Confucianism and Modernity (3)

Some remarks: The following post describes four categories of mainland Chinese Confucians. It’s a continuation of translating an essay by Wang Zhicheng (王志成) of May this year.

With the second of the four categories, Prof Wang introduces Chinese Confucian scholar Jiang Qing (蒋庆). Jiang Qing claims that Confucianism – as a religion, not as a school – dates back to the times of the Fu Hsi trigrams. That’s to say, the trigrams are attributed to Fu Hsi, the first mythical emperor of China, and Jiang believes that the roots of Confucianism are at least as old as Fu Hsi.

Fu Hsi and his wife – or sister – Nü Kua both created or maintained civilization, if not the world, according to Chinese mythology. There is no evidence that the legendary imperial couple really existed, but they are often referred to, as if they had been real for sure (maybe in the same way as many religions believe that there is a God, and base everything on this belief).

Either way, it’s worth remembering that China’s civilization didn’t only start evolving when Qin Shihuang “unified China” for the first time in its history. Qin is said to have referred back to Fu Hsi, when claiming the glory of having reestablished Fu Hsi’s correct principles of keeping the genders apart – keeping the men tilling the fields and the women taking care of their homes. French sinologist (and sociologist) Marcel Granet mentions Qin Shihuang’s reference to Fu Hsi. Granet’s Chinese Civilization (La Civilization Chinoise, Paris 1929, 1968 / Die Chinesische Zivilisation, München 1968, subtitle: from the beginnings until the imperial times) looks into China’s pre-imperial history is sometimes contested, as it is allegedly not always clear what is translation from the old sources, and what is Granet’s own comment. But even if so, Granet can make us aware of the history which, as Jiang Qing puts it, is “older than Confucian school” – but not older than Confucian religion. If those times were really Confucian, as Jiang would have it, or if Jiang “confucianizes” them ex-post, is probably a different question.

Anyway, the following is another bit of translation of Wang Zhicheng‘s (王志成) essay. Please mind the likely flaws of my translation (including part 1 and part 2 of it)…


The Confucian “sage-king’s” ways took the nature of daily life, thrown onto the stage of the stage of pluralism by Prof Tu. As for cultural modernization, making Confucianism part of everyone’s daily life and looking at it as something local offer no fundamental solution. Looking at it from a calm cultural position, Confucianism still remains in its modern difficult situation.

Contemporary Categories of Mainland Chinese Confucians

In the wake of Western “cultural hegemonism” and China’s rapid political, economic, and diplomatic development, all kinds of civilizations increasingly moved to the epochal fore. In new difficult situations, people needed to reestablish their cultural self-confidence and find their own cultural identity. Confucianism appeared in various forms and presented a pluralistic situation. Basically, there seem to be the following kinds of new-generation Confucians.

First Category

The first category is the Confucian Panda theory, represented by Beijing University’s (Bei Da) Prof Zhang Xianglong (张祥龙). In 2001, in the Modern Education Journal (现代教育报, July 20 B1), he presented the idea of a protection zone for Confucian culture. This idea led to a big debate. According to Prof Zhang, Confucianism, under the current difficult situation, had no ability to continue to exist by itself. Without protection, it would vanish. From a perspective of cultural species diversity, there was an absolute need for a protection of Confucian culture, just as there was a need to protect the pandas. In his article “What is the meaning of establishing Confucian Culture Protection Zones”, published in 2007, Prof Zhang offered a concise but systematic plan. He said that we must give Confucianism a minimum chance to survive, to let this valuable cultural species live on. In view of this, he described his plan for a protection zone in detail, with four perequisites:
1. A certain territorial size, just as pandas needed a big territory with bamboo forests.
2. A certain population size.
3. Quarantined protection without influence from outside.
4. Common life, organized in accordance with Confucian principles.
To those who advocated that Confucianism should see a comprehensive revival and play a growing role in society, this radical plan amounted to an insult against Confucianism. And to those who advocated comprehensive westernization, it looked useless.

Second Category


Another remark about this category: There are two terms at the center of these paragraphs about Jiang Qing’s doctrine: “Confucian School” (儒学, ru xue) and “Confucian Religion” (儒教, ru jiao). jiao is the usual Chinese word for religion. But it doesn’t refer to religious beliefs as strictly as it does in English. jiao may also refer to teaching in general. I’ve translated ruxue with Confucianism, and rujiao with Confucian religion in these paragraphs. –JR

