Confucianism and Modernity (2)

Part (1) – with the usual excuses – is here.

Based on an article by Prof Wang Zhicheng.

Tu Weiming (杜维明) sees a similar future role for Confucianism. During the recent ten years, he has arranged Confucianism in front of the big Western background, hoping that Confucianism can find its own position within the existing system. He wants to define a globalized background for Confucianism. In “Confucianism and Civilization”, Tu spells out four big background factors of which Confucianism must be aware: ecology, feminism, religious plurality, and the concept of globalization.

In fact, a lot of ecological awareness can be found in traditional Confucianism, such as “man and nature are one” (天人合一)1), “the benevolent is at one with everything” (仁者与天地万物为一体) can be found in Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription (西铭).
These ecological contents have become factors in Confucianism’s revival. Traditional Confucianism didn’t look at women with a great deal of esteem, and has even been condemned for having no respect for women. Feminism has developed greatly, especially during the 20th century, influenced by the Humanities, and has become an epochal question, unavoidable for Confucianism.

Religious pluralism seems to be a striking characteristic within the reality of globalization, and has found broad introduction and appraisal. Prof Tu points out that with this background, if Confucianism wants to take part and play a role in this era, it must see itself as one religion out of many, and take part in a global dialogue with all the world’s major religions. By playing a role in dialogue, Confucianism will further itself. A standard which is part of every major religion – the Golden Rule – provides resources for a global logic. Global logic is a prerequisite of global harmonious co-existence. The Lunyu’s “What you don’t desire yourself, don’t do to others” (己所不欲勿施于人), clearly states this golden rule. Undoubtedly, Confucianism can contribute to the global dialogue.

Tu Weiming is regarded as one of the representatives of Contemporary New Confucianism (当代新儒学), and he is strongly and critically aware of Confucianism’s own problems. He says that “you can severly criticize Confucianism on different levels, be it the petty peasant economy2) (小农经济), clanship, authoritarianism, 工具理念3), people’s development of self-awareness, and so on.” Tu Weiming uses two examples which I believe are particularly important. The first is about the concept of the sage king. A fundamental belief of traditional Confucianism is the inner-sage, outside-king concept. But China’s cultural reality isn’t the sage king, but the king sage4). Tu believes that a thoroughly politicized Confucianist society would be more into persecution and coercion than a purely Legalist society, because Confucianism didn’t only dominate peoples’ body, but also wanted to control peoples’ minds, whereas Legalism only wanted to control those who didn’t obey the law. The other example is about the understanding of the Three Cardinal Guides or sangang (三纲)5). He says that the sangang had entered Confucianism with the Legalists from the beginning of the Han Dynasty. The sangang were seen as lasting concepts: “monarch guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife.” Seen from the perspective of modern culture, 君为臣纲 stands for despotism, 父为子纲 stands for authoritarianism, and 夫为妇纲 stands for male-centeredness. All of these should be abandoned. In fact, they were abandoned under the influence of the May Fourth Movement.

Tu Weiming defines the value of Confucianism in our times. As a representative of [contemporary] New Confucianism, he sees Confucianism as a local resource of wisdom which can add a useful common resource to global cultural diversity. One can find some fundamental values within Confucianism, and these values, as the local wisdom which they are, can serve all humankind, and participate in global cultural diversity and religious dialog.

Clearly, neither Yu Yingshi nor Tu Weiming see much likelihood that in this modern era, Confucianism would become institutionalized again in its traditional way. Confucianism and its revival require post-modern, critical reflection. Prof Yu’s idea of letting Confucianism become part of daily life deconstructs Confucianism’s grand narrative; the Confucian sage king‘s ways have taken the nature of daily life6).

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


1) also often translated as Harmony of Man with Nature.

2) petty peasant economy in itself is just a stage in economic development – the reason to criticize Confucianism for it may be that it kept approving of this kind of isolated, local slave society long after one could – and should – have moved on as an economy, and as a society.

3) 工具理念 seems to be similar to, but not identical with utilitarianism (功利主义). Your input on 工具理念 would be very welcome.

4) I’m not sure of that meaning, but maybe these lines by a prof in Taiwan points into the direction – just maybe:
(…) This could help to explain why Confucian societies, including Taiwan, are based on control rather than on trust: A “sage” or a leader cannot fail or make any mistakes.
Therefore, these “infallibles” have to be somehow isolated from the people they dominate. They are endowed with the aura of a “sage” or an untouchable, and critical analyses of their words and deeds are deemed inappropriate. This status has to be permanently secured. (…)

5) “君为臣纲,父为子纲,夫为妇纲” – “monarch guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife.”

6) to take the nature of daily life seems to imply that the sage king’s way has become more trivial.

3 Comments to “Confucianism and Modernity (2)”

  1. So I suppose the historic verdict is in. As it’s commonly believed, Confucian political institution had to be completely destroyed for China to reform. The “gradualist” reformers were wrong.

