Student Report: Brutal Moralism: Changes in Popular Worldviews in China since 2008” by Biao Xiang

Reported by Dongkun Lyu, Class of 2025

This is a hybrid keynote lecture as a part of 2022 Humanities Fall Conference: Ciencia y Caridad.

Duke Kunshan University’s Humanities Research Center invited Professor Biao Xiang who is one of China’s foremost social anthropologists to deliver a lecture on Oct 8, regarding his recent research . He is currently conducting research at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and was only able to participate in the HRC’s Ciencia y Caridad Fall Conference via zoom.

Xiang formulated the existence of a  popular worldview in China called “Brutal Moralism.” It is the idea that brutality is a sign of authenticity, and it is an idea that is accepted by a sizable section of the Chinese population, regardless of their socioeconomic background since 2008. Xiang makes a distinction between morality and moralism. He asserts that “Morality is about principles that guide one’s conduct; moralism is about judging others in a black and white manner”.

He points out that Brutal Moralism has two characteristics, I) it is widely accepted emotionally; II) there is a justification for it. One reason for these characteristics is the self-identification of the victims which emotionally transforms into hatred. Another reason is that brutal moralism justifies some traditionally immoral behavior. This was especially seen in the discussion of the Russo-Ukrainian war in online public forums. “Violence can be celebrated as heroic; traditional moral values such as respect for life can be belittled as hypocrisy.” Brutality as a sign of authenticity was legitimated by Moralistic claims.

The value of human life counts for little in this moralistic worldview. This Brutal Moralism influences people’s worldviews both on the international  and individual level.

Prof. Zairong Xiang also presented his observations on online public opinion.

After the lecture, Professor Xiang opened the floor to observations and questions, and he proceeded to answer all questions at once. The lecture ended with Professor Xiang’s summary response, and he hoped to continue the discussion into the student seminar.

Student seminar with Biao Xiang

Professor Xiang carried out a student seminar by the means of an anthropological dialogue. Student were invited to present their empirical experiences, perceptions, and hypotheses related to the issues raised in the lecture.

Sample questions and hypotheses:

Q: Thank you to Prof. Xiang for the great lecture, I have a question about the role of historical narratives or national shame education which in late the 20th century, which the Chinese government turned to in order to emphasize  cases like the Nanjing massacre. This then justifies the 落后就会挨打”If you fall behind, you will be beaten” principle. It’s a justification of violence, of competition between individuals, justifying moralistic brutality. Individuals who grow up under this sort of education will tend to appeal to the authorities, and perhaps worship it.

Xiang endorsed this hypothesis and admitted there may be several historical reasons for these worldviews. He also hoped the students could present more on their perceptions of this.

In the later seminar, students presented and raised their empirical experiences and questions such as “the conflict between political legitimacy and brutal moralism,” “daily lives in Shanghai during pandemic” and “Internet opinion”.

Xiang also discussed how to translate “戾气” and “无力感” which are words he thinks of as accurate symbols of the younger Chinese generations. The group decided on “戾气” as “toxic gas” and “无力感”as “sense of powerlessness”.

Before the lecture, Professor Xiang was conducting anthropological interviews, asking about the actual situation of the epidemic in Shanghai.