I think it might be worthwhile for us to reflect a bit on some of the regional differences in interpretation of the Chinese philosophers we all study. I was struck by two aspects of this recently. First, in the Conference and Book Symposium announcement that Kai Marchal wrote (though I posted it for him), Kai says: “Traditionally, Chinese scholars have argued that Neo-Confucian teachings are best understood within a Kantian deontological framework.” This interpretive trend is in part a result of Mou Zongsan’s influence, but some evidence that it is more complicated than that comes in two essays in the new anthology, Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously, edited by Kam-por Yu, Julia Tao, and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Two essays in this volume, by Qianfan Zhang and by Julia Tao, draw strong links between the idea of ren in early Confucianism and Kantian notions of the equal humanity or human dignity of all (among other things). At the very least, neither of these essays shows any direct evidence of the influence of Mou, and they can serve to suggest that the influence of the Kantian framework among Chinese scholars is widespread, indeed.
It seems to me, therefore, that Kai’s observation is correct, although “traditionally” might suggest more of a lengthy history of Kantian-influenced interpretations than is in fact the case (I suspect this is an artifact of the 20th century and no earlier, but would be interested in contrary evidence). There are at least two other interpretive groups: a second group, mostly made up of scholars in the U.S. writing in English, sees Confucianism as encompassing one or more forms of virtue ethics. A third group, comprising both Chinese and Western scholars and much less unified than either of the other two groups, tends to see Confucian ethics as sui generis and fitting poorly into any existing Western classifications.
All this leads me to two questions: (1) If this quick analysis is correct, then what really explains the appeal and persistence of a Kantian reading of Confucianism in Sinophone circles? I suppose one answer might be that it is a plausible interpretation of the material….
(2) What other regional differences might we observe? “Regional” might not in fact be the most perspicuous word, since it may be that the difference map onto languages (Sinophone, Anglophone, etc.) more exactly than they do onto geographical regions.