You Don’t Understand China – Opting Out


How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini

432 pages. Granta Books.

I still haven’t got my head around how to review books, as the interest and enjoyment of them are highly contingent. What do I already know about this subject? Some books that may be great for the unacquainted I may have given a middling review simply because I was familiar with the material. This might be the case with some reviewers of this book, How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini, as many have been left wanting for a deeper insight into Indian philosophy, for example.

For me though, the recent China expat, still getting used to the fact that China is different, very different, I found it helpful and thought-provoking.

The China stuff was especially interesting, naturally extrapolating and illuminating the general sense I get here about familial piety, harmony, and hierarchy. I can say the following sentence without flinching: we don’t understand China. This book goes some way to helping us understand why.

I also appreciated segments on Japanese aesthetics and their appreciation of the space between things, the map Baggini creates of various understandings of ethics (utilitarian, deontological, virtue ethics, karma) and the general takes on contradistinction between Eastern and Western philosophy.

Baggini’s mission is first to correct the conflation of philosophy with Western philosophy in general, highlighted in his shock that the philosophy and world thought departments sat opposite each other at his university, yet he was the only one who bothered to visit both. Then, it is to promote cross-cultural dialogue.

The understanding of the “Vulgar Western Philosopher” goes: Philosophy was invented by the Greeks, and if there is anything interesting to say about the rest of the world, it’s to point out that there’s a lot of superstition around. The point of comparative philosophy, then, is to further understand where everyone else goes wrong.

Of course this chauvinistic conception of philosophy is not held by the majority of philosophers. But it’s something that we must fight against as world tensions increase. In this further escalating cold war against China, for example, the West must at least attempt to understand what constitutes the Chinese mindset.

It’s easy to look at popular support for “authoritarian” China and assume the Chinese must be a highly credulous, authority-worshipping culture susceptible to brainwashing. We find it difficult to square how they aren’t rioting in the streets for a Western-style democracy and liberties.

However, once you dive into the Confucian and Daoist traditions, understand how they shaped the Chinese civilization, and how these ideas have permeated into the assumptions of Chinese people today, it becomes less preposterous. Then, it’s easier to drop the dagger.

Harmony is the grounding principle that informs everything Chinese, from art, to food, to politics. Rather than a blind trust in authority, Chinese people see the implicit safeness in hierarchy that promotes societal harmony.

The term “Mandate of Heaven’s” Ancient Egyptian-like connotation of the God Leader and the divinely-ordained regime derives from a mistranslation of the character 天 (Tian), which can variously mean sky (not necessarily “heaven”), or day, and in context means the natural order (or natural law). It’s an old maxim that regimes that violate the natural order will not survive.

The Chinese see hierarchy therefore as a natural structure to promote harmony, that can be upended if it goes against the natural order. If it violates that harmony, it no longer becomes legitimate or pragmatic. It doesn’t mean that Xi Jinping is never to be criticized.

What it does mean is that China is less inclined to get on board with the Western idea that the individual is the sacred political unit. It’s not an either/or thing, especially as China’s younger generation becomes more westernized: electoral democracy may indeed come China one day. But the priority is not the people’s will. China sees the disunity of the US, and are quite happy to make the trade-off. They prefer harmony to voter sovereignty.

The fundamentals of the Western mindset are apparent in every country that we might call “Western,” but they are expressed differently. Baggini argues that the reason why religion has had much greater staying power in the US than Europe is down to its uniquely American philosophical tradition: pragmatism. Religion for Americans is “true enough” for their purposes, for what it gives them.

It also explains Trump – who seems largely unconcerned about the tightness of his propositions. He can say plainly illogical and contradictory things, and the people will cheer even louder, because it is useful for the “war against the left.”

This is by no means a final answer to anything. It’s really just a toe into the water. Exactly what you need to cement in your head the concept that your Western lens is one lens of many. Not to say it’s incorrect, but that it is a lens, and that our interpretation of things is informed by it. It’s worth reading for the various strands of thought that you’ll be excited to pick up, and to inspire you to further reading.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.


  1. Interesting read. I’m curious where you would fit recent Chinese history into this analysis of the difference of worldviews. In particular, the impact of Mao and the Cultural revolution. Would you suggest that the Chinese Government is far more influenced by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-etc thought than the Chinese populace who, whether consciously or not, have been shaped more by Confucian and Daoist thought?

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