Confucian Revival versus Feminist Awakening

I often have trouble understanding the ease with which some Western observers/scholars living outside of Chinese-speaking societies try to merge modern feminist ideas with traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucian discourses. From a more embedded perspective, these attempts often look oversimplifying, or simply unconvincing. Again and again, social reality in China follows its own laws, not those imagined by observers outside of China.

Today, when I read this piece on the rise of “morality schools” in “communist” China, I was once again disturbed by the intriguing nature of social developments. Here is one striking passage: “In the recording, students at the Fushun Traditional Culture School were shown being told to put aside career aspirations and, in one instructor’s words, ‘shut your mouths and do more housework.’ One group of students was shown practicing bowing to apologize to their husbands.” And have a look at the beautiful statue of Confucius. And this is not a single case (one might also think of the Taiwanese classics reading movement which is also socially conservative and – as far as I understand the social context in Taiwan – about restoring traditional social roles, not about promoting gender equality). In other words, we may argue as we like that this is not the “authentic” Confucius speaking, but this is the very real Confucianism many Chinese women are exposed to, and the rest is silence (am I exaggerating here?).

This should be very troubling for contemporary Confucians. On a more theoretical level, we may need a debate on the role of “ideal theory” in Chinese philosophy. To quote Charles W. Mills: “Recognizing how people’s social location may both blind them to important realities and give them a vested interest in maintaining things as they are is a crucial first step toward changing the social order. Ideal theory, by contrast, too often simply disregards such problems altogether or, ignoring the power relations involved, assumes it is just a matter of coming up with better arguments.” (Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology”, Hypatia 20:3, Summer 2005).

Another observation in Mills’s article is also very insightful: “It is no accident that historically subordinated groups have always been deeply skeptical of ideal theory, generally see its glittering ideals as remote and unhelpful, and are attracted to nonideal theory, or what significantly overlaps it, ‘naturalized’ theory.” – Now “ideology” is certainly a rather vague and not necessarily helpful term. Yet, over the last 2000 years Confucianism has clearly demonstrated an unfortunate tendency to turn into some version of “ideal theory”. Thus, I believe, the problem analyzed by Mills may also be a problem that we need to think about more seriously. But this is just a rather tentative thought. Any comments on this?

14 replies on “Confucian Revival versus Feminist Awakening”

  1. Kai,
    Great post! This raises a whole host of issues for me… that I’m pretty sure I can’t sort out intelligibly here. One question it raises for me is what you make of women who are trying to retrieve Confucianism to make lived feminist versions? I’m thinking principally of Lisa Rosenlee’s work. Hers is no ideal theory, but quite focused on lived issues for contemporary women. Would having more of that be effective against the sort of vices you have in mind?

    In another vein, one thing that has frequently disturbed me in working in Confucian philosophy in the US is how downright eager western scholars can be to align Confucianism with oppressive gender practices. Rosenlee writes about this too. I think the trouble here for scholars working in Confucianism is that working in western academies produces incentives to resist easy equation of Confucianism with misogynist oppression. It’s less that one would deny those plain features of history than that the charges are made in inequitable ways – I.e., western scholars content to teach Kant (with his vile explicit racist pronouncements!) are ready to dismiss Confucianism entire owing to its sexism. Or western scholars suggest we can retrieve the useful bits from Aristotle and ignore his sexism but treat Confucianism as too thoroughly corrupted for that kind of move. That has resulted, I suspect, in scholars of Confucianism working in the western academy downplaying or ignoring or reaching for ideal theory more than they otherwise might. At least I think that might be a factor.

  2. Thanks for this post, Kai. It’s very saddening.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the rest is silence” – who isn’t saying enough about what?

    It seems to me that if people are regarding it as ideal from the point of view of husbands that wives be silent laborers, the salient problem isn’t a focus on ideal theory so much as a pretty basic error about human well-being, about what would be good or ideal for women’s spouses.

