Scholarship and education

Morality, history, and freedom of expression, as seen on TV

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Moral watchdog Cheng Junyi

A face-off between two popular writers over morality and freedom of speech, an explanation of the danger of Guoxue Spice Girl, and for good measure, a look at one of the headaches of academic publication.

I: Morality and historical investigation

Cheng Junyi, author of Poached Three Kingdoms and Sun Wukong is a good manager, popular managements text that draw their inspiration from the strategies described in classic novels, has gotten into a bitter argument with popular historian Yi Zhongtian over ethical questions involved in bringing traditional Chinese culture to a wider modern audience.

Cheng blasted Yi Zhongtian on CCTV's Dialogue program in late October, claiming that Yi has no sense of morality when he presents historical topics to a broad audience, using as an example Yi's excuses for Cao Cao's bad behavior. Cheng then damned Yi to the 19th level of hell, at which point Yi interrupted in protest.

Faced with intense online criticism, Cheng issued an apology:

With sincerity and goodwill, I extend my apologies to Mr. Yi Zhongtian and his fans, because I did not express my opinions clearly and fully to them. In these complicated times, "moral watchdog" seems to have become a derisive label. However, I am still willing to be a person who pursues morality. If I have not done enough on this end myself, I ask Yi Zhongtian and the larger reading community to assist me in making corrections.

This was not enough for Yi, who fired off the following post on his blog on 4 November:

Mr. Cheng Junyi has no need to apologize to me

According to some media, Mr. Cheng Junyi wants to extend his apologies to me. This is just what I've heard - I can't be certain, and I think it's unnecessary.

Mr. Cheng Junyi and I have no personal grudges. None in the past, none now, and none in the future. Long ago I said that anyone has the right to criticize me; naturally Mr. Cheng Junyi does as well. It is unimportant if the words are a bit ugly, or if the attitude is poor. Putting stock in other people's attitudes is always an expression of one's own irrationality. In actuality, I was not angry when Mr. Cheng Junyi expressed his scorn for me during our dialogue; I was not angry when he said that my Savoring the Three Kingdoms and that day's Dialogue were both incoherent; I was not angry even when he cast aspersions on my "sense of morality". In short, I expressed anger at Mr. Cheng Junyi not because he criticized me, and not because his behavior toward me was poor. So Mr. Cheng Junyi has no need to apologize to me. Once again, there is no ill will between us.

The divergence between Mr. Cheng Junyi and me is one of principle. What I support are principles of human rights and the rule of law. These principles say that freedom of thought and expression are fundamental human rights that cannot be taken away. No individual possesses the power of judgement over thoughts and speech. No one may claim or in actual fact send his opponent to hell because his opinions differ from his own. This is an understanding that mankind has attained through countless disasters, pain, and torture, and it cannot be encroached upon!

So, if Mr. Cheng Junyi is willing, I suggest that he apologize to the following elders:

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Yi Zhongtian, future inmate of the 19th level of hell

· Those individuals who for "backward thinking" and "reactionary speech" were sent to "hell" thirty years ago;
· Moving backward 300 years, those individuals who were sent to "hell" for "disrespect" or "literary crimes";
· Moving back 3000 years, those individuals who were sent to "hell" for "harming the spirits" or "disseminating falsehoods".

I must earnestly clarify: the above are only my own personal suggestions; there is no insistence or force implied. I am willing to believe that when Mr. Cheng Junyi was telling that story he was unaware of how serious it was. Perhaps he violated the line of human civilization in error; it is enough if he no longer continues in his mistakes.


Speaking to China Times, Cheng Junyi responded:

Everyone knows that Yi Zhongtian is angry. He said he isn't angry, then he said he is outraged - isn't this an obvious contradiction? It's just like I said before, he's always incomprehensible. He said I should apologize to those past scholars; actually, those intellectuals of history were men of morals. I've always liked traditional culture, and I've maintained a value system along the same lines as those mainstream intellectuals. Why should I apologize to them? It's Yi Zhongtian who's anti-moral."