    On the upside, at least the demolition work was done for good after collapse of Qing and the Cultural Revolution.


  2. How did Zhou Enlai allegedly reply to Kissinger’s question as to what Napoleon Bonaparte meant for Europe? “It’s probably too early to tell.”
    But within his article, Wang Zhicheng doesn’t mention any contemporary Confucian who’d believe that Confucianism can become institutionalized again without massive help from the state itself. But there is at least one who thinks that Confucianism should get this kind of help. It’s in the original article (in Chinese), and I’ll try to translate the remaining text into English asap.


  3. Justrecently,

    Hope you enjoy the new year. I didn’t look at all of your translations and footnotes carefully. However, I have a few comments for your footnotes on this page.

    1. Petty peasant economy does not really refer to isolated slave society. I believe this is just a term that is used to characterize traditional “feudal” system by the Marxist influenced Chinese scholars (To characterize Chinese society after the Qin as “feudal” is in fact quite incorrect, but that’s what Chinese Marixts think). Many modern Chinese have a tendency to blame any of modern China’s problems on Confucianism. However, a lot of the things these modern Chinese said are not very true. Confucianism did/does not promote slavery, but apparently that’s what many modern Chinese have been saying.

    Traditional Chinese economy is again a complicated subject. Not sure if “local”, “isolated”, “slavery” as stated by some Chinese are the best ways to describe it. Traditional Chinese economical systems also changed over time. I think if you have the interest and time, take a look at works by Philip C. Huang, Richard Von Glahn, Kenneth Pomeranz, and R. Bin Wong. These scholars have had some interesting debates about the characteristics of traditional Chinese economy. Also, baidu baike, just like wikipedia, are probably not the best sources for serious stuff like history and culture. So, I wouldn’t really trust them all that much.

    2. Some of the terms used by Prof. Wang Zhicheng here isn’t all that clear, which is very normal given it is a blog post. However, for footnote #4, the link is no longer working. But that professor from Taiwan also gave a very generalized, biased and exaggerated statement about control and trust in Chinese societies in the past and especially the present. Not a good and well-informed statement at all.

    In addition, this professor provided another generalized, stereotypical, and not very informed response to the issue of the sage in Confucianism. This is again a very common thing among the modern Chinese, the lack of very solid understanding among the many of their own culture and history.

    Let’s just say that this issue has also been hotly debated by Confucians throughout the ages. Both the Analects and the Doctrine of the Means have stated that the sage is not all-powerful, and that he is not all-knowing either. The sage is definitely not infallible. Later Confucians like Lu Xiangshan and Liu Zongzhou argued that the sage has faults and is not perfect. Wang Yangming also said that one should follow one’s own mind and judgment, and if the words are from Confucius and his teachings are wrong according to one’s own judgment, then one shouldn’t think Confucius’ teachings as right. On the other hand, if the words from a common fellow is correct according to one’s judgement, then the common fellow’s words cannot be deemed to be false and wrong. So many Confucians did/do think the sage can be wrong and can be criticized. The sage’s status is not permanently secured, nor is he supposed to be isolated from the people and be untouchables either. Mencius in fact said that anyone can become a sage. The Wang Yangming school also agreed with Mencius here. Of course, there are many Confucians who hold a different opinion. This again shows the diversity within Confucianism itself, on just about any issue out there. Some Confucians in the past supported the Sangang principle, others didn’t (Not sure if any of them do these days, and there is also the issue of the different degrees of support in the past, perhaps in the present as well.). There have also been many different interpretations by the Confucians and others of principles like the Sangang and others throughout history. Concepts also change its meanings over time. Many Confucians in the past and present also discussed whether the ruler/leader can be a sage or not (Of course, good Confucians should definitely point out the mistakes of the ruler/leader. As this is expected of them by the Confucian teaching. If the ruler/leader doesn’t listen, more drastic actions can be taken. This again has been discussed by various Confucians throughout history, and the opinions vary on this matter).Therefore, the name “Confuciansm” a lot of times cannot really capture all the developments and differences within this “school”. But this is true with any other major teachings as well, such as Christianity.

    3. I am not sure if you need footnote 6. The context is pretty clear that Prof. Yu thinks Confucianism should just be in more of the daily life rather than involved with politics. Not sure if “trivial” is the best word here, though.

    Finally, to your other reader’s comment from above. I think it is after the fact. At one time in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was not at all clear if Confucian political institutions needed to be discared in order for China to be reformed. Of course, after all that revolutions from the last century, many traditional things, both good and bad, have been thrown away, and the defeat of Confucian political institutions became a reality. But we can never know what would have happened had things gone differently.

    I will try to think if there are other works on Confucianism that you might be interested in. If I think of anything, I will let you know. Thanks.


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