Scholarship and education

Yu Dan: defender of traditional culture, force for harmony


There's a profile of CCTV Lecture Room sensation Yu Dan in yesterday's LA Times. From the article:

She switches with ease between teaching ancient wisdoms glorifying nonmaterial wealth and coaching commercial television on how to produce hit shows. She talks with the authority and formality of a Communist Party official, yet she engages her listeners with personal anecdotes about how her daughter might learn more about the world playing with a bottle and cap than from all the expensive toys in the house.

Yu credits her early classical education with giving her the confidence to believe in herself. She acknowledges that not everything about Confucius is relevant today, but she doesn't think it's fair to dwell on the negative.

"There is a lot of prejudice against Confucius for being too conservative or backward," Yu said.

"He teaches love and tolerance, for example, and don't force others to do what you would not want to do yourself, how to develop harmonious interpersonal relationships. Are these ideas really that out of date? Are these not useful to our lives today?"

Yu's willingness to pick and choose what she likes from The Analects, and in some cases to misread what the text is actually saying, has drawn criticism from more orthodox interpreters. The Times story quotes Tsinghua's Daniel Bell knocking Yu's "feel-good, apolitical version" of Confucius, while other critics are more nit-picky, complaining that the media professor's "insights" should be better-grounded in scholarship.

In a column in BQ weekly, media critic He Dong examines the true motivations of the anti-Yu Dan crowd:

Who is Yu Dan threatening?

by He Dong / BQ

Yu Dan, an especially articulate woman PhD and professor, became a nationwide sensation for going on CCTV's Lecture Room program to talk about Confucius and Zhuangzi. And she's not popular solely on TV - afterward, she was hot in the bookstores, too. Yu Dan's Insights on the Analects sold over 1.5 million copies in the blink of an eye. Yu Dan's road to success really has many PhDs and professors angry. So questions about her and problems with her lectures quickly started assailing her on the Internet. At the same time, there were three strong demands: the media must immediately cease its adulation of Yu Dan, Lecture Room must immediately cease broadcasting Yu Dan's programs, and Yu Dan must apologize to the entire nation.

Detoxifying Yu Dan

So who were these people instigating this small cultural demonstration? Careful inspection of its origin reveals nine PhDs and MAs from Peking University and Tsinghua University. There's an old Chinese saying that goes, "A scholars' rebellion takes ten years or more"; when scholars form an alliance, they do not wait to launch a revolt against others, but rather dissolve into internal struggles for nine years.

When Yu Dan started speaking on the Lecture Room program, I never expected that the literati would be the first to rise up in fury and protest against her. Yu Dan is opening up a road to television for those bagua teachers, telling people not to bury themselves in stacks of old papers - they should really be deeply grateful to her!

I had thought that perhaps there might be a few television hosts who would rise up and express their displeasure with Yu Dan. For instead of PhDs and professors, she is truly threating those TV hosts who amuse the masses with idiocy all day. I personally witnessed the scene when Yu Dan signed books in Beijing at the Xidan Book Building: she really had the whole town out waiting impatiently! What does such a sensation imply? It means that the audience has become tired of talent competitions and entertainment programs, so a TV show that's a bit intellectual and cultured without being dry and uninteresting sweeps up the audience into fevered anticipation as soon as it makes itself known. It's obvious that the audience for certain types of cultural TV shows is not limited to Beijing, it is springing forth from all areas of the country.

Those hosts turning somersaults and making faces on TV - are they aware of the crisis that threatens them? No, not at all. They still continue, intoxicated with talent shows and amusing themselves to death! Even when the audience's expectation and needs for a new type of television program are staring them in the face, responsive hosts do not appear. Into this, Yu Dan exploded into popularity as a program guest-host.

However, most perplexing is the fact that the TV hosts, who by rights should be sweating bullets, are instead still wallowing in stupid entertainment, and those professors of history and culture, who should be rejoicing, can't wait to jump up with unrestrained indignation. Really. It's the flood waters swamping the Dragon King's temple - family members don't recognize each other.

So how should these people afflicted with jealousy and narrow minds be cured? The nine PhDs vehemently cry, "Immediately cease broadcasting Yu Dan's programs, and have her apologize to the entire nation." The latent meaning is this: immediately invite the nine wise, valiant PhDs to appear on Lecture Room and promote them on a national scale. Then Chinese culture will have found its savior!

But should the audience really have to pay for their sour grapes?

* * *

Talent competitions and other mindless TV programs have been the focus of official criticism recently; SARFT and other regulatory agencies are attempting to raise the bar for television to drive clean up vulgar, bottom-feeding shows, so Yu Dan seems like she'd be a breath of fresh air.

