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The Gospel of Love by Tang Junyi and the conundrum of presenting it as a Chinese Symposium

Abstract

The Philosopher Tang Junyi is the writer of an understudied book entitled The Gospel of Love which displays his philosophy of love in the 1940s. Previous scholarship has often described this piece of work as a Chinese or a Confucian Symposium because of some resemblance with Plato’s dialogue. However, the present paper challenges this reading and raises the issue what the reader does of a philosophical work when he considers it as a transcultural production or a book that fuses different intellectual traditions. By giving a peculiar attention to Tang’s way of displaying his philosophy of love, I state that the Gospel of Love is “a Confucian book on love under multicultural garments.” Though the book conveys elements from different traditions and merges them in a well-built philosophical tale, the author was not trying to produce global philosophy of love in dialogue with others: he was attempting to articulate a defense of the family in the context of the liberalization of unions and to foster a personal messianic agenda: love was just a gateway to selftransformation or self-transcendence.

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Notes

  1. I do not use the word “transcultural” in the classical sense of something universal that exists in all cultures, and that hence transcends all cultural differences; or as something that exists in two or more cultures. Therefore, I don’t engage here with transcultural philosophy in the sense given to it by the seminal article of Eduardo Pérez Valera (1972), though I reckon that producing transcultural philosophy in this sense is a desirable project. Here, I follow the meaning that it has recently been given in the field of transcultural studies. For me no culture can be clearly distinguished nor separated from another. As such, I do not see cultures as “internally cohesive, homogenous, self-contained, or hermetically sealed against influences” (Flüchter 2015, p. 2). They are rather “multilayered system[s] of rules (meanings, values, views, habits) and things (symbols, products, tools) that people apply or use in daily life” (Ní Éigeartaigh 2010, p. 8). This implies, for me, that the concept of culture cannot be used as a pertinent heuristic tool on its own. To be exploitable, it requires a perpetual critical and deconstructive outlook toward notions of diversity and otherness in order to unveil power structures embedded in the very affirmation of “someone or something belonging to a(nother) culture” (See Gaupp’s discussion of the epistemologies of diversity and otherness within the academia, Gaupp forthc.). Consequently, I consider that speaking of love in a transcultural setting entails abording the issue without reifying the concept in a clearly identified system or tradition (be it intellectual or national). Speaking of transcultural love means that love is being thought and experienced as a multilayered phenomenon whose entangled elements and intellectual representations can have various social and geographical origins. For a discussion of what transcultural studies can bring to the field of Chinese studies (cf. Blitstein 2016).

  2. For that matter, the entire discipline of philosophy has recently been criticized for its institutional parochialism and its racist overtones (e.g. Park 2013; Van Norden 2017).

  3. I share here’s Thom Brooks’ opinion when he writes that “Global philosophy is an unbounded approach to how we might improve our existing traditions. It is not a claim to there being one true philosophy that best combines all others. Nor is it about bringing together as many traditions as possible for their own sake. Instead, global philosophy is about our having an openness for the need to pursue wider engagement in order to improve potential argumentative power. Global philosophy is global in light of its global pursuit for philosophical resources only” (Brooks 2013, p. 262).

  4. Tang explained that he had once find the book in an old library in Chongqing. There it was advertised under the tacky label: The secret of love—a label that had obviously warded scholars off its reading. Finding the general ideas of the book in accord with his own opinion, Tang decided to get it translated. However, when he had finished the translation of the five first chapters out of eight, Tang’s dormitory at Central University was bombed. The Gospel of Love was the only book that Tang was not enabled to recover in the wreck of the building. He would only recover one page of the book several months later in a bin of papers used for lighting up the fire in the kitchen. Being unable to obtain a new copy, he therefore decided to publish the text as such. (Tang 1947, pp. 1–2).

  5. I am very thankful to Philippe Major, whose remarks and comments on an earlier draft of this paper shed much light on this subject. He pointed at several evolutions in between the two texts, regarding, for instance, how Tang dealt with sexual desire (aiyu 愛欲) that is distinguished more clearly from the general notions of love (ai 愛) and desire (yu 欲) in Cultural Consciousness and Moral Reason than in the older text—enabling him to denote more pejoratively sex. A precise comparison of the two texts could be rewarded a study.

