and side-stepped in discussions of shengshi and the 'China Model' when the case of the glories of the Tang are mentioned. Turning Xu Jilin's penetrating analysis of the foreign aspects of both so-called 'Chinese values' (Zhongguo jiazhi 中國價值) and 'universal norms' (pushi guifan 普世規範) on the Tang brings the case of Han Yu to the fore and changes our understanding of Tang shengshi by highlighting the issue of the adaptation of strange but compelling foreign ideas and practices into something that becomes authentically Chinese.

This international incorporation is not a new story, but it appears to be a story that has been forgotten in discussions of China's contemporary Prosperous Age. There never was a 'pure' Chinese Way, any more than there is some 'pure' Western model (why should Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Israel that were better honoured and preserved in post-antiquity by what we think of as Middle Eastern regimes than by trans Alpine societies of Western Europe be considered 'Western' instead of 'Middle Eastern'?). A refreshed reading of the troubled internationalism of Tang Prosperous Age could, therefore, provide a helpful reminder and an alternate 'China model' for twenty-first century debates over what really constitutes Shengshi Zhongguo.

Related material from this issue of China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Asia Pacific Memo # 92, interview with Chan Koonchung (5th video clip), posted 28 June 2011 at:

[2] Cited in Geremie Barmé, 'Speaking Notes' for the AAS Panel on 'Flourishing China: Myths and Realities', see the Editorial Introduction to this issue of China Heritage Quarterly.

[3] Xu Jilin, 'Universal civilization, or Chinese values? (Pushi wenming, haishi Zhongguo jiazhi?,), Kaifang, 4 June 2010 (许纪霖,《普世文明,还是中国价值?——近十年中国历史主义思潮之批判》,原载《开放时代》杂志,2010年第5期, online at:; and David Kelly, 'How China Stands Up: Chinese vs. Universal Values and the Critique of Historicism', paper given at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Honolulu, 31 March-3 April 2011.

[4] Timothy Cheek, 'The "Directed Public" of China's Public Intellectuals', Asia Pacific Memo #13, 19 August 2010, online at:

[5] Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

[6] John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2006, 2nd ed., quote on p.79; see also Kenneth K.S. Ch'en, The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

[7] Mark Edward Lewis, China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2010, pp.142 & 237.