Socrates and Xi Jinping Go Into a Bar

American efforts to understand Chinese-American relations do not generally turn to classical Chinese philosophers like Confucius or Mencius for inspiration. Readers of Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, or even The Dispatch will find little to suggest that 21st-century military or ideological competition cannot be understood without engaging ancient Eastern philosophy. (Or, for that matter, ancient Western philosophy.) I would not therefore have expected that Chinese discourse on such matters would frequently invoke classical Western thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. According to Shadi Bartsch, however, I would have been mistaken.

Bartsch is a classicist at the University of Chicago and recently produced a well-received translation of Vergil’s Aeneid. Her newest book, Plato Goes to China, is based on 30 years of effort learning Mandarin and immersing herself in the debates of Chinese public intellectuals. In it, Bartsch explores the uses (and sometimes abuses) of classical Western philosophy—in particular Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle—in contemporary Chinese discourse. She is interested less in the academic field of classics as it is institutionalized in Chinese universities than in the broader world of public debate: blogs, journals, speeches, opinion journalism. Her examination shows not only that the Greek classics are alive and well in the Chinese public square—more so, perhaps, than in the American?—but also that they are increasingly interpreted in ways that support the current Chinese regime.

Although most of the book focuses on the past 30 years, following the Tiananmen Square protests and their suppression, Bartsch begins with a look back at three earlier moments that together highlight what is distinctive about the current Chinese use of Greek philosophy. She considers the Jesuit missions of the 17th century under Matteo Ricci, the period leading to the May 4 Movement of 1919, and the late 20th-century liberalization under Deng Xiaoping prior to Tiananmen Square. The first of these indicates the creative uses to which Westerners have put classical thought for the purposes of cross-cultural engagement and persuasion; the second and third reveal how Chinese thinkers have turned to the Greeks for inspiration at moments when their own society appeared backwards, inferior, and in need of reform.

Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, however, intellectuals have become cautious about criticizing the regime in the name of Western ideals. Instead, writes Bartsch, “intellectuals still invoke classical western texts but read them in ways that run counter to the reformist ideas of the May 4th Movement and the 1980s.” Thucydides, for example, becomes a warning to the United States. His criticisms of Athenian democracy during the Peloponnesian War reveal democracy’s susceptibility to demagoguery and imperial overreach, which lead ultimately to disaster. Similarly, Plato’s Noble Lie proves a remarkably malleable instrument for criticizing the West. In the Republic Socrates argues that the ideal state, in order to maintain social order and hierarchy, would need to tell its citizens a “lie”: that they have all been born of the earth and are thus literally one big happy family, but that as a result of their subterranean gestation, their souls are interwoven with different metals (gold, silver, bronze, iron) that determine their class and role in society. For some Chinese critics, this myth suggests the hypocrisy of American government: capitalist oligarchy veils itself behind the lie of democratic equality. For others, it becomes a justification of the hierarchy within Chinese society and thus a defense of party rule and differential privilege.

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