The Coming Era of the Post Modern Confucians


My interest in Confucianism was kindled by a movie about Confucius I saw at the HKSHP last Sunday afternoon.  It was a USD2.8M PRC production to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, with Chow Yun Fat playing the role of the venerable politician cum social philosopher.  It attempted to turn Confucius from a two-character name encountered in the leaves a high-school textbook book into a someone touched by sympathies, ripped by anxieties, grief, despair, ambition, idealism, stubborn hopes and recalcitrant lust doing his best to restrain his natural desires through the exercise of reason, will and firm but not rigid adherence to rites and form instead of a colorless and arid dispenser of unrealistic "mottos". Despite a few mis-attributions of his "sayings", it succeeded and an unikely scene of one of his students, Ngan Wui jumping into an icy river to retrieve some of his bamboo tablet writing. It certainly made him more human for me.  Apparently the latest thinking in the corridors of power in Beijing is that it is about time to mould Confucius as an emissary and promoter of "harmony" both inside China and around the world and a symbol non-aggressive Chinese influence. Yet less than four decades ago, the CCP made him and those who still dared to follow the principles of benevolence (仁), justice (義), loyalty (忠), filial piety (孝) and good faith (信) and above all decorum (禮), the targets of the most vicious ideological attacks and criticisms because he was regarded as the epitome of "feudal" or "petty-bourgeois" thought which the new China must do its best to eradicate, even if it were to take a thousand years! History has a way of playing jokes with us. It makes one wonder whether in the end, there is something called "eternal or universal Truth" or if there is, whether its face will change with the unprediictable winds of political ideology. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that the Chinese Government is now bent on  soft-pedalling Chinese culture worldwide along the model of the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut. To date, 282 Confucius Institutes and 272 Confucius Classrooms have already been established in 88 countries, includingsome in America, Russia, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy many other countries in both Europe, South America and also in Asia including Japan, Korea and other South East Asian countries. Yet the Confucius Insitute only started life in 2004! It was established under the auspices of the Office of Chinese Language Council International ( Hanban 漢辦) which is presumably part of the Foreign Ministry or State Department. It is said that the Ministry of Education of the PRC is planning to set up 500 Confucius Institutes and the Hanban to double that number by 2020.  China is finally learning to spread its culture just like any other modern Western state! What would politicians not do! If Confucius has an immortal soul, something of which he refused to talk about whilst he was alive and which he brushed aside when asked with the remark, "We don’t even know about life, why should we be bothered by death?", I am not sure whether he would laugh or cry. Perhaps just a smile and a nod?

So what is contemporary Confucianism all about? I turned to an article in ZheXue De WenHua ZhuanXiang (哲學的文化轉向) edited by Hung Shiao Nan (洪曉楠)  published by 人民出版社(2009).  In the article called "The Coming of the Era of the Post New Confucianists 后新儒家時代的來臨", Hung quotes 傅偉勛 who thinks that Confucius, Mencius and XunTse (孔孟荀) were "classical Confucians", and those in Sung and Ming and their successors were the "new Confucians". But according to Yu YingShi (余英時), in his book " 錢穆與中國文化", the term "new Confucians" in the PRC may be applied to all who do not reject Confucianism in the 20th century but it may be more narrowly defined as those philosophers who have further expounded and developed Confucianism e.g. scholars like Hsiung ShihLi (熊+力), Zhang JunLi (張君勵), Fung YouLan (馮友蘭), Ho Lun (賀麟) and then a third definition very popular overseas, which is even narrower i.e. only those who follow the thoughts of Hung ShihLi.  But not everybody agrees with Yu. Thus in an article " 對當代新儒家的超越內省", Lu ShuHsin (劉述先) thinks that both he and Yu should be included within the broad defintiion of "new Confucians" and Cheng ChungYing (成中英) in the article "當代新儒學與新儒家的自我超越"(1995) argues that a distinction should be made between "new Confucians" (新儒家) and "new Confucianism" (新儒學), the former being those concerned with reaching a fair assessment of Confucianism and trying to develop it to assist the contemporary men to understand and to use them as standards for their personal or public policy purposes whilst the latter should be confined to particular contemporary academic philosophical schools within Confucians who develop newer system of thought or themes based on established or firmly held "Confucian values" and argue for the universality of their truths and their necessity. In  addition, the former indicating just a rough orientation of their academic concerns and their academic "fashion".

