Zhang Shizhao 章士钊: On Appreciating Difference

Leigh Jenco is lecturer in Political Theory at the Department of Government of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Political Science. Jenco situates her research and much of her teaching at the intersection of contemporary political theory and modern Chinese thought, emphasising the theoretical and not simply historical value of Chinese discourses on politics. Her recent book, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge University Press, 2010) demonstrates the contributions made by Zhang Shizhao to contemporary debates about democracy. Her doctoral thesis on Zhang undertaken at the University of Chicago was awarded the 2008 Strauss Prize for Best Dissertation in Political Philosophy by the American Political Science Association.—The Editors


1 July 2013 marked the fortieth anniversary of the death of Zhang Shizhao (章士钊, 1881-1973, also known as Zhang Xingyan 章行严 or Qiu Tong 秋桐), a pivotally influential Chinese intellectual most people have never heard of. Zhang advocated a nuanced and moderate position to counter the extremist rhetoric of a war-torn China. Like many other intellectuals who proposed conciliation during periods of crisis and violence, Zhang’s ideas have been buried by histories which reduce the story of modern China to a battle of polarised opposites: tradition versus modernity, conservatives versus radicals, old versus new.

Zhang Shizhao 章士钊. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Zhang Shizhao 章士钊.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A controversial figure who arguably straddles all of these categories at once, Zhang rubbed elbows with some of the most diverse set of characters in China’s long twentieth century. As a Hunanese, he enjoyed strong ties with his fellow-provincials, the conservative Liang Shuming (梁漱溟, 1893-1988) and Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (1893-1976); as a journal editor in the mid-1910s, he worked closely with then future Communists Chen Duxiu (陈独秀, 1879-1942) and Li Dazhao (李大钊, 1888-1927), even as he eventually resisted their radical politics in favor of moderate liberal parliamentarism; as an opinion leader, he maintained a strong friendship with Hu Shi (胡适, 1891-1962) but argued constantly with him over the need to continue teaching literary Chinese (wenyanwen 文言文) to contemporary students. Zhang Shizhao’s relative obscurity today is belied by the magnitude of his influence in the early twentieth century, when he was hailed by Chang Naide (常乃德, 1898-1947) in his A Short History of Chinese Political Thought 中国思想小史 as one of the greatest political thinkers China had ever produced.

A Controversial Life in a Controversial Time

Zhang was born in 1881, when European and American powers were continuing their military and commercial incursions into Chinese territory. He can be grouped with the more radical of those reformers who, following China’s humiliating international defeats and (eventually) dynastic collapse, began urging fundamental political transformation of the Chinese state – including military modernisation, economic and trade reform, and representative constitutional government. He began political life as a member of an assassination squad active against the Qing government; he devised the now-established term ‘traitor to the Han race’ (Hanjian 汉奸). After a stint in Japan and a longer turn as a Masters’ student in England, however, Zhang became convinced that education, not violence, was the key to China’s future. Following the failure of the 1912 Republican revolution, popular support for constitutional, self-ruling government sharply declined. In what would become a recurring pattern throughout his life, Zhang used his considerable grasp of Western political and social theory (what he called lilun 理论) to counter public opinion. In the face of Yuan Shikai’s 袁世凯 growing autocratic power, Zhang argued for the cause of free government in his journal The Tiger (Jiayin Zazhi 甲寅杂志, named for the year of the Chinese zodiac in which it was founded – 1914).

Historians today recognise Zhang’s work in that journal as providing the groundwork for the progressive radicalism of the New Culture and May Fourth movements that followed.[1] He was one of the first people in China to translate and disseminate concepts such as habeas corpus, and to explain the connection between attitudes such as toleration and the institutional frameworks of liberalism.[2] Ironically, however, Zhang is probably best known today for his ‘reactionary’ leanings after 1919. Wary of the May Fourth Movement, particularly what seemed to him an unduly totalising view of China’s traditional culture, Zhang joined Liang Shuming to urge rural reconstruction as an alternative to urban industrialisation as the foundation of China’s economic development. His reputation as a reactionary was deepened when, like other moderates of his age (including Liang Qichao), he took office under a warlord government. Many saw his terms as education and justice minister under Duan Qirui (段祺瑞, 1865-1936) as self-serving and unpatriotic, but to Zhang – and indeed other moderates, including Liang Qichao – serving under a warlord offered the prospect of securing some measure of law and order to a country that had been in continuous upheaval for more than three decades. For his part, while in office Zhang attempted several (unsuccessful) educational reforms, and dealt harshly with corruption in government.

