November 13, 2020

How Should We Understand China?

Two Swiss and French Sinologists have differing views.

Jean François Billeter. Contre François Jullien. Éditions Allia, Paris, 2006. 122 pp.

In 2006, Jean François Billeter (b. 1939), a Swiss Sinologist and professor emeritus at the University of Geneva, published his book Contre François Jullien (the translation of which would be [Arguments] Against François Jullien). Billeter criticises his French colleague Jullien (b. 1951), a former professor at Paris Diderot University, and the renowned Sinologist’s interpretation of “Chinese philosophy” or “Chinese thought” (la pensée chinoise).[i] How should one understand China or the so-called Chinese way of thinking? How does François Jullien see the country, what irritates Billeter about Jullien’s theory, and why does this matter?

How Does Jullien Understand China?

One of the main ideas in Billeter’s critique of Jullien’s approach to China is that the Frenchman’s numerous French-language works on China are based on the “Myth of alterity of China” [sic] (mythe de l’altérité de la Chine). Jullien’s China is “a world completely different from ours, indeed opposed to it”. By “us”, Jullien means the West—a term which (I find it necessary to explain) has its own history of formation and strategies of use, but analysing these would take more space than this article has to offer. According to Jullien’s theory, Chinese philosophy or Chinese thought[ii] is the antipode of ours (the West’s). What does Jullien consider the main difference between Western and Chinese philosophy? The key word here is immanence—for Jullien, Chinese thought is mainly characterised by this term.

In English, “immanence” means the state of being present as a natural and permanent part of something.[iii] Jullien sees Chinese philosophy (not only the work of philosophers, but also the way an ordinary Chinese person thinks) as a separate phenomenon, having no need for anything from “the outside”. Billeter explains that, according to Jullien’s theory, Chinese philosophy senses or comprehends (conçoit) reality as follows: Chinese reality is “moving [mouvante] and led by a certain dynamic inherent in this reality; the dynamic holds tendencies or trends [tendances], transformations and (re)turns [retournements], which submit to the inner logic of this reality”.[iv] Meaning: China has its own system of reality and internal logic, untouched by foreign influence. The role of a Chinese person is to figure out how to get by inside the system the most effectively; they cannot question why the system is as it is, let alone consider changing it, but must understand how to serve the system as best they can and make it work to their own benefit. Their role in this internal reality is to “sense and predict the [aforementioned] tendencies/trends, transformations and (re)turns to adapt to them, make the situation work to their own benefit, and pinpoint the opportunities which would help achieve great results with minimal resources”, explains Jullien.[v] He specifies that, in a world shaped and built in this way, “there is no need for end goals [buts en soi / fins dernières], absolute values [valeurs absolues], a priori truths, theoretic ideas [idées pures], the rule of the ‘intelligible’ outside the domain of the ‘perceptible’” [règne de l’intelligible extérieur au domaine du sensible], nor theory ahead of practice. There is no need for “root causes [causes premières], creation [création], God the Creator [Dieu créateur], beginning of the world [commencement absolu] etc.”. In contrast to the West, “transcendence” or “going beyond, over to the other side” or “reality imperceptible to human experience” does not exist in this world. Jullien associates transcendence with the West, and immanence with China. The West transcends the limitations of its world, but China does not, as everything it needs exists in its world and is internal.

What disturbs Billeter about Jullien’s views?

Jullien’s interpretation of Chinese philosophy or philosophy of immanence (la pensée de l’immanence) is a scholastically valuable approach, as Billeter admits. Nevertheless, Billeter does not agree with Jullien exploring Chinese philosophy separate from the political and historical context of China and the world. Billeter explains:

François Jullien talks about Chinese thinkers as if they had always agreed as a group, just because they were Chinese, and as if their thought [leur pensée] never displayed any aporia, illusion, hidden ambition, motivated lies, cold will to restrain [people’s] spirit, nor doubt, mental clarity, braveness, courage ….

Hence, Jullien denies any link between Chinese philosophy and history, as if Chinese thought were some mystical phenomenon outside Chinese history and their politicians’ agendas. Billeter agrees with the term “immanence” and appreciates its value in understanding how a Chinese person functions in the Chinese system—without asking why and looking for tools and opportunities to be more effective. Then again, Billeter stresses that, in his books, Jullien does not pose the question why such a philosophy of immanence exists. What historical processes and political interests have shaped the Chinese way of thinking?

