It may seem strange to talk about spirituality and Chinese communism, but an article posted by a former colleague on LinkedIn recently got me thinking about my days as an economic officer in our embassy in Beijing more than 20 years ago.
Back then I often hung out in a crowded, run-down “salon” bearing the unusual name of the Unirule Institute of Economics ( 天則經濟研究所) UNIRLE (unirule.cloud) I was the only foreigner in the crowded room listening to the debates between the economists and lawyers from all over China. One day one of the founders, Mao Yushi (no relation to the Chairman and the name just happens to be spelled the same in English) invited me to his home, the first private residence I had ever seen: an apartment worth a lot of money today.
Professor Mao made some tea and we sat for a bit. At one point he said, “Let me tell you something about the Communist Party: there are ‘free thinkers’ like me who are supposed to talk to people like you and give our best advice to the decision-makers who can’t talk to you or let you know what they are thinking.” It was an epiphany.
I was saddened to learn recently that after flourishing for many years after I left Beijing, in 2013 Professor Mao got into trouble for writing an article calling for Chairman Mao to be reevaluated and for his body to be removed from his mausoleum. There’s even a Youtube video showing Party members chanting “Down with the traitors [former premier] Wen Jiabao and Mao Yushi.” And in 2019, Chairman Xi Jinping finally shut him down altogether. Well, Professor Mao did win the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. (The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty | Cato Institute).
In an interview with Radio France International’s Chinese service on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Professor Mao said this (my translation): “You asked me if I’ve ever wanted to live in a different time or in a different country? Well, of course, if I had the choice I’d love to go to America. But that’s my individual concern. I’m not thinking only of myself; I’m thinking of everyone. Can everybody go to the States? Of course not. But what is possible is to reform our country so it’s a bit more like America. That is both possible and worth striving for with all one’s might.”
I never talked to Professor Mao about religion, but like all good Communists he probably considers himself a materialist. Still, it is interesting that the term “unirule” is an awkward translation of a classical Chinese concept that other famous Western scholars have translated as “heaven.” One passage in the Confucian Record of Music was translated by a renowned Scottish missionary like this:
When one has mastered completely (the principles of) music, and regulates his heart and mind accordingly, the natural, correct, gentle, and honest heart is easily developed, and with this development of the heart comes joy. This joy goes on to a feeling of repose. This repose is long-continued. The man in this constant repose becomes (a sort of) Heaven. Heaven-like, (his action) is spirit-like. Heaven-like, he is believed without the use of words. Spirit-like, he is regarded with awe, without any display of rage.
Like the Chinese Communist Party, the Confucians didn’t talk about religion, but for a guy who loves singing in the choir at my church, the passage is music to my ears. Maybe we should translate “unirule” as “oneness of humanity?”