How Classics captured the Chinese imagination

This original and provocative book explores contemporary China’s love of Greek and Roman classics — and their unexpected use in supporting the regime’s political agenda.

A young Chinese boy on skates stops to check out a newly painted mural depicting ancient Roman and Greek motifs at a new, international shopping plaza in Beijing on July 7, 2013.
A young Chinese boy on skates stops to check out a newly painted mural depicting ancient Roman and Greek motifs at a new, international shopping plaza in Beijing on July 7, 2013. Credit: UPI / Stephen Shaver / Alamy Stock Photo

Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism by Shadi Bartsch, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2023, 304pp $33/£28

In 2014, tens of thousands of people occupied the centre of Hong Kong for 79 days in a peaceful campaign for democracy. Behind the barricades it was part Woodstock, part teach-in. Youthful heads bent over their homework at clusters of desks, student debates raged on the street. To the astonishment of the media, they were often arguing about Greek philosophy.

This is the best-educated generation in the history of China, thus it stands to reason that youngsters in Hong Kong, enjoying freedom of inquiry, might seek inspiration from the ancient Athenian democracy, replete as it is with heroes and rhetoric fit for a new age of idealism.

What is less obvious is that scholars in mainland China would turn the same classical sources to the service of their authoritarian government. They conducted a masterclass in selective manipulation that challenges many of our ideas — about China and about Greek antiquity itself.

In Shadi Bartsch’s ironic and original new book, developed from lectures at Oberlin College in 2018, the traffic in thought between China and the West is traced to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the Age of Discovery. The priests brought Plato to China and discovered Confucius, to great mutual confusion.

Bartsch was intrigued to explore if the Chinese read the ancient world differently. If classical antiquity shaped Western civilisation, she mused, how would that work for the Chinese? She found that the study of the Greek classics in China had actually grown after the suppression of mass protests in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

As she puts it, while universities in America were closing their classics departments (one fashionable trend argues that the discipline entrenches privilege) the Chinese were reading about Plato in Communist party newspapers.

At first this seemed like a paradox. Then Bartsch noted that Chinese scholars fixated on Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides, relegating minor roles to Cicero and Virgil. The dreamy worlds of Catullus and Sappho, let alone satire and venom in Martial or Juvenal, were of no interest to them. Their task was to examine the roots of the Western political system with the aim of undermining it. The study of classics in China is meant to help China itself, to teach that unfettered suffrage is dangerous, democracy decays and chaos is ever-lurking.

The skill of Bartsch’s inquiry lies in her masterful linkage of the early exchanges through the emergence of Chinese political reformers in the nineteenth century to the later period of revolutions and the ultimate appearance of the ‘philosopher-king’, China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping.

Bartsch spends a lot of time on the Platonic vision of Kallipolisthe ‘good city,’ with its three-class hierarchy of inhabitants and its caste of ‘guardians,’ all obedient to a ‘Noble Lie’ ordaining the correctness of the city’s form of government. The parallels with imperial and post-revolutionary China are so obvious that Bartsch is careful to bracket them with caveats.

The Jesuit Matteo Ricci admired Confucian learning. He found similarities to Plato in its notion that philosophers may be advisers to kings or may even reign themselves. He suggested, says Bartsch, that sixteenth century China came close to putting Plato’s Republic into practice.

For Ricci, the attempt to reconcile the volatile thinkers of fifth century Athens with the Chinese sage followed a path through Seneca and Stoicism. Among the five virtues enumerated by Confucius, ren, or humanity could be ranked with the Roman humanitas, and the word in Chinese is a homophone for ‘people.’ The virtue of yi, righteousness, would be recognisable to any brave Horatius at the bridge. And so on.

What was missing from all this? In a word, Christianity, the faith Ricci was meant to preach. To the practical Confucian question ‘who made God?’ he ‘employed the Aristotelian principle of essence versus accident to argue for the existence of an unmoved mover.’

As Bartsch notes, this harmonised with the neo-Confucian belief in a self-generated universe, a rationalist and secular form of the doctrine. For the word ‘God’ Ricci chose Tian-zhu, which literally means ‘sky-god’ because to the Chinese ‘it was akin (via a Japanese borrowing) to the Greek Zeus.’

The Confucian norm of ‘harmony’ or hexie invoked by the Communist chief Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, derives from an ancient character for ‘music’ resembling the musical harmonies in Plato.

This was all very fascinating but it did not win converts. The Jesuits were expelled from China and the empire turned inward. As European thought evolved, the place of the classics in political philosophy changed, too. By the nineteenth century, when we find Chinese intellectuals engaging again with the ideals of Greece, democracy was a child of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, while Western thought had produced Kant, Rousseau and Marx.

Bartsch details the work of the exile scholar Liang Qichao (1872-1929), a pupil of a noted reformer, Kang Youwei, in Japan. He produced ‘an astonishing output of articles on Greco-Roman antiquity’ between 1898 and 1903. As the Chinese empire decayed and a dynamic Meiji Japan reformed its imperial system, Chinese thinkers sought answers.