Let us go back in time. Imperial China is said to have been founded in 221 BC. After the fall of the Qin dynasty in 202 BC, the Han came to power. Their aim was to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors, and do everything to maintain authority. This worked out well, and the dynasty stayed in power for four centuries (until 220 AD). But what is more important is that the empire lasted until 1911. How could an empire survive for more than two millennia? What was the secret to the strength of the system? “Emperors, their advisers and representatives instrumentalised culture: they rebuilt it from scratch and based the new regime on this very culture,” Billeter explains. The empire had to become something completely natural and logical for the Chinese people. To achieve this, the system was formed around the central idea that “the emperor’s rule complies with the rules of the universe forever”. “All fields of knowledge, philosophy and thought, language [!], portrayals and performances [représentations] had to assure the Chinese that the emperor’s rule is natural in its essence.” This was the most effective way to ensure the longevity of the imperial order, and maintain hierarchy, domination and submission. According to Billeter, Chinese civilisation as it is now viewed in China and abroad was born through the “instrumentalisation of culture so as to maintain authority”. It was created from the wish to keep the emperor in power. On the one hand, the aim of the imperial order was to conceal the power as such (so that the public would not realise that the regime was oppressive), while on the other it was to eliminate all imaginable alternatives to oppression. Hence, the Chinese people had to feel that imperialism was natural and not question it.

An important keyword is “Confucianisation”, which began during the Han dynasty, but reached its peak intensity only during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The imperial order used Confucius to justify oppression and maintain authority (attributing an erudite façade and historical background to its rule with the help of Confucian teachings). Confucian moral values state that a person has a certain position in society, and hierarchal relations between parent and child, man and woman, elders and the young, leaders and subordinates, different social classes and so on must be firmly maintained. Citing Li Dongjun, Billeter explains how advisers to Han emperors developed the so-called “cult of unity” (culte de l’Un)—a strictly hierarchal system of social relations, in which everyone has a defined place and class (or even rank), determined obligations to submit to those above and the right to dominate those below. This system demands certain skills and abilities from a person to fulfil these obligations. Everyone in their position has the responsibility to maintain harmony within the unity, hence, in practice, every person has full responsibility over the whole system. This calls for denying the individual in favour of the whole. The use of imperial Confucianism as a political weapon to harness power is clearly far from Confucius’s initial philosophy.

Billeter criticises Jullien for not placing immanence in the political and historical context described above. For him, Jullien

did not see that [the so-called Chinese way of thinking or philosophy of immanence] is a part of the world in which objectives [la question des fins] are not part of the discussion, they are not questioned and “intelligence” is manifested in cleverly choosing tools, methods and actions, and adapting to the situation as is.

Jullien did not see that the philosophy of immanence was formed in connection with the imperial order, as imperialism “created a closed-up world, solving the question of objectives with authoritarian means”. According to Billeter, we cannot speak of goals in such a world, as this world unitedly serves a purpose that cannot be questioned: power. Jullien idealises Chinese philosophy, citing the Chinese thinkers who do not understand that they are writing in the context of a closed world, and cannot see the historical reasons for this reclusion. Then again, he ignores the thinkers who are critical of this order.

Why Does This Matter?

Following the story of a region like China (or Estonia, or any other country), we must focus on the subliminal reasons behind people’s actions, the political and historical context. Billeter emphasises that a person’s actions, thinking and way of rationalising the world never exist outside their own context. Incidentally, in the second half of the 19th century “Confucianism” was also applied in the process of modernising Japan. In her dissertation, Célia Sakurai, a Brazilian anthropologist, describes how in the 19th century, “Confucianism” was instrumentalised in Japan to legitimise the emperor’s rule. Sakurai explains that, in Confucian thought, a person must strive for harmony, and one of the values to help people reach harmony is to accept what fate has put in that person’s hands—i.e. to accept the emperor’s rule. The logic is similar in China and Japan. To sum up, if people are acting a certain way in a region and one wants to understand why, one might ask: How is authority exercised in this area? Who benefits from people acting or sensing the world this way?


[i]La pensée chinoise” is potentially an empty term, as Billeter also notes. However, as the term is in use (and perhaps rightly so), I will translate it as “Chinese philosophy” (“story of Chinese thought” is also possible). Due to the context, this article will also use the peculiar phrase “Chinese thought”.

[ii] See the note above.

[iii] “Immanence”, Cambridge English Dictionary.

[iv](L)a « pensée chinoise » serait une pensée de « l’immanence » parce qu’elle n’éprouve pas le besoin de poser quoi que ce soit d’extérieur à la réalité dans laquelle l’homme évolue et agit. Elle conçoit cette réalité comme mouvante et comme mue par un dynamisme qui lui est inhérent, fait de tendances, de transformations et de retournements qui obéissent à une logique intérieure à cette réalité même.

[v]La tâche est de les percevoir et de les prévoir afin de s’y adapter, d’en tirer le meilleur parti possible, de saisir les occasions qui permettent d’obtenir, avec de petits moyens, de grands effets.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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