Integrating Marxism with fine traditions vital to national rejuvenation

By XIN MING / 06-15-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Students experience block printing at a Western Xia history and culture exploration center in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on May 25. The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation also aims to rejuvenate Chinese culture and civilization. Photo: CFP 

It is an objective law and historical fact that the emancipation of the mind can drive the development and progress of human society. It is the case with the Enlightenment in the West, and it is so with the adaptation  of Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of the times. Over the past 100-odd years, every effort to free the people’s minds, led by the Communist Party of China (CPC), has significantly advanced the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

Since the late 1970s, the emancipation of the mind has also freed people from improper and dogmatic understandings of Marxism, opening up a socialist path with Chinese characteristics and driving China to achieve the great transformation from standing up to growing prosperous. 

Since the 18th CPC National Committee, the CPC has integrated the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities and fine traditional Chinese culture, ushering in a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Chinese nation has made huge strides toward becoming strong and embraced the irreversible historical course toward rejuvenation. 

Addressing a meeting on cultural inheritance and development on June 2, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping observed that integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s fine traditional culture means another effort to “emancipate our minds.” This is a profound summary of China’s historical experience of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of the times, a deep understanding of the laws governing the construction of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and represents strong confidence and self-awareness of the new form of human advancement created out of Chinese culture. 

Tradition and modernity 

For many years, there were divided views among Chinese society regarding traditional culture, for multifaceted reasons. During the May-Fourth Movement period, academic and thought circles were critical of traditional Chinese culture to varying degrees, when Confucian doctrines were harshly attacked. The “Cultural Revolution” was marked by a comprehensive criticism of Chinese traditions. Since the reform and opening up, the advantaged position of Western modernization practices, based on Western cultures, have led to the opposition between tradition and modernity.  

In fact, tradition and modernity are not, and should not be, opposites. German philosopher Karl Jaspers insightfully elaborated on the relationship between these two concepts through the iconic concept of the “Axial Age,” saying that “mankind is still living by what happened in the axial age, by what it created and what it thought. In all its later flights, mankind returns to that age and gathers new fire.” 

In the 21st century, Chinese Communists, represented by Comrade Xi Jinping, has promoted the emancipation of the mind over the tradition-modernity relationship by integrating Marxism with fine traditional Chinese culture, fully acknowledging fine traditions’ principal status and epochal value in China’s modernization drive. 

The time-honored Chinese culture crystalizes the deepest intellectual pursuit of the Chinese nation. As a unique intellectual icon, it provides rich soil for the nation’s continuous growth and development. It advocates for benevolence, people-centered philosophy, integrity, justice, harmony, and unity, as well as principles and concepts including pursuing common good for all; regarding the people as the foundation of the state; governing by virtue; discarding the outdated in favor of the new; selecting officials on the basis of merit; promoting harmony between humanity and nature; ceaselessly pursuing self-improvement; embracing the world with virtue; acting in good faith and being friendly to others; and fostering neighborliness. All of these notions have enduring value over time. 

As British philosopher Bertrand Russel said, “But perhaps something may be preserved, something of the ethical qualities in which China is supreme, and which the modern world most desperately needs. ”

Despite ideological confrontations in the contemporary world and some Western countries’ attempts to stigmatize Chinese culture, deep interest in Chinese culture and Confucianism can still be found throughout the international community. The contemporary value of Chinese culture is being discussed by many people across the globe, which demonstrates its relevance today. 

Tradition is not disconnected from modernity. If one does not learn about China from the continuity of its long history, there is no way for him or her to understand ancient China, modern China, or China in the future. 

China and Marxism 

Similarly, for various reasons, some rigid understandings have long loomed large when discussing the relationship between China and Marxism. For example, Marxism has changed and enlightened China, China is a vast arena for Marxism to exhibit its scientific and truthful nature, and so on. These conceptions are undoubtedly right. 

As the guiding ideology of the CPC and Chinese society, Marxism’s dominant role is not only unquestionable, but should also be further strengthened. However, it is partial to rest on those one-sided views. 

The Marxism that has been guiding the CPC and Chinese society is more than what was envisioned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels more than 100 years ago. It is not the same theoretical form and practical model of Marxism from the 19th century, but Marxism adapted to the Chinese context and the needs of the times. It is Marxism developed in the 20th and 21st centuries. This kind of Marxism must be a result of the interplay between Marxism and China — as equal theoretical subjects. Integrating Marxism with fine traditional Chinese culture has driven the emancipation of the mind on the basic relationship between China and Marxism. 

