Fast Times at Shandong U.
A new memoir from a Westerner living as a bureaucrat in China’s education system has important lessons for America.
The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University, Daniel A. Bell, Princeton University Press, 196 pages
In 2004, global audiences were treated to the martial-arts epic Hero, a masterful work of the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The film, set in the Warring States era of Chinese history, tells the story of multiple assassination attempts upon the king of the Qin state. A visual feast, loaded with philosophical reflections as well as Alfred Hitchcock-esque plot twists, the film is also often criticized for being Chinese Communist state propaganda—the ultimate message of the film is the sacrifice of an individual for the collective good of China.
Nonetheless, Hero, which was nominated for multiple awards in the West, including Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, represents how China of the 21st century wishes to be viewed by the world—a country deeply rooted in the past and at the same time more modern than modern. It is, further, a country that utilizes technology, science, and art from the West, but as the Japanese did in the 20th century, puts a distinctly Asian stamp on it. Finally, it is a country that, while collectivist, does in its new, rebranded form allow for some individualism and even individual heroism.
In his new work from Princeton University Press, the Confucian scholar and Chinese educator Daniel Bell attempts to provide a similar portrait of today’s China. Indeed, Bell, who has received strong criticism from Western figures because of his defense of China, explicitly states in The Dean of Shandong that it is his goal to convince readers that, despite some authoritarian tendencies, China is not the dangerous red dragon of Western imaginings. In fact, Bell notifies the readers that it is his goal to live and work in China for the rest of his life, and hopefully to obtain Chinese citizenship.
En route to this puzzling and controversial rhetorical goal, Bell provides a portrait of his life as an administrator in a Chinese university; laying aside his support for China, he gives Western readers a unique vision into the new China.
From 2017 to 2022, the Canadian-born Bell was the dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University. The fact that the Chinese Communist Party would allow a foreigner to serve in an administrative post at a Chinese university may seem strange. Bell assures readers that he is not a member of the CCP. He was appointed because he is well known for his research on Confucianism, and China has been attempting to reclaim its Confucian heritage in recent years. Bell further notes that, for the past 40 years, China has been trying to “internationalize” its universities. Bell advocates for further reformed China, which draws from the principles of Confucianism.
At the beginning of the book, Bell provides a brief history of Confucianism, which he sees as playing a central role in shaping a reformed modern China. As Bell notes, Confucius (551–479 B.C.) did not see himself as the creator of a school of thought. Rather, he viewed himself as a midwife of an earlier tradition of thought. Like Plato, Confucius tried and failed at politics, settling into the role of a teacher. As with the case of Aristotle, his students recorded his writings into the Analects. Bell notes that Confucianism was later joined with Daoism and Buddhism and, in our day, with liberalism and democracy.
At the heart of Confucianism is the idea of harmony, which starts with “filial piety” or respect for one’s family. One should practice humaneness toward others, and, as in Stoicism, one should dedicate himself to the service of the state (this notion, reflected in the film Hero, is clearly amenable to the contemporary Chinese Communist Party). Moreover, Confucian rules should govern the people with ethics as well as ritual and only use force if other means have failed—this point is key to Bell’s argument, for Bell is attempting to provide a kindler, gentler version of China.
Bell’s desire to reform China is noble, but his belief that China can be reformed through the implementation of Confucianism is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, his limited defense of contemporary Chinese policy—Bell has himself run up against CCP censors for some of his work—is something to which Christians, human rights activists, and other critics of China might object.
He does nonetheless provide a curious portrait of life for a foreigner in contemporary China. Bell curiously notes the importance of hair-dying in China; black hair is a sign of vitality, and there is whole culture of hair-dying; as part of his unconventional nature, Xi Jinping has created a revolution of his own by allowing streaks of natural grey to appear in his hair. Bell further notes the importance of a drinking culture in China—especially toasting. While countries like England, Ireland, and Germany are notorious for their immoderate drinking, Bell notes that certain provinces in China likewise have such a reputation. Moreover, drinking and driving became a problem as part of the rapid increase in wealth and technology created new opportunities as well as new problems for the Chinese in the 21st century.
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Bell’s defense of China may not convince most readers. Yet his apologetic depiction of China has some pronounced lessons for the West. The first is the notion of meritocracy. If China surpasses the West in the 21st century, it will be because China, as the West once did, prizes merit over political correctness. As both the public and private sectors in America continue to lower standards and expectation both of employees and for consumers, America risks further losing the innovation that drove the American Century.
Also, as Bell indicates, Chinese education prizes excellence, and seeks to appropriate both Western and Eastern culture for the progress and flourishing of China. The West is crippled with self-criticism and guilt and is actively attempting to erase its past. While there are certainly dangers of chauvinistic nationalism as well as merits to self-criticism, China’s patriotic and meritocratic approach to education will likely win in the end.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of why Bell (and others) seek to leave the West for the East—Bell notes that much of the world currently sees America, once the world’s preeminent power, as a dysfunctional basket case. It is incumbent upon Americans, especially American educators, to help craft a future in which Americans not only want to succeed and flourish, but who actually want to live in the land of their birth.