    I admit throwing footbinding in someone’s face in response to – something I took to be extreme and unjustified. Which is more or less in line with Amy’s general point.

    The basic problem about Confucianism that its tolerance of footbinding suggests to me is not merely or even primarily sexism, since it seems to me not too hard in the abstract to excise the sexism from Confucianism. Rather the main problem it suggests to me is that Confucianism is inherently complacent about moral and social knowledge, mistaken about the need for institutions that strongly encourage vigorous open-minded social-critical debate. Confucianism is all about expert moral leadership; but not only did it accept traditional evils as being traditional, it didn’t resist that big new family evil either. At least, that’s what I hear.

    But I guess the idea that debate is not always urgent is a sort of corollary of the idea that we already have access to the ideal.

    • Bill, why doesn’t the prevalent use of physically deforming and movement restricting corsets ever come up when we discuss western philosophers? I can’t think of a western philosopher who complained about these. They all seemed “tolerant” if measured the way you suggest. That’s what I mean about the inequity in how these questions arise. That does not, by any stretch, absolve Confucianism. But it does suggest that if we clean philosophical house, the dirt is everywhere.

      I would guess that Kai’s point would need more subtlety to address well in western philosophical contexts, where the readiness to critique Confucian sexism is, um, more eager than that directed at western canonical thought.

    • Excellent question!

      As for me, I didn’t/don’t know about the debilitating corsets: how debilitating they were, when and how long they were used, what the advantage was supposed to be, etc. Now you mention it I remember hearing something in school when I was a boy about pressing people’s waists absurdly narrow. I didn’t follow up at the time, and I don’t know if it has ever crossed my mind between then and now. I don’t remember hearing whether it was a long-lasting or widespread practice. Is there a paper you’d recommend? I suppose I assumed it didn’t involve permanent debilitation from childhood; but maybe it did.

      But even if it was nothing, the Western tradition still has to cop to sexism in general, slavery, colonialism, genocide, despotism, totalitarianism, etc. etc. On the other hand there’s been a fair amount of speaking up about those things, at least once secularism got underway, and there’s been advocacy of institutions that encourage such speaking up.

      More importantly, I suppose, for me, when I discuss specific philosophers it’s to discuss interpretive questions about what they said, or philosophical questions about whether this or that articulated theory is true or promising. To those points, the men’s silences or bad statements on corsets or even slavery don’t seem very directly relevant. They aren’t directly relevant to cleaning philosophical house, on the usual Anglo understanding of philosophy, which is about articulating and evaluating theories. The silences or bad statements can be indirectly relevant of course. Kant’s backward opinions could encourage my suspicion that his universalization test is empty – but it’s not strong enough evidence to tarry over. Theorists compartmentalize.

      In my involvement in the debates over curriculum and the general spitting match across the waters, I try to stick to evaluating specific claims rather than making overall judgments on things I’m not qualified to judge. There’s plenty to do.

    • I want to think more about Amy’s question.
      This is interesting: Chris Meyns on “Why Don’t Philosophers Talk About Slavery?”

      By philosophers he means people in philosophy departments doing history of philosophy. I suppose a major part of the answer to his title question is that philosophers are interested in an aspect of the history of philosophy insofar as it pertains to questions that they regard as live philosophical questions.

  3. In practice, maybe it’s harder to excise sexism and leave the rest of Confucianism intact. As Mill wrote in The Subjection of Women:

    The family, justly constituted, would be the real school of the virtues of freedom. It is sure to be a sufficient one of everything else. It will always be a school of obedience for the children, of command for the parents. What is needed is, that it should be a school of sympathy in equality, of living together in love, without power on one side or obedience on the other. This it ought to be between the parents. It would then be an exercise of those virtues which each requires to fit them for all other association, and a model to the children of the feelings and conduct which their temporary training by means of obedience is designed to render habitual, and therefore natural, to them. The moral training of mankind will never be adapted to the conditions of the life for which all other human progress is a preparation, until they practise in the family the same moral rule which is adapted to the normal constitution of human society. Any sentiment of freedom which can exist in a man whose nearest and dearest intimacies, are with those of whom he is absolute master, is not the genuine or Christian love of freedom, but, what the love of freedom generally was in the ancients and in the middle ages — an intense feeling of the dignity and importance of his own personality; making him disdain a yoke for himself, of which he has no abhorrence whatever in the abstract, but which he is abundantly ready to impose on others for his own interest or glorification.

