I FIRST MET the members of the Heidegger Reading Group in a small coffee shop at the social science library of Tsinghua University. It was the second month of my exchange semester in Beijing, and I overheard a group of people speaking about Martin Heidegger — Hǎidé gé ěr in Mandarin — and his major work, Being and Time.
“Excuse me,” I interjected. “Are you talking about Being and Time?”
“Yes, we are,” a balding man who looked to be in his early 40s answered. “We are in a Heidegger reading group.” Most weeks they met in a more intimate space, he elaborated by way of apology for crowding around a table in a campus café, but they were attending a nearby lecture on Immanuel Kant that day.
After explaining that I myself was a philosophy exchange student with an interest in Heidegger, I was invited to join the club’s next meeting.
I had never read anything by Heidegger, but it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about big questions with Chinese students, to go beyond the superficial conversations of the campus cafeteria, and interrogate how they thought about their lives. So I ordered a copy of Being and Time.
The first meeting was held in a private room at a coffee shop in the northeast corner of campus. A few potted plants stood between the room’s sliding doors and the rest of the coffee shop. Inside, the room had an austere decor — a plain table surrounded by a few chairs, with one empty bookshelf standing in the corner.
The meeting was called to order by the balding man — Teacher Wang for the purposes of this account. He was a philosophy PhD student, nearing the end of his dissertation on Heidegger, and the club’s informal leader. Teacher Wang set the pace during meetings, regularly stopping the reading to interrogate a word or idea more closely or to launch into a tangent on his favorite philosophical questions.
We opened on page 158 — they had already been meeting weekly for six months — and a spectacled man in a sweater vest, sitting to the left of Teacher Wang, began to read Heidegger’s famously dense prose: “It can, as it were, take away ‘care’ from the Other and put itself in his position in concern; it can leap in for him,” he said, swallowing heavily on each pause as he read aloud. Or rather he read a Chinese translation of that sentence. I followed along silently in my English edition.
Teacher Wang put his hand on his assistant’s shoulder, signaling a pause. “In Chinese, they translate this phrase as ‘act in someone’s place.’” He turned to me. “What is the translation of the phrase in English?”
I did not know what phrase he was referring to, so I just read the same two sentences out loud in English. For good measure, I read a footnote that explained that “leap in” was chosen for the translation, though less idiomatic than other options, in order to suggest an etymological parallel contained in the original German with certain phrases used elsewhere in the book. I barely understood what I had just said, and none of them spoke English very well, so I assumed they did not either. But while the more I said certainly brought less utility to the group — they stared at me with little comprehension in their eyes — everyone seemed more or less pleased with my presence.
“It’s talking about a leap,” I added in Mandarin, by way of summary. “A very big leap.” I had no conscious reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward — a domestic catastrophe that remains a sensitive subject. But Teacher Wang only cleared his throat. “Yes, thank you,” he said. Then he resumed reading.
No matter the language in which you read Being and Time, Heidegger’s work is difficult to penetrate. The themes are abstract; the structure is elliptical; and, most challenging of all, Heidegger makes up a lot of new words.
These neologisms are in there because the question he is addressing — what is Being, “the most universal and the emptiest of concepts” — is bound up in the language we use to talk about what can’t be expressed. The word to be signifies existence — “I am,” “God is,” — but also acts as the copula. “The sky is blue,” Heidegger writes with emphasis, as though discovering the hidden is for the first time.
“Whenever one cognizes anything or makes an assertion, whenever one comports oneself towards entities,” Heidegger writes, “some use is made of ‘Being.’” Every logical definition of a term relies on making an “is” statement. To define Being, you must say “Being is x,” thus using is, a conjugation of the word to be — a linguistic pretzel. So Heidegger had to create new words.
This put me on a more even footing with my Chinese clubmates. When reading Heideggerese, we were all confronting words for the first time.
Yet Heidegger’s focus on the linguistic root to the problem of Being makes him an odd choice to read in Chinese, which has no copula — the existential verb (is) that connects a word (sky) with its definition (blue). In Chinese, the sentence that Heidegger emphasizes merely reads “sky blue.” The word that means “being” — used to translate the title, Being and Time — only implies existence, not copular definition.
Whether or not you share Heidegger’s concern about this double use of to be as both the copula (I am a thinker) and the existential verb (I think, therefore I am, meaning “I exist”), it is there in the language in which you are reading right now. Not so for my clubmates in the Heidegger Reading Group, locked in a double puzzle of language.
Teacher Wang reveled in squaring this seemingly meaningless circle. He would lovingly pontificate on why Heidegger might have chosen a given word in German and why the translators had decided on a given translation in Chinese. He could not speak English well, but he knew a lot about the English edition translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson that I had purchased. “The more faithful of the two English translations,” he told me with approval. No word in Being and Time is accidental, and Teacher Wang treated each one accordingly.
“The structure of Heidegger’s argument can turn on a single word,” he explained once, when the group paused to discuss Heidegger’s use of the word concern. “Only with such careful wording can you unleash the power of pure thought.”
After I attended my second session of the reading group, Teacher Wang invited me to attend a panel discussion among six Heidegger experts the following Tuesday. The event was going to be at Beijing University, the more humanities-focused school right across the street from Tsinghua.
