Confucianism and Resistance in Hong Kong

Earlier this month Joseph Chan, a well-known authority on Confucianism at the University of Hong Kong, published a short essay (in Chinese) that draws on the Analects (especially 8:13) to think about people’s responsibilities when a state “lacks the Way.” A very brief summary: when Confucius says that in a state lacking the Way one should “yin 隱” (which is translated “conceal” in that Ctext link), he does not mean that one should hide away and fail to engage with the society. It might be worth contrasting this with questions raised in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement about the lack of Confucian discourse at that time.

8 thoughts on “Confucianism and Resistance in Hong Kong

  1. Prof. Chan’s admirable article is an accurate exposition of Confucianism’s standpoint on the responsibilities of a junzi in a turbulent time. It also clarifies the common misunderstanding towards Confucianism that a Confucian always supports the governing authority unconditionally.

  2. Dear Steve, many thanks for posting this! I have read Joseph Chan’s piece. It is a well-argued and insightful article. But I still think that my comments made six years ago hold true: “… such attempts are often much more focussed on re-defining the Chinese past and re-interpreting pre-modern Chinese texts, than on actually creating the political conditions for a liberal and democratic future.” These are difficult times for many people in Hong Kong and elsewhere. It is more important than ever for scholars like us to find the right balance between a critique of Western (American) modernity and an endorsement of a non-Western intellectual tradition like Confucianism.

  3. I met Professor Chan once over dinner at a symposium at CityU 4 years ago, and we talked about the Umbrella movement and the dangers facing HK student demonstrators. I told him of the actions of Professor Glenn Frank in the moments after the 1970 Kent State shootings, who successfully pleaded with outraged student demonstrators to disperse rather than attempt to march into the gun sights of the national guardsmen. Chan expressed admiration for him, and hoped he would do something similar in such circumstances.

    But as for the principled Ruist standpoint he articulates, it seems to me to be squeezed from 2 directions. From one side, by the legacies of bowdlerized Ruist slogans and dogmas used for the legitimation of 20th century autocratic, imperialist regimes in E Asia, and which are appearing again under the auspices of Xi Jinping Thought. From the other side, by the indifference of many young Hong Kong people to traditions of thought that represent to them a cultural “Chinesesness” they increasingly reject. Should bowdlerized Ruist dogmas and slogans be made a part of educational reforms aimed at “Hanification” of Hong Kong youth, that indifference will turn to hatred.

    I’m not sure how Ruists can respond persuasively in such circumstances. But if there can be salvation for modern Ruism it could be in recovering and rethinking the most powerful statements and exemplars in early Ruist literature for remonstrance and dissent, for protest resignations and exile, and even for “abolishing and sweeping away” regimes that have turned to evil.

  4. I agree. I am very glad that you mention those “bowdlerized Ruist slogans and dogmas used for the legitimation of 20th century autocratic, imperialist regimes”. And I fear that many of us Western sinologists and China scholars are still not sufficiently aware of the deeply political nature of Confucian teachings. These teachings are embedded in social and political contexts which non-Chinese observers all too often misunderstand. Too many are keen to embrace those “bowdlerized Ruist slogans” or at least to interpret them charitably.

    • In my lately published book I discuss some of those slogans – the unity of loyalty and filial piety (忠孝一本), and dogmas of “national morality” (国民道徳) “the Kingly Way” (王道) and “The Imperial Way” (皇道) in an early 20th century Japanese context, through to 1945, when they suddenly became much less popular.

      Note that I’m not adding a new level of opprobrium against modern Confucianism by suggesting it merely shilled for murderous Japanese fascism. its 20th century Japanese legacy is much more complicated than that, but that legacy needs to be acknowledged if we are to work out ideas of a dissenting, conscientious, anti-statist Confucianism that matches Chan’s vision.

  5. Thanks Shaun! I had imagined that “slogans” would be sentences–saying “Do X” or “X is F”–, but at least the first one pretty much fits that bill.

  6. I have to agree with ODWYER RICHARD SHAUN. Confucianism is notorious for being used in bowdlerized forms for political purposes in history. Whether Professor Chan is a Confucian is a question different from whether he is a well-known authority on Confucianism.

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