This is the last instalment of my translation of Prof Wang Zhicheng‘s essay of May 20 – his reflections on the contemporary Confucian thoughts which he had introduced earlier.
The previous three legs are here:
Assessment and Reflections
Prof Yu Yingshi knows his history. He sees the decline of Confucianism rather clearly, the reason of which is that traditionally, Confucianism couldn’t exist separately from institutions. Once the separation was there, Confucianism lost its pillar and became a roaming ghost. In the mid-1990s, Yu thought that he had found a way for Confucianism to play a role in today’s world. Confucianism becoming part of peoples’ daily lives, or latency within daily life, existing on daily life, pervasion of daily life were apparently views based on the understanding that in post-modernity, Western civilization was dominating.
Prof Tu Weiming is somewhat more optimistic than Prof Yu. He also sees modern-times Confucianism in decline. He seems to have a sense of mission, playing the role of one of contemporary New Confucianism’s third-period representatives. [see “Fourth Category” here.] He wants Confucianism to play a role as a local resource of wisdom in today’s cultural and religious diversity. Being a scholar who advocates the coexistence and mutual benefit of the different cultures, he encourages Confucianism’s participation in the dialog of cultures and religions and having Confucianism play its proper role through dialog. However, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism and other dialog partners are all very substantial dialog partners, and although Confucianism is seen as a religion by many Westerners, it is a rather small “denomination”, compared with all the others. Also, in China itself, the argument about Confucianism being a religion or not never seems to end, and so far, no final conclusion has been found. If Confucianism can play a role as a religious tradition with similar strength as other religions deserves reflection and even doubt.
As a result of China’s economical and political development, some scholars or non-scholars have begun showing interest in Chinese peoples’ identity and the prospects of China’s development. Therefore, they don’t take the road of contemporary New Confucianism [xiandai xin ruxue, 现代新儒学, see second category – ruxue rejected by Jiang Qing], but appear to emhasize Chinese Confucian religion, thus protecting or developing Confucianism. Prof Zhang Xianglong sets out from the perspective of cultural diversity and, in view of Western culture being so strong, believes that protecting Confucianism requires special protection zones to maintain the practise of the traditional Confucian way of life. Confucian schools represented by Jiang Qing are more vehement, strongly advocating an organizational Confucian structure. They even believe that Confucian religion has existed since prehistoric times and that it is the root of our civilization which must be promoted and bring about a new era’s outer king. Within today’s gradually developing democratic development, as for the “king”, in terms of connotation and actual significance, Jiang Qing stands for the teachings of one school. But to become reality, any of these ideas needs to be in tune with the context of our times and its development indicators. Traditional Marxist understanding of Confucianism sees Confucianism as an object of research, without much participatory experience. To the Marxists, Confucianism is an academic topic, not a matter to be practised and developed. And to the young Confucian scholars represented by Prof Peng Guoxiang may advance along the direction opened by Yu Yingshi, Tu Weiming, Liu Shuxian, et al. But Peng Guoxiang is also facing a set of problems. Even if Confucianism can be seen “as a religious tradition and as an intellectual tradition” which takes part in the dialog of religions and civilizations, and if humanist international dialog can give Confucianism “its own significance in its own place” [see Peng Guoxiang, fourth category there], just acting as a specimen of some tradition won’t be sufficient.
We are entering a second Axial Age. As philosopher Karl Jaspers saw it, the eighth to the second century B.C. were the Axial Age, when philosophers and religious teachers whose influence would extend beyond the following two thousand years emerged in different regions of the earth. Having reached the first half of the 20th century, Jaspers became aware that humankind was possibly on the eve of a second axial age. During the second half of the 20th century, especially in the 1990s, more and more people felt that humanity was entering a second axial age. We might call it the Second Axial Age.
I carried out a comprehensive analysis of the second axial age, summarizing its seven characteristic awarenesses: (1) global or holistic awareness, (2) ecological or earth awareness, (3) feminist or Yin [阴] consciousness, (4) dialog awareness or awareness of the other, (5) cross-cultural awareness, (6) non-realism (non-essentialism, non-foundamentalism)1), and (7) qinzheng2) or life awareness.
