Whose China?

by Terence MacNamee

François Jullien is a well-known Sinologist in France. Actually, he says he is not really a Sinologist but a philosopher interested in Chinese thought. At any rate, he has a great influence on the French perception of China. He is regularly consulted by media and business.

Jean-François Billeter is another Sinologist. He has criticized Jullien in a pamphlet, Contre François Jullien. He says Jullien has constructed a vision of China which is just a projection of his own thinking. Jullien characterizes Chinese thinking in terms of “immanence” rather than “transcendence”. This means that the world is seen as a self-perpetuating entity, a process with which we can be in harmony or not. What is important is not ultimate purposes or universal laws, but managing the flow of things, making things work.

Billeter says Jullien feels close to the business world – the world of internationally operating CEOs – because that is how business thinks: don’t ask why things are the way they are, much less try to change them; just adapt to the market and profit from whatever happens there.

According to Billeter, the “immanent” way of thinking, which he admits has been the prevalent one in Chinese history, is a creation of the old imperial system. If the Emperor ruled from Peking and could not be questioned, the only thing that remained to be done was to make the system work, which the mandarins did.

What is more, says Billeter, France is like that (he is Swiss). France is a place run from Paris by an élite. French intellectuals see themselves as a kind of Republican mandarinate. This way of thinking derives from the Enlightenment, and he points out that Enlightenment thinkers admired China as a rational state. Ironically, he says, whatever they knew about China they got from their arch-enemies the Jesuits. The Jesuits, who were an intellectual élite themselves, wanted to justify their top-down approach to China – converting the élites – by showing how excellent the mandarin system was.

Now, the Sinologists can argue this one out themselves. But I think Billeter is on to an interesting idea: what you see in other countries is a projection of what you are yourself, and what preoccupies you. There is no universal account of China. There is a French account of China; maybe a Swiss account of China; and that’s just the beginning of it…