On the morning of the event, Teacher Wang messaged me to offer to walk me there from my dorm. “Beijing University is quite large,” he said. “I don’t want you to get lost.”
When we arrived at the auditorium, I discovered that I couldn’t have missed it. At least 100 people were standing outside the building on the brisk December afternoon, with hundreds more already inside. There would need to be a stream set up for a spillover room elsewhere. A large sign advertising the event — “Heidegger and China” — was draped over the building’s facade.
Heidegger enjoys a rock star status in Chinese universities, and the two biggest names at the event were considered celebrities: Professors Chen Jiaying and Wang Qingjie, who as graduate students had helped translate Being and Time into Chinese in 1987 when the nation was in the throes of existentialism fever. The revolutionary turbulence of the Maoist days was out, and mid-20th-century Western philosophers were in. “In the 1980s, after years of having their lives defined by what was going on in the country, I think people really liked the idea of philosophy that was all about the individual,” Chen suggested. “Many people were hungry to talk about questions related to personal existence and freedom, not society.”
Sun Zhouxing, one of the younger scholars on the stage, agreed. “Heidegger is the number-one name in philosophy research,” he said, “surpassing even Marx, perhaps.” Even in a communist country, studying Marx is more potentially threatening to the government than studying Heidegger because the former deals with sociopolitical relations while the latter doesn’t care. For those looking to stay away from politics, Heidegger is their man.
Philosophy independent from politics is frowned upon in the Chinese intellectual tradition, in which an aspiring member of the literati would spend decades studying classical works of philosophy and poetry in order to prepare for the civil service exam. By the time he passed the exam and was appointed to a government position, he would have memorized a vision of ethics that would guide his work. Philosophy, in other words, was a foundation for service. If you were a Western-style academic buried in a singular discipline about abstract questions, you were neglecting your duty.
The true sage would try to guide the emperor, and Chinese history has some stories of brave officials speaking truth to power: Sima Qian, China’s greatest historian, was castrated for defending a wrongly accused general. Qu Yuan, China’s first verse poet, drowned himself in exile after the king did not heed his warnings about an invasion, according to legend. But most scholar-officials just carried out their duties as the servants of power. Spending years studying Confucian principles of right and wrong does not necessarily equip one to distinguish the two in practice, nor do they make a person immune to the attractions of power or the fear of standing up to it.
Heidegger’s personal story is relevant here, as it demonstrates the corrupting impact that a bad regime can have on a great thinker. After publishing Being and Time in 1927, he was one of the rising stars in German philosophy and was appointed to a professorship at the University of Freiburg. But when his rector had to step down in April 1933 for refusing to put up anti-Jewish posters, Heidegger readily succeeded him. Ten days later, he joined the Nazi Party just as book burnings were coming into vogue, and Jews were being stripped of their posts at universities.
While his private relationship with the party’s ideas remains a matter of controversy — his mentor, Edmund Husserl, was Jewish, as was his student-turned-lover, Hannah Arendt — in public, he embraced Adolf Hitler with the zeal of a convert. In a bid to become the Führer’s personal philosopher, Heidegger used his platform to endorse and expound on the party’s theory of a new great leader. “Let not theories and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and he alone is German reality and its law, today and for the future,” he told his students.
Many Chinese intellectuals today are following in Heidegger’s dismal footsteps. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stepped up its efforts to co-opt some of China’s leading academics in recent years, some former critics have become sycophants. Tsinghua Professor Wang Hui, a former advocate of workers’ rights, wrote an article in which he compared Xi Jinping to a “mythic” leader who could “create the unity of the ‘modern monarch’ and the people.” In response, outspoken critic of the CCP Rong Jian wrote an essay titled “Wang Hui’s ‘Heidegger Moment’?” Rong excoriated Wang for making “a clear political calculation” to sacrifice independent values and thought for power. “After philosophy, beliefs, and morals have lost their ultimate hold on intellectuals, we will continue to witness how the decline of intellectuals has helped politics re-enter a long, dark moment,” Rong wrote.
Under an authoritarian regime, “philosophy, beliefs, and morals” can lose their grip on intellectuals. They, like everyone else, can be driven by the politics of fear. Heidegger’s dark legacy teaches this lesson.
But while Rong concludes from Heidegger’s legacy that intellectuals must remained unbowed in speaking truth to power, Teacher Wang instead learns from it the importance of staying out of subjects that lie beyond your expertise. “We cannot fully trust Heidegger, for his personal or political conduct,” Teacher Wang once said at a meeting of the reading group, when a member raised the issue of Heidegger’s antisemitism. “He is a thinker in the modern Western sense, one who should be understood within his discipline. That is the power of the modern university system, with its academic divisions.” To Teacher Wang, Heidegger offers a lesson in the value of sticking to philosophical inquiry within the walls of the university, in burrowing into truth for truth’s sake without the messy gray zones of the world.
I asked Teacher Wang what he made of Rong’s use of Heidegger’s legacy. “The traditional ideal for a Chinese sage, the scholar-official, is meant to achieve ‘the unity of knowledge and practice,’” he wrote to me over WeChat, quoting a popular Chinese idiom from a 15th-century intellectual. “In today’s society, that is not meant to be.”
In the meantime, Teacher Wang is keeping at his dissertation.