But is she truly apolitical, as Daniel Bell says? Writing in Southern Metropolis Daily, Zhao Yong arrives at the conclusion that Yu Dan's scholarship is calculated to uphold the mainstream government line, and she suffers so much abuse because she doesn't bring anything else to the table. Some excerpts:

Why are we always correcting Yu Dan's mistakes?

by Zhao Yong / SMD
Confucius is worried.

[The books] all say that Yu Dan made some mistakes in her lectures on The Analects and Zhuangzi, like explaining "small man" (小人) as "child" (小孩子). Definitely a mistake, but there's little point in correcting this kind of error. The saying goes that you can't have a book without mistakes. So mistakes in speaking, in writing, or in printing aren't anything to be surprised about....

However, people persist in "correcting" Yu Dan. Are there perhaps other problems in her lectures?

After Yu Dan went big, she took part in a web chat on Sina, and one of her responses resonated. The host asked her whether The Analects was required reading for a harmonious society, and Yu Dan responded, "Actually, The Analects are quite mainstream; that is, many things in The Analects are ideas brought up by our harmonious society today.".....Looking through relevant explanations in her Insights, perhaps we can find an awakening. Yu Dan says, "China has always seen harmony as beautiful. And what is true harmony? Exercising tolerance of others, blending together while sustaining different voices and differences of opinion" (p 62); "The mental state of the doctrine of the mean is everything situated in harmony. This harmony is when all heaven and earth is in its place (p 110); "We often hear people complaining that society is not fair, that their lives are difficult. Actually, instead of blaming everyone but yourself, why not examine yourself?" (p 49) - Oh, turns out that this book talks about the importance of the "harmonious society." If you blame everyone but yourself, your voice sharp and loud, then everyone will be fraught with anxiety; if everyone remains in their places, thinking behind closed doors at night, performing self-inspections three times a day, then this would probably gradually enter a beautiful phase of harmony. Looking at it like this, we really can't underestimate the insights Yu Dan has gained from The Analects. It may be an entertaining document produced out of the Lecture Room program, but why can't it be the political document that mainstream ideology has been waiting for? The new moderator of Lecture Room, Wang Liqun, said that when Yu Dan lectured on her insights from The Analects over the National Day holiday, it came out swinging. The reaction was huge after it aired, and caught the attention of the government. The old guy's really cute, telling the media such secrets. What ought we to do?

Some might ask, is it wrong for Yu Dan to take old things for new uses, for living scholarship? No, no one will say that she's wrong. That the thought of Confucius and Laozi became the mainstream discourse through successive dynasties says that they do indeed possess something that mainstream discourse may make use of. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with Yu Dan's very mainstream desire to make the harmonious society borrow the climate of The Analects. What's wrong is that she's a scholar, a classic intellectual according to the western definition. And as an intellectual, she ought to have her own system of discourse and means of expression. We'll not talk here of Said's "speak truth to power"; rather, we'll go back to Max Weber's standpoint, scholars that take academics as a "vocation" ought to maintain a certain neutrality of values. But we cannot see this in Yu Dan's Insights. In this way, her position immediately becomes suspect: when she stands speaking on the Lecture Room dias, it is obvious that she appears in the person of a modern academic, but why is it that her thinking and her lecturing resemble a scholar-official from the feudal society? A member of the modern intellectual class has undoubtedly undergone the baptism of the May Fourth New Culture Movement, yet you've made your explanations like the vestiges of the old society. How can this please people?

Recently, the media asked Chen Danqing for his views on Lecture Room. He said that Lecture Room was a product of drills - there's only one voice, only one tone, only one format, and he couldn't take it. "I finally watched Yu Dan's program. Her gestures and tone are all guided by CCTV. I cannot bear that stuff."

Links and Sources
There are currently 14 Comments for Yu Dan: defender of traditional culture, force for harmony.

Comments on Yu Dan: defender of traditional culture, force for harmony

Well said the 2nd article. I for one would like to see them all battle it out on Tiger Talk (a phoenix t.v show)

Include me among those who are outraged--OUTRAGED--by this book.

Everybody will make mistakes translating or interpreting ancient Chinese literature. But to read "xiao ren" as "xiao haizi" would be indeed a gigantic, unforgivable mistake.

So she'll be the Opra of China, sell tons of books, get a TV show and make piles of cash the government can try to tax her on. So what? The Chinese need someone to look up to and believe in, and it certainly ain't gonna the be that good 'ol boy club passing the bottle in Zhongnanhai...

can't believe this silly woman can be a TV star and make her full-mistake book be a bestseller.

