In Search of a Modern Humanism in China





When Han Han, China’s 27-year-old superstar blogger, author and literary bad boy, who loves to drive racing cars and thumb his nose at the establishment, announced the title of his hotly anticipated new literary magazine last summer, he immediately had to disappoint fans.

“Renaissance” had been nixed by state censors, blogged Mr. Han, who may be the most popular blogger in the world — his site on Sina.com registers more than 372 million hits, and individual entries regularly top 1 million hits. “I guess there won’t be any literary renaissance,” he quipped in his trademark laconic, yet barbed, style.

Instead, Mr. Han plans to call his magazine “Solo Chorus,” though nearly a year later it’s still not out. Now censors are unhappy about the content, he said.

More than 500 years after the Renaissance transformed Europe, challenging the rigidities of medievalism with the spirit of independent literary and scientific enquiry that is humanism, thereby putting the value and dignity of the individual at the center of a new ethical system, the very word “renaissance” can still be taboo here.

Yet Western-style humanism flourished in China a century ago, brought over by the Chinese students of Irving Babbitt, a professor of French at Harvard University who attained a cult-like following among some Chinese intellectuals for his writings and lectures on humanism.

Mr. Babbitt advocated retaining the good things from the past. He insisted on the importance of the individual, and the study of the humanities.

Humanism’s gentle, evolutionary approach clashed with the make-it-new passion of many students, intellectuals and politicians grouped around China’s early 20th-century May Fourth Movement. In 1949, the revolutionaries won the argument when the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China. For over three decades, humanism vanished from Chinese thinking....



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