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Modern Confucianism

After 1868 the Meiji leaders of Japan reinvented Shinto as a state religion in the effort to create a Japanese nation that could compete in a world dominated by modern imperialist powers. In its new imperial discourse it would also claim righteousness and demand loyalty of Korean and Chinese subjects in Confucian terms. In China, moderate reformers tried to combine Confucian traditions of education, political unity, and social order with modern technology and institutional reforms to enable the Qing empire to compete as well. With its capture of Taiwan in 1895 the Japanese empire emerged as both the greatest threat to China and the most obvious model for inventing a Chinese nation. Kang Youwei, a visionary who captured the imagination of a younger generation of reformers, drew on the "New Text" tradition to reinvent the image of Confucius himself as a radical reformer who envisioned an egalitarian world without political or cultural borders. The eras of "great peace" and, eventually, "great unity" would be China's contribution to a world that would eventually emerge from this era of imperialist expansion. At the same time, Kang and the other radical reformers hoped to place the young Guangxu emperor in a position analogous to that of the Meiji emperor in Japan, as the symbolic head of an empire strong enough to resist demolition at the hands of foreign powers.

In the revolutionary tide that engulfed China over the century after the failure of the Qing reforms, Kang's vision was dismissed as an artifact of a world swept away by modern change. But the very way in which it was dismissed demonstrates the role Confucianism has played in revolutionary discourse. The reformers' adaptation of ideals of self-cultivation, family loyalty, and Confucian education to a modern national identity galvanized support for the effort to save China among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, contributing to a culturally specific style of engaging the modern world that is still thriving. As educated Japanese increasingly distanced themselves from the "backward" cultures of East Asia, blaming the failures of Neo-Confucian idealism in large part, educated Chinese increasingly identified themselves with humanistic Confucian traditions to combat the rampant "superstition" of popular religious culture and the "backwardness" of the imperial state. Liang Qichao (1873–1929), who was the most influential of Kang Youwei's followers, forced into exile in 1898 after the failed reform effort, tried to meld Xunzi's realistic concepts of a social order based on group obligations with German authoritarian notions of law in order to overcome both the impractical idealism of the Song tradition and the disintegrative effects that a more liberal political philosophy would likely have had on China. By the 1920s he was urging politically dispossessed students to learn from Wang Yangming's philosophy of liang zhi and the unity of knowledge and action. The Communist revolutionary leader Liu Shaoqi, on the other hand, urged the educated cadre to apply the unflagging selflessness of Confucian learning to the socialist cause. To combat Communism, the Nationalist regime appropriated the image of Confucius as authoritative teacher, lover of tradition, and counselor of respect for parents, elders, and rulers—the very opposite of the radical, visionary Confucius imagined by Kang Youwei.

More recently Confucian cultural norms have been credited for the Asian "economic miracle," the political stability and unprecedented economic development of China since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the educational success of East Asians in general. The same norms have been shamelessly invoked by dictators and blamed for the relative weakness of opposition politics, cronyism, and persistent gender inequality. Samuel Huntington has claimed that "Confucian civilization" provides a set of norms and symbols that opponents of the progressive ideas and institutions of "Western civilization" can use to maintain power in their own countries. Such a view represents a powerful position on the geopolitical struggles of the post–Cold War world, but it does not reflect the complex history or diversity of the ideas and practices associated with the Confucian tradition.

Other scholars have tried to understand the ways in which new traditions of Confucian learning appeared over time as economic and social conditions changed. Much postwar Japanese scholarship on Confucianism has focused on the libertarian and communitarian tendencies in China and Japan since the time of Wang Yangming. The same tendencies have led others to focus on tensions related to social mobility, increasing literacy, and shifting gender roles. Tu Wei-ming has argued that Chinese on the intellectual and geographic periphery have been the most creative in adapting Confucian learning to modern change. He believes that others will benefit from the lessons learned by those on the periphery and continue to develop new modern identities while renewing their Confucian roots. Chinese scholars of Confucianism in Hong Kong, Singapore, and more recently Taiwan and China have turned their focus to arguments about the balance between human rights and political authority, pressing politicians and entrepreneurs to attend to grievances, provide for education and welfare, value the law, and share the wealth. In a postcolonial, postrevolutionary world, the future of Confucian learning can hardly be predicted, but it seems unlikely that it will cease.



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Jerry Dennerline

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConfucianism - Confucius, Warring States Confucianism, Han Confucianism, Neo-confucianism, Modern Confucianism, Bibliography