Liang turned to the political theory of Aristotle, to wit: ‘citizenship and participation in the city-state is what makes us human.’ Since the dim past, Chinese had been chen, subjects; it was time to become guo min, or citizens. Sovereignty must lie with the people and the old instincts towards family and clan were regressive.

Yet the shock of the modern was much more profound. The problem, Bartsch points out, was that the Chinese had never been trained to think in terms of ‘rights.’ The teachings of Confucius are just that: pronouncements and answers to questions, not a Socratic dialogue. Bartsch quotes the scholar Tony Fang, who argued that Chinese thought ‘denies the reality of true contradiction, accepts the unity of opposites, and regards the coexistence of opposites as permanent.’

Such a worldview could not survive the nineteenth century. In the Chinese context, the Confucian ruler stood for benevolence versus the cold logic of rationalism. While it is a stretch to draw a line connecting Kant to Adolf Eichmann (in a rare slip, Bartsch has the Nazi bureaucrat on the stand at Nuremburg, not in the dock in Jerusalem) the submission of compassion to duty is the final breach of the old compact. Even today, Chinese officials like to be thought of as shan liang, honest and kind-hearted. But the fact is that modern China is a product of conflict and the Marxist dialectic.

Bartsch aptly quotes Mao Zedong’s 1941 speech in Yen’an on the ‘reform of our studies’ scorning those ‘who can’t open their mouths without citing ancient Greece.’ The later part of her book tracks how Chinese scholars preserved the knowledge of Greek antiquity until the heady 1980s, when bold spirits on campus experimented openly with its ideas.

The author rightly singles out the television documentary Heshang or River Elegy as the apex of openness (it argued the case for a new ‘blue water’ civilisation against the old silted-up world of the Yellow River) although some of its solutions smacked more of Sparta than Athens.

The turning point of the book is of course June 4, 1989, after which, Bartsch says, no more would reform-minded Chinese look to the Greek classics and Athenian democracy, ‘an era…that had lasted for a century was over.’

Bartsch is very good at dissecting the perversion of learning that passes for academia in the People’s Republic, although she is too polite to label it as such. In short, the scholars have prostituted themselves to the regime. Phony conferences on Confucius serve as stages for the recitation of party nostrums to foreign (even Greek) participants.

Third-rate thinkers get published because they purport to demonstrate the flaws of liberty with the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. They cite Aristotle’s fear of rule by mob and point to the death sentence imposed on Socrates by the democracy.

If this is selective to the point of distortion, that does not matter; it was only on the streets of Hong Kong that one heard earnest youths familiar with the Mytilene debate in which fifth-century Athenians first voted to extirpate the city of that name, then voted to spare it.

Bartsch cites the academic Pan Yue, who mythologises the contrast between Chinese unity and Greek discord. Another pen that has passed the censors belongs to He Xin, who has helpfully written two books arguing that the whole existence of classical Greece and Rome was faked by Renaissance scholars who wrote most of the classics themselves; a kind of counterfeit Birkin handbag for philosophers, one supposes.

Then there are the sins of omission. Attic tragedy, for example, does not figure. Yet as Simon Critchley points out in his Tragedy, the Greeks and Us the genre presents us with ‘a world of disappointed or decayed democracy’ which the Greeks confronted with stark acceptance of fate and humankind, making the plays of, say, Aristophanes, a mirror to the struggles of the polis. Too complex, politically too difficult, such an exercise is impossible in today’s ‘harmonised’ China.

Bartsch points out that no mention is made of the moral effect of Christian teaching on Western democracy. I’d add that no comparison is dared between expansive claims for ‘harmonious’ authoritarian governance and Japan’s aspiration in the 1930s to gather ‘all four corners of the earth’ in the folds of imperial benevolence.

There is so much to unpack in Bartsch’s deeply researched book that one must pick an exit point, which might as well be Thucydides. The historian has lent his name to the much-quoted ‘Thucydides Trap,’ a theory stating that a rising power is fated to fight the dominant power as Athens challenged Sparta; thus China is destined to go to war with the United States.

Too often abbreviated, the quote was rendered by Donald Kagan in his magisterial history thus: ‘the truest cause, but the least spoken of, was the growth of Athenian power, which presented an object of fear to the Spartans and forced them to go to war.’

Chinese scholars argue that America must accept its relative decline to avoid war but Bartsch hints at a teasing counterintuitive. After all, the Chinese are meant to think in the long run, and as late as 1870 China was still the biggest economy in the world.

By that measure, it is the young maritime democracy, America, which is the newcomer and China, a harshly ruled landmass power, which is the status quo defender. What if America is Athens and China is Sparta?

The problem for democratic-minded intellectuals is that Athens lost the war.


Michael Sheridan