The second category is the gongyang theory [公羊论]*) . It’s represented by Jiang Qing (蒋庆) of the Yangming Jinshe Academy (阳明精舍, near Guiyang). Jiang advocates the Outer King doctrine. [This is quite the opposite of Yu Yingshi‘s idea that Confucianism should no longer have a direct link with the workings of the outer king, i.e. the institutions of the state – see part 1, May 30.] Jiang strongly advocates establishing a new outer king and to politicize Confucianism on this foundation, thus putting it into a position to counter Western cultural, political and religious systems. In his article “Political Confucianism”, Jiang Qing strongly criticizes contemporary New Confucianism, saying that its greatest danger is its inability to bring about a new outer king. Jiang Qing believes that Confucianism is not a school [ruxue, Confucianism], but by its character culturally unique – a self-sufficient civilizational system. The Confucian school is a religious doctrinal system, the source of its values are the classical Confucian works. “Confucian religion’s [rujiao, Confucian religion] history is older than the Confucian school; the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties had Confucian religion. Strictly speaking, even at the age of the Fu Xi trigrams or hexagrams (伏羲时代), Confucian religion already existed. As Confucian religion is a civilizational system, Fuixi hexagrams already founded Chinese civilization. Besides, “Sage and King are One” (圣王合一), “Politics and Religion are One” (政教合一), Confucian Orthodoxy and Political System are One” (道统政统合一) are characteristics of Confucian religion itself, and goals pursued by Confucianism.

At the times of the Chunqiu, the Warring States, Emperor Qin, and the Han Dynasties, Confucian religion withdrew from the center to the sidelines of Chinese cultural power. After Han Wudi solely respected Confucian methods, the Confucian school returned to the cultural power center, rose to become Confucian religion again, and remained in that position right until it collapsed in 1911 and withdrew to the sidelines again, and dropped to the status of Confucian school again.”

Jiang Qing understands Western culture very well. It’s for his own cultural identity and reflections on Chinese Confucianism that he believes that Chinese Confucian religious civilization is what really establishes the sources of Chinese identity. He therefore says that “facing the current comprehensive Western challenge requires a comprehensive revival of Confucian religion. Only by reacting to Western civilization with Confucian religious civilization, can we achieve a comprehensive revival of Chinese culture. ….. If we leave the reconstruction of Confucian religion and rather address the reconstruction of Confucianism [ruxue], we will have given up the efforts for a comprehensive revival of Chinese culture and will have allowed Chinese civilization to drop to a status of a school of thought (思想学派, sixiang xuepai) which engages in dialog with Western civilization. It would be the self-dismissal (自我贬黜, ziwo bianchu) of Chinese culture. Therefore, reviving Confucian religion is the task of our times, to revive China’s culture and to rebuild China’s civilization.”

There are more and more people who want to politicize and institutionalize Confucian religious civilization, with the final goal of having it compete with the influence of Western civilization.
Prof Chen Ming (
陈明) of Capital Normal University (首都师范大学), Prof Wang Dasan (王达三) of People’s University’s Confucius Studies Institute (中国人民大学孔子研究院), Prof Peng Yongjie (彭永捷) of People”s University”s Philosophy Institute and others all call for the revival and institutionalization of Confucian religion.

The path to an institutionalized Confucianism may be Utopian, because a nostalgic desired situation can only be significant when it is in step with the progressing times, and in that it is put into practise. There are no indicators yet by which to judge the success of putting the institutionalization of Confucianism into practise.

Third Category

The third category can be seen as Bird’s Perspective Confucian theory. It analyzes and assesses Confucianism from a Marxist position. People who stand for this category are Prof Fang Litian (方立天) and Prof Tang Yijie (汤一介). This is one kind of purely scientific research which conducts rational analysis of Confucianism and contemporary New Confucianism and distinguishes their rights and wrongs according to the Marxist position, and forecasts their prospects. It doesn’t promote a Confucian movement itself.

Fourth Category

Currently, there is also a fourth category, which can be called “New Confucianism’s Third Period. It develops along the development direction of contemporary New Confucianism by Tu Weiming, Liu Shuxian et al. This field has a young representative, Tsinghua University’s Prof Peng Guoxiang (彭国翔). In 2007, Prof Peng published his essay collection “Confucianism’s Tradition: Between Religion and Humanism”. In this book, Confucianism is assigned a role both as a humanistic and a religious tradition, which can continue to have an effect on the world today.

Using words from Ou Yang Jing Wu (欧阳竞无) and Fang Dongmei (方东美), Peng Guoxiang defends the title of his book saying that “Confucianism isn’t humanism and isn’t religion, but is humanism and religion.”
On the one hand, in some sense, Prof Peng sees Confucianism as some kind of humanism, but one which isn’t the same as conventional humanism, because there is a transcending aspect to it. On the other hand, Prof Peng sees Confucianism as some kind of religious tradition, but again, not in the same way as Western Jewish or Christian religion. Therefore, he locates Confucianism between humanism and religion. From today’s’ perspective, this looks reasonable.

