In the presently perfervid restoration of the “traditional Chinese culture”, scholars and writers are in vogue attempting to define the words shi 士 or wenshi 文士 that are commonly translated in English as literati from its Latin origin. The English word Intellectual translated in Chinese as zhishifenzi 知識分子 originated from the French word intellectuel, and was used by the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau for the first time in 1898.[1] In 1987, the Princeton University historian Yu Ying-shih declared in his exclusive study Literati and the Chinese Culture: “Intellectual was called ‘literati’ in ancient China, and the emergence of ‘literati’ could not be separated from the idea of ‘Tao,’ so that Confucius says: ‘the aspiration of literati is to strive to the Tao’ (the Analects, Liren)”.[2] The notions of “literati” and “intellectual” subsequently become a freeloading concept for different purposes in the modern vocabulary today.

In effect, the Western idea of “intellectual” is different from the ancient Chinese idea of “literati”, and also different from the modern Chinese idea “intellectual.” According the well-known Chinese writer Zhu Ziqing 朱自清 (1898-1948), the early Chinese “shi” were professionals with knowledge or special skills, a class below aristocracy and above common people, patronized by feudalist lords in the Spring and Fall Period (841-481 B.C.). By the Warring States Period (481-221 B.C.), these professionals were out of employment as a result of the collapse of the feudalistic system.[3] As Roger T. Ames observes, most of those professionals traveling from court to court were vendors and purveyors of wisdom guaranteed to lead their patrons to social and political, or military victories.[4] As the Beijing University scholar Li Ling puts it, “it was a very risky job”. The rulers/kings were often very busy and short-tempered, a single idea could get the vendor a good fortune, and likewise, it could get him killed.[5]

From the early Chinese imperial time to the late imperial time (500-1900), these professionals were brought into participating in a process of rigorous, lengthy, and essentially meritocratic examinations to demonstrate their values based on their knowledge of classical texts and traditional literary forms. They then could become a part of ruling class, and elite members of society as “scholar-officials”.

The idea of “Intellectual” arrived in China together with Marxism in the early 1900s. The modern Western idea of being an intellectual is more about the ultimate concern of social conscience or responsibility, which does not always denote people at certain levels of academic and technological degrees, diplomas, holding positions at universities, or working in state offices. The modern Chinese idea of intellectual, according to Li Ling, is people who know — “a few doggy characters”— how to read and write. If one must link the idea of traditional Chinese literati with the idea of modern Chinese intellectual, or make a “transition” between the two ideas, the result is that the traditional literati spirit of unwilling to compromise, of “counting the mighty as no more than dung and dirt” is gone with the literati, and the modern Chinese intellectuals find themselves in a position of becoming “dung and dirt,” whether in the past “great cultural revolution” or in the current “great economic revolution.” It amusingly reflects Duchamp’s saying: “life is a raw deal in which one eats shit, one’s own and the world’s.”

It is a common view today that everything can be defined as “civilized” or “uncivilized”. German sociologist Norbert Elias states that in English and French the concept of civilization “sums up in a single term their pride in the significance of their own nations for the progress of the West and of humankind”, but in German “Zivilisation means something, which is indeed useful, but nevertheless only a value of second rank, comprising only the outer appearance of human beings, the surface of human existence”. The word in German, according to Elias, which more than anything expresses human pride in their own “achievements and their own being, is Kultur”.[6] If this is the distinction between civilization and culture, our definition of literati is neither of being a “shi” or an “intellectual”, nor being a “civilized” person, but a litterātum, a learned and cultured person not taking pride in the outer appearance of human beings, or the surface of human existence, but one's own achievements and one's own being.

The leading postmodern thinker Jean-François Lyotard affirms: “The very idea of development presupposes a horizon of non-development where, it is assumed, the various areas of competence remain enveloped in the unity of a tradition and are not differentiated according to separate qualifications subject to specific innovations, debates, and inquiries.” However, such “opposition does not necessarily imply a difference in nature between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’ man, but is compatible with the premise of a formal identity between ‘the savage mind’ and scientific thought”.[7] In this perceptive, we think that cultural studies refer to the value and character of particular human products rather the intrinsic value of a person.


