Harvard’s Michael Sandel is an unusually prominent thinker in North America and Europe, but in China he’s a verifiable celebrity, inspiring what New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos describes as “near religious devotion.” On one recent trip, the border guard checking passports told Sandel that he was one of his heroes. Scalpers around the country make huge profits selling tickets to his talks. He is a regular on state television, and China Newsweek selected him as 2011’s “most influential foreign figure.”
Part of Sandel’s fame in China is surely due to the engaging style of his lectures, which rely heavily on interactions with the audience. Other factors include the rarity of public discussions of morality in China, where market reforms and exponential economic growth have left a “moral vacuum” in their wake, along with a thirst for alternatives to communist and market-based systems of thought. It’s also helpful that Sandel’s ideas, with their communitarian inflections, echo traditional Chinese teachings about private and public ethics.
Those echoes and connections are the focus of a new volume of essays on the ways in which the ideas that Sandel offers intersect with, resemble, and differ from Confucian and Daoist thought. Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy collects nearly a dozen original pieces from leading scholars who tease out how the affinities between Sandel’s work and the major Chinese traditions help audiences to confront questions of utmost significance in Chinese public life: What is the role of the individual to the family, and of the family to the community? What is the relationship between the virtue of a social institution and the virtue of those who lead it? What is the significance of individual liberty if the common good is based in shared values? How does one celebrate human diversity while cultivating a strong sense of community?
“China is now in search of a public philosophy beyond GDP,” Sandel writes in his reply to the volume’s contributors. “As in so much else, China’s success or failure in this quest will matter greatly for its own future and for the rest of the world.” Abiding by the pluralist conception of the common good which Sandel has always defended, the contributors to this collection provide access to and encourage participation in the spiritual and moral debates that have begun to permeate life in the world’s newest superpower.
This Friday, February 2nd, Sandel will mark the publication of Encountering China by joining Joseph C. W. Chan, Chaibong Hahm, Tatsuo Inoue, and Hongmei Qu for a roundtable discussion chaired by Elizabeth Perry, Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Organized by the Harvard-Yenching Institute and co-sponsored with the Asia Center, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and the Korea Institute, the event is open to the public and takes place at 3pm in the Tsai Auditorium at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies.