Chinese Translation of Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy

I am very haCCPP_Trans_Coverppy to pass on the news that the Chinese translation of my book Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy: Toward Progressive Confucianism (Polity, 2013) has been published by Jiangxi People’s Press, as 《当代儒家政治哲学:进步儒学发凡》. More information, including the Preface to the Chinese Edition, can be found here. In case anyone is interested in an English-language version of this new Preface, I will post it below.

Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy: Preface to the Chinese Edition

Stephen C. Angle 安靖如, Wesleyan University 维思里安大学

One of the most exciting parts of an academic career is the opportunity for dialogue and mutual learning that comes after the publication of a book. After Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy was published in English in 2012, Prof. Bai Tongdong 白彤东 of Fudan University wrote a review of the book, to which I was able to reply on-line.[1] Prof. Joseph Chan 陈祖为 of Hong Kong University both organized a workshop on the book at his university, and then published an extensive review in Philosophy East and West, to which I wrote a reply.[2] Prof. Huang Yushun and Ms. Wang Kun of Shandong University have each published stimulating essays about the book.[3] And other reviews have been published as well, all of which have made me reflect deeply about the book’s themes. I am therefore very pleased that the book will now be available to Chinese-speaking audiences, and I hope that even more dialogue will take place as a result. I am grateful to the translator 韩华 and to all the editors at Standway Press 斯坦威图书, especially 陈显英, for making the Chinese edition a reality.

In English, I use the term “Progressive Confucianism” to label the version of Confucianism that I am advocating. The obvious way to translate this into Chinese is as “进步儒学,” and 韩华 has used that translation here. I agree that it is probably the best translation, but I want to point out that “progressive” (in English) and “进步” (in Chinese) have somewhat different meanings. In particular, the English word has strong social, political, and moral connotations, whereas the Chinese word has a mainly economic meaning. In the early-twentieth-century United States, for example, the “Progressive Party” advocated more equitable laws, criticizing those who sought only economic development. Socialist movements are excellent examples of this kind of “progressivism,” since they seek broad and equitable development of society. So saying that Confucianism should be “progressive” fits well with the many Confucian thinkers in the twentieth century who also advocated varieties of socialism, such as Kang Youwei, Liang Shuming, Zhang Junmai, and others. As I use the term, 进步儒学 has many dimensions, including an emphasis on rule of law (because of the need for 自我坎陷), ritual minimalism, people’s authority and political participation, global human rights, and a critique of oppression.

This is an exciting and unsettled time for Confucian thinkers as we grapple both with an unprecedented globalization of engagement with Confucianism—now taking place in multiple languages and in many countries—and with rapidly changing social, economic, and political environments. Much of the vocabulary used by contemporary Confucians is the same—virtue, ritual, humaneness, deference, harmony, order—even when the positions for which we argue differ dramatically. This makes sense, given that we all are taking ourselves as in one sense or another developing a long-standing tradition. All contemporary Confucian theorists also grapple with a range of ideas that are not traditional, or which did not have central places in traditional Confucian thinking: democracy, human rights, law, equality, autonomy, and so on. While interpretations of all these ideas, both traditional and not, vary along many dimensions, the category of democracy is perhaps the most useful in helping to make sense of the diversity. The anti-democratic views of Jiang Qing, in particular, have generated considerable attention, justifying thinking of Jiang and his ideas as one center of gravity within the field of contemporary Confucianism. No single figure stands out as a clear leader among contemporary pro-democratic Confucians, but there is an overlap on this orientation among scholars as diverse as Lee Minghuei, Lin Anwu, Du Weiming, Joseph Chan 陈祖为, Sungmoon Kim 金圣文, Sor-hoon Tan 陈素芬, and myself.

No pre-modern Confucians were democrats, so it might seem that the anti-democratic camp is necessarily more “traditional.” Since what counts as a constructive development of a tradition has more to do with realizing the values that are central to the tradition than mere resemblance to past moments of the tradition, though, on its own this feature of anti-democratic Confucianism matters very little. Furthermore, no contemporary Confucian, not even Jiang Qing, is a monarchist. All of us are in fact proposing institutions that are radically new, so the debate over what is the best appropriation of the tradition must be fought on different grounds.

Pro-democratic Confucians agree not only that no pre-modern Confucians were democrats, but also that early Confucianism’s “people-as-root (minben)” thought is not a sufficient grounding for the kind of democracy that Confucianism needs. In one way or another, Confucianism needs a significant renovation if it is to find a home for its insights in the contemporary world. At least in general terms, that is, we tend to agree with Mou Zongsan’s argument that Confucianism needs to find a way to generate a new politics through wide-ranging reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of Confucian theories and commitments; in his words, this is 开出新外王. For the Hong Kong political theorist Joseph Chan, one key is to recognize that while the commitment of Confucian “ideal theory” to sages can remain quite stable, its monarchical “non-ideal theory” has proven problematic, and here is where democracy can play a role. Chan’s argument is not Churchill’s point that democracy is less bad than the alternatives, but rather the positive arguments that democracy has important instrumental benefits in a non-ideal world and also expresses mutual commitment and trust, which he shows are crucial to political and ethical flourishing.[4]

One of Mou Zongsan’s most important teachings was that the achievement of sagehood is an endless process. I believe that this understanding of the role of sagehood is well-supported in the tradition, and it has profound implications for Confucian politics. It means that none of us are sages, even though we should be striving to be better than we are; it means that all of us are flawed and fail to see at least some relevant aspects of many of the situations we face. Our decision-making processes should therefore be designed to encompass, balance, and synthesize as many perspectives as possible, in keeping with the deep Confucian commitment to harmonizing all values. Saying this much does not yet commit us to a specific understanding of democracy, but it obviously pushes us toward a politics that is participatory and consultative. These ideas are explicit in my writings on Confucian political philosophy and resonate well with the ideas of Taiwanese Confucians like Lee Minghui and Lin Anwu who are also influenced by Mou Zongsan. Kim’s work on Confucian democracy in Korea also develops both theoretical and empirical arguments that support very similar conclusions.

It is my hope that the publication of this book in Chinese translation will lead to further discussion and debate over the future direction of Confucianism. I believe that Confucian philosophers all have much to learn from one another: the future of Confucianism is not yet set. And yet we can be confident that Confucianism has much to offer to China and to world civilization.

[1] See; and my reply at

[2] See Chan, Joseph. “‘Self-Restriction’ and the Confucian Case for Democracy,” Philosophy East & West 64:3 (2014): 785-95; Angle, Stephen C. “Sages and Self-Restriction: A Response to Joseph Chan,” Philosophy East & West 64:3 (2014): 795-98; and Chan, Joseph. “Reply to Stephen C. Angle,” Philosophy East & West 64:3 (2014): 798-99.

[3]黄玉顺,“儒学之“本”与“源”——— 评安靖如“进步儒学”的思想方法”《烟台大学学报( 哲学社会科学版)
》第27 卷 第1 期,2014 年 1 月;王堃, “反向坎陷: 当代儒家政治哲学的一种方法 ——— 评安靖如的“进步儒学 ”” 《烟台大学学报( 哲学社会科学版)
》第27 卷 第1 期,2014 年 1 月。


[4] See Chan, Joseph. Confucian Political Perfectionism: A Critical Reconstruction for Modern Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University press, 2014).

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