Hung says that according to Lu ShuHsin, the new orientation of contempoary "new Confucians" is to switch the emphases of their studies from those concerned with ethics or "respect for virtues" (尊德性) to those concerned with scholarship or  "expounding thought" (道學問). To Yu, the first two generations of new Confucians were concerned to establish  the highest possible ethical principles encompassing all forms of cultural activity and is focused on "teaching" (教) and not just scholarhsip (學).  To Lu, the contemporary or "post new Confucians" or "the third generation of new Confucians" are concerned not so much with upholding the traditions of Confucian morality as with developing new academic schools of thought, branching out to link with contempary western thoughts and with the problems of contempoary society and more with problems of life in general, and not just the moral life. But to Hung, this is not right. Even as long ago as December 1990,  at the "International Symposium on Contempary New Confucianism" ( 當代新儒學國際研討會) in Taipei, Mou TsungSan (牟宗三) already empahsized the necessity for "knowledge" and "scholarship" and pointed out that merely emphasizing on the big learning (大學) purifying/correcting/adjusting the heart/mind (正心) and improving on personal conduct (修身) are insufficient. In addition, Cheng pointed out another difference between the "new Confucianism" and the "new Confucians" is that the former placed the emphasis on using critical or objective reason to establish what they thought of as the social "truth" and the "reality" of Confucianism but the latter put the emphasis more on internal subjective personal experience as the basis of establishing the value of "truth" and the "reality" of what Confucians advocate. The former base their values on objective knowledge but the latter first affrim the relevant values and then some but not all seek to use their "knowledge/scholarship" to assist them to realize such values. The former try to go outside of the bounds of the Confucian tradition but the latter affirm Confucian values;. Thus it may be said that the former is about scholarship of Confucianism in a new age. If so, the popular conception that there is a "third generation of new Confucian" scholars within China would lose its peruasiveness because they may be more properly considered as just another part of the so-called "post new Confucianism."

To Hung, another major difference betwen the "new Confucians" and the "post new Confucians" is that whereas the former adhere stubbornly to the idea of unity of the Confucian tradition, the latter emphasize more the variety and differences of cultural perspectives. Thus Yu pointed out that since Hsiung, the "new Confucians" have emphasized that the Chinese tradition must be upheld and placed at the centre of Chinese culture and should seek virgorously to expand into a "political tradtion" (政统) and an "academic tradition" (學统) . To Hung, Yu emphasized that "the great cultural tradition"(文化大傳统) is a "tradition of Tao" (道统). If so, the "unity of the tradition of the Tao" (一元道統) of moral teaching (教) is transformed into a "multilateral/diverse academic tradition of Tao) (多元(學) 道統) . If so, then Tu, Lu, Cheng and Yu, often referred to the "third generation of new Confucians" in the PRC, should be no more than contemporary "new Confucians".

The coming era of "post new Confucians", will be characterized, according to Hung, by three characterstics. First, the so-called "third generation of new Confucians" will transcend the boundaries traced by the "new Confucians". Thus Yu places the emphasis of Confucianism on how it may affect the life and society of the contemporary Chinese. He is especially concerned with the "cultural China".(文化中國). To him the most urgent task of contemporary "new Confucians" is to make use of the resources of "Confucianiam"  as a focal point to re-unite the Chinese soul in the spheres of academia, knowledge and culture. Lu, however, thinks that the most important task for the contemporary "new Confucians" is to initiate and maintain links and symbiotic interactions between Marxist-Leninism, Westernisation and the tradition of humanistic Confucian thought. Yu is particularly critical of the "pride of conscience" (良知的傲慢) of the contemporary "new Confucians" and recognizes the problems resulting from their "auto-collapse of conscience".(良知的自我坎陷).  Cheng thinks that there should be a merging of knowledge, scholarship and values. Both of them were unhappy with the supposed self-sufficiency of Mou‘s ideas about the "new sanctity within" (新內聖) driving the "new king without" (新外王)  and wish that Confucianism will be able to re-establish links with the contemporary post modern world  where diversity instead of hegemony holds sway.   The idea of "內聖外王 ” was first mentioned by ChuangTse (莊子) ( 莊子 · 天下篇): " the saint within"t 內聖 ” being the ideal personality and is characterized by not deviating from its origin, its spirit, the truth and is based on heaven as its master and virtue as its basis, with the Tao as its door, manifesting in changes, in benevolence, based on justice, its conduct being based on the rites and its joy being based on decent behavior and using music to promote harmonyr (“ 不離于宗 , 謂之天人 , 不離於精 , 謂之神人 ; 不離於真 , 謂之至人 。 以天為宗 , 以德為本 , 以道為門 , 兆於變化 , 謂之聖人 , 以仁為恩 , 以義為理 , 以禮為行 , 以樂為和 , 熏然慈仁 , 謂之君子 ” and  "the external king"  being a political ideal: “ 以法為分 , 以名為表 , 以參為驗 , 以稽為決 , 其數一二三四是也 , 百官以此相齒 ; 以事為常 , 以衣食為主 , 蕃息畜藏 , 老弱孤寡為意 , 皆有以養 , 民之理也 ”。 "Inner sanctity ”is equivalent to disciplining the body to nourish virtue (修身養德 ) and "the king without ( 外王 )" is equivalent to setting the standards for the family, the country  and the world to obtain peace(“ 齊家 、 治國 、 平天下 ”)

