Confucianism and Soft Power: Internationally Inclusive and Exclusive Concepts

Oskar Weggel, a German sinologist, once suggested that many Chinese people found questions about their religious affiliation similarly strange as Europeans would find questions about their blood type.1) That’s not to say that there are no committed Buddhists, Confucians, or Taoists in China.

When it comes to Wang Zhicheng (王志成), a Humanities professor at Zhejiang University,  I believe that he is a Confucian – but I may be wrong. He may just be very familiar with Confucianism. While Wang apparently sees China’s role in an international philosophical dialogue (or a second axial age) based on Confucianism, and be it only for its – former – fundamental role in state control over society, his blog in general suggests that his interest goes far beyond Confucianism.

On the other hand, Kang Xiaoguang (康晓光), of Beijing’s People’s University (Renmin University), is a Confucian, or a New Confucian (新儒家). I’m not using the term Neo-Confucian here, because that would refer to a much older concept.2) Even “New Confucianism” has been around since the Republican days, according to Wikipedia – but maybe the Confucian revival struggles of these days can be seen as a stage within the same process. And while classical Confucian influence certainly went beyond statecraft (Taoist and Confucian views of what makes a good painting are different from each other, for example), Kang Xiaoguang’s interest in Confucianism stems from his search for a concept or an ideology which can rule China. (In English here, if it is an accurate source.)3)

Kang isn’t a metaphysical thinker. In fact, he is more of an economist. But he either tried, or is still trying, to think up a comprehensive state doctrine.

There seems to be a totalitarian temptation in these ways of thoughts. Hegel was pretty comprehensive believer in state power. But that was long ago, and Hegel described what he saw in an existing state, rather than drafting a state on his own.

In terms of internationally effective soft power – but that may be a concept Kang may not be too interested in, anyway4) -, his concept doesn’t look convincing either. Quite differently, Wang Zhicheng is putting his view of Confucianism – or Confucianness – in a global context.

To me, Wang’s approach looks more promising, in the light of international relations. It doesn’t belittle China’s potentially leading global ideational role. Of course, it doesn’t solve the country’s civil-society issues (which Kang describes in pretty gloomy terms) either. But Wang’s approach seems to contribute to solving both China’s domestic, and international issues.



1) Oskar Weggel, “China”, Munich, 2002 (1981), page 202


Emerging around 1100 CE, this movement was in many ways backward-looking. It sought to recover a “purer” form of Confucianism to replace the mixture of Buddhist and Taoist elements that had crept in over the centuries (mostly from “foreign” sources in India).
In contrast to Buddhists and Taoists, neo-Confucians did not believe in dual universe – the touchable word of “matter” and the spiritual world beyond. For this reason, Neo-Confucians usually rejected ideas associated with such mystical notions as reincarnation and karma.

“World History”, Fred N. Grayson and contributing authors, 2006, Hoboken, NJ, page 146.

3) I can’t warrant for the accuracy of either the Chinese, or the English source, but Kang published a book about Benevolent Government (仁政) with a huge preface, which seems to be based on the Chinese source linked in the post above. Kang had been criticized for rejecting democracy for China, in an interview with Singapore’s United Morning News (Lianhe Zaobao). The publication of the interview, in November 2004, and roughly quoted by Kang by his own memory, had carried the headline “Scholar Kang Xiaoguang: Chinese democratization is a choice that would bring calamity upon China”  (学者康晓光: 中国民主化祸国殃民,唯一选择), and, in his view, a rather truncated account of what he had said. Kang found himself criticized for his points in the interview, and what he wrote and said soon after, still in 2004, about Confucianization as a political alternative, was  a reaction to his critics.


[..] Chinese discourse, unlike Nye’s exclusive focus on the efficacy of soft power in achieving foreign policy goals, frequently refers to a domestic context, evincing a mission for domestic purposes, although the domestic context is not the primary focus of Chinese interlocutors,

Li Minjiang wrote in an article for the Chinese Journal of International Politics, first published online on October 28, 2008.

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