Saul Bellow once said: “There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently, life lost the ability to arrange itself. It had to be arranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. From, say, Machiavelli’s time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.”[8]

When Hegel took on this job, his arrangement was: “The East knew and to the present day knows only One is Free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German World knows that All are free.”[9] It seems that in Hegel’s “great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project,” Nazism became Free. When Marx took on the job, it was communism and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that was Free.

When Max Webber took his turn, he sought his solution in modernity. Webber declared that the paramount premise and the trademark of modernity is: the beliefs and attitudes in modern society are based on choice – constrained, but still choice – on the part of the individual. Thus modern thinking recognizes what traditional societies had failed to recognize: values are self-chosen and not grounded in a larger cosmic scheme. Traditional (precisely the non-Western) societies like China may reveal highly sophisticated and rational systems, however, are ultimately constrained by the unquestioned beliefs of the culture. [10]

As we have arrived at the climax of modernity in the late 20th century, to this “great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project”, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama made his ultimatum: we have reached the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”,[11] “liberal democracy in reality constitutes the best possible solution to the human problem”.[12] The British literary and social critical theorist Stuart Sim clarifies Fukuyama’s idea: “an argument that we live in the best of all possible worlds—and that world is the world of liberal democratic capitalism. Anyone who dissents from this reading of events must be, at best, misguided; at worst, an enemy of humankind with decidedly ulterior motives”.[13]

Postmodernist thinkers have taken a very different stance. Given the fact that postmodernism is a movement challenging the Western established ways of doing things that has incurably broken down, Lyotard affirms: “We no longer have recourse to the grand narratives – we can resort neither to the dialectic of Spirit nor even to the emancipation of humanity as a validation for postmodern scientific discourse.”[14]

Foucault thinks this life-arranging job is an act of presumptuousness on our part, it not only leads to “great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project”, but also a distorted view of human nature, since “man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge”. “A century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear. And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety,” but “it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date, and one perhaps nearing its end”, “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”.[15]

In other words, our present idea of mankind, or “man”, according to Foucault, has been of late intellectual invention that is arranged by the recent intellectuals, thus our present idea of mankind certainly and easily will be replaced by the future ideas just like the natural disappearance of a sand drawing on beach. Not without remorse Gilles Deleuze advocates: “Modernity is defined by the power of the simulacrum,”[16] and “God made man in his image and resemblance. Through sin, however, man lost the resemblance while maintaining the image. We have become simulacra. We have forsaken moral existence in order to enter in aesthetic existence”.[17]

For Derrida, this life-arranging job is all but logocentrism, i.e. the “metaphysics of presence” founded on a sheer illusion. The notion that meaning can be grasped in its entirety by language users, the meanings of words are “present” to us in our mind when we think, speak or write them, so that they can be passed on to others in an objective form deeply ingrained in Western culture is only a thoughtful fantasy. Stuart Sim expounds: “Philosophers may well strive for precision of meaning in their arguments, both written and spoken, but they are no more able to achieve this ideal than any other language user, and the widely-held idea that philosophy can stand as a final court of appeal on questions of meaning and truth-value is, from a deconstructionist perspective, merely another of the illusions that we allow ourselves to be taken in by in Western culture.”[18]

For Baudrillard, this life-arranging job is simple and clear: “The invention of Reality, unknown to other cultures, is the work of modern Western Reason.” “We always imagine the Real as something face on. We think of ourselves always as facing the Real. Well, there is no face-to-face. There is no objectivity. Nor any subjectivity either: a twofold illusion.”[19]

In spite of Alfred Whitehead’s saying, “the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”,[20] Derrida tells us that the Western philosophy as a whole, from Plato to Heidegger, is anything but ontology. He asks: “What do we mean by saying ‘this is a being?’ What does it mean to be? You can never find anything anywhere that we call Sein (Being)”.[21] How do we understand truth? According to Derrida, for Plato truth is to define matter and event by logos, and logos is to transcribe phonetic speech to phonetic discourse. Derrida calls it phonocentrism and logocentrism.

