To change the body? How culture shapes politics


How is it that two cultural systems with apparently clear moral expectations can produce two Communist dictators who apparently hate the West? Behind President Xi Jinping (b. 1953; Pres. 2012-present) and China’s ruling cadre lie more than 2500 years of Confucian philosophical-moral formation that has left a lasting impression on the way Chinese today see and relate to life, family, fate and community – and, of course, ‘outsiders’ (erstwhile, ‘Barbarians’ from the North, South, East and West). Likewise, Russian Orthodox Christianity has shaped culture and society for more than 1500 years. Unlike Xi Jinping, President Putin (b. 1952; Pres. 2000-2008, 2012-present) readily invokes faith and Orthodoxy to justify his antipathy to the West, a West that he portrays as morally and spiritually ‘rotten’. Much has been written about Putin’s use of the church to bolster his army and aggression; less about Xi’s reversal of the appeal to Confucianism in PRC ideology at the start of the 21st century.

(Barry Blitt, New Yorker)

My focus in this Briefing is the connection between culture, anthropology and technology, and the way the traditional culture, and the prevailing Communist ‘scientism’, of Russia and China, impact their view of, and antipathy towards, the West. Central to this is how they see the human body. For, culture isn’t only about music, literature, art, or ethics, it is about how we understand, respect, and use or abuse our body and that of other people. When science acts to empower or disempower the body, culture is necessarily affected and the possibility for new frontlines of conflict emerges. We find here, I suggest, another explanation for the geopolitical tension, physical and emotional brutality, and open warfare in the world today.

But let me begin further upstream, asking first, Why is the West seen and represented as ‘rotten’ and ‘barbarian’ by Russia and China? Is it just because the West doesn’t possess, or honour, Confucian and Slavic tradition/s? Surely, not. Why, then? Is there, perhaps, more internal fear and genuine offence taken in Moscow and Beijing at international reactions to Russo-Chinese imperialism and aggression? Or perhaps, proliferation in the West of grass-root appeals to ‘Human Rights’, ‘Freedom of Speech’, ‘Identity Politics’, ‘Public Interest’ (to justify press freedom) and various types of ‘Neo-liberalism’ that name and shame state meddling in the financial markets and the latest forms of religious-political totalitarianism? Whatever our answer, the body as a physical, relational and metaphysical entity remains a universal reality and subject to caring attention, cultural expectations and scrutiny (good and bad) by medics and other (physical and social) scientists. It’s the interface of science and culture in East-West relations that I want to focus on here. But, first, some contextual observations.

(Financial Times)

Historically, the body has been viewed differently in the Confucian East and Christian West. Judeo-Christian tradition wonders at human life (cf. Psalm 8. 4, ‘What is man (sic) that you are mindful of him?’) but warns about the susceptibility of the body to weakness and sin, corruption and the last great ‘enemy’, death.[1] In the work of the 16th century Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) we find classic expressions of Renaissance fascination with the human form. Renaissance humanism celebrated the mind and body of humans and located it consciously in that other newly revered ‘work of God’, the natural world. Here is humanity, full of beauty and desire and of immense medical and scientific interest as a micro-machine set in a vast galaxy of celestial bodies. The 18th century Enlightenment took interpretation of the body further, drawing insights from the physical and medical sciences and applying them to the nascent discipline of anthropology and cross-cultural studies. As a consequence, humans are transformed into rational, moral and self-determining agents with unique – and immense – cultural, moral, intellectual and political potential. But these essentially ‘Western’ developments were at odds with – and seen to be so at the time – the way non-Western cultures and philosophies understood the nature of humanity and his, or her, physical, cultural, and spiritual relations to their family, community, nation and the world about them. More is at stake here than the oft-trumpeted contrast between Western ‘individualism’ v. Asian ‘corporatism’. The human body becomes the battleground for an intense East-West ‘culture war’.

Anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) (Royal Library, Windsor Castle,

To the influential Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200 CE) and Russian Orthodox theologian, philosopher and social commentator Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), yes, the West lacked the societal organicism of Eastern cultures. But more than this, in Confucian tradition a person’s identity (viz. their mind, body and soul) is dependent on their ancestors and preserved in time honoured rituals. For its part, Russian Orthodoxy views – and respects – individuals in and through their organic spiritual relationship to Christ, creation, the Church and God, to whom their body belongs. As the American-based Armenian writer Vigen Guroian (b. 1948) says, human existence ‘must be defined in strict accord with the creature’s relationship to the divine acts of Creation and Incarnation’.[2] So, more is at stake culturally and philosophically in East-West relations than political rhetoric, belligerent militarism and imperialistic posturing. The nature of the body and humanity’s relationship to society and the state are traditionally viewed in very different ways in China and Russia. Deep theological and anthropological differences exist between them.

Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200 CE)

Before looking in detail at the implications of these different philosophies, theologies, and anthropologies of the body, it’s worth noting again how Confucianism and Communism interpret a person’s relationship to others. Societal organization in ancient and modern China and Russia was shaped by distinct philosophical and theological priorities. In both traditions a person’s identity (even that of rulers) was subsumed in corporatist structures of power and mutual accountability. Communism did not destroy this fundamental societal principle: it reimagined and redirected it. Historic Slavic tradition located power and its exercise in the Tsarist State and in the Orthodox Church and its hierarchy. More than this, it justified feudalism and agrarianism as divinely ordained correlates of this power structure. As Polish political scientist Wladyslaw Kulski (1903-1989) argued, ‘the spirit of Slavophils was anti-individualist and passionately collectivist’.[3] So Putin’s appeal to ‘Mother Russia’ resonates at every level with Slavic culture and society. Classical Confucianism is similarly straight-lined and hard-edged. Mindful of the socio-political and moral centrality the Junzi 君子 (Lit. gentleman official) to its ancient imperial regime, the Confucian Analects are clear, narrowminded materialism is inexcusable. As Analects 4.16 states: ‘[T]he gentleman understands rightness, whereas the petty person understands profit.’ Though we find at times selfless altruism commended, an ethics of mutuality and an ascetic spirituality are more common in traditional Chinese, Korean and, to a lesser extent, Japanese cultures.[4] As such, pursuit of the ‘common good’ – albeit expressed in different cultural and linguistic ways – is a shared feature of Confucianism, Orthodox Christianity and Marxist Communism.

A scene of the Chinese campaign against the Miao in Hunan, 1795 (collaboration between Chinese and European painters)

If this is, in broad terms, the intellectual, cultural, and political hinterland of East-West views on – and mutual misunderstanding about – humanity and the human body, what of their comparative position on recent medical and technological advances? How does East Asian tradition and Russian Orthodoxy view (post)modern technological developments? Does culture continue to inform their view of the human body? Or, has scientism displaced culture as the beating heart of China and Russia.

To focus in on the discussion a little more, I want to look at a number of specific instances where technological progress has impacted cultural and religious convictions in classical Confucian and Orthodox Christian tradition.

(Ron Lach)

Conflict between technology, culture and religious dogma is not new. The West is familiar with opposition from some ‘Protestant’ groups – notably, Amish (originally Anabaptists) in central Europe and now, the USA and Jehovah’s Witnesses – towards organ transplants and blood transfusions. The Orthodox Church is more accommodating, but with the caveat that other options have been considered (including anointing by a priest, corporate prayer and private meditation). The key issue for the Orthodox, as above, is that the body is treated as a sacrosanct gift of God and to be respected as such.[5] Sensitivities are stirred, however, if or when this divine vessel (in which the Holy Spirit infuses flesh and blood) is subjected in any way (when alive or dead) to what is deemed ‘unholy’ treatment, whereby its unique character and identity are defiled. Included in this are organ transplants from animals, the creation of organic ‘chimaeras’,[6] cremation and (surprisingly, perhaps, to some) tattooing.[7] The saint’s bodily preparation for final Resurrection at the end of time is the backcloth to Orthodoxy’s attitude to the body now, and, as Patrick Reardon has pointed out to official opposition to the sale of organ parts (which is now common in many parts of the world).[8] Here is Reardon (with echoes of the Analects’ low view of the Junzi being profit driven):

[T]he censure placed against commerce in human body parts should not be taken to imply that there are to be no commercial aspects to the transplanting of these members… [T]those who do this important work may expect to earn their living thereby. What is reprehensible is the actual sale of human organs (whether by the donor or by the agency that handles the gift), not the paying of a reasonable fee for the services involved in the removal, preservation, and transplanting of the organ.