Zhang saw his path from radical, to moderate, to conservative as guided by the value that he called ‘appreciating difference’ (shang yi 尚异), which stemmed from a fierce independence of opinion that resisted party affiliation.[3] This was a value Zhang defended not only in his political ideas but in his own actions. His roster of friends from all points on the political spectrum reflects how much Zhang personally savored disagreement and contestation, but he also took many political risks in the cause of advancing ‘difference’ in the face of imposed conformity. So committed was Zhang to the value of ‘appreciating difference’ that at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he wrote two passionate letters to Mao Zedong urging him to protect freedom of speech. At the time of his death in 1973, Zhang was even in the process of coordinating a third attempt at cooperation between the Nationalists (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party. Fortunately for Zhang, his early relationship with Mao while at Peking University – which included raising money for Mao’s abortive trip to France – secured him some measure of protection against the wrath of the Red Guards. He was foster father to Zhang Hanzhi (章含之, 1935-2008), who would later become Mao’s English-language tutor and translator. His granddaughter, Hung Huang 洪晃, is a prominent Beijing-based publisher and media personality.

Zhang meeting Chairman Mao in 1963.  Source: 人民日报 People's Daily

Zhang meeting Chairman Mao in 1963.
Source: People’s Daily 人民日报

People’s Daily

The fortieth anniversary of Zhang’s death this year offers an opportunity to remember his intellectual legacy. He wrote for decades about ‘difference’ and its value to a healthy, self-ruling political community. He promoted ‘accommodation’ (tiaohe 调和) and tried to explain why difference in political and social life could challenge the status quo, but also open common ground between polarised differences. These ideas remain valuable and constitute important contributions to a global history of ideas.

A Theory of Accommodation

As I have noted in the above, Zhang’s theories took their most substantive shape in the pages of The Tiger, where he named ‘accommodation’ (tiaohe) as the ‘foundation of government’ (zheng ben 政本). In an essay of that name which inaugurated the journal in 1914, Zhang declared: ‘Founding a government has a foundation. Wherein lies this foundation? I say, it lies in having tolerance. What is called having tolerance? It means not favoring the same and not hating the different.’ In the following years, Zhang would use the expanded page lengths of The Tiger to explore exactly what it meant to ‘not favor the same and not hate the different’ (bu hao tong wu yi 不好同恶异).[4] Accommodation, according to Zhang, was toleration of difference. He identified it as a process ‘born of mutual agonism and developed through mutual concessions’ (sheng yu xiang di, cheng yu xiang rang 生于相抵, 成于相让).[4] He argued that it was best embodied in parliamentary government, leading many of his commentators to identify his sense of tiaohe with those liberal notions of toleration that developed in step with constitutional government in Europe and England. Although Zhang drew explicitly on British theorists of parliamentarism, such as Walter Bagehot and Albert Venn Dicey, he did not share their concerns to secure tolerance by means of a division between a secular public realm and a private realm of expression. Difference for Zhang was unrelated to questions of religious practice that prompted the elaboration of toleration in European and American liberal thought. But Zhang upheld a central premise of Millean liberalism typically resisted by Chinese thinkers: the permanent existence of political and moral disagreement.[5]

Zhang’s work offers more than simply a Chinese translation of Western ideas. Confronting a fractious world and a community with no history of democratic practice, Zhang used a variety of global sources to formulate a creative solution. Drawing on Neo-Confucian beliefs about the relationship of self-cultivation to wider social and political order, Zhang saw the accommodation of differences in terms of re-orienting oneself internally: that is, he believed that fostering in oneself an openness to difference would begin to change one’s social and political environments, both by setting a powerful example to others as well as by literally setting into motion the kinds of actions that characterise a better world. Specifically, accommodation acts to foster good relationships between persons despite their political differences. For Zhang, it was important that people see the political world as comprised of interdependent but differently motivated agents. Zhang understood ‘difference’ in at least two ways, using the same word, yi 异, as both a noun and a verb. In personal terms, yi meant the practice or quality of exhibiting and/or appreciating idiosyncrasy (a term that he used positively); in political terms, yi meant dissenting from the status quo, or those who voiced such dissent.

For Zhang, respecting oneself and others as idiosyncratic meant that one was closer to recognising that differences are inevitable. He saw idiosyncrasy as necessary for invigorating political association, arguing that a productive gap between individuals need not provoke hostility. Rather than provoking violence or suppression, Zhang argued, difference can also invite interpretation and engagement. Zhang’s ideas are helpful in explaining how a shared vision of community may be possible among disparate, self-aware individuals. What he tried to construct was a process of recognition and accommodation that would allow political differences to be productively debated in public culture, toward a solution that would reflect the best compromise for all parties.

An edited volume of Zhang Shizhao's essays from The Tiger, signed by Zhang.  Source: Findart.com.cn

An edited volume of Zhang Shizhao’s essays from The Tiger, signed by Zhang.
Source: Findart.com.cn

Zhang characterised dissent, the second meaning of difference, as motivating an interplay of forces, ideas, or interests among participants. He saw it as a means for sharpening the commitment of participants to a shared goal but without encouraging mutual exclusivity. Zhang’s ideas about ‘a spirit of dissent’ and an inclination toward compromise (which he saw as necessary for China’s political advancement) came from the work of British thinkers Bagehot and John Morley.[4] Zhang claimed: ‘Only once a nation allows dissenting opinions to flourish, can it have cabinet government.’[4] China must not only have a parliamentary system but a range of opinions to express in it. He envisaged China as transitioning, peacefully and incrementally, to democratic rule. For that to occur, he argued, accommodation was vital for it alone could resolve the problems of difference and disagreement that were bound to arise.

