China Ammo for argumentum ad antiquitam

The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went to a somewhat unusual “nerd camp.” I attended a 6-week “enrichment course” at the University of Tampa entitled “Logic and Critical Thinking.” We covered quite thoroughly the different types of logical syllogisms and logical fallacies. It was a singularly eye-opening experience for me, as many of the arguments I’d heard many times before were suddenly and for the first time exposed for what they were. In another sense, it was a new form of power. Adults rule the world, but they’re not above logic. Being able to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of politicians, teachers, and even parents was a potent little trick indeed!

Recently I read the book How to How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, which is basically a rundown of various types of fallacies, how to recognize them, how to defend against them, and even how to effectively employ them if you need to.

While a good read and quite entertaining in parts, many examples used in the book probably make more sense to a British audience than an American one. It also feels a little outdated at times, such as this passage on the argumentum ad antiquitam (“appeal to tradition”) fallacy and how it relates to China (links and bold added by me):

> Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.

>> This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.

>> (It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)

> There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

> […]

> Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.

Hmmm, “Shin Shan Province,” eh? The use of “province” in two different senses in one paragraph is a little confusing, but I would guess that “Shin Shan” is supposed to be “Shanxi” or “Shaanxi.” Anyway, I suspect that even when dealing in fallacies and tradition, it’s still a good idea to use the name of a province that actually exists.

It’s true, though, that China is still a treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” anyone?), or mystical traditions. I’m curious if my readers have run into many China-centered argumentum ad antiquitam fallacies out there.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. “We’ve always had Emperors so we don’t need personal freedoms”

    I find the worst offenders of this sort of fallacy re China are the Sinophiles out west who studied kung-fu and eat at Chinese restaurants but never actually spent much time in China. The loudest voices on how perfect Chinese (Japanese, Sufic, Indigenous, etc) thought/philosophy/culture is seems to come from people who’ve had little first hand experience. The danger+opportunity crowd being a good example.

    I’m still looking for 新山 on my map.

    • Ah, good example.

    • Peter Nelson Says: May 14, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      “These islands have belonged to our people since the dynasty! Dozens of fish have been caught here over the centuries! Huh, what’d you say about oil? That’s not fair at all. Our territorial integrity has feelings, and you’re definitely hurting them.”

      A certain news station has convinced me that yes, television does rot your brain.

      • Peter Nelson Says: May 14, 2012 at 4:07 pm

        Oh, shoot. Angle brackets eaten by an angry regular expression. “the dynasty” should be “the <insert some dynasty> dynasty”.

  2. Pretty much everything to do with Chinese traditional medicine. Whether it works or not, the reasoning is always “we’ve always believed this”.

    To expand on that, anytime a Chinese person starts reasoning with “中国有五千年的历史,,,” my shit-alarm goes off like crazy!

  3. See also: script reform, arguments against.

  4. Tibet did belong to China before and it should stay like that.

    BTW I don’t think it’s necessary to take the author by his word, Shin Shan is just a random name, that should sound like Chinese. It’s really unimportant if there ever was such a province. But I would be surprised if there was such a territory in the past, the names of administrative regions changed all the time.

  5. Pete Braden Says: May 17, 2012 at 1:05 am

    It seems a variation on this fallacy is strategic concession of some past problem in the name of not conceding the entire thing.

    Take, for example, Deng’s description of Mao Zedong as being 70% correct. Insisting that Mao was flawless would be too much for even the most credulous to swallow. Instead, you can preserve most of a flawed system by offering at least the semblance of a critique. The salient point is that this is a bad-faith gesture. Its intent is not to improve the modern system but merely to obscure the wrongness of the past one.

    There is probably a classical phrase for this, but my Latin is rusty. Sic transit gloria Petri.

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