It is against this theological, moral and practical background that we should understand the traditional position Orthodoxy takes on body engineering and gender realignment. So, too, Orthodoxy’s view of the cloning of humans and homosexuality, as contrary to humanity (both male and female) being made ‘in’ and sanctified by ‘God’s image’.[9]


Mindful of contextual points made above, the Orthodox position on the interface between new technologies, traditional theology, and modern Russian culture, provokes a number of questions. So, for example, though the Orthodox line separating life-saving practices and modification of self is definite, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t scientifically and morally a bit weak. After all, what would happen if the only plausible organ donor was an animal? Or, what if a person’s gender identity was at such odds with their body that they presented a threat to themselves without surgery? Or, perhaps more immediately applied to our theme, would restoration of someone’s sight through electronic modification really be condemned by the Orthodox Church? I readily admit some of these issues are highly complex and more widely debated than merely with and within Orthodoxy. But an old culture cannot ignore new questions; nor, indeed, new (God-given?) answers to questions and situations old and new. Neither can a new cultural perspective assume that it sees and precursors were blind. Perception of ‘the other’ is clearly key. In communitarian systems of thought and life (such as Russian Orthodoxy and classical Confucianism), it is not surprising if issues of behaviour and bodily integrity are matters of public interest and state control. To critics, the ‘faithful’ in both traditions will accept standardized policies and expectations far too readily. Recent anti-LGBTQ legislation in Russia – and opposition to it – is symbolic of a culture and regime in step with one another but out of step with many in the West. Here’s the battleground for a(nother) ‘culture war’ and why (in part) Putin confidently lambasts the West as ‘rotten’.[10]

(Utagawa Kuniyoshi)

Though many inside (and outside) China connect its scientific interests and history with Daoism, Confucianism in all its evolving forms, has not resisted establishing a connection between morality, ritual and empirical (if not scientific) enquiry. That said, if there is any tension between a person’s (particular) filial obligations (xiao)and their (general) duty to be ‘humane’ (ren), there is some suggestion body modification, transplants and autopsies may contradict both of these central principles in classical Confucianism.[11] But the issues are unclear. On the one hand, a devoted child (xiao) will resist mutilation of their parents (even to save the life of another), while ren includes a readiness to do virtuous deeds for the sake of others. In this tradition, ‘scientific progress’ does not provide (as often in the West) a knockdown moral argument; but, and this is important, neither should Confucian corporatism and an individual’s obligation to the state be perverted into justification for harvesting organs from dissidents or using them as guinea pigs for scientific research. The West may be keener to remind China of its Confucian moral heritage than China itself.

My own discipline of Korean studies sheds additional light on East Asian Confucianism and its attitude to technology and the body. In Korean Neo-Confucianism, all living beings trace their identity to the same Supreme Ultimate (taiji). However, as in classical Confucianism (social and familial) ‘proximity’ and (ritual and moral) ‘obligation’ create conditionalities in inter-human and human-animal relations. Simply put, not all ties and duties are equal.[12] The ‘other’ exists to me in a preordained ‘subjective’ relationship. This philosophical and moral perspective means my own body and that of another is never merely an ‘object’ to me. The body always matters. As in Orthodoxy, medical science and modern technology cannot subvert the status of another. However, the introduction of conditioning categories in societal relations opens the door to more general relativizing of values, so that my duty to those (and their bodies) that are not in social ‘proximity’ to me is both relative and, therefore, susceptible to state interference and potential physical and emotional abuse. If God owns the body in Orthodoxy, predetermined relations (including the state) do so in Confucian China.

(Tiiu Sild)

I want to end by connecting these issues with the current state of East-West relations. For a host of historical, ideological, economic, and strategic military reasons – and despite recent tension over Ukraine – China and Russia have found common cause in the last decade or so against the West. Denying the differences in their religio-cultural history and identity, they have recovered 20th century Marxist commonalities and paraded them before the world. To China, the ‘rest’ are still ‘barbarians’ and owed no obligation but duplicity and disdain. The relativism of classical Confucian moral obligations has now become hard-headed economic imperialism: the ‘rest’ deserves no less. But, as the tension between Russia and China over Ukraine reveals, the two countries are not always in step with one another. Russia, in part because of its Orthodox heritage and imperial links to Western royal families, has always been closer to the West. Russian scientism has never been as free from religious restraints as its Chinese counterpart. Violations of the body (for scientific or political reasons) have perhaps been subject to stronger moral (and theological) constraints; but not so much that Russia might not also be dubbed ‘rotten’ and China (without these restraints) ‘barbaric’.

Views change and cultures like creatures evolve. In the ’culture wars’ of the modern world we should not expect consistency. So, commentators on East-West relations are confronted with a traditionally Orthodox Russia that has no qualms about bombing (sacred bodies of) Ukrainian citizens and an ancient (anti-materialist) Confucian China straining to match the beauty standards and consumerism of the West. As indicated at the outset, attitudes to the body are strangely revealing of deeper cultural priorities. If the West wants to understand what Russia and China really think about themselves and others it shouldn’t listen to what these countries say so much as look at what they do to the bodies of their people. Likewise, if the West wants to understand its distinctiveness (and excellence), it can and should look no further than the respect widely shown there to physical forms and bodily needs and to the way it is rapidly becoming no more respectful of both than modern China and Russia, where violation of the body politic is symptomatic of a deeper disregard for individuality, morality and wholesome tradition.

Dr Tomasz Sleziak – Research Associate

[1] See, for example, Isaiah 40. 6, 1 Peter 1. 24f., Matthew 26.41, Romans 7. 24, 8. 13, Colossians 2. 11, 1 Corinthians 15.26.

[2] Cf. V. Guroian, ‘Human Rights and Modern Western Faith: An Orthodox Christian Assessment, The Journal of Religious Ethics, 26. 2 (1998), 241-247.

[3] Cf. W.W. Kulski, ‘Can Russia Withdraw from Civilization?’, Foreign Affairs 28.4 (1950), 623-643.

[4] Aesceticism has, at times, been turned within Russian Orthodoxy from a spiritual discipline to state justification for economic hardship and under-development. On this, see A. Buss, ‘The Individual in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition’, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 40.91 (1995), 41-65.

[5] On the Orthodox and organ transplants, see:; accessed 17 January 2023.

[6] Cf. a single organism with two DNAs, viz. containing cells from two or more ‘individual’ entities.

[7] On this, see P.H. Reardon, ‘The Commerce of Human Body Parts: An Eastern Orthodox Response’, Christian Bioethics 6.2 (2000), 205-213.

[8] Trade in organ parts is illegal in every country except Iran. However, a black-market trade and weaponization of organ harvesting in China have increased public awareness of this grotesque activity. The need for, and deliberate gifting of organs to family, friends and unknown neighbours is a positive, legal, associate of this action.

[9] On this, see the report of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000 and L. Stan, ‘Eastern Orthodox Views on Sexuality and the Body’, in Women’s Studies International Forum 33 (2010), 38-46.

[10] For commentary on this, see; accessed 17 January 2023.

[11] On this, see G.D. Jones and Nie Jing-Bao, ‘Does Confucianism Allow for Body Donation?’, Anatomical Sciences Education 11.5 (2018), 525-531.

[12] In the 17th century, scholars [Namdang] Han Wonjin and [Oeam] Yi Gan famously debated the relationship between human nature and the nature of all other beings. The issues raised by this ancient ‘Horak Debate’ continue to attract attention. Cf. Suk Gabriel Choi, ‘The Horak Debate Concerning Human Nature and the Nature of All Other Beings’, Dao Companion to Korean Confucian Philosophy (2019), 233-251.