    (Cf. also Locke, 2nd Treatise, §52f.)

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Amy and Bill! The goal of my post is to stimulate a debate on what I consider a sort of blind spot in our field. It’s of course quite a general impression: contemporary scholars often take up a concept or idea from the Confucian discourse (f.ex. Yin/Yang) and then claim that it is similar to certain modern conceptions of gender equality, and then it is just a matter of comping up with the better argument (and never about social reality anymore). One could call this an exercise in “ideal theory”. And I do not think that this is enough.

    What I wanted to draw attention to is the following: the Confucian discourse was always deeply entangled with all sorts of micro-practices and representative of a particular cultural background which we easily forget when we try to re-articulate these ideas from our perspective today (which is often a Western perspective). This said, it is clearly not helpful to simply identity Confucianism with oppressive gender practices. There are various social and historical contexts, one needs to look closely at what one is talking about (so I have sympathy for Rosenlee’s work, as far as I know her work). F.ex., Zhu Xi’s position on women education is quite complex, some of his views are rather progressive, while others are quite repulsive (f.ex. his view on how fathers are entitled to physically punish their sons). Historical reality is always very complex. And we today write about these texts in new and very different contexts, with new concerns (cultural difference and tolerance for the other are major concerns for us, not for the Ancient Confucians). And all this relates back to the central question of how the legacy of European philosophy needs to be re-interpreted in a global age, against the background of non-Western philosophical traditions. Bill’s point of Confucianism being primarily about moral leadership is certainly important. But then who is actually in a position to interpret those texts? American/European scholars or rather the Chinese who often are entangled in certain practices that often can only be understood as continuations of older practices? Who can speak for those traditions? It is crucial to be aware of one’s social location here, I believe, and I think that quite a few representatives of our field often claim to speak from a point of nowhere, thereby embodying universality – where, in reality, there is no such thing as universality. Put more simply: perceptions of Confucianism are very different in different social contexts (f.ex., the US versus Hong Kong/Taiwan). One needs to be aware of this.

  5. Another remark: It could be helpful to imagine ourselves in this particular situation, facing those female students at the Fushun Traditional Culture School. How would we react? Would we try to explain to them the meaning of Confucianism, would we really want to claim that the Confucian rituals serve to protect their interests, or would we rather use other means to help them?

    • Yes, I would endeavor to explain to them (and their benighted teachers) the meaning of Confucianism. For me, that centrally includes the idea that the full range of opportunities for moral development must be open to all, which means that Confucians must embrace gender equality. Rituals are important, but trying to revive old, sexist rituals is deeply misguided. I have repeatedly made these arguments to audiences in China, with varying results.

    • Hi, Steve: yes, probably I would try something similar (and I am often explaining traditional Chinese ideas in similar ways to people here). Though I am not sure, how people in current China would react to us Western spokesmen of the old Master. Nationalism and anti-Western sentiments take their taking their toll. Rediscovering the forgotten dimension of Confucianism could be one answer.

  6. Kai, this was written in response to your penultimate comment. I haven’t processed your latest.


    I’m game to debate, but I’m not sure I understand the question on the table.

    Kai, the picture I get from your first paragraph just above is that your overall point is you don’t think it’s all that valuable to argue about whether this or that fairly simple concept from somewhere in the Confucian tradition is similar to this or that fairly simple idea from elsewhere. In general I’m inclined to agree.

