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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 08:57, June 29, 2006
Communitarianism, Confucianism: He's got all that figured out
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On the frozen surface of Beijing's Unnamed Lake last winter, people were playing a spirited game of pick-up hockey.

It was a diverse group: Men from Harbin battled physics professors; taxi drivers squared off against fellow Beijingers; and among them was Daniel A. Bell.

They all knew he was a Canadian, but Bell had never felt more Chinese.

He uses the phrase "I've gone native," yet minutes later says: "I don't want to stop being Canadian." And whether he's on the ice or in the classroom, it's never quite clear which team he's playing for.

Bell, 42, is a professor at Tsinghua University the school's first foreign philosophy professor since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

He is equally at home staring down taxi drivers on Beijing ice and teaching political philosophy to elite students at one of China's most prestigious universities.

Bell specializes in communitarianism, a political theory that criticizes Western liberalism and emphasizes ties to the community rather than individualism.

For someone from the West to teach that subject in China is unusual, but it begins to make sense when you consider Bell's expertise in Confucianism, which can be traced back to his Oxford University days.

It was 1989 and among the Chinese students he was hanging out with was someone he met and fell in love with: Song Bing, who would shape his career and become his wife.

"It was such a romantic and passionate time," Bell said.

In one of their first conversations, Song remembers Bell telling her he was writing his dissertation in dialogue form a conversation between a liberal and a communitarian. This, Bell explained, grew out of long evenings spent with his father, Don Bell, a famous Canadian writer, in the cafs of Montreal. "I was really impressed," Song said, laughing. "That's pretty creative and quite unusual."

Until then, Bell's studies in politics at Oxford where he received his master's and doctoral degrees had not been focused on China, and he had no interest in Chinese politics. But the conversations with Song and her colleagues inspired him. There was only one problem: He didn't speak Chinese.

While completing his dissertation, Bell studied Chinese in courses over two summers at Middlebury College in Vermont in the United States. Song enrolled at the same school to learn French. Students signed a pledge that forced them to abstain from English for two months.

"The first year was particularly bad because you're treated like a pariah," Bell said, noting older, more fluent students often refused to speak to new arrivals.

"You could hardly say anything. It was psychologically painful."

The pledge was rigidly self-enforced most of the time, Bell said. He was meant to speak Chinese to Song, who would reply in French, so they could still talk. But in private, they broke their pledges and spoke English.

Later Bell followed his interest in communitarianism to Singapore, where the issue was alive in theory - and, to some degree, in practice. He accepted a position at the National University of Singapore but soon became disenchanted.

Singapore was not a true example of communitarianism, Bell said, and his colleagues and students seemed unwilling to have open discussions.

Later, a new department head made political suggestions about Bell's reading list for class, so it came as no surprise to him when his contract was not renewed.

From Singapore, Bell left for various research and fellowship positions at institutions in the United States. He returned to Hong Kong University in 1994. He taught there until he moved, with Song Bing and their son, Julien, for the job at Tsinghua in 2004.

Bell said many of his Western friends were surprised he would leave a tenured position in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, take a pay cut and accept a job in Beijing.

But Bell's specialities such as communitarianism and Confucianism are relatively open for discussion in the mainland.

And even though Bell has experienced a few restrictions on what he may speak and write about, the apologetic openness, the opportunity to publish elsewhere and the ability to discuss across ideologies offset those limitations, he said.

Wan Junren, chairman of Tsinghua's philosophy department, told China Youth Daily in an interview that Tsinghua students would benefit from an overseas perspective on issues like international war, equality, and modern democracy. Bell was hired, Wan said, in part because of his "compassion and understanding of Chinese culture and education."

Bell separates himself from many Western scholars in two main ways: He uses East Asian values to discuss the politics of the region, and he asserts that US-style democracy, as a social model to be imitated, is not so widely embraced in East Asia.

"I think the most controversial thing that I do is just questioning this idea that democracy is an important human right," Bell said.

"I think that any sort of claim about the best way of political governance, before you can make any sort of informed judgement to me, you need a good understanding of local culture and the history."

Many Western political theorists simply assume their own values deserve to be exported around the world only because they lack essential local knowledge, Bell said.

He argues that many efforts to improve human lives around the world are really attempts to universalize abstract Western values. Bell said this is shown by the effort to stress civil and political rights over economic rights.

Non-Western countries, Bell explains, especially in East Asia, often reject ideas that stress individualism. But sometimes, he said, even when there is agreement on a principle, disagreements may arise over language, with the phrase "human rights" being especially prickly, or culture and religion.

"If you agree upon the norm that innocents shouldn't be killed, who cares where it comes from?" he asked. "Whether it's Christianity or Confucianism, it doesn't really matter."

Bell has tried to bridge such gaps in work and in life. Song is Chinese; their 11-year-old son, Julien, is skilled in Mandarin and even underwent a week of military training at school; and Bell himself is fluent and well-versed in Chinese philosophy.

"I'm not saying he's completely Chinese," Song said, "but obviously, he's one of those who are very sensitive to cultures and very receptive to different things."

But intimate knowledge of, and dedication to, Asian culture, values and ideas does not mean his views and opinions are always understood.

In an article Bell wrote for Dissent Magazine, he described a class discussion on issues of sovereignty and the US-led invasion of Iraq. Bell challenged a student with a series of questions, at the end of which the student became quizzical and said: "What you're saying is very different from what we've learned."

That is one reason Bell loves working in Beijing.

"It makes teaching more meaningful," he said. "You're actually getting people to reconsider preconceived views."

And teaching is certainly meaningful in China, where there is a strong Confucian tradition that stresses respect for teachers. There is also an intense intellectual culture where it is not, for example, pretentious to quote Chinese classics in everyday speech

"I don't think English intellectuals, other than the really pompous ones, would pepper their speech with those sorts of historical and cultural references not to mention poetry," Bell said.

But Confucian values are not always so staid. In his forthcoming book "Beyond Liberal Democracy" which features some dialogue and is dedicated to his father Bell makes a case for political reform based on Confucian values. He theorizes a government with a bicameral legislature consisting of a lower, elected house and an upper house where representatives are chosen by competitive exams.

Academia aside, Bell and Song said they enjoy Beijing its diversity and multiculturalism. Song is a lawyer at an international firm, and Julien has settled into piano lessons. They are not going anywhere soon, either: Bell co-owns two Thai restaurants and plans to open a third.

At Tsinghua, Bell gets to challenge and educate China's top students, and he is becoming more widely known in China.

He has signed a contract with a Shanghai publisher to have his new book translated into Chinese. And earlier this year, a Chinese-translated version of his article in Dissent Magazine appeared on the Internet. This, he said, has generated more response than anything he has ever written.

Part of that immense response was confusion over who had actually written the article. Daniel A. Bell uses his middle initial because he shares his name with the famous Harvard sociologist, Daniel Bell.

The confusion long ago prompted the 87-year-old Harvard scholar to write Bell a letter.

Bell recalled with a laugh: "He made a joke about how, when Chinese sages are looking back upon 'Daniel Bell,' they will be amazed at this productive scholar who wrote books for a 100-year period."

Source: China Daily


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