The New Neo-Confucianism

A hundred years since his words carried currency in China, Confucius—the 2500-year dead sage—is seeing an apparent resurgence of popularity. Scholars at flagship universities like Tsing-hua and Peking University write editorials based on the works of the sage. More than 300 state-sponsored Confucius Institutes have opened in 94 countries since 2004. A statue of Confucius was even unveiled in Tiananmen Square last January, only to be removed three months later. Throughout the Chinese academy, a New Confucianism is on the rise. All of which begs the question—why has this school of thought regained currency in China after a century of dormancy and defeat?

Since before the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China’s leading intellectuals have been searching for an intellectual tradition to replace Confucian thought. Liberal democracy had its moment in the 1910s and ‘20s, and again in the brief window between Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the crackdowns at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Between these flirtations with Western ideals, the mid-century featured a war between Nationalist militarism and Communist class struggle. When the Communists won, all of China participated in the spectacular failure of Mao’s experiments with mass movements—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Muscular socialism died with Mao and democracy was crushed beneath tank treads at Tiananmen. For a time, all that was left was Deng Xiaoping’s proclamation that “to be rich is glorious;” for a time, nothing else was needed. For 20 years, China’s economy expanded at an unprecedented rate. Deng’s wealth doctrine looked like a good investment, and the educated elite bought in.

More recently, doubts have emerged about the ability of the market to float all boats. The growing gap between rich and poor now extends into the educated class. In the cities, there is an expanding group of university graduates with expectations of a middle class life that they are unable to achieve. China’s booming higher education sector is creating an undifferentiated pool of white-collar workers competing for the same entry-level jobs. Much of this cell-phone proletariat is one generation off the farm, with debts to their entire village for funding their education. Those without connections, access to credit, or name-brand schooling are being left behind—unable to afford the house, car, and wedding needed to solidify middle-class status.

For the current generation in China the old ideologies have lost currency. The extremes of Maoism and the dreams of liberalism are gone, and now the ideal of being rich is no longer looking so glorious. Public intellectuals and party leadership are struggling to fill this ideological vacuum. Nationalism is on the rise, but it is hard to rectify with the ethnic minorities occupying half of the territory within China’s borders, and with the party’s preference for non-confrontational politics abroad. Hu Jintao has offered hexie—harmony—as an alternative, but this is little more than a veneer of social ethics on the doctrine of wealth and party leadership. In this context, more intellectuals are turning to an older humanist tradition for guidance—the Confucianism of China’s antiquity.

Although it is spoken of as an ideology, Confucianism is not a single, coherent doctrine. It is a longstanding humanist tradition with plenty of room for divergent positions, much like classical liberalism in the West. Even the name “Confucianism” is problematic: the Chinese term for Confucianism—rujiao—translates roughly as “school of learned gentlemen” with no explicit reference to Confucius. While Confucius is universally considered the prototype for “learned gentleman,” the tradition began before him, and most of its central works were not written by the sage. Later rujiao scholarship often cites Confucius, but arguments are usually based in the more coherent work of successors like Mencius and Xunzi who developed complete arguments on human nature and the role of government. Mencius wrote that people were basically good and called for a laissez-faire approach, while Xunzi believed that people were evil and called for a strong state to restrict their excesses. Other early Confucians focused on studying ritual or textual hermeneutics.

Confucianism as a unified political doctrine did not really emerge until an 11th and 12th century reform movement within the community of “learned gentlemen”—often called neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism is another Western term that poorly translates the Chinese words daoxue or lixue, which mean something like “study of the Way” or “study of principle.” This philosophical renaissance turned away from the textual hermeneutics of earlier Confucianism to emphasize a moral, humanistic interpretation grounded in the work of Mencius. The foremost thinker of this movement, Zhu Xi, framed a coherent program that connected moral scholarship to social programs like charity granaries and schools. He argued that scholars, not emperors, were the ultimate judges of moral authority.

Ironically, the last three dynasties in China made Zhu Xi’s anti-statist formulation of “study of the Way” the focus of the official curriculum for government officials. Emperors patronized a wenmiao or “temple of culture” that venerated Zhu Xi as well as the earlier Confucian masters. In doing so, the dynastic apparatus attempted to co-opt the neo-Confucian tradition, turning it into a bastion of statist conservatism. Despite this attempt to co-opt Confucianism for state purposes, it remained an active realm of moral, political, and humanist philosophy through the early modern period. In the 16th century, prominent statesman Wang Yangming promoted an even more radical, personal formulation of Zhu Xi’s moral philosophy that challenged state orthodoxy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a resurgent hermeneutical tradition called kaozheng or “evidential learning” focused on textual scholarship rather than moral philosophy. In the late 19th century, scholar Kang Youwei even argued that Confucius would have promoted modernization in an essay titled “Confucius as a Reformer.”

Like the European humanist tradition, Confucianism encompasses a broad field of often oppositional perspectives. Scholars in China have returned to Confucian rhetoric because it offers them a range of arguments, not because it dictates a particular position. In historical scholarship, “evidential learning” persists little changed since the 18th century. Tu Weiming, a Harvard professor now at Peking University, has been a leading advocate for reviving Wang Yangming style personal ethics. Tsinghua University's Yan Xuetong’s recently wrote a New York Times piece citing Xunzi to argue for a muscular foreign policy with moral groundings. Jiang Qing, another contemporary academic, has revisited the meritocratic core of state Confucianism as an alternative basis for government legitimacy. These are widely divergent intellectual positions, all framed within Confucian thought; Confucianism is the medium—not the message—of what these thinkers have to say to the world. As Confucianism, the “school of learned gentlemen,” reclaims its position in Chinese political philosophy, it will be necessary to engage with it on its own terms, to understand its complexities and their implications.

For 100 years, China has struggled to find a field of social thought to replace its “outdated” classical tradition. Buddhist idols were demolished, statues of Mao were built and then quietly removed, the impromptu Goddess of Democracy of the late ‘80s was destroyed. The appearance of the Confucius statue at Tiananmen suggests that the age-old school of learned gentleman is regaining currency; its disappearance argues that Confucianism remains controversial. We will have to wait and see whether the new, old thought of Confucius, Mencius, and Zhu Xi emerges as the grounds for debate of the next Chinese century.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.

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