Peng Guoxiang has his own explanation for the unfolding of the Third Period of Confucianism. He remembers the threads of this Third Period, examines Tu Weiming’s development of it, and points out how the things Prof Tu said about the Third Period already emphasized the globalized character of Confucianism’s development. The core of Confucianism’s development is no longer Confucian tradition in China, how to transform and revive it, but how it should enter the world outside the Chinese world, and how to enter into a dialog with other civilizations, represented by the West.
Seen from Confucianism’s area of influence, Confucianism’s first period happened on Chinese soil itself; the second period’s influence extended to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other countries, and the Third Period’s Confucianism went to the world. Peng Guoxiang believes that Tu Weiming’s late phase of the Third Period shows two fundamental essential points: the first is how confucianism can make itself go to the world rather than confining itself to China or even just to East Asian civilization; and following that, the core task of Confucianism’s Third period definitely is the dialog of civilizations.

Peng Guoxiang apparently wants to promote Third Period theory within Confucianism. He says that Confucianism’s Third Period’s true significance is that “one shouldn’t see a tradition that much in the light of its significance within its own place, but as how it enriches its own significance in its own place through dialog with other civilizations.”

The dialog of civilizations needs to become an important content of Confucianism’s Third Period development. But Peng Guoxiang doesn’t accept that Confucianism should “arrange all worldly matters” [see part 1, May 30]. He says: “These days, no matter if within China or elsewhere, Confucianism can only be considered a religious system of values, and can only play a role with methods of faith, but it can’t present itself as a kind of comprehensive arrangement of worldly matters.”

Peng Guoxiang understands Confucianism as a religion in a broader sense, i. e. as a justification (理一), and considers all kinds of religions particular in their own ways (把各个宗教视为“分殊”). Therefore, as he sees it, Confucianism corresponds with the requirements for religion, which doesn’t need to fit into the pattern of Abraham’s religions. Besides, he believes, it has become an uncontested fact that Confucianism can be seen as a religious tradition and as an intellectual tradition. Until today, representational dialog between Confucianism and Christianity have taken place five times.

Peng Guoxiang believes that Confucianism has always had a strong tradition of dialog. By its very nature, it developed through dialog. During the first period of Confucianism’s development, the classical Lunyu (论语) basically took the form of dialog between Confucius and his disciples. From the Tang and Song to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Confucianism developed a civilizational dialog process more of its own. Through dialog, Confucianism developed li xue (The School of Principle, 理学), entered Korea and Japan, brought out Zhu Zi’s (Zhu Xi, 朱子学) and Yang Ming’s (阳明学) teachings respectively. From the end of the Qing Dynasty until today, Confucianism has also had a strong sense of dialog. With Yu Yingshi [see part 1, May 30], Cheng Zhongying, Tu Weiming [see part 2, June 6] and other scholars, dialog will enter a still higher level. Prof Peng Guoxiang wants to promote Confucianism’s spirit of dialog along their path. He points out that firstly, it is “the principle of dialog with the different” (和而不同), and secondly, it is the pluralistic religious view of “justification [or rationale] and particulars” (理一分殊**)), and thirdly, it is a plurality of religions becoming part of a theoretical and practical resource with a pluralistic religious identity.

From the pessimistic Confucian Panda Protection Zone to the New gongyang theory’s passionate doctrine of a new outer king, from the Bird’s Perspective based on Marxism to the Third Period Confucianism going to the world and participating in dialog, Confucian scholars reflect on Confucianism’s chances to exist in our times. They are seeking a well-founded plan, they are mapping out Confucianism’s revival and glory, for taking part in the process of global civilization. Their spirit of thorough inquiry deserves respect, their diverse grace is touching, their strength intimidates all under heaven. But does Confucianism have a chance of modern development?


*) gongyang, referring to a Confucian commentary tradition. gongyang could mean “ram” (a male sheep), but it rather seems to refer to a (probably fictional) commenter (“Mr Gongyang”), which or who stands for an approach of editing the Spring and Autumn Annals. This is how Nakajima Takahiro of the University of Tokyo describes the current use of the old gongyang commentary by Jiang Qing:
Thinking of the reestablishment of the legitimacy of Chinese government as the first priority, Jiang Qing […] confirms the need to put a political system into place, supporting the state based on Confucianism, as the Western democratic system is not sufficient for this purpose. Jiang demands a three-chamber system, divided into a people’s chamber which represents the will of the people, a national chamber, representing the historic and cultural legitimacy, and a Confucian chamber, embodying the Confucian values. The two former inherit from the traditional house of representatives and the upper house, the Confucian chamber, in a more pristine way, expresses the divine, transcendent legitimacy – Confucianism thus takes the rank of a constitution. Often seen as “Confucian fundamentalism”, Gan Chunsong judges it differently, saying that Jiang Qing’s argumentation isn’t based on the Confucian classics, but contents itself with omitting and combining elements [in a way that] they can help to solve existing problems. This would be in accordance with the gongyang commentary, thus adopting the interpretational style which had been reestablished by Kang Youwei.
[More on Kang Youwei’s approach can also be found here, page 2.]
— translated from Religion et sécularisation en Chine, pour un confucianisme critique, Nakajima Takahiro, page 87

**) [Update, Dec 30, 2012] A more accurate translation may be one principle with many differentiations – see this comment.


Update: continued here.

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