Matthew Dean (AGI16) on Gan Yang, the Liberal Arts, and China

January 22, 2021 | By Les Poling

Matthew Dean (AGI16)

For Annapolis Graduate Institute alum Matthew Dean (AGI16), St. John’s College is inextricably tied to contemporary Chinese philosopher Gan Yang.

That may sound surprising. While many Johnnies come to St. John’s by way of an admired intellectual figure, most prospective students likely don’t associate the college with modern political philosophy. Dean didn’t discover the college through Gan—he first heard of St. John’s from an undergraduate professor at Suffolk University, and he had already been accepted to the Graduate Institute when he initially stumbled upon Gan’s work. Nevertheless, the two are closely intertwined: When Dean applied to St. John’s, he was living in China, where he spent three years teaching English. It was also during that time that he watched Gan speak in honor of the 50th anniversary of the St. John’s Santa Fe campus.

“I was sitting on the St. John’s website, combing through everything I could find, and I chanced upon this lecturer who was talking about the liberal arts in China,” Dean recalls. “I immediately went to the public library and the local bookstore, and started reading him voraciously.”

Gan is dean of Xinya College, Tsinghua University in Beijing and China’s foremost champion of Great Books, making the connection with St. John’s a natural one. And in the spirit of lifelong learning, Dean built upon that connection in late 2020 with a translation of “The Modernity Critique of the 1980s and the Transformation of the 1990s”—the first chapter of Gan’s The Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns, the Chinese and the West—for Reading the China Dream, a website devoted to “intellectual life in contemporary China.”

Gan is best known, Dean says, for his thoughts on modernity during a time when modernization in China—from “opening” the economy to foreign investment to infrastructure and mass consumption—was widely considered long overdue. Dean writes on Reading the China Dream that “From Gan’s perspective, the economic and social changes of the 1980s have not made for human flourishing in 21st century China.” In conversation, Dean offers further context. “Nobody would say China did not need modernization [in the 1980s and 1990s],” he says. However, in the mass push for economic reform and other hallmarks of modernity, little room was left for criticism. That’s where Gan emerged, Dean explains. “He came forward as someone who was not totally sold on modernity.”

Gan is widely recognized as a member of the Chinese New Left, a school of political thought that criticizes capitalism and various elements of Chinese economic reform. Dean points out in his translation that Gan himself has said, regarding the New Left, “I don’t know what I am, I’m just Chinese.” Nevertheless, he is decidedly critical of capitalism’s unceasing forward march, and unafraid to tie that line of thought to modernization. In a particularly memorable passage from Dean’s translation, Gan asserts:

“The problems wrought by the mass market, like the problem of the rapid expansion of wealth and poverty, the problem of an increasingly vulgar culture, are all classic problems that capitalism necessarily brings with it. Yet we are often not willing to face these problems of modern society, and rather believe that all problems are problems of an old structure, not problems of capitalism and modernity. This greatly impedes our ability to deepen our understanding of modernity, and instead we make the mistake of believing that once we’ve suddenly modernized, then all problems simply won’t exist.”

There’s recognizable Marxist skepticism in such excerpts; there are also strands of Heidegger, Eliot, Kafka, Hannah Arendt, and other writers that Gan has sought out as part of his exploration of modernity. For Dean, that’s what makes Gan so fascinating. “He’s citing T.S. Eliot and Martin Heidegger; he is interested in the same problems they’re interested in. And I’m interested in those problems, especially having come out of St. John’s,” he remarks.

“Because of his time spent studying the Great Books and reading a lot of Leo Strauss, Gan does feel that a return to classical political philosophy is important,” Dean adds. “But he’s also famous for advocating something called, in English, unifying the three traditions: Confucian personalism, Maoist pursuit of social justice, and Dengist market efficiency.”

Much of Gan’s work is unique to contemporary China. However, there’s plenty in Dean’s translation of Gan that Johnnies, in particular, will find meaningful. Without specifically referring to the idea of learning for its own sake, Gan laments the concept of education as solely practical in nature, stating: “Many students tell me that they fundamentally dislike their major… They don’t think about what they like, either. Instead they care about applications that are likely to succeed.” Regarding the liberal arts, Gan says, “Culture cannot be judged by the standards of the market economy, nor can our colleges function according to those standards.” Dean agrees. “A lot of the concerns that [Gan] brings up about the utilitarian nature of modern learning are relevant to Americans.”

Dean’s translation set up.

That’s part of the reason Dean returned to Gan’s work nearly six years after leaving China. He first started translating “The Critique of Modernity” in 2017; “I happened to crack the book open,” he remembers. “I thought, why don’t I just try translating it?” But he began working in earnest once COVID-19 hit. “I had time to just be alone and work on this translating project,” he says.

So he hunkered down, building multiple drafts, brushing up on his Chinese, and soliciting help from friends and tutors. “It was a lot of reading, hunting down references, and creating draft after draft,” he says. “Drafting, editing, consulting with friends.” Eventually, after around 10 drafts, Dean cold-emailed Reading the China Dream editor David Ownby, who agreed to publish his work after some revision. Dean was thrilled.

Reading the China Dream is a truly profound project and has already amassed quite a lot of very important intellectual work coming from China,” he says. “It's one of the greatest efforts, if not the preeminent effort, to provide English readers with the means of orienting themselves in the Chinese intellectual landscape.”

Seeing as there’s only one chapter of Dean’s translation on Reading the China Dream, it only seems natural to wonder whether he intends to keep translating. The answer, he says, is a resounding “maybe.” There’s nothing requiring him to continue his work, and “I'm looking in that area for other things that also strike my fancy,” he explains.

But that’s the beauty of the endeavor. If Dean decides to continue meticulously chronicling Gan’s thought, relentlessly pursuing the right English words to represent each groundbreaking idea, it won’t result from a sense of obligation or professional duty. It will be for the love of scholarship: a passion for exploring and sharing knowledge with fellow learners, whether in Santa Fe, Annapolis, Shanghai, or Beijing. That’s a conception of education that’s decidedly non-utilitarian—and one that will resonate with any Johnnie.