Confucianism and Modernity (1)

C. A. Yeung gave me a hint of an essay by Wang Zhicheng (王志成) the other day. The following is my rehash in English of Prof. Wang’s essay’s initial paragraphs in Chinese. Most of what is based on his essay is “quote / blocktext” here, although it’s not meant to be a word-by-word translation. Inaccuracies from my part are almost preassigned, and corrections are very welcome.

Prof Wang Zhicheng teaches at Zhejiang University’s Humanities College.

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Wang Zhicheng describes how Confucianism seems to be at odds with modern political and economical developments and how questions about national and individual identity arise, in the eyes of Confucian scholars.

Globalization, pluralism and consumerism put Confucianism into a difficult position, unparalleled by any previous era. Prof Yu Yingshi (余英时) wrote Modern Confucianism’s Difficulties (现代儒学的困境) in 1988. He saw three challenges, the first of which arose right after the times of Confucius himself, with the emergence of Yang Zhu and Mozi. The second challenge came with the development of the Taoist school at the turn of the Han (汉) and Jin (晋) Dynasties. The third came during the late Ming (明) Dynasty.

According to Yu, these three counter movements all came at times of disintegration of society. However, they didn’t constitute breakthroughs against Chinese culture, as Confucianism always reestablished itself and regained its vigor. Confucianism didn’t only interpret philosophy and religion, but arranged family matters, state matters, and “all-under-heaven” life from birth to death of every human. It built political, societal, economical, and educational institutions. Confucianism permeated daily life.

Confucianism perfected its control over society by institutionalization. It was connected with the societal institutions. It leaned on these institutions. But during the more recent disintegration of Chinese society, political and societal institutions as they had been known evaporated. From the reformers around Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Tan Sitong in 1898, to the May-4 movement in 1919 – just during those two decades -, China lost its traditional system. Yu is aware that May-4 spells New Culture Movement, i.e. Western culture, the core of which were democracy and science. For the New Culture Movement, Confucianism became a target. When the Chinese, certainly the intellectuals, strived for democracy and science most fervently, it was also the era of most fervent anti-Confucianism. The starting point for Confucianism’s troubles was right there.

As the link between Confucianism and the system broke, Confucianism inevitably went under. So how can Confucianism still have an effect? Apparently, there was no way. Confucianism had become a roaming ghost, according to Yu. Seven or eight years later, Yu once again explored the chances for Confucianism to become part of the modern Chinese way of life. With Confucianist Thought and Daily Life (儒学思想和日常人生), he completed his reflections on Confucianism’s future direction.

In that book, he continued to consider how Confucianism can continue to play a role after the split-up between Confucianism and the system. Yu came to the conclusion that the only modern way for Confucianism to play a role and to create values is that it becomes part of peoples’ daily lives.

Prof Yu believes that the process of Confucianism becoming part of peoples’ lives began during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. This was a turning point, writes Yu. Starting with Wang Yangming (王阳明), Confucianism no longer counted merely on high society, but on the common people (普通百姓, putong baixing) as well. Yu also interprets the eight aspects of Great Learning (大学, da xue). He believes that there is no essential connection between the inner sage (内圣) and the outer king.(外王) [Note: "The myth of the sage king constitutes the ideological core of Confucianism..."] When the logical link between investigation of things, devotion to knowledge, sincerity, correctness, and rectification (格物、致知、诚意、正心、修身 – these are a inner-sage’s qualities) on the one hand, and keeping the families in order, governing the state, and keeping the whole world at peace (齐家、治国、平天下 – these were the jobs of the outer king) is broken, one can only calmly accept Confucianism becoming a part of daily lives.

So Prof Yu wants Confucianism to withdraw to the cultural level only, playing a role in people’s daily lives. Confucianism should no longer exert influence through the institutional system. It should no longer have a direct link with the workings of the outer king.

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Roughly translated from Prof Wang Zhicheng’s essay. To be continued.

Update: Continued here.

7 Responses to “Confucianism and Modernity (1)”

  1. JR,

    That’s great. You beat me to it. Wang’s research paper is very well written. It’s worth the effort to translate it. I’m in the middle of marking a pile of assignments. But I’ll read through your translation in details once I have a chance. I will give you some feedbacks. In the meantime, please continue with the translation and I’m looking forward to your next posting.

  2. Thank you. I will. :)

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