Cheng maintains a blog on Daqi; since starting it this summer, he posted but a single entry until Tuesday, when he wrote five open letters to Yi Zhongtian. An excerpt from letter #3:

Yi Zhongtian believes that my moral arguments steal his freedom. Confused adolescents also believe that adults' moral arguments steal their freedom. Discussing Mr. Yi together with confused adolescents perhaps is somewhat disrespectful to Mr. Yi, but I only wish to draw an analogy to clarify the problem.

[discussion of morality based on Laozi elided]

To a person lost at sea, freedom is dangerous. In the eyes of a confused person, what does freedom imply? Being overly clever? Infallibility? Or perhaps even indiscriminate actions? Only those people who understand morality can comprehend the true meaning of freedom.


II: Should people be allowed to seduce Confucius online?

The lead editorial in China Times on Thursday took inspiration from the "guoxue spice girl" to examine the limits of personal expression. Written by Deng Haijian, a teacher in Jiangsu, the piece namechecks Tacitus and Habermas and compares personal expression to setting off fireworks. An excerpt:

Turning our focus to the present era of diversified media and multiple value orientations, "I think therefore I am" has been replaced by "I show off therefore I am," and a right to personal expression unprecedented in history entices us like fireworks with its splendor. So another strange phenomenon has appeared: everyone takes their fireworks to set them off in other people's yards; what they really want is to be live in front of the entire world - this is the problem of "crossing the boundary of individual expression" that we should be on guard against. There are two sources of this situation. First, when personal expression that has been suppressed for such a long time finally finds release, if becomes incredibly active. Second, when the media, which for a long time has been cut off from the speech of the people, is finally given the green light, selection and evaluation of public space becomes a game of pushing the boundaries: whatever is novel, whatever is of the people, whatever pulls eyeballs.

Tacitus said: it is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks. Free expression is one kind of happiness, but there are always limits on the happiness of individual speech; one cannot run, unprincipled, through the public sphere; in other words, you can call yourself "guoxue spice girl" and you can claim to "do a sexy dance for Confucius", but you may not invade the stage of public speech with such private matters because of some "peculiar" reasons - this is not "anti-free-speech"; this is precisely what champions true "freedom of speech."

This editorial ran in several other papers; oddly, in Changjiang Times, it was credited to a Deng Leilei. Simultaneous submissions, or astroturfing public opinion?


III: Everyone's writing books, but no one's reading them.

This week's Oriental Outlook prints an account by Hunan resident Jiang Ping about an annoying side-effect of the 'publish or perish' mentality:

Everyone's putting out books

by Jiang Ping / Oriental Outlook, 2006.11.9

For professional advancement, at the beginning of the year I eked out my second collection of papers. Like the previous one, the publisher gave me 200 copies in lieu of royalties.

About these sample books - they are more useless than you can imagine: piled up at home, they take up space and get in the way; sold as scrap paper, they command a super-low price, and it's hard to just dump them. So why not give them away to people, curry a bit of favor. My first collection of articles was taken care of in that way. This time, I decided to follow the same pattern.

I considered my recipients last time - a significant portion of them weren't readers, and they basically flipped through a few pages before selling the book off as scrap; this time I decided to only give to cultured friends. A friend by correspondence, Daxing, was my first choice. That day, I went excitedly to his house, book in hand, fully intending to say a few nice words - who knew that Daxing would also be holding an essay collection: "It's impolite not to reciprocate. Not long ago, I too brought out a new book, so I can exchange with you." Not only Daxing, but also Liu Lixi in the county seat had me in an awkward position. After taking my new book, he turned around and picked up four books: "Since you can appreciate this, I'll give you a few books, too. These are all from some pals who've put out books and who want me to help them with promotion. You've come at the right time...."

In the first round, I gave away ten copies, but I received 15; the overstock on my bookshelves was continually expanding, until I had to wonder whether I should switch fields and become a waste-paper dealer. Most uncomfortable was director He, who even before his retirement had enjoyed dabbling in writing, so naturally he was on my gift-list. Like Liu Lizi, Old He brought out a small book: "Perfect - I've been at home with nothing to do, so I published a memoir. Also, these two years my friends have kept giving me books. My eyes have gone, so I can't read them - I'll just give them all to you, being a booklover and all." At this, he lifted a box he had prepared from the bookcase; inside was a huge pile of books.

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