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To understand the details of Li Zehou’s work, it is helpful to first locate it within the social and historical contexts to which Li was responding. Specifically, his work can be understood as a contribution to the struggle to establish the intellectual foundations of a Chinese modernity. As China transitioned away from the long-lived dynastic system that had ended early in the twentieth century, there was intense debate in China about what forms of social and political order should take its place. Marxism emerged as the governing ideology after the Communist revolution, but this did not settle the outstanding social questions. In the period of liberalization that followed Mao’s death, intellectuals like Li Zehou emerged and found a new role. Instead of being tasked with providing justifications for state policy and the ruling ideology, they were free, to some extent, to explore new ideas that could inform policy and popular consciousness. Li Zehou duly became one of the most active and widely read of Chinese thinkers during the 1980s and 1990s, offering a humanistic vision of Chinese society.
Originally published in Dao Companion to Contemporary Confucian Philosophy, David Elstein ed.