Constructive Postmodernism Is a Better Choice
A Interview with philosopher Zhihe Wang on
Philosophy, Ecological Civilization, and leadership in China
by Tam Hunt
1. How important is philosophy in modern China?
This is quite a big question, and a complicated one. Different scholars may offer different answers. As you may know, some scholars, both Chinese and non-Chinese, have claimed that China has no philosophy. It is true that you can hardly find the term “哲学” (zhéxué, philosophy) in ancient Chinese classics.
The term “philosophy” in the Chinese language came from Japan 100 years ago. China may not have a long tradition of philosophy in a strict modern Western sense, but it is hard to deny that China has its own philosophy. For example, it is hard to deny that the Tao Te Ching (Dao de jingin modern pinyin) is a philosophical work and Lao Tsu (Lao Zi) is a philosopher, right?
Philosophy does, in my view, play an important role in modern China. Influenced by Western Enlightenment philosophy, the dominant philosophy in modern China is still mechanistic, materialist and anthropocentric. This unfortunate philosophy has deeply influenced the modern Chinese view of the world, including our relationship with nature and with other individuals.
If we conceive of the world as a machine, we do no need to consider a person’s feelings, or a dog’s or a tree’s. This kind of philosophy has led to many tragedies in China in the last century, such as the Great Cultural Revolution, and mass destruction of the natural environment, etc.
2. What is "constructive postmodern philosophy" and why does it matter?
Many factors are required to explain why constructive postmodernism has been so deeply appreciated by the Chinese. In my opinion, constructive postmodernism seeks to help guide China toward a third way between imitating western models and returning to more traditional ways of viewing the world. Constructive postmodern philosophy helps China and others creatively move in the direction of an “ecological civilization.” Its organic thinking lays a foundation for such an ecological civilization. Its process-relational worldview provides a blueprint for the Second Enlightenment to take place in China.
Constructive postmodernism is a term coined by David Ray Griffin and can be viewed as a kind of ecological postmodernism (Charlene Spretnak’s term), or a “rooted postmodernism,” which transcends both modernity and “deconstructive” postmodernism. Deconstructive postmodernism is the more well-known version of postmodernism and it has a nihilistic flavor to it.
To the Chinese today, constructive postmodernism refers to ways of thinking that are built upon Alfred North Whitehead’s process thought. This tradition favors a pluralistic but integrative worldview and practice that starts with recognizing that all of reality, and our experience of it, is process rather than static. Also, all of nature has some degree of mind or experience, hence the term “panexperientialism” that Whitehead, Cobb and Griffin make clear is integral to process thought.
Constructive postmodernism is, as the name suggests, postmodern, but not in the sense of being anti-modern. Rather, it builds upon both the best aspects of modernity and more traditional ways of thinking, and creates new ways of thinking through this synthesis. In this sense, Whitehead, John Cobb and David Griffin are perceived by the Chinese as the primary constructive postmodern philosophers.
That explains why some Chinese scholars like Prof. Yijie Tang and Dayun Yue of Peking Univeristy speak highly of constructive postmodernism. Daiyun Yue, Director of Center for Transcultural Studies at Peking University, has said that“Constructive Postmodernism, which provides positive answers to possible human future life, is an effective cure to the problems facing the world.” (Dayun Yue, “How Does Chinese Culture face the World?” Chinese Culture Daily August 7, 2012). Yijie Tang has said that:
Two broadly intellectual trends are seen as influential in China today: (1) the zeal for “national essence” or “national character” and (2) constructive postmodernism. These two trends can, if under the guidance of Marxism, not only take root in China but further develop so that, with comparative ease, China can complete its “First Enlightenment”—realizing its modernization—and also very quickly enter into the “second enlightenment,” becoming the standard-bearer of a postmodern society. (Yijie Tang, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Chinese Culture,Springer; 2015, p.279)
In a 2012 survey conducted by People Forum Poll Research Center about “The Most Valuable Theoretical Point of View in 2012,” Yijie Tang’s point of view above was selected as the top one.
3. What is currently the guiding ethos (set of cultural principles) of modern China?
In some sense, we can say that nationalism prevails in today’s China, as the quote from Tang above suggests. Given the fact that China had been bullied in various ways by the Western powers over the past 100 years, it is understandable for China to re-claim its identity and dignity as she has overtaken Japan to become the world's second largest economy. However, nationalism is a double-edged sword, as we know.
4. Can China's guiding ethos be changed such that as China becomes the new global hegemon (leader) that it also becomes a force for global good in terms of impacts on the environment, on human rights, the rule of law, and on economic development?
