Shall Chinese virtues be preserved: Some Thinkings After Reading The Problem of China


Russell’s view on the strengths/evils of Western and Chinese civilization

In The Problem of China, Russell demonstrated that Chinese civilization owns the strengths such as (1) pacific temper which seeks to settle disputes on grounds of justice rather than by force and (2) passivity and conservativeness based on the undoubtable confidence on traditional civilization. There are also several evils in Chinese civilization, which include (1) being callous and indifferent to the pain and suffering of others, (2) being coward and in a comparative lack of active courage, and (3) great avarice for money.

Russell also pointed out that Western civilization comes from three sources: (1) Greek culture, (2) Jewish religion and ethics, and (3) modern industrialism as the outcome of modern science. Russell believed that many evils exist in Western civilization, including (1) Restlessness and pugnacity, (2) feeling discontent about the whole lives, (3) being prevented from the enjoyment of beauty, and (4) being almost incapable of the contemplative virtues. According to Russell, science and technology is the only way in which Western civilization is superior to Chinese civilization.

From my perspective, although Russell truly has some valuable insights in the observation of Chinese, it is undeniable that his view of Chinese tradition and culture had some understandably inaccurate and unsatisfactory aspects and I want to emphasize Russell’s misunderstanding of Confucianism’s role in the formation of Chinese virtues.

While Russell highly praised traditional Chinese virtues, he ignores its deep origin from Chinese civilization. In Russell’s opinion, Confucianism is actually a code of civilized behavior rather than a typical traditional religion. He admired the most parts of Confucianism, but he disliked filial piety and the strength of the family generally and criticizes them as “the weakest point in Confucian ethics”. He showed his praise of almost all the behavior defined in the Confucian system, including self-control, moderation, courtesy, not being carried away by excessive emotions, and so on. Based on these findings, he believed that the attractive Chinese virtues, such as patience and tolerance, are the good results of the Confucian system.

However, I want to argue that Russell failed to reveal that those Chinese virtues are actually the characters of Confucianism rooted in filial piety, which is, commented by Russell himself, “departed seriously from common sense”. Since Confucianism is not a religion, Confucius created a strict code of ethics that teaches people how to behave properly under certain circumstances instead of forcing people to observe religious dogma strictly. Moreover, the goal of the code of ethics in Confucianism is to lead a harmonious and peaceful atmosphere across the society, rather than to pursue the holiness of personal morality or the happiness in the future world. As a result, Chinese people are not forced by Confucianism to cultivate Chinese virtues that mentioned above — they are guided by the social order defined by Confucian system, which naturally leads to the cultivation of so-called Chinese virtues. Filial piety and the strength of the family, among all the concepts in Confucianism, plays a significant role in constructing the basic order of traditional Chinese society. Consequently, filial piety has non-negligible effects on the formation of Chinese virtues, and Russell ignored such important facts due to his superficial understanding of Chinese civilization. It is a far-reaching misunderstanding, because it heavily affects Russell’s understanding of the nature of Chinese virtues, and relevant opinions or advices are also influenced as well.

Russell’s view on “progress”: “much of what we call progress is only restless change, bringing us no nearer to any desirable goal”

Russell presented this view in Chapter XI where he is discussing about the comparison between Chinese and Western civilization.

From my perspective, no matter progress is achieved or not, it is always worth-while to seek progress, which is by no means harmful to mankind. As an individual, if we want to pursue happiness, it is important to keep active and continue to make progress throughout our lives. For a whole society, progress should occur in different aspects to promote the improvement of society, which is also meaningful and beneficial for all the members in the society. It is also Russell’s opinion elsewhere, in which he declared that although there is no final goal for human institutions, it is always better for institutions to encourage progress both individual and societal. So, here comes the question: why did Russell change his mind about “progress” in The Problem of China? To answer this question, I want to discuss about the reason why Russell has a special preference for one of Chinese virtues: passivity and conservativeness, and why he disliked so much about “progress”. I will also try to cast light on the question that what the “desirable goal” in Russell’s mind was.

