Ultra Soft Power

December 29, 2019   •   By Paul J. D’Ambrosio

Ways of Heaven

Roel Sterckx

THE PAST FEW YEARS have seen a significant push in the concerted effort to make Chinese thought available to non-Chinese audiences. Like Hu Jintao before him, Xi Jinping envisions “soft power” as a vital aspect of modernizing the Middle Kingdom. Numerous projects, from the Olympics and theme parks to university stipends for international students and faculty, are aimed at “bringing China onto the world stage.” Ideologically, this means promoting Confucian centers worldwide and establishing a generous funding program for translating contemporary Chinese monographs into a variety of foreign languages. And the world stage is responding. Around the globe, Chinese language, politics, history, and philosophy are growing in popularity, and every year more foreigners visit China, as tourists, business people, students, and teachers. The Chinese Communist Party is arguably most proud of classical Chinese philosophy, and much of the resources for the various “bringing China onto the world stage” initiatives are concentrated therein.

East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai is home to one of the best international graduate programs in Chinese philosophy in the world (which I say as a faculty member). Alongside master’s and PhD students, ECNU frequently hosts postdocs and senior visiting scholars who come for one or two years of auditing courses. The backgrounds of participants in this program vary significantly, but most come with only very basic knowledge about Chinese classics. They bring many questions with them, and the first weeks of the academic year can be quite lively. However, not few of the answers they receive are, in some respects, quite unsatisfying. Students wonder about “theories of knowledge,” “absolutes,” and “first principles” in classical Chinese thought. What does Confucius mean by “humaneness” and “duty”? Doesn’t Mencius prioritize some aspects over others in moral considerations? And aren’t the Daoists simply hermitic skeptics or relativists?

While there may be “no such thing as a stupid question,” many of these interrogations are, quite frankly, wrong. They opine over issues that many classical Chinese thinkers simply did not care to discuss. Shifting students who come from backgrounds heavily steeped in Western traditions into thinking about more appropriate questions is surely not impossible, but it takes weeks, months, or even a full program to achieve. Abandoning, even for a moment, one’s presuppositions, and engaging with a whole new world of thought is as exciting as it is frustrating. Students have to grapple with the fact that, for instance, Confucians do prioritize some aspects over others in determining what is moral, yet moral decisions are ultimately context-dependent, and there is no final calculation or consideration that always trumps all others. Asking “what is humanity” is not as good as considering how one becomes humane — we don’t need an abstract theory to begin self-cultivation, a few good role models will suffice. Similarly, the Zhuangzi certainly includes skepticism and relativism, but its approach to knowledge and ethics is much more complex than either of these “-isms” lets on.

Roel Sterckx’s Ways of Heaven demonstrates — in style and content — some of the classical Chinese ways of thinking. Readers are encouraged to shift their “patterns of thought” as Sterckx eloquently guides them through major issues, passages, and debates from early China. Ways of Heaven is truly unique in that it is somewhere between a trade book and a textbook. In other words, somewhere between Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s The Path and A. C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao. There are no citations in Ways of Heaven and few references to contemporary scholars. The style is easy, almost novelesque. Sterckx shifts between themes, thinkers, and passages seamlessly, and his narration is never “tried” or “forced.” The reader is simply carried along on a pleasant flow of ideas. Mencius, for example, is not really discussed in the first hundred pages, even though Confucianism is a major topic, and yet nothing is missing. Additionally, Sterckx allows debates between Legalists, Moists, Daoists, and Confucians to arise organically. All the while there is a strong sense of structure.

While the Ways of Heaven clearly demonstrates a mastery over Chinese classics, Sterckx has no need to use quotes or delve into scholarly debates. This is of great benefit for the reader, who can take in Chinese thought in a natural way. Some of the most compelling and interesting theories on Chinese philosophical themes are utilized without being argued — Michael Puett’s and Roger Ames’s contributions, for example. Puett’s work looks at classic texts largely in terms of how they celebrate “as if” realities, cultivated through ritual practice, whereas Ames has been a huge advocate of early Chinese role-based conceptions of the person and ethics. Sterckx stands on the shoulders of these scholars, and others still, to give readers a glimpse of the various “ways” of viewing the person, family, ethics, language, ritual, society, nature, ancestors, and a host of other topics. 

Ways of Heaven is made up of nine chapters, indicating an expansive take on Chinese thinking: “China in Time and Space”; “The Way (Dao) and Its Ways”; “The Art of Government”; “The Individual and the Collective”; “Behaving Ritually”; “Spirits and Ancestors”; “The World of Nature”; “Work and Wealth”; and “Food for Thought.” Sterckx thus begins analyzing typical Chinese philosophy themes and works his way into other aspects of life and thinking, many of which are far more mundane and interesting in terms of understanding everyday life in early China. It should also be noted that Sterckx offers extremely pointed comparative comments, addressing difference between Chinese and Western thought on the above mentioned topics. One characteristic example:

No similar tradition of portraiture or sculpture existed in ancient China. Napoleon is depicted crossing the Alps in triumphalist neo-classical style on the back of his rearing horse, while the great Qing emperors perch quietly on the dragon throne, deep in the palace, draped in yellow silk robes that conceal all but the face.

There is, however, a certain bias toward Confucianism, even while Sterckx frequently addresses Moist, Legalist, and Daoist thinkers. Confucianism is celebrated as an intricate tradition with complex views and dynamic approaches to basically every issue discussed in Ways of Heaven. Other “schools” are well represented, but somewhat left by the wayside. For example, Sterckx seems to overlook the lasting influence Legalist thought had on Chinese society, emphasizing the ritualistic and moral aspects instead. Undoubtably, these are important, but harsh regulations and strict implementation of laws is a muscle Chinese rulers have not been shy in flexing — especially today. (Sterckx does mention Chinese rulers being commonly classified as “Confucian on the outside, and Legalist on the inside,” but he does not expound on this to a great extent.)

Daoism arguably suffers the most in Sterckx’s book. Although not always significant in official arenas — being overshadowed in many social spheres, especially politics and rituals — the Laozi and Zhuangzi are always just under the surface. Sterckx spends far more ink discussing the complexity of Confucianism, and makes it seem like Daoist thought is relatively impoverished. In particular, the metaphysical and existential aspects of the Laozi and Zhuangzi are underrepresented. The depth of the Daoist critiques of (institutionalized) Confucian morality, political theory, and conceptions of the person are also presented in a somewhat shallow fashion. This preference is also reflected in there being lengthy treatments on Neo-Confucianism and very little on Neo-Daoism. Nevertheless, this gap does not significantly detract from what Ways of Heaven accomplishes.

The back cover describes Ways of Heaven as an “[e]ssential reading for students, travelers, businesspeople, and anyone curious about this rising global power[.] […] [it] shows that to comprehend China today we must learn to think Chinese.” Although it is a work that certainly lives up to this account, I find it hard to imagine a traveler or businessperson working their way through such a thick volume. The size is deceptively intimidating, however. The book really is extremely enjoyable and versatile enough to fit a broad range of readers, from the most serious graduate students to the casual backpacker. Ways of Heaven is an excellent work, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in Chinese thought.


Paul J. D’Ambrosio is associate professor of Chinese Philosophy at East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai, China.