In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modern Chinese Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Discourse in the Contemporary Chinese World

Chinese Studies Modern Chinese Political Thought
Leigh Jenco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0083


Although debates abound as to when “modernity” in China began, modern Chinese political thought is here taken to mean thought on politics (broadly conceived) produced after the late 19th century, when Chinese intellectuals began a critical evaluation of their received traditions in light of domestic instability, the success of Japanese modernization, and growing European influence via military, missionary, commercial, and intellectual interaction. These early evaluations had a crucial impact on later republican and communist ideology, because reformers throughout the 20th century continued to wrestle with dilemmas first articulated in the 1890s: What is China’s place in a wider global order, now that it is seen as one among many nation-states rather than as the unifying center for civilization? How might it transform its society and economy, given the increasing pace of globalization, the pressures of industrialization, and the need to sustain a growing population? What role might be played by “traditional” Chinese thought in the modern age, and how should that thought be assessed? As these questions show, Chinese thought during this era was typically holistic, and its inquiry encompasses diverse disciplines such as literature, history, sociology, economics, and philosophy. This article attempts to present “Chinese political thought” not only as an object of historical research but also as a self-reflexive and self-referential body of work that grounds philosophical discussion and political inquiry still meaningful today. My focus therefore will be on primary and secondary work concerned with normative and conceptual questions related to political philosophy; I therefore offer only a selective rather than comprehensive overview of work in modern Chinese intellectual history. Early studies of this period, such as Ssu-yu Teng and John King Fairbank’s China’s Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839–1923 (Teng and Fairbank 1954a, cited under English-Language Anthologies), misleadingly reduced China’s political thought to a response to the “Western impact.” The works of Benjamin Schwartz, Joseph Levenson, Thomas Metzger, Lydia H. Liu, and others have shown the degree to which these questions emerged out of a interaction between existing concerns and categories: Chinese scholars interpreted, with growing sophistication and in novel ways, culturally diverse rather than monolithically “Western” ideas and institutions. Indeed, one striking feature of thought during most of this period is its richness and diversity. Far from parroting official orthodoxy, political thinkers at the turn of both centuries embrace emerging popular media—whether newspapers or the Internet—to express a huge range of critical perspectives. To emphasize this diversity, this article focuses on nonofficial thought, with topics on Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Chinese Communist thought covered elsewhere in this series of Oxford Bibliographies. Finally, although modern Chinese political thought typically refers to thought on politics produced by Chinese people during the modern era, it also includes work by non-Chinese scholars and by Chinese scholars (inside and outside the People’s Republic of China) working in English and other languages, who recognize the worth of Chinese political ideas for modern academic study.

General Overviews

With the possible exception of Wang 2008, there are few up-to-date, comprehensive overviews of explicitly political thought in China that relate current developments in the People’s Republic of China or Taiwan to the thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most general overviews of modern thought, such as Xiao 1978, focus on the ways in which 20th-century views fit within Chinese thought as a whole. Levenson 1958 advances the classic but now extremely controversial argument that Chinese modernity presented a decisive rupture with the worldviews of the past. Feng 1937 offers one of the first attempts to synthesize both ancient and modern Chinese thought into the categories of modern academic philosophy. All these sources, including Jenco 2013, draw on primary sources to advance an original argument, often to illuminate a broader political point about the evolutionary development of Chinese thought within the boundaries of Western modernity.

  • Feng Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Vol. 1, The Period of the Philosophers (from the Beginnings to circa 100 B.C.). Translated by Derk Bodde. London: Allen & Unwin, 1937.

    Feng’s book focuses primarily on philosophical topics such as metaphysics, but, given the close alignment with sociopolitical concerns with much Chinese philosophy, he also explains some of the background from which modern Chinese political thought emerged.

  • Jenco, Leigh. “Chinese Political Ideologies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies. Edited by Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent, and Marc Stears, 644–660. Oxford Handbooks in Politics & International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Offers overview of Chinese political discourse from the 1890s until the present day. The article draws on primary sources and work in Chinese, to showcase the value and diversity of Chinese thought to nonspecialists and to resist teleological narratives of China’s modern development.

  • Levenson, Joseph R. Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

    The classic statement of the “death” of Chinese Confucianism in light of the rise of Western modernity, Levenson’s thesis has been challenged many times but retains its keen insight into the psychological and political implications of Chinese attitudes toward their older traditions in the modern period.

  • Tan, Chester C. Chinese Political Thought in the Twentieth Century. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

    Although this helpful study has largely been ignored by historians, it nevertheless offers very comprehensive, critical, and well-written assessments of many of modern China’s most-pressing political ideas. Particularly distinguished for its treatment of liberal (particularly “Third Force”) and nationalist thought.

  • Wang Hui 汪晖. Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi (现代中国思想的兴起). 4 vols. Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2008.

    Wang’s magnum opus draws heavily on primary sources of the late imperial and republican periods as well as on up-to-date Euro-American cultural and social theory, to argue for the distinctive features of Chinese modernity and to explore its relationship to global phenomena such as capitalism and imperialism.

  • Xiao, Gongquan. A History of Chinese Political Thought. Translated by F. W. Mote. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

    Although not focused on the modern period, this English-language translation of Xiao’s masterly overview of Chinese political thought from the Warring States to the Republican era situates later thought in a context both of continuity and change with respect to how Chinese thinkers have over time defined, and acted in, the “political” sphere.

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