The second characteristic of the coming new era will be the much wider persepctives adopted by the Chinese scholars in the 1990s after they hame into contact with more and more Western ideas of scholarship following the the "fad for culture" of the 1980s . They are now advocating a move back to tradition, a much wider tradition than of mere Confucianism, a more inclusive and poly-centric tradition instead of the exclusively Confucian tradition. Whilst they advocate a return to tradition, the reason is that they hope that a return to that poly-valent and polycentric tradition will paradoxically enable them the better to renovate Confucianism.

The third characterisic will be a revival of "orientalism". However this is no longer the old idealistic orientalism, and is more akin to a form of westernisation. The dilemmas posed by western post-modernism has exposed the weakness of the traditional type of western Enlightenment emphasis on indvidualism, rationality and materialism and hence the felt need for a form of oriental spiritualism or values as an antidote for the ills of contemporary western society. But here, the concern for this new type of "orientalism" is not how Chinese society and civilization may adapt to urbanisation, westernization and modernization through the adoption of science and democracy but how the values of Confucianism may help ameliorate the ills of western industrialization.  According to 季美林 , in the 21st century, the West will again look to the east for guidance because the West has reached the end of its tethers in its metaphysical analytic approach to life and may need to seek again the balm of "holism" inherent in Eastern civilizations.  The emphasis on  analysis and individualism will be replaced by a new emphasis on integration, wholeness and the unity of Eastern civilzations.

The article, though extremely simplistic, is just right for a neophyte like me. It has certainly introduced a number of imporant names in Confucian scholarship familiar to all those with a smattering of knowledge about the tradiitions of Confucian scholarship. Now I am much better placed to post various names frequently cropping up into the appropriate slots in the relevant historical and scholastic traditions.  One really never knows what life will bring. A chance to see a free film and a spark has been lit! Where it is going to lead to, only time will tell.

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3 Responses to The Coming Era of the Post Modern Confucians

  1. sai says:

    Impressive study!Confucianism has undergone critical examinations, interpretation and redefinition, ever since as long ago as the Sung and Ming dynasties. Different schools of thoughts and theories have evolved in its wake. It all boils down to utilitarianism —- the ideological needs of those in power. Had it not for漢武帝’s final decision to adopt Confucianism as the mainstream ideological thinking for his kingdom (after heated debated amongst the various masters of the other schools of thoughts such as法家、道家、墨家, etc. …), Confucianism might not have lasted till today. Confucianism went through lots of ups and downs though. In魏晉南北朝Buddhism emerged as a favored religion and for a certain period清談無為was touted as the most ideal way of life by the scholars. Even not too long ago as in the last century, Master Kung’s teachings were condemned as poisonous weeds by the Mao regime and Kung was brushed to a corner as孔老二, a peddler of rotten thoughts. All Kung’s stuff was dismissed as rubbish coming from孔家店. Certainly Confucianism has its core value in terms of the spread of human harmony. But not all its teachings are applicable in a time that is fast changing. Evolution has to take its nature course and holding fast to an ideology would only result in stagnation and calcification of the mind.

  2. el says:

    If there\’re any merits in it, they don\’t belong to me. They belong to the scholars. I just stringed together bits and pieces from here and there in a hurry (alas, when has it not been like that???!!!) and put a semblance of order to it. I\’m heartened that at least one person likes it.

  3. el says:

    I also agree with you that all we really can usefully retrieve from Confucianism is its "humanist" spirit but not its practices e.g those relating to funeral, relationship between husband and wife (it being male-centred and patriarchal in nature), that between children to parents (children no longer tied to land and entitled to share in family assets, society having changed from agricultural to urban industrial, commercial, financial and informational metropolis, with immense social, economic and moral mobility instead of being tied to the land and tradition and where fortune is no longer decided by birth alone) or to extended family ( the trend being nuclear family ) with earth burials close to place of residence (trend being simplicity, economy and respect instead of veneration), and those relating to musical arts (now completely outdated because intruments, musical taste and permisssible time for such leisurely activities having radically changed) and and that between subject to rulers (there being no more kings and nobility). It must become merely one amongst a number of spiritual and moral ideals to be adopted according to education level, social background, personality and personal psychological history!

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