A new battle for Confucius
BEIJING - At a time when the thoughts of
Chinese philosopher Confucius are enjoying a revival both inside
China and outside the country in the form of Confucian Institutes,
the first complete English translation of the work of Confucius'
earliest philosophical enemy, Mozi, has been published in Hong Kong
Confucius and Mozi  engaged in fierce debates in the
fourth and third centuries BC and Mozi was possibly more popular,
but by the 19th century he was all but forgotten.
Johnston, author of the translation, has concluded a landmark
endeavor. He has neatly and briefly summed up all past scholarship
on Mozi and cleared up much of the textual corruption of the
original, The Mozi, all the while defining the philosophical importance of Mozi's
But most of all, with this work Johnston has
provided new food for thought
about the real traditions of
Chinese culture, and here Mozi
and his original book are particularly important. Mozi was Confucius' original antagonist and to
his book we owe the first recognition of Confucians as a group of
thinkers, although they were branded with a possibly derogatory
word, ru, softies. Mozi devoted two chapters to expressly
refuting the ideas of the Confucians.
Possibly it was
because of this fierce hostility that when Confucianism became a
state ideology, as it has been since the
Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Mozi was left in a dark corner
of Chinese thought. He was rediscovered almost 20 centuries later
when China confronted huge political, military, economic and mostly
cultural challenges from the
Mozi's systematic approach proved to Chinese
intellectuals that China was also capable of strict logical argument
of the Western kind and that Mozi's stringent arguments were also
passed onto some of his Confucian antagonists. All the fathers of
modern Chinese thought - Liang
Qichao, Hu Shi, Feng Youlan - agreed in re-evaluating Mozi's tough
presentations on Confucius' suggestive yet soft passages.
the 17th century, when Western Jesuits embarked on the daring task
of spreading Catholicism in China, they found in Mozi some cultural
basis for belief in a Christian God. Mozi's religious faith in a
"will of Heaven" lent some grounds to the Jesuits to argue that
Christianity was not totally alien to Chinese culture. Centuries
later, the Jesuits' efforts helped Chinese who were willing to
modernize without giving up all of their traditions to confront
Western culture with a piece of their own philosophy - Mozi.
Furthermore, Mozi's doctrine of "universal love" sounded
like the idea of Christian love propagated in the 17th century, as
well as like the drive to egalitarianism by the communists in the
Opposition to communism, meanwhile, had gained
a deeper philosophical basis as it was conducted in the name of the
standard official ideology of many dynasties - Confucianism.
Communism was seen as deeply anti-Confucian, just as Mozi's thought.
After the birth of communist China in 1949, leader Mao
Zedong confirmed this reading by promoting the study of Mozi, and
thus presenting himself to all Chinese who wanted the modernization
of China as the real heir of Liang Qichao, Hu Shi and Feng Youlan.
Mao even branded some of his communist fellows, like Zhou Enlai and
other moderates, as "Confucians".
With Mao's demise in 1976,
Beijing's new intellectual opposition to Maoist ideas naturally
gradually rediscovered Confucius during the 1980s and 1990s.
Confucius also has the extra advantage of providing a common ground
with politically separate Taiwan, which is pervaded by Confucian
Johnston's translation arrives amid a global
revival and popularization of Confucius and Mozi's serious work can
hardly be expected to dent Confucius' "pop status", but it offers an
Importantly, the book provides a basis
to reconsider an important aspect of Chinese traditional thinking -
military strategy. Johnston is the first person to provide both a
credible Chinese textual reconstruction and a translation of Mozi's
military chapters. Mozi theorized about defensive wars and his
followers, the Mohists, were renowned tacticians who helped organize
the defense of small states being attacked by larger ones.
This was at a time when small states were being gobbled up
by large ones competing for dominance in the Chinese central plain.
The aggressive theories of famous strategist Sunzi helped conceive
those and many other future wars of attack, whereas Mozi argued
against aggressive wars.
It is very likely that, as
popularly described in the unsuccessful 2006 Chinese-Japanese movie
production Mo Gong, in the Third century BC Mohist militants
aided small states to withstand attacks and then tried to apply
radical political and social reforms that went against the interests
of the local elites.
Johnston's translation of Mozi could
cast new light on Sunzi's theories and Chinese strategic thinking.
It's possible that gong, a word commonly understood as
aggressive war, at the time meant more precisely war by a large
force against a small one, as Lu Xiang, a modern student of Sunzi
argues in a forthcoming essay. This kind of war is what Sunzi
preferred and Mozi opposed.
If this is so, Mozi's ideas are
deeply in contrast not with one but with two important branches of
Chinese thought, Confucius and Sunzi. This, in turn, proves the
diversity and richness of ancient Chinese tradition and that modern
Chinese do not have to fear straying from the main Confucian course.
One can be fully in harmony with
Chinese traditions even by turning against one or two traditional
In other words, Chinese cultural identity is not
only marked by the famous pair of Confucius and Sunzi. Perhaps in a
world in which most states are small and weak and a few large ones
might want to impose their dominant culture and military strength,
people might want to study more of Mozi.
1. The Mozi: A Complete
Translation by Ian Johnston (Translator). The Chinese
University Press (December 15, 2009). ISBN-10: 9629962705. Price
US$85, 1,032 pages.
2. Mozi (470 BC to ca 391 BC), original
name Mo Di (Master Mo), lived in China during the Hundred Schools of
Thought period (early Warring States Period). He was born in
Tengzhou, Shandong province. He founded the school of Mohism and
argued strongly against Confucianism and Daoism. During the Warring
States Period, Mohism was actively developed and practiced in many
states, but fell out of favor when the legalist Qin Dynasty (221-206
BC) came to power. During that period many Mohist classics were
ruined when Qin Shihuang carried out the burning of books and
burying of scholars. The importance of Mohism further declined when
Confucianism became the dominant school
of thought during the Han Dynasty, disappearing by the middle
of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) .
Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.
2010 Francesco Sisci)