These are very good questions. They are exactly what some insightful Chinese thinkers are focused on in recent years. For example, Yijie Tang once asked: “What direction China should take if she does not want to pursue hegemonism? What kind of culture will benefit both China and the world? I think going to Constructive Postmodernism is a better choice.” (Yijie Tang, Anticipating a New Axis Age: A Philosophical Reflection in the New Century.”)
In my opinion, there is no need to exaggerate the role of constructive postmodern philosophy in this change of course for China. But it would nevertheless be a wise choice for China to make a postmodern or ecological turn, to create an ecological civilization with the help of constructive postmodern philosophy. In Dr. John B. Cobb’s words, doing this “is to choose to live. Otherwise, it is to choose to die.” (John B. Cobb, Jr., “China’s Unique Opportunity: Directly Entering Ecological Civilization.” Jiangsu Social Sciences 1, 2015).
We know that there are many severe problems in the world today: economic inequity, repression, violence, nuclear proliferation, community breakdown, the debilitating effects of a consumer culture that leaves people without a sense of meaning and purpose, just to name a few. But few problems are more pressing than humanity’s almost complete assault on the life-support systems of our planet: our common home.
There is a need for a new way of living and new outlook on life, where people take care of one another and the earth, living with respect and care for the entire community of life. An ecological civilization is this new way. Creating an ecological civilization is a way of addressing the many problems humans face today in a holistic way, knowing that they are part and parcel of a larger web of life and consciousness that has beauty and intrinsic worth.
Creating an ecological civilization in order to escape the wide wreckage humans are inflicting on one another and the Earth has become the most important task for every global citizen. If the world does need a leader, I hope China can become that kind of leader, a leader of a global ecological civilization. But as a Chinese proverb says: “A fence needs the support of three stakes, an able fellow needs the help of three other people.”
Creating an ecological civilization need everyone’s commitment. In our book (Wang and Fan), Second Enlightenment, we wrote: “If the first Enlightenment was like a musical solo, then [China’s] second Enlightenment would be a symphony that requires all nations, all people, all cultures to engage. As Mencius, another Taoist philosopher, said: ‘It is more joyful to share your happiness than to enjoy it alone.’”
5. I was encouraged to learn that the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution included a commitment to become an “ecological civilization” in 2012, and since then many high-level documents have included strong language committing China to an ecological civilization. President Xi Jinping has even begun using the phrase and pushing China to become a new global environmental leader, as the U.S. has retreated from this role. In your view, is this language mostly empty rhetoric (“Potemkin environmentalism”) at this point or do you think this new language used by China’s top leadership is indicative of substantial change toward a truly ecological civilization?
“Rectifying names” – using the correct terms and language –has played an instrumental part in Chinese culture and political life for a long time. According to Confucius: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”（Analects, Zilu）
If you understand this kind of Chinese train of thought, you would not say that the discourse about ecological civilization is merely “empty rhetoric,” you might find instead that it indicates a major policy change, a great turn from industrial civilization to ecological civilization. This is, in fact, my view. I am hopeful that this new language will translate quickly in to meaningful change.
6. Is President Xi actually an environmental leader, as this 2018 piece by Andre Vitcheck, argues he is? Can Xi actually lead the world toward real climate change mitigation and better water and air, despite China’s terrible track record on these issues until the last few years?
I fully understand some people’s suspicion. However, there is a Chinese idiom：“Ingrained habits cannot be cast off overnight.” The English idiom “Rome wasn't built in a day" expresses almost the same idea. As a matter of fact, the serious environmental issues in China today are a result largely of conventional industrialization, with its high pollution, high emissions, and high energy consumption characteristics, that China has been pursuing for many years.
Ironically, China has learnt this kind of industrialization or modernization from the West. It is not an easy job to change such a prevailing development modeleven for President Xi, who is indeed a powerful leader. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect China to make the ecological turn overnight, given the size of China with almost 1.4 billion population. However, it would not be wise to underestimate President Xi’s determination to embark fully on this new journey toward ecological civilization. He not only ensured that “ecological civilization construction” was written into the Communist Party constitution in 2017, and again in China’s 2018 constitution, but also stresses that ecological civilization should only occur alongside the required “economic, political, cultural and social progress.” If you track down his administrative ideas when he was governor of both Fujian and Zhejiang Province, you would find that ecological issues have been a main concern for him throughout his career.