Russell himself explained why passivity and conservativeness exist in Chinese civilization and pointed out that Chinese believed that what they own now is already excellent and more progress is just unnecessary. Such explanation seems untenable since science and technology in China at that time is in urgent need of progress, but it is reasonable to take this explanation as a criticism for Western industrialism. Although progress of Western countries in politics, science and technology is huge in a few decades, people’s feeling of happiness does not improve, or even decline to some extent. After the destruction of World War I, Russell, who was an internationally known pacifist, blamed such tragedy to the progress of industrialism in the West. In contrast to westerners, Chinese people, who are still far away from industrialism, are leading a peaceful and self-sufficient life, all of which seems to be better than the savage growth of industry and brutal wars. As a result, when Russell called the progress as “restless change”, he was actually warning us about the evil and destructive aspects of industrialism; and when Russell referred to “desirable goal”, he was talking about some improvements that is irrelevant to material or industry — it is about people’s feeling of happiness, freedom and equality of society and welfare for the whole mankind.

It seems pretty reasonable that although Confucianism is not a good guidance for social structure, it is beneficial for us to maintain some of moral concepts, which should be considered as a practice of leaving out the dross and preserving the essence. However, there is still one question that needs to answer: can science and technology from the West and native Chinese moral virtues exist at the same time peacefully? My answer to this question is, sadly, NO, and I will explain it later.

Russell’s advice for China: keeping Chinese virtues and importing science into China at the same time

Russell was fully aware of what the Chinese situation is in 1921 and he thought that such situation is caused by the weakness of Chinese military. In order to solve the problems, importing science and technology from West is a must, but Russell suggested Chinese people to retain traditional Chinese moral virtues while learning science and technology. In fact, he realized that some parts of traditional Chinese civilization, which is outdated and harmful, should be eliminated, but he thought that this process should be limited and Chinese people should only learn modern knowledge instead of culture and values from the West.

It is such a fascinating idea that both modern technologies and traditional virtues can be preserved. However, development of industry in China not only needs advanced knowledge, talents and technologies, but also requires huge changes in Chinese morals. As is discussed in Question One, Chinese virtues, which was praised highly by Russell, are actually growing from filial piety and the strength of the family. Filial piety, which plays a significant role in constructing ancient Chinese society, emphasizes much about the family ethic and cares little about the public spirit. It worked well in the past since all the public space are family-governed by the emperor of China, and public spirit seemed to be useless consequently. But, when modern industry started developing across China, public spirit is in great need, and Chinese people are in urge to find a new spiritual dependence of a modern man to replace Confucianism and deeply reform Chinese society. As a result, traditional virtues can not be preserved as long as industry starts developing and modern society starts building.

Nonetheless, Russell is opposite to the above conclusion that, as he wrote in The Problem of China, there is nothing hostile to the spread of science and technology in China, although the progress of science has been slow for a long time. However, it is probably incorrect that Chinese civilization is good for the development of science and technology — if so, why would the progress of science be so slow during a long time period, which is much longer than western countries? We can actually make a short analysis about why Western civilization is more suitable for the development of modern science. Firstly, Plato’s philosophy of ideas provided a spirit of reason for the basis of modern science, which encourages people to use reason to solve realistic problems. Secondly, Galileo defined modern science as a result of the combination of empirical observation, mathematical reasoning and theoretical construction, which becomes the overall framework for modern science research and technology development. Craftsmen in ancient China, in contrast, had developed advanced and feasible technologies to solve practical problems, but failed to construct any theoretical framework which would possibly turn into the germ of modern science. A possible explanation to this phenomenon is that traditional Chinese civilization emphasizes much on practical value and cares little about theoretical value, under which circumstances ancient Chinese developed plentiful practical technologies but knew little about the theoretical basis of these technologies. As a result, traditional Chinese virtues are naturally inconsistent with modern science, and Russell’s advice is just not practical in Chinese society.


It is obvious that we have achieved huge progress in many aspects of social development. But, whether you admit it or not, we are losing more and more traditional Chinese virtues in the past few decades. If you agree with my above answers, you may find out that such loss is inevitable since there remains natural conflicts between modern society and traditional civilization. However, it does not mean that we can only adapt to Western civilization; it is quite important to build a new Chinese civilization as our new spiritual dependence. The most famous and influential example is New Confucianism, which advocates for certain Confucianist elements of society – such as social, ecological, and political harmony – to be applied in a contemporary context in synthesis with Western philosophies such as rationalism and humanism. This philosophy is recognized as a response to the increasing social injustice and inequality emerging in mainland Chinese society as a result of unchecked economic growth, and the concept of Harmonious Society, which is very popular recently in mainland China, also derives from new Confucianism. Such practice can be seen as a meaningful practice to build a new Chinese civilization as well as an answer to the title of this paper:

Shall Chinese virtues be preserved?

Yes, but please in a clever way.