To some extent, Tu Weiming, Liu Shuxian, Peng Guoxiang et al are all aware of the Second Axial Age’s rise. Tu Weiming himself once said that he and Ewert Cousins, who advocated the thought of the second axial age, are good friends, and that he knows the thoughts advocated by Cousins well. Leonard Swidler, several times presented by Liu Shuxian as an advocate of the second axial age as well, sees the second axial age as an age of dialog. No matter how people understand Confucianism, and no matter what Confucianism was traditionally up to, Confucianism must now face the current great transformation of humanity, and even more so, following this great transformation, rise to its appropriate role. This requires that it innovates and undergoes fundamental change. The development of the times calls for realistic Confucian practise. The creation and practise of an age of diversity calls for a modern Confucianism, and for Confucian participation. As for the Confucian problems, we need a new perspective of understanding. To get past the nostalgia of Confucian religion, we need to advance an axial change in thought.
The Era of Confucianness
But up to now, people don’t see eye to eye on what the second axial age is. Some only mind certain or several aspects of it. Under these circumstances, we need a clearer understanding of Confucianism. So far, fundamentally speaking, Confucianism may find it easiest to enter and to accept the second axial age. It can in all likelihood make an extremely important contribution for humankind.
Although there is some awareness of the second axial age among Tu Weiming, Liu Shuxian et al, most of their attention is on Cousins‘ and Swidler‘s concepts of it. They haven’t been fully aware of the concepts of the second axial age advocated by Don Cupitt and Karen Armstrong. Cousins and Swidler are aware that we are entering the second axial age and have worked to adapt Christianity (particularly Catholicism) to this age. But Cupitt and Armstrong, and Cupitt in particular, are much more radical. Cupitt not only emphasizes that we must adapt to the second axial age, but that there has to be a completely new beginning, that religious tradition must be re-created, towards a second axial age religion.
In a traditional sense, Confucianism, Confucian school and Confucian religion are facing difficulties, somewhat similarly to Christian religions. But speaking in a practical sense, the challenges and blows Confucianism has seen and suffered remain the strongest ones, being in the state of a wandering, roaming ghost. During history, Christian religion saw challenges during its history, too, but although Chistian religion faced more and more challenges in Britain and Northern Europe, as humanism and scientism were thoroughly victorious, Christian relgion still didn’t become a roaming ghost. Also, Christian religion is very differentiated and diverse in itself, sometimes these inside tensions were bigger than tensions between Christian religion and Buddhism. Inside Christian religion, we can see its voice and strength on its way to the second axial age. In fact, it conducted Christian religions’ deconstruction and reconstruction. For example, we can see the reflections on Christian religion of the advocate of cross-cultural dialog, Raimon Panikkar.
According to Panikkar, Christendom is a civilization which is now past, and can’t be restored. Christianity is a religion. When Christendom withdrew, the West entered the era of Christian religion, and maintained it until today. But Panikkar discovered that the Western Christian religious era is gradually entering the era of Christianness. As Cupitt says, in an era where consumerism is popular, religious sanctity became part of daily lives, and daily life itself became the place of sanctity.
Confucianism collapsed and became a roaming ghost. But Confucianism can’t remain a roaming ghost forever. So how can Confucianism express itself and practise, participate in the creation of the axial age? Maybe we can’t expect a normative answer from Confucianism any more. Maybe the way for Confucianism to express itself is to consciously enter the era of Confucianness. Confucianness is a characteristic of Confucianism participating in the creation of the axial age – just as Confucius himself, back then! As an ethical practise, Confucianness embodies the immanence of Confucian civilization. It’s the Confucian school’s characteristic for the Confucian school. Confucianness doesn’t depend on any form of institutionalization. Confucianness is open, it invites all universal elements to get involved, global ethics is its outside transformation. Confucianness is about dialog. In dialog with other civilizations, it wants to put questions to its tense self. Of course, Confucianness is also about politics, it carries some kinds of ethical theories. Confucian school is currently its kind of expression, and a kind of method in the creation of the new civilization of a second axial age.
Confucianness belongs to the principles displayed and created by second-axial-age Confucianism. To say it in a traditional way, going towards the second axial age, Confucianism becomes second-axial-age Confucianism and displays abundant Confucianness. The principles of Confucianness and the seven main characteristics of awareness link with each other and may create a completely new Confucianism. Because of a variety of reasons, Confucianism declined in modern times, but this decline doesn’t indicate its disappearance. Confucianness is immanent. After having gone through a transitional period, Confucianness can newly regain its vitality – because harmony is humankinds imperative of the highest order.
1) I’ll need an expert’s input for these terms…
2) qinzheng (亲证) apparently means “bearing witness” to something.
Related: A New Axial Age (about Karen Armstrong), EnlightenNext, Dec 2005 – Feb 2006