Apparently, postmodernist thinkers advocate another way to look at “man”. It is certainly not the Western idealistic and romantic projection of the Heterotopia (China) – in the Dominican missionary Navarrete’s words of admiration from 1670s – “The noblest Part of the Universe, the Seat of that, the most Glorious Empire in all natural respects, that the Sun ever shines upon”.[22] Nor is it the Hegelian monotheistic and ethnocentric condemnation of the Immobile Empire (China) – in the former French Minister of Justice Alain Peyrefitte’s words of Western narcissistic superiority from 1990s – “Forty centuries of brilliant civilization, forty years of revolutionary regeneration! And for what, to attain a standard of living comparable to that of some tropical republic whose ancestors were still mired in the Stone Age during the nineteenth century?”[23]

While Derrida contends, “We have known for a long time that largely nonphonetic scripts like Chinese or Japanese included phonetic elements very early. They remained structurally dominated by ideogram or algebra and we thus have the testimony of a powerful movement of civilization developing outside of all logocentrism,”[24] John Lagerwey points out that “if anthropology has played the leading role in revealing to us our ethnocentrism and psychology our egocentrism, if Buddhism has proved the chief challenge to monotheism, Sinology has had altogether unique place in the uncovering of our logocentrism.”[25]

Lagerwey is certainly aware that “the history of modern China is every bit as tragic, and its tragedies, likewise, are rooted in millennia of rupture and denial.”[26] Is the history of the modern world as so too? We, as “man” have swayed between the extremes of inferiority and superiority agonizingly in the last one hundred years. If we don’t find answers to free ourselves, from our egocentric, ethnocentric, moralistic, anthropomorphic, and each of our own logocentric – in a word, monotheistic – present, we will simply have no tomorrow. Lagerwey thus urges us insightfully:

“What will tomorrow bring? – It will bring nothing good if it denies the past, if it continues to hurtle forward into the future without carefully scrutinizing the traces of the past: the oracle of the future lies waiting to be read in the cracks of the past. On that condition, and on that condition only, will the Eternal be recognized as One.”[27]

[1] Yu Ying-shih 余英時, Literati and the Chinese Culture 士與中國文化, (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 2003), p. 599.
[2] Ibid., p. 3.
[3] Zhu Ziqing, Lectures on the Classics, Jingdian changtan 經典常談, (Beijing: Beijing Press, 2004), p. 80.
[4] Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, Dao De jing, “Making This Life Significant,” A Philosophical Translation. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), p. 1.
[5] Li Ling 李零, Notes on Guodian Bamboo Strip Books of Chu, Guodian chujian jiaoduji 郭店楚簡校讀記, (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2002), p. 51.
[6] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994), p. 6.
[7] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 19.
[8] Soul Bellow, Humboldt’s gift, (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 29.
[9] G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, (The Cornell University Library Digital Collection, 2015), p. 164.
[10] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 87.
[11] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, 16 (1989), pp. 3-18.
[12] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 338.
[13] Stuart Sim, Derrida and the End of history, (London: Totem Books, 1995), p. 19.
[14] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p 60.
[15] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, an Archaeology of the Human Sciences, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 386.
[16] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 265.
[17] Ibid., p. 257.
[18] Stuart Sim, Derrida and the End of history, (London: Totem Books, 1995), pp. 36-37.
[19] Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, (Oxford New York: Berg, 2005), p. 39.
[20] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 39.
[21] Ning Zhang “Jacques Derrida’s First Visit to China: A Summary of His Lectures and Seminars” in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy December 2002, Vol. II, No. 1, p. 154-155.
[22] Jonathan Spence, The Chan’s Great Continent, China in Western Mind, (New York London: WW Norton & Company, 1998) p. 38.
[23] Alain Peyrefitte, The Immobile Empire, (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), p. 551.
[24] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 90.
[25] John Lagerwey, “The Oral and the Written in Chinese and Western Religion,” Religion und Philosophie in Ostasien (Festschrift für Hans Steininger, ed. G. Naundorf, K.H. Pohl, H.-H. Schmidt Würzburg, Königshausen und Neumann), 1985, 301-322.
[26] Ibid., p. 317.
[27] Ibid., p. 320.