    But I wouldn’t want to generalize from the abstract description of the kind of project. I think the value of the exercise would depend on what’s being compared, and what new ideas are suggested in the process. If an important scholar is arguing for an important thesis in comparative philosophy based partly on the premise that Aristotle overlooks respect, then her doing so makes important the fact that Aristotle is all about honor and honor is approximately respect. The fact is worth presenting and discussing because it blocks the argument.

    (I’m actually working on a long piece that might in a way fit the general description – I hope to post it in about a month. The Mill quote was handy from that project, which I hope might open some lines of communication and stimulate thought.)

    On the following general question: “Why is it unimportant to compare simple ideas from opposite shores?” – on that question, Kai, your answer seems to be “Because nothing’s that simple.” And then I would answer, “True, nothing’s that simple—and probably things are less simple in Confucianism than in Anglophone academic theory. – But the main reason why comparing simples isn’t in general prima facie important is that it’s not philosophy and it’s hardly even interpretation. Still it can be a device to get ideas.

    I’m not sure I’ve caught the scent of the topic.

    Maybe it’s something different. Maybe the thought is that Confucianism shouldn’t be studied or taught, on either shore, as though it were anything like what the West thinks of as a philosophy or even an ism; rather it should be regarded as a culture, and studied in that light.

    On the other hand (I think Kai would add) putting it that way goes too far. It’s not just a culture, on a par with all the others, to be studied by anthropologists and literary critics and historians. Rather it’s a culture+philosophy or something. Anyway the question how to understand the parts of it that look like philosophical theories is really hard, not just because the terms are obscure but because their meaning is half-pragmatic and doesn’t even aim at the kind of clarity Westerners aim for; the terms are made to order for McIntyre, embedded in practices some of which we maybe hardly know and maybe can’t ever know. Westerners are in no position to say their terms aren’t embedded in merely local practices. But I’m inclined to say much of what they’re embedded in, what makes them culturally distinct, is academic practices and the concepts arising from the various sciences and disciplines because of the shape of the reality they work with.

    And similarly, if Confucian culture is especially in tune with human social nature, it can make a parallel claim to objectivity.

    There’s a rational pull toward the idea that Confucianism should be evaluated as a set of practices, for its results, and a rational pull toward the idea that Confucianism should be evaluated (engaged with) as a set of abstract ideas about how things are and how things should be.

    “But then who is actually in a position to interpret those texts? … Who can speak for those traditions?”

    I would say we’re all in a position to try, and any serious effort involves engaging with, debating with, the different people and different kinds of people who propose different interpretations. As for who can speak (authoritatively) for the traditions, I would say nobody, nobody ever.

  7. Hi Bill: I think you are misunderstanding me (I might not have expressed myself clearly enough): I believe that some sort of comparison, at one stage of our process of inquiry, is unavoidable in any activity of understanding. But I often think that it is better first to concentrate on the original contexts and thus to avoid Western philosophical vocabulary. These contexts do not merely emerge from texts, but also from forms of life/practices. In general, I think that the way people trained in European or North-American academia are used to speak about texts is often very different from how people in East-Asia speak about texts. One could even argue that practices of reading often directly influence other practices (f.ex., asking questions or demanding advice). Confucianism is all about such practices, no?! Another example: In a Taiwanese context, making a mistake while speaking English is often considered to reveal a moral flaw in the speaker (laziness in high-school). This is an example how deeply entrenched Confucian values are in Taiwan. I am not a cultural determinist, but still tend to give cultures (as holistic unities) more leverage here than others. In the end, I agree with you: “I would say we’re all in a position to try”!

  8. And you write: “And similarly, if Confucian culture is especially in tune with human social nature, it can make a parallel claim to objectivity.” It can make a claim, yes, but how plausible such a claim is stills remains to be proven!

  9. Thanks Kai, indeed I had read you badly, and you always read me so well.

    “But I often think that it is better first to concentrate on the original contexts and thus to avoid Western philosophical vocabulary. These contexts do not merely emerge from texts, but also from forms of life/practices.”

    I’m inclined to agree. Indeed, on a slightly different point, for any philosophical text east or west I generally feel that an interpreter should immerse herself in the text before reading secondary literature.

