Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Discussion: Kinney on Lee on Confucian Theories of Children


Our thanks to Anne Behnke Kinney for these initial comments on Pauline Lee’s fine essay, “Two Confucian Theories on Children and Childhood” (free access here). Comments on the essay, on Professor Kinney’s remarks, or on the general topic are hereby encouraged!

One thread of Pauline C. Lee’s fascinating analysis of childhood as presented in Confucian texts considers how Erik Erikson’s view of childhood, which concentrates attention on “crisis moments and delineates among important life stages,” compares to Confucian views, which focus on “the social child,” “role-specific duties for a junior in society,” and “day-to-day maintenance.”


She notes how Erikson’s view of human development “is primarily presented in the language of linear development, episodic stages, a dialectic between opposing forces, and crisis and resolution. The focus is on specific and particularly vulnerable periods in life.” Lee notes how Confucian commentaries, in contrast, focus on “maintaining and nurturing the everyday aspects of one’s daily life,” with little attention paid to crisis moments. As she describes the Confucian process, “the child grows in that he or she grows in moral and spiritual strength as she moves outward beyond the self to the family, to the larger social world.” Lee also notes how in the Chinese tradition, cultural resources, such as “symbols, words, classics, rituals and social roles,” provide “seamless continuity in one’s development” throughout one’s life. Lee then notes that one shortcoming of Erikson’s work is “a lack of adequate attention to the specific texts, specific rituals, the particular social roles and practices that enable human flourishing.”

I wonder if the contrast between focus on the gradual integration of the child into a larger social and cultural framework on the one hand, and a model of development that charts the effort of the individual child to resolve internal conflict or crisis on the other, is a result of starkly different expectations in these two distinct cultural contexts (i.e., Erikson’s modern psychoanalytic point of view vs the view of Confucian commentaries) on individualism and autonomy. To what extent are critical points in the life of the child in premodern China, for example, choice of career path, marriage partner, or sexual orientation, decided or charted out by parents and the prescriptions of classical texts, so as to preclude an emphasis on crisis and resolution, and instead, encourage the active sublimation of a sense of individual crisis and need for resolution in favor of conforming to the wishes of one’s parents or the models of behavior found in the classics? The Confucian model and Erikson’s scheme both require adaptation to cultural expectations, but the former seems more engaged with external models and the latter seems to be more internalized.

Comments by Anne Behnke Kinney, University of Virginia

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