It should be noted that Marxism objectively originated in Western society, reflecting the thinking pattern and style of Western civilization, although it criticizes and transcends Western thoughts. Therefore, it is not enough to confine the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context. This adaptation, however effective it is, simply speaks to one good application of Marxism, and doesn’t translate Marxism into part of China’s intellectual culture. Truly effective adaptation of Marxism must endow the thought with Chinese characteristics, mirroring Chinese feelings, will, wishes, and mentality alongside the Chinese people’s spirit, which have been imprinted in the life and blood of the Chinese nation through more than 5,000 years of history. 

The CPC integrates the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s fine traditional culture not out of its wishful thinking with a patriotic preference for Chinese culture. Instead, the integration stems from the high compatibility between the two. 

After Marxism was introduced to China, propositions of scientific socialism received wide acclaim among Chinese people, and eventually took root and flowered in China. This didn’t happen by chance. It was because Marxism was consistent with China’s fine traditions, which have been passed down for thousands of years, and the common values that Chinese people intuitively apply in their everyday lives. 

The integration has led Marxism not only to profoundly change China, but also to enrich its fine traditional culture. Meanwhile, fine traditional Chinese culture has also enriched Marxism. 

China’s fine traditional culture espouses social ideals like pursuing common good for all and universal peace; governance philosophies such as regarding the people as the foundation of the state and governing by virtue; and the tradition of great unification characterized by unity in diversity. In addition, there is the strong devotion to family and the nation, the spiritual quest of embracing the world with virtue, the economic ethics of taking into account both interests and obligations, the ecological philosophy of promoting harmony between humanity and nature, the philosophical idea of unifying knowledge and action, the mindset of being impartial, and ways of exchange which feature acting in good faith and being friendly to others, and fostering neighborliness. These maxims reflect the Chinese people’s values and way of viewing the universe, history, and civilization. The principles and concepts interact with Marxism, which was born from Western civilization, and give the thought broader and deeper civilizational connotations. As such, Marxism has displayed a brand new theoretical and practical form in the 21st century, epitomizing exchanges and mutual learning between Chinese and Western civilizations. 

Intellectual independence and cultural subjectivity

The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation not only focuses on reviving economic and social development. It also aims to rejuvenate Chinese culture and civilization, which is more fundamental. Without intellectual independence, a nation, a country, or a society will never be independent on the political, ideological, cultural, and institutional fronts. 

Fine traditional Chinese culture is the soil and source which cultivates Chinese society’s intellectual independence. With a history stretching back to antiquity, it is extensive and profound. A variety of intellectual traditions generated during the formation and development of Chinese culture record intellectual activities, rational thinking, and cultural achievements over the long-term endeavors of the nation. This core content has become the Chinese nation’s most fundamental cultural genes, putting down deep roots in the heart of the people and subtly influencing the way Chinese people behave. 

Integrating Marxism with fine Chinese traditions will help us maintain intellectual independence. Adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of the times does not simply enable Marxism to “speak the Chinese language,” but also highlights the Chinese mentality, values, and spirit through Marxism. The integration will not linger on a simple repetition of cultural specifics, but attach importance to the interpretation of the culture’s spirit to realize creative transformation and innovative development. The aim is to carry forward the Chinese nation’s cultural spirit which aligns with contemporary culture and modern society, going beyond time and space and crossing borders with contemporary relevance. 

Through the integration, we can also consolidate our cultural subjectivity. Cultural subjectivity means to put fine traditional Chinese culture in the spotlight of intellectual and cultural creation. Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, established by Chinese Communists in the 21st century, has encapsulated the cultural subjectivity. The Thought is well deserved as Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century, crystallizes Chinese culture and spirit, and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of the times, because it has guided great reforms over the first decade of the new era to create miracles and endowed 21st-century China’s grand practices with global significance. It is also because the subjectivity of fine traditional Chinese culture has injected new vitality into Marxism. 

From continuous to thorough reforms, from “unity of humanity and nature” to “beautiful China” characterized by harmony between humanity and nature, and from “all under Heaven” to “the building of a human community with a shared future,” Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era has created brilliant modern governance strategies out of ancient wisdom and added new chapters to human development. 

Although socialism has a history of only over 500 years, socialism with Chinese characteristics was developed by inheriting the Chinese nation’s time-honored civilization, which extends for more than 5,000 years. It was bred from the seed of socialism in the soil of fine traditional Chinese culture, also spanning more than 5,000 years, and has grown into a towering tree after absorbing nutrition from the rich culture. 

Xin Ming is a professor from the Party School of the Central Committee of C.P.C. (National Academy of Governance).