The tension between ‘inner’ cultivation and ‘outer’ world-ordering that runs throughout Zhang’s thought highlights the importance of individual actions in society and politics. He proposed a path to be taken neither in deliberate concert with others nor completely independently of them. Zhang’s model challenges contemporary perceptions of the political as an exclusively collective and public endeavor, by focusing instead on the internal state of individuals and how it is affected and shaped by external transformation. His ideas are helpful in understanding how diverse kinds of individual moral effort, experience and perspective can be meaningful and politically effective. Most importantly, Zhang encouraged his readers to make such self-improving efforts, despite the circumstantial and institutional factors that are beyond the capacity of any one individual to control.

Zhang Shizhao’s Global Significance

Zhang’s political ideas offer a fresh perspective from which to consider ideological slogans such as ‘harmonious society’ in China today. Under one-party rule, the idea of ‘harmony’ (in direct contrast to Zhang’s ‘accommodation’) presumes the absence of difference. His ideas are also powerful rejoinders to the common stereotype of East Asians as emphasising public conformity rather than dissent and disagreement. Although letters written to Zhang as editor of The Tiger reveal that his views on difference and accommodation were anything but orthodox, his work did decisively shape the views of moderates such as Zhang Dongsun 张东荪 and Li Jiannong 李剑农 in the years preceding the May Fourth movement.[6] In present-day Chinese scholarship, Zhang’s ideas continue to be explored as a less radical alternative to Chinese political development.[3,7,8]

Indeed, revisiting Zhang’s work today gives us an opportunity to think about how Chinese ideas can contribute solutions to global problems. Much of the thinking about democracy in the Western academy is undertaken by scholars who live in advanced industrial societies with long histories of liberal democratic government. As such, their work is preoccupied with refining democratic norms, rather than thinking about how democratic communities might be established in the first place – including how democratic practices might begin to take shape in places with no prior experience of democratic rule – or how democracy in general might be justified in light of other competing alternatives. But Zhang’s dilemma sheds light on the problems of many non-democratic societies around the world. He did not have some cache of pre-existing democratic sentiment on which to draw, to inspire his fellow-Chinese to defend the promise of public life. He urged accommodation as a way in which a political association could be built from, and open itself to, radical challenge; that legitimate political expression would be accorded to the views of one’s critics.

In these respects, Zhang’s writings resemble the critical pluralism and difference politics of contemporary Euro-American political theory. Difference theorists as diverse as William Connolly, Chantal Mouffe and Iris Young have argued that transcendent values present enormous difficulties for the establishment of a meaningful political community. This is because transcendent values inevitably ‘trump’ competing values and their supremacy then cannot be challenged. The antidote, they argue, is the inclusion of marginalised groups into political discussions and the simultaneous subjection of the terms of political community to public contestation. The importance of defending difference, as these theorists pose it, is to unsettle and disturb established norms, enabling what are seen to be objectionable identities, institutions and modes of association to be newly understood.

There are important differences between Zhang and this set of present-day theorists. Zhang did not directly pose or respond to questions that mark difference politics, namely those arising from contests about identity, inclusion, or representation. What Zhang was most concerned to elaborate was a theory of polity-building in which he understood political community as a goal rather than as something already existing. For Zhang, accommodation was vital to polity-building. His ideas remain useful today because they address the most basic of political questions: how does one begin to build a peaceful and functional community in the presence of difference and disagreement?



[1] Timothy Weston, ‘The Formation and Positioning of the New Culture Community, 1913-1917′, Modern China, vol.24 (1998): 255–284.

[2] Zou Xiaozhan, Zhang Shizhao shehui zhengzhi sixiang yanjiu, 1903-1927 nian (Research on Zhang Shizhao’s Socio-political Thought, 1903-1927), Changsha: Hunan Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2001.

[3] Guo Huaqing, Kuanrong yu tuoxie: Zhang Shizhaode tiaohelun yanjiu (Tolerance and Compromise: Research on Zhang Shizhao’s Theory of Accommodation), Tianjin: Tianjin Guji Chubanshe, 2004.

[4] Zhang Shizhao, Zhang Shizhao quanji (Collected Works of Zhang Shizhao), Shanghai: Wenhui Chubanshe, 2000.

[5] Thomas Metzger, A Cloud Across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash Between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2005.

[6] Shen Songqiao, ‘Wusi shiqi Zhang Shizhaode baoshou sixiang’ (The Conservative Thought of Zhang Shizhao in the May Fourth Era), Zhongyang Yanjiuyuan Jindaishi Yanjiusuo jikan (Bulletin of the Institute of Modern History Academia Sinica), vol.15 (1986): 163–250.

[7] Gao Like, Tiaoshide zhihui: Du Yaquan sixiang yanjiu (The Wisdom of Compromise: Research on the Thought of Du Yaquan), Zhejiang: Zhejiang Renmin Chubanshe, 1998.