Philosophy

Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism

The surprising story of how Greek classics are being pressed into use in contemporary China to support the regime’s political agenda

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Jan 10, 2023
2023
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As improbable as it may sound, an illuminating way to understand today’s China and how it views the West is to look at the astonishing ways Chinese intellectuals are interpreting—or is it misinterpreting?—the Greek classics. In Plato Goes to China, Shadi Bartsch offers a provocative look at Chinese politics and ideology by exploring Chinese readings of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and other ancient writers. She shows how Chinese thinkers have dramatically recast the Greek classics to support China’s political agenda, diagnose the ills of the West, and assert the superiority of China’s own Confucian classical tradition.

In a lively account that ranges from the Jesuits to Xi Jinping, Bartsch traces how the fortunes of the Greek classics have changed in China since the seventeenth century. Before the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Chinese typically read Greek philosophy and political theory in order to promote democratic reform or discover the secrets of the success of Western democracy and science. No longer. Today, many Chinese intellectuals use these texts to critique concepts such as democracy, citizenship, and rationality. Plato’s “Noble Lie,” in which citizens are kept in their castes through deception, is lauded; Aristotle’s Politics is seen as civic brainwashing; and Thucydides’s criticism of Athenian democracy is applied to modern America.

What do antiquity’s “dead white men” have left to teach? By uncovering the unusual ways Chinese thinkers are answering that question, Plato Goes to China opens a surprising new window on China today.