The early Chinese Communist regime depicted T’ao Ch’ien as a people’s poet, an ascetic recluse who embraced poverty and a peasant’s life. In fact, he rose as high as provincial governor, and his verses about labour, poverty and gallons of wine were often metaphors.
He was not rich but was what one might call ‘low gentry’, able to view at first hand the wealth of those above him, sometimes to taste it. He had ‘ornate pins of office’ and delighted in feasting his poorer neighbours. But he never forgot his start in life: ‘Since my hair was bound up, I’ve laboured to do good, | For four and fifty years I’ve done my best. | As a young man, I came up against the world’ (Frodsham 1967: 114–17). The ‘Teacher of Old’ in T’ao’s poem is Confucius.
The sentiment is that virtue is greater than a concern for poverty. T’ao himself expressly suggested that such virtue was impossible to attain: ‘Man’s life is based on constant principles, | Foremost of which is the need for clothes and food. | How can we pay no heed to things like these, | And still hope to attain to happiness?’ The tension between necessity and virtue, one a material absolute (eat or die), and the other an aspirational normative condition (to be virtuous is to be happy), has run through all of China’s development assistance to the surrounding world.
Often, the two would establish contradictions in how China approached especially the developing world. The aim of this report, however, is to argue that – for 2016 – the China that will greet the states of the G20 will be a China that aims to change the material world. It will deploy a vocabulary of virtue. I have myself sought to recognise those moments when Confucian virtue was a key underlay of China’s relationship with Africa (Chan 2013). China will still hope that virtue will be achieved ‘through hard work’. Increasingly virtue embroiders a self-justifying romance as China develops an economic realpolitik that is breathtaking in its ambition.