china’s confucian revival

ConfuciusBy James Miller

In a recent article entitled Two Big China Stories You Missed This Year Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a respected professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, highlighted the rehabilitation of Confucius as one of the most significant trends in contemporary China. As a historian, his main point was, well, historical. To outsiders it may seem perfectly normal that Chinese leaders want to associate themselves with Confucius, China’s most famous philosopher. But this would be to ignore the fact that for most of the 20th century, Confucius was distinctly out of favour among the CCP leadership. According to Communist revolutionaries, Confucianism was a patriarchal feudal ideology that could have no place in the “new China.” How staggering it was, therefore, to see Confucius at the heart of the mega-spectacle of the Beijing Olympics. 

Wasserstrom writes:

This revival reached new heights during the torch run, when the flame’s arrival in Qufu, the sage’s hometown, was celebrated lavishly. It was then taken to an even higher crescendo during the Opening Ceremony, when Confucius was quoted as Hu [Jintao] and other leaders looked on with approval. Then 3,000 actors took the stage at the Bird’s Nest, dressed up to represent a massive contingent of the sage’s disciplines.

The question here is whether this revival of interest in Confucius actually means anything, or whether it is window dressing on the part of China’s elite.

It’s certainly true that Confucius is being used as a political tool by the elite. By clothing themselves in Confucius’s aura, officials themselves take on the appearance of wisdom. Confucius also continues to be a godlike figure revered in temples from Korea to Vietnam. Officials are thus tapping into this common East Asian sentiment that treats Confucius as a god of learning. 

But the revival of Confucianism has to be understood in the context of the crisis of legitimacy that China’s leaders face, and the crisis of belief in the post-Communist era. In the chaotic sea of ideas and values that currently floods mainland China, Confucius stands as an enduring symbol of China’s cultural power throughout the East Asian region.  

Moreover, no symbol is ever purely symbolic. Symbols carry meaning that can overpower those who wield them. The hope of China’s new Confucian intellectuals is that the official rehabilitation of Confucius will usher in an new era of Confucian philosophy. The question is how to adapt Confucian values for the 21st century context.

In the writings of new Confucian intellectuals such as Harvard’s Tu Weiming, gone is Confucius’s traditional association with feudalism and patriarchy. Instead Confucianism is reinvented as a sophisticated theory of ethical relationships that pays close attention to social contexts and roles. It is a kind of non-dogmatic ethical theory that holds much promise for 21st century ethical thinking because of its emphasis on contextual thinking.

Since the present context is one of ecological crisis, contemporary Confucian philosophers have had no difficulty in extending Confucian values such as harmony and relationship to incorporate the wider ecological context of human action.  Ethics is no longer confined to the realm of human relationships, but incorporates the extended ecological family within which human civilization flourishes.

  2 comments for “china’s confucian revival

  1. 1 January 2009 at 00:47

    Hi Prof Miller,

    it’s great to see this blog, and I look forward to reading more from you!

    Indeed, the revival of Confucianism has stirred tremendous debate in China, which is less noticed in the West. Lots of Chinese liberals are worrying about this revival will be taken as legitimacy of political conservatism, just like what happened in the whole Chinese history. I think their concern is very reasonable.

    The key is to have more bottom-up revival that will give the old tradition a new face.

  2. james
    1 January 2009 at 10:54

    Hi John,

    I agree that in the modern East Asia Confucianism has been associated with political conservatism. But I also believe that Confucianism, like Buddhism and Christianity, is not a monolithic entity that inevitably means the same things. You only have to look at the history of Confucian or Buddhist thought to see how remarkably it has changed over the centuries.

    The problem from my point of view is that liberals have tended to put their faith exclusively in science and have ignored the power of religion. The consequence of this is surprise when science fails to deliver utopia, and bewilderment at the persistence of religion in technologically advanced societies.

    The question is whether Chinese liberals can be equally skilled at using Confucian symbols and values as conservatives. For this to happen, liberals need to take the tradition seriously, to understand how it functions psychologically and socially, and why it still carries weight in the Chinese social imagination.

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