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China has changed dramatically in the 20th century and, with it, its peoples and their moralities. In that time period people cannot count on an ever-present system of Confucian social relationships and ethical norms suffusing their various lifeways. The shared, stable Chinese way of life had first changed in response to what were euphemistically called ‘concessions’ along China’s seaboard, which were extorted by foreign powers, and which converted seaports into extraterritorial foreign enclaves. A bit later in the 20th century, civil war caused widespread currency devaluations, loss of life, famine, lasting internal divisions, and untold human tragedy. Then, after the communist revolution, Mao’s campaigns were a roiling period in which Chinese civil society was churned top to bottom, causing havoc and tragedy, vividly represented in Frank Dikkoter’s recent trilogy of histories. Many traditional practices synonymous with upper-class Confucianism deserved reform if not repudiation, for example, unwillingly footbinding women. Yet campaigns, such as “Destroy the Four Olds”, went beyond reform. By systematically altering, if not decimating, family structures, institutions, firms, and customs, the Cultural Revolution damaged the infrastructure that matters most for inheritance of stable norms. Finally, China molted once more, recently, due to effects from opening a market economy, often credited to Deng Xiaopeng’s influence. This has brought with it a further restructuring of family relationships, unfamiliar priorities, new marriage norms, a domestic surveillance state, and a new, increasingly dominant role in the world’s economy.

An axiom of cultural evolutionary theory is that social learning is the leading factor in the steady transmission, vertically or horizontally, of norms, some of them moral norms. When a culture’s systems of social learning are disrupted, when its institutions are ruined by foreign powers, when rules governing the authority-directedness of social relationships are overturned, the cultural scaffolding supporting morality is jeopardized. With this perspective, we needn’t wonder why, after a century like that, present-day observers might conclude that China is experiencing a “moral crisis”. As a matter of fact, the Chinese Communist Party’s own policy statements concur with this judgment. Is there a better way to explain the CCP’s newfound need for a “soul-casting policy” (铸魂工程) in Document #9, or reports indicating the CCP in 2017 spent more money on propaganda and citizen control (769bn yuan) than on national defense (720bn yuan)?

We ought not get ahead of ourselves here: first of all, researchers need to show, rather than presume, that moral emotion, cognition and behavior have actually changed. For present purposes, suppose that it has. Knowing that China and her people have experienced changes in moral norms is a far step from understanding how these changes have occurred, or identifying in what these changes consist. The goal of our “Understanding China’s Changing Moral Psychology” project is to bring together elite, cross-disciplinary collaborators whose joint efforts will lead to a new understanding of Chinese moral traits, where these traits came from, and their future influence.

This project runs from January 2020 to June 2023 and is funded by Templeton World Charities Foundation, with generous in-kind contributions from Cal State Fullerton and its College of Humanities and Social Sciences. As principal (and, I suppose in this case, principle) investigator, I am grateful to program officers and leadership of the Templeton World Charities Foundation for having faith in this project, and to project collaborators, who have agreed to lend some of their time and expertise to contributing to a better understanding of China.