Xi’s stressing of environmental protection is also closely related to his political faith as the Communist Party leader. For him, creating an ecological civilization is an important political task. The fundamental goal of promoting ecological civilization is to meet the people’s increasing needs for a beautiful ecological environment since the ecological issue is closely connected with the people's well-being, and the Communist Party regards working for the well-being of the people as its mission.
All of these have sent strong signals that President Xi takes the idea of ecological civilization seriously.
7. What would it mean for China to truly (rather than just rhetorically) turn toward an “ecological civilization” rather than its current more materialism-oriented civilization? What kinds of policies would the Communist Party adopt if it was truly determined to become an ecological civilization?
This is really a big question that would require a big book to respond adequately! I think some scholars have offered some responses to this question about how China could implement the idea of ecological civilization in practice and I offer a few here: enhancing green development, adjusting the economic and energy structures, optimizing the use of all territorial space, improving the industrial layout in different regions and river valleys, establishing the system of river chief and lake chief,expanding and fostering environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient sectors as well as clean production and clean energy, promoting “green family, green school, green community, green transportation, green shop, green building”, encouraging people to “live a simple, low-carbon,green life.” etc. To achieve these goals, China has strengthened institutional building and tightened supervision of law enforcement in order to carry out the ecological civilization construction.
Besides these efforts, I think there is another angle to prove China’s determination to move toward a more ecological civilization. That is, striving hard to promote the resurgence of the countryside and rural lifestyles. Because China’s leaders are aware of the high importance of agriculture as the foundation of an ecological civilization they believe that nothing today is more important than the resurgence of villages for creating an ecological civilization. Therefore, the 19th Party’s Congress proposed to “put agriculture in priority.” Xi emphasized many times that solving the Three Rural Issues (“Sān Nóng,” 三农, countryside, agriculture, and farmers) issue should be regarded as “the most important task.”
Accordingly, the central government has promulgated a lot of policies to benefit farmers. Returning to the countryside and reviving villages is very much encouraged by the Party. As a result, thus far 15 million new farmers have emerged in China, after moving. From urban areas, according to The People’s Daily. The gap between the city and the countryside is shrinking.
If you visit some Chinese villages such as Yucun Village in Anji County, Guyanhuaxiang Village in Dagangtou town of Liandu, Lishui, Zhejiang Province, you might be amazed by the astonishing beauty and great changes in China’s countryside. If you visit rural communities like Puhan rural community in Yonji, Shanxi Province, you would feel amazed by the self-confidence of the young villagers with the expression of happiness, some of them are returning college students. “Look what we eat, organic food! Look what we wear, organic clothes made of organic cotton! Look what we breath, fresh air! Look what relationship we are in, harmonious relationship!” They have proudly told visitors.
Now China still has three quarters of its population in the countryside, many of whom are farmers. And China still has a great deal of villages. Even if one third of these turn toward sustainability, that will be a great achievement. It will not only ensure China’s self-sufficiency in food production, reduce a great amount of carbon emission, but also perhaps provide a new model for developing countries.
Maybe that is one of the reasons why John B. Cobb, Jr, a leading constructive postmodern thinker and a pioneer in “green GDP theory,” who has visited China many times, predicted that the hope for achieving a global ecological civilization lies in China.
Of course, it goes without saying that Dr. Cobb did not mean that China has no disappointments when he claimed that China’s progress is very promising. A variety of serious problems such as severe pollution, economism, consumerism, social injustice, violation of human rights, and political corruption indeed have been bothering China. But compare this to the Trump administration, which has claimed “climate change is a hoax” and performed the “83 rollbacks in air pollution, drilling and extracting petroleum, infrastructure and planning, animal protection, toxic substances and safety, and water pollution”, China at least acknowledges the severity of local and global environmental issues, and is changing course toward a more ecological civilization.
Foucault once said “There is an optimism that consists in saying, ‘In any case, it couldn't be any better.’” My optimism would consist rather in saying that so many things can be changed,
As process philosophers, we will go with Foucault in this respect. Our optimistic attitude toward China’s ecological civilization stems not only from the Central government’s resolute determination, but also from the increasing awakening of ordinary people’s ecological awareness that we have witnessed.
Chinese culture is behind both the government’s determination to move toward an ecological civilization and the ordinary person’s passion for ecological civilization, which can in this case be summarized as a culture of Tōng（通）. According to the Yi Jing (The Book of Changes), the oldest Chinese classic, it is change andTōngthat allow us to keepus up with the times (与时俱进, yǔshíjùjìn).“It is deprivation that leads to changes, it is changes that lead to Tōng (finding a way out), it is Tōng that leads to sustainability.”
