Li Yehang – a digital Christian philosopher

Li Yehang is one of the many Chinese intellectuals to publish online. More originally, his texts explore the relationship between Chineseness and Christianism, and prove that the Internet represent a new space of expression for today’s scholars.

The first sentence in one of those texts: ‘Li Yehang reads the Bible: can Christians be Buddhists?’  (野航读圣经 : 基督徒可以信佛教吗 ?) might seem familiar: ‘You shall have no other God before me’ (Exodus). The rest of the article explores the theme announced in the title. According to the author, faith is a relationship between the subjectivity of the self and divine transcendence. Religions are expressions of this fundamental relationship, determined primarily by historical circumstances. Spiritual phenomena, therefore, project themselves onto the external world in symbolic forms – thus representations of Christ and the saints in Christianism; thus the gods of Buddhist temples.

It would be wrong to believe that the question as to whether Christians can also be Buddhist is only about whether it is possible to follow two distinct forms of spiritual projections. According to the author, any symbolic projection – but also any cultural expression of religion, or even any religious expression in a given language – entails the risk of idolatry. Buddhism and Christianism share the conviction that a certain ‘light’ needs to ‘shine into the darkness’, and in their very structure, both religions equally invite the believer to be careful about the risk of idolatry. Both religions are structurally analogous, and therefore, compatible.

Li Yehang offers no less than a reasoned apology of religious tolerance. A quick overview of the titles on his blog reveals a freedom of tone and approach striking for a Western Christian, often stuck in their habits: ‘My tour of Hell (fable)‘ (我的“地狱”之旅 (寓言)), or ‘The Secret of the Self, from Journey to the West to the Matrix’  (自我的秘密————从《西游记》到《黑客帝国》). Whereas online discussions about China generally oscillate between the graphs of external commerce, democracy deficit and tourism advice, the perspective of reading a Chinese contemporary busy with interpreting classics, biblical exegesis and comparing traditions shows a renewed intellectual pleasure.

Reading the Bible in Chinese

Li Yehang wrote a series of articles entitled ‘Li Yehang reads the Bible’  (野航读《圣经》). Some have provocative titles – The Virgin Mary and communism’ or ‘the doctrines of Moses and Marx’. All offer commentaries of biblical passages – a type of online sermon.

It is striking to read this Chinese intellectual who is also a Christian believer. During my first trip to China, the orthodox cathedral in Harbin and the St Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai had struick me this way – architectural presences easily interpretable in the middle of an envirnonment where I struggled to decode the signs.

A few years later, in Tianjin, I keep the memory of a moving service at St Joseph Cathedral. I know China relatively little then, and didn’t understand the language well – but in this country which I’d always learned to approach as ‘the great other’, I could find a familiar structure of space, a familiar order of liturgy, and melodies that resonated with me. My first affection for Li Yehang was born of this sweet familiarity.

Li Yehang has since published over 400 essays – many of them circulated on my1510.cn, the Chinese equivalent of the Huffington Post, now closed. Some survive on his blog and elsewhere on the Internet, including this museum. The first of those texts, published in 2008, was titled ‘Reading the Yi Jing 1 – on the folly of the father (classical Chinese) (周易时读之一:论“幹父之蛊 (文言) ). Li Yehang started his literary activity online with a commentary on the Book of Changes – the ultimate Chinese classic. Later, he started a number of other series he followed in parallel: ‘Li Yehang reads the Bible” ( 野航读《圣经》) and ‘Li Yehang reads the Buddhist classics’ (野航读佛经). From the start, he established reading as the foundation of his work as a writer, and interpretation as preferred form for intellectual exercise. In doing this, he follows the lineage of Chinese thinkers for whom commentary on the classics is a highly respectable type of work – including Confucius, whom tradition identifies as the author of a commentary on the hexagrams of the Yi Jing, often published alongside the original text.

Li Yehang combines deep respect for the classics and the continuation of an exegetic tradition, while varying references. The same essay will bring together a class of Chinese literature – Journey to the West  – and a Hollywood production – The Matrix. Another will join the Buddhist tradition with the Japanese animation film Spirited Away.  His writings show great formal diversity. Li Yehang, as other intellectuals like Cui Weiping or Ran Yunfei, publishes those texts as series, independent pieces connected by an analogy in form and content, forming an open totality. He explores the key genres of digital writing: travel writing and film commentary. Some of his texts represent more original formal attempts: poems on the classical model, dream narrations and their interpretations, moral fables, “dialogues with Satan”.

An enlightenment philosopher? 

Through form and content, Li Yehang evokes the French enlightenment philosophers. The first essay I read might have coloured my perception – but I cannot help but think about the inhabitant of Cathay described in Voltaire’s Zadig – a wise man able to proudly claim the rich tradition that nurtured him, while remaining away from fanaticism. More deeply, the thinking of Li Yehang is a vaccine against orientalism. A Christian himself, without ceasing to be Chinese, he takes the message of Buddhist and the Yi Jing equally seriously. Far from a nationalist defence of ‘Asian values’ or a ‘Chinese thought’, through the choice of his references, Li Yehang seems to look for a kind of universalism enlightened by the crossing of traditions. He inhabits a world where China and the West are not separated by an undecipherable screen of signs and symbols, but, rather, are united by joint readings. Five figures dominate his writing: Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Luther and Karl Marx; Europe and Asia combine, evoking this scene from Antonioni’s China where, in a travelling, he reveals the successive portraits of Marx and Engels on the walls of the Forbidden City, before reaching – painted in the same style and format – the portrait of Mao Zedong.

Among the recurring themes in Li Yehang’s texts is the obsessive desire of our times to improve material conditions – and how destructive this desire can be for the soul. He explores it from different angles, denouncing the illusion of wedding markets where families hope to improve their status through a good alliance, evoked in ‘The two main backgrounds in Chinese society‘ (中国社会的两大底色). He alerts us to the dangers of a purely capitalist model in ‘What kind of consensus do we need?‘   (我们需要什么样的共识) and reveals the contradiction of material appetites in ‘What do you want?‘  (野航读圣经 : 你要什么), a commentary on the passage of the Gospel that says ‘ask, and you shall receive. Against the dominant materialism, Li Yehang invites us to seek justice and create a social order more conducive to spiritual development.

In September 2008, as the whole world was focusing on the Beijing Olympic games, this contemporary Chinese intellectual wrote a text called ‘Sketch of a soul’, and was wondering about the soul of Chinese people. As the country is not of Christian tradition, to what extent and in what way can we say that Chinese people have a soul? A simple yet radical question – to answer which his work offers a humanist perspective, and the wealth of a spiritual universalism fed from the traditions of China and the West.

This piece is adapted from an original article by Julien Leyre published in Nunc magazine in France in November 2013.