  6. In this regard, in his study on love in China, Paolo Santangelo does not focus on this term (Santangelo 1999). Much more attention is being given to qing 情 often translated as ‘emotions’ or to xiaofilial piety’. There is here, in my opinion, a shared problem for many works that attempted to explore the topic of love in China. Studies have a tendency to skip the issue of the terminological plurality in Chinese. If love is always approached as a universal human experience, emotion, sentiment or desire, its discussion is always elaborated in a western semantic frame. Chinese notions when discussed are often just translated into this frame. There are to my knowledge no philosophical discussion of Confucian love that, for instance, clearly establish the difference between ren 仁, qin 親 and ai. The loose use of Chinese terminology within scholarship and the terminological ambiguity is, however, a problem that goes way beyond our topic, and concern more generally the entire field of comparative and translingual philosophy.

  7. Translations are mine except when specified otherwise. I would like to warmly thank Jonathan Keir who provided me with his, as of yet, unpublished translation of the text (Keir 2017), and for the many constructive comments he offered me when we both started working on this text. His better refined English translation has been preferred to my own except when I wanted to draw attention to specific elements in the original sources. Some excerpts of his translation are available in a recent online article (Keir 2020).

  8. In China, as incidentally in Europe, the last lines of Schiller’s poem “Die Weltweisen” (1795) were truncated. For the original: Einstweilen, bis den Bau der Welt / Philosophie zusammenhält, / Erhält sie das Getriebe / Durch Hunger und durch Liebe.

  9. A cynical commentator could underline the fact that, despite the establishment of the family being a key topic in the anthropology of modern Confucian philosophers, none of them has really addressed the question of homosexuality and what it means for the fabric of family.

  10. It is by the way noteworthy to note that the rare research papers on The Gospel of Love only look into the first two chapters, dismissing the concrete and application of this philosophy and its daily consequences in the life of the audience (e.g. He 2001). They depict Tang Junyi as a philosopher, but forget that he was also a social-activist in his own genre.

  11. In his study on Tang Junyi, Thomas Fröhlich raises a very interesting point concerning Tang’s reading habits. He notes: “As his detailed listings of his daily philosophical readings show, he rarely studied a particular philosophical work on two or more consecutive days. When he would continue his reading of a text, he usually did so after weeks, sometimes months—just as if he were again seeking further inspiration.” (Fröhlich 2017, 35 note no. 14).

  12. I was not able to clearly identify the origin of the expression, but I found several comments pointing out a situation regarding Liang Sicheng’s 梁思成 (1901–1972) wife: Lin Huiying 林徽因 (1904–1955).

  13. The proximity between agape and Chinese notions such as ren 仁 has been a recurrent theme in interreligious studies (see for instance Yao 1997), and Tang’s text invites us to dwell some more on the potential link between the intellectual traditions of East and West. But simultaneously I cannot help thinking that it would mean over-interpreting the text. What Tang wanted to say and how we can turn it into another content by adding up our own references appear to me as two things that should be clearly separated.

  14. One should, however, try not to fall here into cultural essentialism for even in Christianity loving other people is also always a process with a gradual expansion. As the Christian theologian Hans Küng puts it “according to Jesus, love is not simply love of man but essentially love of neighbor. It is a love, not of man in general, of someone remote, with whom we are not personally involved, but quite concretely of one’s immediate neighbor. Love of God is proved in love of neighbor, and in fact love of neighbor is the exact yardstick of love of God. I love God only as much as I love my neighbor” (Küng 1976, 257).

  15. Tang really likes the water metaphor. He uses it almost ten times throughout the entire text.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to warmly thank all the participants of the panel “Concepts for the mind and emotions in Modern Confucianist philosophy” that took place at the 2nd Conference of the European Association of Chinese Philosophy, at Basel in September 2017, in which this research was first presented, as well as Ady Van den Stock, Phillipe Major and the two reviewers for their valuable comments, questions and insights on earlier versions of this text.

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Ciaudo, J. The Gospel of Love by Tang Junyi and the conundrum of presenting it as a Chinese Symposium. Int. Commun. Chin. Cult 7, 581–602 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40636-020-00204-y

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Keywords

  • Gospel of love
  • Tang Junyi
  • Love
  • Transcultural studies
  • Chinese symposium