    Still there’s a bit of a minefield here, as you know. Here I’ll try to make a start at mapping it. I have nothing new to offer, but I might make interesting errors or omissions.

    Suppose a Western philosopher feels inclined to have a look at Chinese philosophy, and she is given the above advice. She may take it to be saying that she ought first to study the history and culture of the relevant Chinese milieu(x). That thought might put her off the attempt entirely, because (A) the thought tells her there’s a big hurdle to clear (in addition to others she has noticed) before she can even properly look the stuff she thinks she might possibly be interested in; (B) the thought may suggest that Chinese philosophy is not universally relevant, hence not even philosophy; and (C) the thought may suggest to her that Chinese philosophy is profoundly alien to her.

    On the other hand:

    (C) Alienness (in the abstract) should be a strong attraction, for a philosopher. If she’s any good (and not too hard-pressed by the struggle for employment), then it will be.

    Still, some kinds of alienness may be departures from what Western philosophers regard as intellectual or professional values that are essential to productive academic collaboration in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Such aliens might include (1) the idea that she should pretend a text had an author when she knows it doesn’t, or (2) the idea that the text isn’t trying to be true, or (3) the idea that philosophers shouldn’t aim mightily toward writing in a way that can easily be correctly understood by people in very different contexts. Another understandably offputting alien might be (4) the idea that the way to understand a text is to make a serious effort to live from faith in it for a serious length of time. Yet another might be (5) the idea that the text is neither proposing nor attacking any general theory, nor aiming to aid such projects.

    Of course a text can be a gold mine of ideas even if it is wrongheaded in a million ways, as Western philosophers well know. But insofar as the promised intellectual value of Chinese philosophical texts is a kind of intellectual value one might expect from studying, say, any great novel or foreign culture, the point argues for Western attention to Chinese philosophy only in a way that it also argues for attention to a million other things, such that Chinese philosophy could be crowded out even more than it is now.

    (B) The advice could be supplemented by an account of why it doesn’t support this worry. I don’t think it’s adequate to say simply that there’s universally no universality. For one thing it just doesn’t address the worry that the Chinese material isn’t generally applicable enough; and also it is too easily taken as a facile rejection of the entire project of philosophy (and science) as Western philosophers usually casually conceive it (even as they are generally prepared to defend abstract propositions about the essential indexicality of all representation).

    The worry is different depending on what kind of context we’re saying is essential (see above under (C)). If the essential context includes monarchy or other bad practices or false beliefs, or very specific rites, that’s a legitimate reason for concern.

    One would have to say something about how the Chinese material is broadly relevant to Western philosopher’s philosophical concerns, and specific limitations of relevant Western practices, limitations that cannot be chalked up to knowledge or to the essential institutions of academic and public discussion.

    (A) Regarding the hurdle, it may be helpful to specify, first, the extent to which it’s really about the whole of social life and not just a few general points about intellectual practice; and, second, whether the advice is aimed mainly at the individual or at her academic community. If Anglophone scholarship has been taking adequate account of the relevant local-historical practices in its translation, annotation, and commentary on the Xunzi, then maybe the individual philosopher can just dive right into the translation and English commentary, even for serious scholarship, at least if the idea is not to become a specialist but rather to read the way most Western philosophers read dead Western philosophers.


    Personally I would like to think that Chinese and Western philosophy (across the centuries) are not so very alien to each other. But I completely agree that one’s first encounters with the Mozi or the Mencius should not focus on whether they agree with Act Utilitarianism. A good Western reader would accept the same stricture about reading the Nicomachean Ethics.


    “In a Taiwanese context, making a mistake while speaking English is often considered to reveal a moral flaw in the speaker.” I think making a mistake in English suggests a moral flaw in the US context: disrespect for language is disrespect for the people you’re speaking to. But maybe that’s why I don’t speak any second language well: it’s because my moral flaws. That’s my excuse.

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