It is safe to say that it is the idea of Tōng that is now helping China to find ways out of the current predicament by moving toward an ecological civilization.
8. What is the single most important philosophical concept from China that the United States could/should adopt?
My suggestion is “creative harmony.” In Chinese culture, harmony is a central goal of all personal, social, political, and religious relationships including harmony among people and between human beings and nature. Harmony pervades the whole cosmos. To some extent, creative harmony can be regarded as a “deeper faith” in Whitehead’s sense, which refers to “the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness.” In China, the sages are always open to harmonious engagement and thus exhibit this faith. For Confucius, “achieving harmony (和) is the most valuable function of observing ritual propriety (礼).” So “at the core of the classical Chinese worldview is the cultivation of harmony.”
However, Chinese harmony has been often interpreted as a “static harmony”. That is why I prefer to use “creative harmony” with the help from Constructive postmodernism in contemporary West. It is worth emphasizing that creative harmony is different from sameness. Sameness is destructive, but creative harmony is constructive, which fully appreciates difference. Therefore, harmony is a verb, is a creative process, in which something new would emerge. In the words of Shi Bo (780 B.C), “It is harmony which produces things. Sameness has no offspring.”
Thus， in my view, such a creative harmony should be able to contribute to a constructive and healthier way of living in the United States as well as in the world else. As John Cobb explains, in the West today “there is a deep revulsion from the results of centuries of striving for freedom, mastery, transcendence, and intensity at the expense of harmony.”Perhaps the concept of creative harmony is a key not only to the needs of a world torn apart by a variety kinds of tribalism and exclusivism, but also to a world separated from its root, the earth mother itself.
About the authors:
Zhihe Wang, Ph. D
Zhihe Wang, Ph.D, the director of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, Co-director of China Project, Center for Process Studies, is a leading figure in constructive postmodern movement and ecological movement in China. He holds his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from Claremont Graduate University. He additionally holds both an MA and BA in Philosophy from Peking University. He is former member of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His areas of specialty include process philosophy, constructive postmodernism, ecological civilization, and second enlightenment. His recent publications include: Second Enlightenment (with Meijun Fan, 2011); Process and Pluralism: Chinese Thought on the Harmony of Diversity (2012); Green Development and Innovation from A Global Perspective(with Jianjun Zhao, 2013); “Toward a Complementary Consciousness and Mutual Flourishing of Chinese and Western Cultures”, “A Philosophical Refection on the Worship of GDP”, “Toward a Chinese Notion of Development with Dao”, “The Ecological Civilization Debate in China”, “China’s Ecological Civilization:Our Common Great Opportunity”, “Working Together to Build the Global Ecological Civilization”, etc.
Since 2002 Dr. Wang and his team have established more than 30 research institutes for Process Thought and constructive postmodern studies in China. He has helped organize more than 130 international conferences on ecological civilization, sustainable urbanization, ecological agriculture, postmodern law, science and spirituality, education reform, social responsibility in business, land and social justice, and, management. He has arranged more than 640 lectures by non-Chinese scholars in China. All of these efforts ultimately aimed at helping China as well as the world to make the postmodern turn, to create an ecological Civilization.
The author of the book, Mind, World, God: Science and Spirit in the 21st Century, who wears a few hats: a renewable energy policy expert and lawyer living in Hawaii (former longtime Santa Barbara resident); he is also a Visiting Scholar in the Psych. Dept. at UCSB; and he is formerly a Lecturer at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, also at UCSB. His avocation is thinking and writing. Between thinking and writing, there's a bit of reading.
Chinese government appoints local government heads as river chiefs and lake chiefs to clean up and protect its water resources.
 Xinhua News: “Xi presides over 9th meeting of central committee for deepening overall reform." Sep.9, 2019.http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2019-09/09/content_5428640.htm
EVAGGELOS VALLIANATOS, "The Environmental Crimes of the Trump Administration.” AUGUST 2, 2019 Counterpunch, https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/08/02/the-environmental-crimes-of-the-trump-administration/
Zhihe Wang &Meijun Fan: “Tong（通）: What the West Can Learn from China.” International Daily June 21, 2018.
 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 1967, p.18. This quote is inspired by Dr. George Derfer who explored the concept of deeper faith by Whitehead.
 Roger Ames, Sun-tzu, the Art of Warfare, New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, p.62.
 Guoyu. in Selected Works of Chinese Aesthetic History. Ed. Philosophy Department, Peking University. China Publishing House, 1980, p.8.
 John B. Cobb, Jr. “Post-Conference Reflections on Yin and Yang,” p.424.