Her success is a disaster to our traditional culture!

It is so great to see that one talking about Kong Zi's teachings become famous. It is a sign that China will be a great nation again. If a man come out to lecture about Lunyu (just like the lady did), it will be perfect. A man will have a different view.

Intrepreting a language will not satisfy all people since the Chinese classics are really deep in meaning. However this effort should be supported. I myself would like to get contact with her. Does anyone know her e-mail and mail address? Thanks

I have listened to a few of Yu Dan's comments and insights over Singapore broadcasts. They are enlightening and practical, full of practical common sense for the man in the street as well as anyone who wants to live a harmonious and useful life.

There is no perfection in any speech, writing or discussion. However, the key essence is the usefulness and relevance in application in daily life. Prof Yu Dan's discussions have achieved that.

I'm very impressed by Yu Dan's expositions on the Analects and Zhuang Zi. So what if her interpretations are not the same as other so-called scholars? Afterall, her program is known as "Yu Dan Xin De", in other words, "Yu Dan's insights". Grow up, those who are trying to attack her to get their 5-minute worth of fame!

Professor Yu Dan provides interesting and original cultural views on Conficus's thought in contemporary settings. The approach that she use is rather loose. I elect to use the physical, chemical and mathmatical scientific approach to interpret the ancient Chinese philosophy. About eight months ago I gave a one-hour speech at the American Philosophical Asso. Eastern Annual Meeting in Baltimore, MD (12/27-30/2007) with a topics, "On the Revelation of Confucian Doctrine of The Mean in Modern Science Principle". In about two weeks, I will be giving a speech at the World Congress of Philosophy 2008 in Seoul, Korea (7/30-8/05/08)on "A New Look at the Ancient Asian Philosophy through Modern Mathematical and Topological Scientific Analysis". On 10/24/2008, I will give a speech at Peking University on "The Ancient Chinese Philosophy and the Algorithm of Modern Science Principle", co-sponsored by the School of Philosophy and School of Life Sciences. My theoretical work for over 38 years has been summarized in Pharmacological Review 58: 621-681, 2006 which is now available for free download at []. I gave 2 speeches using my theory of "Median-Effect" Principle of the Mass-Action Law, in San Francisco (6/8-11/08) and in Le Montreux Palace, Montreux, Switzerland (6/16-17/08). Most of their contents have been published in Nature Precedings on 7/10/08, which is avail in URL as indicated above. I'd appreciate very much to have Prof. Yu Dan's and other's feedback.

@Ting-Chao Chou, who uses "the physical, chemical and mathmatical scientific approach to interpret the ancient Chinese philosophy":

If those are your bona fides ("my theoretical work for over 38 years", lengthy lectures in different cities, etc.) surely you needn't come here asking for feedback? And surely one of your academic peers can get you an introduction to Yu Dan?

I doubt that most persons in mainland China have ever read The Analects (with Zhuxi's annotations) or The Mencius and seriously doubt such weighty and arcane studies as yours will ever become so popular that you can ask for public opinion.

I am going to attend her lecture tomorrow. Looking forward to...

The difference b/w China and U.S. is this:

Can you imagine, a book talk about the guy dead 2500 years ago and who talked about something about right and wrong sold millions of copies ( more important, been pirated by millions of copies )... that means Chinese are actually reading books!!!!

IN US, you have opra, only opra ...and your under-educated guys and gals have the guts to lecture the chinaman all the time.......

full of hot airs and hooly Danwei

You know what? I don't understand. I think that the book, despite all the mistaken information, at least delivers some goodness to the society. Yes, purists might think that this is a complete violation to Confucianism but personally, I think that she stated it very clearly that what she's seeing is just how she interprets it.

I just don't get it why people are making a big fuss out of it. I did a module on Confucianism in my first year and I think that what she said is not entirely wrong?

And if you were to attack her, then what Confucius had hoped, that everyone could at least have eagerness to learn, would be gone for good.

I'm sure it's not only Confucius but those who want a better change in the future!

I don't think professor Yu Dan meant to cause so much controversy with this book, she is only stating her personal opinions and interpretations.
The broadcasts on CCTV's lecture room are just another way of succesfully getting points of information over to a large proportion of people which is what technology is supposed to be about.
There will always be a lot of people unhappy that she is making lots of money from this.
In today's society CCTV has many practical uses mainly as a security measure for cctv security surveillance camera installations. However she has embraced the use of this technology in a different form on CCTV's lecture room and good luck to her.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives