Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Weber, The Politics of Confucian Political Philosophy

In this guest post, Ralph Weber of the University of Zurich shares with us his English translation of an opinion piece just published in Germany (as “Politik, Konfuzianismus und konfuzianische politische Philosophie in der VR China heute.” In: Widerspruch – Münchner Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Nr. 56, 2013.) Please direct comments to Dr. Weber.

The Politics of ‘Confucian Political Philosophy’

Ralph Weber, University of Zurich


In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Confucius, the Master, is “standing tall” again, as a People’s Daily headline put it (13 January 2011), referring to a ten meter bronze statue which since January was standing right next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, before it was dislocated to a less prominent spot in April 2011 for reasons as yet unknown.[1] Not to be mistaken, the statue was not the latest version of the Goddess of Democracy, which students had erected in June 1989 as a symbol of protest and reform. The Confucius statue was not erected against the Chinese government; it had been put there with official endorsement – something that only decades ago would have been unthinkable – and surely it was also dislocated again with official endorsement. The short but prominent appearance of the Confucius statue at one of the most symbolic places in all of China showcases the wavering attitude of the Chinese government on what to do with Confucianism and perhaps reveals once more how split the government is in terms of doctrine and ideology.

The Time of Confucius?

Recent events in the PRC might easily suggest that China is going down the road of Confucianization. At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2’008 voices chanted the line from the Confucian Analects, “to have friends come from distant quarters – is this not a source of enjoyment?” (you peng zi yuan fang lai, bu yi le hu?) The line had been selected together with other lines from the Analects by more than 40’000 netizens participating in a poll by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG). Another line making it into the opening ceremony was the one where the now (in)famous motto ‘harmony is to be cherished’ (he wei gui) occurs. The Confucian motto of harmony has been at the forefront of the government agenda, which aims at the creation of a harmonious society at home and at harmonious relations with other nations. Wen Jiabao, the Premier, in 2007 said: “From Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, the traditional culture of the Chinese nation has numerous precious elements, many positive aspects regarding the nature of the people and democracy. For example, it stresses love and humanity, community, harmony among different viewpoints, and sharing the world in common.”[2] Around the world Confucius Institutes have popped up since 2004, currently numbering around 400. Last year, the Hollywood-style bio-epic ‘Confucius’ hit the movie theatres throughout the Chinese mainland. Most recently, in a new government-sponsored promotional ad, a shorter version of which was aired on Times Square in New York, Mencius is heralded as a sort of presage of sustainable development. Classics such as the Analects and the Mencius nowadays again figure on the curricula of secondary schools. Chen Lai, a prominent philosophy professor from Beijing University, estimates that “more than ten million children are now studying the Confucian classics.”[3] In Nishan, the alleged birth-place of Confucius, a Confucian Academy has opened its doors. Confucianism surely strikes a chord with some part of the population, a significant part if we take Yu Dan’s “self-help book on the Analects of Confucius”[4] as a measure, of which she has sold more than 10 million copies; the same author, Yu Dan, has recently visited Chinese prisons lecturing inmates about Confucian values. A prison in Jilin province reportedly even boasts a Confucian classroom and on top of it broadcasts sayings by Confucius directly into cells.[5]  And so on and so forth…

So, where is the problem? If the revival of Confucianism in the PRC were only about a sort of cultural renaissance, about finding an identity in an age of globalization, then there perhaps would not be a problem at all. But where there is culture and identity, there is often also culture politics and identity politics. And where these are, other realpolitik is not far. And indeed, the Confucian revival, which can be traced back to the late 1970s, is about such politics, too. That there is a dimension of realpolitik to the Confucian revival is not in any way surprising or alarming; most people not particularly involved with Confucianism would have guessed in the first place that there is such a dimension. What is surprising and perhaps a bit alarming is that the dimension is not much acknowledged let alone made the topic of critical investigation by those who are particularly involved with Confucianism, i.e. advocates of Confucianism or scholars who are professionally concerned with the subject-matter. It is not even a topic in most scholarship on Confucian political philosophy.

Confucian Culture Politics

The Beijing Olympics and the preparations leading up to it have been described in scholarly literature as “a campaign of mass distraction.”[6] Many commentators have interpreted the Confucius Institutes as an effort to build up China’s soft power. And, indeed, Li Changchun, the fifth highest ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee has been quoted as saying that the Confucius Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”[7] The $22 million government-backed movie ‘Confucius’ portrays the Master as someone who would do anything for his “nation” – as the government was set to do anything for the movie, taking the exceedingly successful movie ‘Avatar’ out of movie theatres to push screenings of ‘Confucius’, to little avail it seems; some theatres apparently went as far as giving out beauty coupons for those willing to sit through the movie. The People’s Daily reported this January that in a northern Chinese county, “at least 11 officials were barred from promotion due to their poor filial piety records”, in line with a new rule introduced. The rule is motivated, the Communist Party chief of the county explains, by “the ancient Confucian teaching that filial piety comes above all other virtues and a person who does not care for his parents is not to be trusted with public affairs.”[8]

Thinking about the reading of Confucian classics in schools and prisons, one might be tempted to ask which Confucianism is being promoted in these efforts. The selection of texts in a text book edited by Jiang Qing and recommended by the Chinese Society of Education (an organ of the Ministry of Education) was openly challenged by Fang Keli (a Marxist scholar and leader of two large-scale state-funded research projects on contemporary Confucianism between 1986 and 1995), who wrote several letters to the Ministry seeing to it that the selection had to be changed to include non-Confucian material. ‘Which Confucianism?’ clearly is not only a scholarly, but also a political question.

The politicization of Confucianism in the PRC, finally, is demonstrated by an event in December 2010 that was stirring up blogger communities. In Qufu, Confucius’ hometown, the Chinese government revealed plans for a Gothic-style Christian church to facilitate dialogue between Confucianism and the country’s fastest growing religion. The church’s pastor, by the way, is Kong Xiangling, a 75th generation descendant of Confucius. The project prompted innumerable nationalist online comments and a public letter of protest by ten Chinese scholars (including Chen Ming and Yan Binggan). The letter said: “If a super-large Confucius temple were built in Jerusalem, Mecca or the Vatican, overshadowing the religious buildings there, how would the people feel about it? Would the government and the people accept it?” [9] What is interesting here is that the Confucius temple in Qufu is being analogized with the holy places of the Abrahamic religions, and one wonders whether such an analogy is at all justified and if so what it implies. Whether or not Qufu can be re-configured to fit such a setting is highly questionable.

Some few Chinese scholars have readily picked up on that the controversy is contributing to a politicization of Confucianism. Here is a quote by Peng Guoxiang, now at Peking University:

…Some self-proclaimed Confucians…are trying to stop [the church] by launching a social movement. This fundamentalist attitude, mingling with nationalism, is embraced not only by the young people, but also by some scholars in Confucian studies. A typical feature of Confucian tradition, religious tolerance and open-mindedness … is now severely damaged by this extremism.[10]

Finally someone speaking out against the fundamentalism and nationalism, one might think. But Peng goes on to say, “Once Confucianism reemerges with such an exclusive face to the world, it will be a disaster for the real revival of herself.” Real revival of herself? What should that mean? Again, the question seems to be ‘Which Confucianism?’, and ‘Which is the original or the real Confucianism?’ and more precisely, ‘How exclusive a face should that Confucianism sport’?

Chinese/Confucian Political Philosophy

‘Chinese political philosophy’ should perhaps be distinguished from ‘political philosophy in the PRC’, the latter being a topic also widely pursued focusing on whoever you wish to imagine, from Mencius to Huang Zongxi, from Plato to Habermas, but also very prominently Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. ‘Chinese political philosophy’ might also draw on these or other philosophers, but to a significant part draws on philosophy for various and sometimes differing reasons – and sometimes without much reason – considered to be ‘Chinese’. Most prominent are those who base their political philosophy somehow on one or another Confucianism, but we should not forget that there are other, equally retrospectively constructed -isms, which may also lay claim to being ‘Chinese’, such as Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism, and so on. If I focus here on ‘Confucianism’, then I do so aware of the reductionism, which I actually think is part of the problem.

Topics discussed in Confucian political philosophy range from democracy, civil society, rule of law, human rights to self-cultivation, institutional proposals and obviously the paramount construction of a harmonious society. Among the many engaged in the field, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang have perhaps most controversially rocked the boat, so to say, promoting Confucianism as a normative project, and I should ex ante admit that they represent a more radical stance than many others, but for that reason they also illustrate my concerns best. They both oppose Western-style liberal democracy, going against what the most prominent Confucians of the mid- and later twentieth century held and also against attempts by other contemporary scholars, who, for instance, have invested much thought about how something like a Confucian democracy could be conceived.

Jiang Qing, who used to be an ordinary academic but left his post to establish his own academy based on Confucian academies in the Song and Ming dynasties, explicitly is concerned with a political Confucianism and with the political future of the PRC. In his book of 2004 Life Faith and the Kingly Way of Politics he proposes a tri-cameral Parliament including a House of Confucians (tongru yuan), a House of the Nation (guoti yuan) and a House of the People (shumin yuan). The most powerful House would be the House of Confucians, which is inspired by the Confucian scholar-officials of old, but apparently also by “Islamic theocratic institutions in contemporary Iran.”[11] It consists of Confucian scholars, part of whom would be nominated by the people, part, namely those who have graduated from a state-established Confucian college, would be appointed by the state. But also the other Houses are to some extent Confucian. Mind that the House of the Nation should, in Jiang’s blueprint, should accommodate descendants of sages or saints and be presided over by nobody else but a descendant of Confucius himself – although I am not sure whether Jiang would feel comfortable, say, with Kong Xiangling, the mentioned pastor from Qufu. Anyways, how is Jiang’s proposal to be realized? Confucianism he writes should be made the “state religion” (guojiao) of China, which for Jiang translates into declaring it the “state ideology” (guojia yishixingtai), similar in status, he comments, to what is today called “a constitutional principle” (xianfaxing yuanze). On the level of social practice, Jiang speaks of the promotion of the study of Confucian texts among children and students, and as I have mentioned, he himself has composed a text book for that purpose. Jiang’s thought has been given much attention in recent years. Daniel A. Bell, for instance, a political philosopher at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has done much to introduce and to propagate Jiang’s ideas in the English language (labeling him a “left Confucian”), from scholarly articles and book chapters to exchanges with Michael Walzer in Dissent magazine to newspaper articles in the New York Times and countless internet and blog entries. Just now, a volume on and by Jiang Qing has been published with the renowned Princeton University Press, in which Bell figures as a co-editor and as editor of the series (The Princeton–China Series). In the introduction of the volume, Bell refers to Jiang as “the most prominent Confucian political thinker of our day.“[12]

Another political Confucianism is defended by Kang Xiaoguang, a trained economist and prominent academic on the Chinese mainland, and once an adviser to former Premier Zhu Rongji. Here are some quotes, taken from an article entitled “Confucianization: The Future in Tradition” and taken out of context, but thereby highlighting another context:

…a dictatorship by the community of Confucian scholars.

So in the next 20 to 50 years, Confucianism will fight a decisive battle with Western culture. This will be a life-and-death struggle since it concerns the future of the Chinese nation. And I firmly believe that democracy will doom China’s future while Confucianism or Confucianization best suits the interest of the Chinese nation. This is a basic view of mine.

…the hegemony of Confucian culture must first be established.

One needs to realize that it will take long and arduous efforts for Confucianism to defeat the West.[13]

What strikes me here obviously is the belligerent rhetoric of cultural nationalism, but also the exclusive choice of either Confucianism or ‘the West’. For Kang, Chinese means Confucian and Confucian means Chinese. To install his Confucian blueprint of a benevolent government (renzheng) in the PRC, Kang envisions a “peaceful evolution” and depicts a double strategy of Confucianizing the CCP at the top and Confucianizing society at the lower level.[14] The society of what is otherwise often described as ‘Confucian China’ (ironically) must be Confucianized or re-Sinicized, in his view, for it has become too Westernized. As a vehicle to transmit Confucianism into the society again religion is supposed to be the key. Kang takes the will of Heaven to be higher than the will of the people – and he takes the community of Confucian scholars to understand more fully the way of Heaven than ordinary folk is capable of.[15]

The Chinese Party-State and Confucianism

If Kang Xiaoguang wishes to Confucianize the Party, then one might ask what the Party thinks of that and whether it might not have plans of its own for Confucianism. Mind that the Confucius statue was put up with official endorsement. Indeed, several writers argue that the Confucian revival expresses a tactic of the Communist Party to address social problems in China, while – and therein lies the rub – keeping its monopoly on political power. Human rights activist Guo Baosheng recently wrote:

Political Confucianism provides the answer to various political problems in China. It can act as the state religion, modify and beautify Marxism, invoke the hierarchical politics of the Kingly Way to whitewash authoritarianism, and act as a defense to constitutional democracy, freedom and equality […], promote ethics and social responsibility to save China from a moral crisis, defend local culture against Westernization, alleviate the world’s fear of a rising Communist China, and act as a culture for global penetration and expansion.[16]

Whether or not and to what extent Confucianism is a mere tool for the Chinese party-state is a much disputed matter. Some say that “the state has supported Confucianism because it sees Confucianism as compatible with neo-conservatism and a rising state.“[17] In his study of 2008 Lost Soul: ‘Confucianism’ in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse, John Makeham argues that it is not the CCP’s support but “the intellectual cross-fertilization and rivalry” that drives the revival of Confucianism in contemporary China; he sees no orchestration from the side of party-state functionaries.[18] Daniel A. Bell, in his China’s New Confucianism (2008) expresses the view that decreasing faith in Marxism prompts the party to provide Confucianism “for thinking about China’s political future”. Bell has recently been quoted as saying that the fact that the Confucius statue was put up at Tiananmen suggests no less than “that the regime is moving closer to an official embrace of Confucianism.”[19] Official embrace? As if Confucianism and its revival (which Bell often depicts as something very recent, although it goes back at least to the late 1970s) were something whose existence hitherto did not depend on the party-state, something detached from it which it now sets out to embrace. Or was Confucianism so far merely unofficially embraced? Bell, it seems, tends to interpret the explicit statements by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao regarding Confucianism and the implicit Confucian rhetoric of ‘harmonious society‘ (hexie shehui) and ‘the moderately well-off society’ (xiaokang shehui) as expressing genuine concerns. No one really knows, I assume. But it usually and generally seems not really a good idea to take the expressions of concern of those in power at face value. But that is what Bell in my opinion is inclined to do.[20] He comments on the “Chinese government’s very public display of compassion and transparency” in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, writing the following sentence: “Even die-hard cynics were won over by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s emotional comforting of the survivors.”[21] Won over to what? One wonders… The recent report in the New York Times on Wen’s property situation might perhaps give a clue.

An interesting contribution entitled “The Refunctioning of Confucianism” (2008) comes from Ai Jiawen, a young scholar in Australia.[22] Ai distinguishes three different groups: 1. Confucians (rujia), adherents of Confucianism understood as an alternative way of being (including Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang), 2. Liberal Confucianists, aiming at a peaceful transition to a Chinese democracy, and 3. Social Confucianists, seeing in Confucianism a means to strengthen Marxism and the CCP. Confucianists (ruxue yanjiu zhe) specialize in the study of Confucianism, but are interested in it mainly because they think it useful in view of political aims.[23]  This does not mean that the first group, the Confucians, are not pursuing political aims, but that some of them might pursue religious plus political aims. Ai Jiawen sees them as immersed in a “hegemonic practice calculated to reinforce the discursive formation of Confucian values and thereby empower themselves in the contest for influence and control over national identity and the future direction of the nation.”[24]

Ai Jiawen conjectures that eventually “Confucianism is more likely to take the form of a political strategy adopted by the CCP”; the problem for Confucians and liberal Confucianists in her view is that “they seem to need the Party as much as the Party needs them.” Although they would perhaps even be able to maximize their influence through an alliance with the Party, such an alliance cannot work in the long term, as the three approaches are diametrically opposed to each other in a variety of regards. And the three groups seem to perceive each other as opposed. For instance, what about Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang? Does the Party take note of their plans to Confucianize them? A government statement of 2004 by the Committee of Standard Setting of Chinese Subjects in Primary and Secondary Schools seems to suggest so, openly criticizing Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang’s proposal to replace Marxism with Confucianism, judging their views to be “not only politically incorrect but also threatening to the legitimacy of the state”. Ai Jiawen comments: “It is quite unusual for a government report to criticize academic arguments in public, unless these arguments have posed a severe threat to the legitimacy of the communist party, and these have alarmed the party. The Confucianism discourse in mainland China has already extended itself from an academic discourse to a political debate.“[25] In light of this politicization of academic discourse, what should we think of the possible reality even of a short-term or mid-term alliance between advocates of Confucianism (both scholarly and non-scholarly) and social Confucianists? Or, if not an alliance, is there a form of tacit complicity? And does that also apply to Confucian discourse outside of the Chinese mainland, in the United States and in Europe? The “Daniel Bell-phenomenon” illustrates perhaps that this is a real question and a real concern.




[1]    See: Zhu Linyong, “Confucius Stands Tall Near Tian’anmen,“ in People’s Daily Online, 13 January 2011, online: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/90882/7259160.html (last viewed: 22 July 2011). The Economist (20 January 2011) ran an interesting comment on the then new statue of Confucius at Tiananmen pointing out that “Party officials use Confucius as a Father-Christmas-like symbol of avuncular Chineseness rather than as the proponent of a philosophical outlook.” On the new Confucius statue, the Economist, noted that it “appears to have struck a wrong note. Of more than 820,000 responses to an online poll conducted by the party newspaper, the People’s Daily, 62% opposed it.”

[2]    Daniel A. Bell, China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2008, 9. When Chinese president Hu Jintao held a speech in February 2005 in front of Chinese functionaries on the topic of social cohesion and quoted from the Analects that “harmony is the most valuable” (he wei gui), it made world news that he had quoted Confucius, although in Analects 1:12 it is actually one of his followers (Youzi) whose speech is recorded.

[3]    Bell, China’s New Confucianism, 12.

[4]    Michael Nylan, “A Confusion of Confuciuses: Invoking Kongzi in the Modern World”, in Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, Lives of Confucius, New York: Doubleday, 2010, 219.

[5]    Bell, China’s New Confucianism, 11 and 194 fn. 12.

[6]    Anne-Marie Brady, “The Beijing Olympics as a Campaign of Mass Distraction,” The China Quarterly 197 (2009): 1–24.

[7]    The quote is reported in an article by Will Wachter in “The language of Chinese soft power in the US,” Asia Times Online, 24 May 2007, as well as in the Economist, “A message from Confucius; New ways of projecting soft power,” Economist.com, 22 October 2009.

[8]    See: “Filial piety stages controversial comeback in China’s official-selection culture,“ in People’s Daily Online, 18 January 2011, online: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/ 90882/7264909.html (last viewed: 22 September 2011).

[9]    Cara Anna, „Church plan in hometown of Confucius draws protest,” Associated Press (AP), 25 December 2010, online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9422825 (last viewed 30 November 2012).

[10]   See: Stephen Angle, „Confucian Fundamentalism?,“ in Warp, Weft, and Way: A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy, online: http://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/confucian-fundamentalism/ (last viewed: 20 September 2011).

[11]   Albert H.Y. Chen, “Three Political Confucianisms and Half a Century,“ in The Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China, ed. Fan Ruiping (Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer Dordrecht, 2011), 208.

[12]   Jiang Qing, A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future, ed. Daniel A. Bell and Ruiping Fan, trans. Edmund Ryden, Princeton und Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, 1.

[13]   Kang Xiaoguang, “Confucianization: A Future in the Tradition,” in Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences 73, no. 1 (2006): 112–114.

[14]   Kang’s proposal to Confucianize the Party has certainly met with some resonance. Daniel A. Bell has even suggested that soon enough the second C in CCP might be up for a new interpretation, so as to spell out the abbreviation as Chinese Confucian Party; Gan Yang has advanced the new term “Confucian Socialist Republic” (rujia shehuizhuyi gongheguo). For Gan Yang, see: Zhou Lian, “The Most Fashionable and the Most Relevant: A Review of Contemporary Chinese Political Philosophy,” in Diogenes 221 (2009): 135.

[15]   Chen, “Three Political Confucianisms and Half a Century,“ 214.

[16]   Quoted from: Andy Yee, “China: The Coming Age of Political Confucianism?,” in Global Voices Online, 5 February 2011, online: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/02/05/china-the-coming-of-age-of-political-confucianism/ (last viewed: 22 September 2011).

[17]   Zhao Suisheng, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 70–76.

[18]   John Makeham, Lost Soul: ‚Confucianism‘ in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 7 and 331.

[19]   Ulara Nakagawa, „The Confucian Comeback,“ in The Diplomat, 2 March 2011, online: http://the-diplomat.com/new-emissary/2011/03/02/the-confucian-comeback/ (last viewed: 22 September 2012).

[20]    Bell and his take on the Chinese government has just become the subject of a controversy on the internet: Mark Mackinnon, “Meet the Canadian prof making waves for praising China as a meritocracy” in The Globe and Mail, 24 November 2012, online: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/canadian-iconoclast-daniel-a-bell-praises-chinas-one-party-system-as-a-meritocracy/article5633364/ (30 November 2012); Daniel A. Bell, “Freedom Over Truth?”, The Huffington Post, 25 November 2012, online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-a-bell/freedom-over-truth_b_2188739.html?utm_hp_ref= tw (30 November 2012).

[21]   Daniel A. Bell, “What’s Left of Confucianism?,” 7 July 2008, Project Syndicate website: www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/bell1/English (last viewed: 22 September 2011)

[22]   Ai Jiawen, “The Refunctioning of Confucianism: The Mainland Chinese Intellectual Response to Confucianism since the 1980s,“ in Issues & Studies 44, no. 2 (2008): 29–78.

[23]   Ai, “The Refunctioning of Confucianism,” 35.

[24]   Ai, “The Refunctioning of Confucianism,” 61.

[25] Ai Jiawen, “Two Sides of One Coin: the party’s attitude toward Confucianism in contemporary China,“ in Journal of Contemporary China 18, no. 61 (2009): 13.

January 25th, 2013 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Contemporary Confucianism, Jiang Qing, Philosophy in China, Politics | 15 comments

15 Responses to Weber, The Politics of Confucian Political Philosophy

  1. Brian Bruya says:

    Excellent article. Thanks very much for sharing!

    I’m not sure the alarmist tone is justified, though. Should I understand the article mostly as a call for academics to be a bit more sceptical about the potential benefits of Confucianism?

    Perhaps a way to get at the possible future uses of Confucianism in Chinese politics and society is to ask: regardless of what “true” Confucianism might advocate, overall were the political and societal uses of Confucianism in Chinese history a net plus or a net minus for the Chinese people? What you think about that may be a good predictor of what you think about the amount of good that Confucianism might bring in the future.

    • Ralph Weber says:

      Dear Brian,
      thank you very much for your response!

      The “alarmist tone” in the article is directed not so much at wanting academics to be more sceptical about the potential benefits of Confucianism (although I see no harm if we would also be more sceptical in that regard), as it wants them to pay more attention to how their “philosophical” work on Confucianism is – whether they want it or not) – immersed and perhaps surreptitiously co-opted and enlisted in a “political” agenda. Those setting that agenda are likely to pursue completely divergent goals.

      More concretely, if I travel to China and give a talk on why I think Confucian self-cultivation is philosophically a relevant topic and – as it happens – the press there afterwards reports something along the lines of “Foreigners appreciate Chinese culture!”, do I thereby lend support to that political agenda (that I for my part do not necessarily support)?

      In that sense, my concern relates to what you say about the “good that Confucianism might bring in the future”. I think the Confucianism that most of us are interested in will largely be irrelevant for the future of the PRC. The Confucianism that the government uses in slogans or for culturalist/nationalist purposes might have some relevance, but I don’t see why that Confucianism should do any good. Acknowledging the difference between these two Confucianisms is only a mild start to be wary of the many different Confucianisms hiding behind the notion of “Confucianism in Chinese history”. The problem, as I see it, is precisely that very little of the Confucianism we think seeing revived in the PRC has much to do with, say, pre-Qin Confucianism or even Song-Ming Confucianism or – more importantly – a responsibly and carefully fashioned modern version of it. In short, I think we academics whoe are interested in Confucianism are too easily carried away by the slightest signs of so-called Confucian revival on the mainland. Just because some school-kids are reading Confucian classics again (even if they count 10 million, as Chen Lai estimates), they are really insignificant over against the much larger junk of the student population reading on macro-economics and finance or the many books on how to get rich.

      I am not sure whether I made myself any clearer. Maybe an “alarmist tone” is not justified, but some scepticism certainly is in order and if my ‘alarmism’ leads to increased scepticism, I should be happy enough.

      • Brian Bruya says:

        I get it. Thanks for the clarification.

        Let me say first that although I sensed an alarmist tone in the article, I thought that the content was overall balanced and insightful. I very much appreciate the detail you provide.

        Regarding the two different kinds of Confucianism, it seems like some academics (especially in China) are much more optimistic that a philosophically relevant Confucianism can be of some significant influence in China, even if co-opted in part by political leaders for political ends. I wonder what reasons can be given for pessimism on this point. Why must political and philosophical Confucianism necessarily be separate? That’s why I was reaching back to history. But one doesn’t have to go back to history. Is there something in the current political situation that precludes philosophical Confucianism from ever being instituted? Or is there something in philosophical Confucianism, itself, that precludes it from realistic implementation?

        • Ralph Weber says:

          Dear Brian, these academics in China that you refer to are mostly teaching Confucianism in philosophy departments (and more often than not they are considering themselves Confucian more substantially, say, than someone teaching Aristotle might consider him- or herself Aristotelian) and I can well understand that they are more optimistic about an influence of a philosophically relevant Confucianism. But I find their optimism to be verging towards the politically naïve. Then, there are people like Jiang Qing or Kang Xiaoguang whose words might evoke slightly more resonance (although I tend to believe that most educated Chinese have never heard of either of them), but their political Confucianisms don’t strike me as “philosophically relevant”. A “philosophically relevant” Confucianism would not simply discard liberal democracy because it is Western or non-Chinese, but would have to engage with liberal democracy on an argumentative level and come to embrace/discard elements of it rather than the whole package.

          About political and philosophical Confucianism, I believe that there is indeed much in the current political situation that precludes philosophical Confucianism from being instituted. For one thing, any sort of -ism that does not give a solution on how to accomodate the ever stronger pluralism in Chinese society cannot in my view be politically a viable option. I know only of scholars working outside of the mainland who are trying to formulate a political Confucianism along these lines (and there is much work to be done). Put in other words, a “philosophically relevant” Confucianism could not possibly be to the liking of a party that basically (and to some extent understandably) wants to stay in power, that is, to have all the power.

          And regarding your question about whether there is something in philosophical Confucianism that precludes it from realistic implementation: I wouldn’t hold that there is such a thing in philosophical Confucianism that precludes implementation and without which one would not be warranted to call it Confucianism, but I must admit that I have not come across a formulation of a philosophical Confuciansim that is explicit enough in how it would be implemented and how exactly it would look like as a viable political Confucianism and that I would also like to see implemented. But obviously, others might quite likely want to disagree. So maybe I am too pessimistic.

          But I think it important that we distinguish very carefully between a philosophically relevant Confucianism and its version of a political Confucianism and the co-opted version of a political Confucianism that the government might be finding interesting, which will be very unlikely to co-incide with the former.

  2. Kai Marchal says:

    Hi Ralph:
    thanks a lot for sharing your fascinating piece on contemporary Confucianism!
    YES, in many ways I share your feelings about the need for more scepticism and even some sort of “alarmist” attitude regarding contemporary Chinese reality/realities. No doubt, what one hears these days and weeks through the media, through other sources, and even by personal correspondance, gives one reason to be very cautious. Too much is lumped together when we speak about China today (“culture”; “politics”; “philosophy”;…). And I have often been thinking that Confucian notions are so difficult to understand, exactly because they are so “open” and context-depended. In the near future, the world will probably hear more about Confucian fundamentalism. A major problem, I guess, is that the world still hasn’t found a way to come to terms with the very disturbing fact that the source of political legitimacy in one of the most powerful countries on earth still lies in a very brutal and extremely violent revolution. Maybe we should speak more about Chinese Communism and less about Confucianism…

    • Ralph Weber says:

      Dear Kai, thank you for your comments! Just one addition to clarify my position (and knowing that you are probably the first to agree): Yes, I also think that we should talk about Chinese Communism, but also about liberalism, the new Left, the Straussians, the strongly growing Christianity, the current political experimentalism and incrementalism, the relation between religion and politic (secularism, etc.), and so on and so forth… and yes, also about Confucianism. My point is that if we forget for a moment our specialization in Confucianism, we immediately see a China that is so much more pluralistic so as to make any talk about a “Confucian China” either politically naïve or to mean no more than a “Christian Europe”, but then we are no longer talking about the political reality (we then merely are making a weak culturalist point).

  3. Kai Marchal says:

    Additional thought: I still tend to think that we need critical distance not only to the actual Chinese state, but also to the very aggressive, neo-liberal agenda of Western countries like the US. Or to go back once more to Hegel: there is no neutral or even “global” stance, as all possible positions are deepy intertwined and dialectically dependent (even the “Economist” is, for obvious reasons, not a neutral observer of Chinese reality)… Under the conditions of modernity, nation-states tend to become rather unhuman “Leviathans”. Thus, if there is still a more livable, more philosophical Confucianism, it certainly is to be found in a relatively small state like the “Republic of China”.

  4. David Chai says:

    Kai, in your first reply you used the phrase “Confucian fundamentalism”. Would you care to elaborate what you mean by this? I’ve never come across this expression before.

  5. Kai Marchal says:

    Hi David:

    I guess I couldn’t provide you with a very sharp definition of the term “Confucian fundamentalism” – but passages like the ones by Kang Xiaoguang (“…a dictatorship by the community of Confucian scholars”; “So in the next 20 to 50 years, Confucianism will fight a decisive battle with Western culture”; or even “…the hegemony of Confucian culture must first be established.”) sound to me extremely disturbing. Or what do you think? Maybe you have a better understanding of this term?

  6. David Chai says:

    When it comes to anything Confucian, I shall defer to the likes of yourself, Kai, and Steve. I cannot picture Confucian “fundamentalism” (read orthodoxy?) as being anything but good for the world so long as we are speaking of the classical tradition and not that of modern times. You know, in all the years I’ve spent with the Zhuangzi, I honestly believe that Zhuangzi, despite his mockery, deeply respected Confucius. This is not to say that he subscribed to everything Confucius said; rather, I think the point was that each individual ought to try and strike a balance between moral sincerity and existential freedom, doing so with a measure of whimsical fluidity to boot!

  7. David Chai says:

    Woops! Looks like I forgot to add a “/” with the closing italic code. Any way to fix this?

  8. David Elstein says:

    Hi Ralph, thanks for sharing this excellent article. I share many of the same concerns, both about what’s going on in China and how the work of Western scholars might be co-opted for purposes very different from what was intended. I tend to think that is not a reason not to do such scholarship and I generally don’t hold philosophers responsible for perversions of their views (was the Terror in the French Revolution really Rousseau’s fault), but there are certainly a lot of issues to be aware of that say, my colleague doing ancient Greek philosophy, probably doesn’t need to think about.

    I also share your concern about people like Jiang and Kang and their highly rigid and essentialized take on Ruism. One question I have, and if you have any information here I’d love to hear it, is how influential they really are in China. Certainly academics know who they are (and in my experience tend to dismiss them) and I’ve seen a few articles about Jiang in popular press, but is Daniel Bell’s comment that Jiang is the most prominent living Ruist political thinker accurate? I suppose it might be, if only because other candidates are even less likely to be known by people outside academia, but I wonder how much impact Jiang really has.

    You mention that Jiang and Kang represent the more radical side, and I think their views need some response and do raise legitimate concerns. At the same time, I think it’s important to point out that there are people within China, not to mention the broader Chinese linguistic and philosophical community, who are much more moderate and are really searching for a way Ruism can adapt and contribute to a more pluralist society in China and the rest of the world. Our fellow blogger Steve Angle is of course one, and then there’s people like Joseph Chan in HK, Zhao Tingyang and Gan Chunsong in China, and a number of even less politically-oriented scholars in Taiwan. I leave aside Kai’s question of whether Ruism should be such a focus. For many people it is, and not all (most of them even) aren’t as out there as Jiang and Kang.

    Finally, you raise the question of Ru essentialism. I also find this troubling, both the idea that Ruism=mainstream Chinese culture and the idea you mentioned, that there is some essential or orthodox version of Ruism. However, I wonder if this is mostly a Western concern. In all the scholars I’ve read in China or Taiwan, I can’t think of any who question the idea that there is an essential core to Ruism. They argue all the time about what it is, but not that there is one. The whole idea of the daotong, which is still strongly debated today, is based on this. Next time I go back to Asia I’ll try to raise this question with some people, but I wonder if the idea that there is no “right” interpretation of Ruism is going to get much traction.

  9. Ralph Weber says:

    Dear David,
    thank you very much for your comments! I shall try to engage with them one by one.

    The first point you raise is that philosophers should not be held responsible for perversions of their view. I of course agree, for nobody has much control over the uses that are made of one’s writings. Still, I am often wondering whether there might not be ways of writing that make it at least a bit harder to be instrumentalized (perhaps some self-critical and self-deconstructive moves, but that might be wishful thinking on my side). The best way I can come up with is to be wary of not surreptitiously, let alone explicitly, serving obvious undesirable political agendas (chauvinist nationalism, racisim, etc.) or helping reify questionable theoretical tools (culturalisms, essentialization of traditions). And even if we might not agree on what is and what is not an “undesirable political agenda” or a “questionable theoretical tool”, it is of utmost importance, I believe, for just any academic discipline to continue debate on this. The reflection of the roles of, say, Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt, with regard to Nazi Germany has not subsided and I think that is entirely right (as one way of studying their writings, which of course can and should be studied in other ways, too).

    Now, the question on the real influence of Jiang and Kang is one that I would very much like to have someone answer myself! My hunch is that the influence of Jiang Qing is really overrated and that the picture (particularly in the US) is much distorted due to Daniel Bell’s propagation of Jiang. Let us have a closer look at what Bell writes (p. 1) in the introduction: “Jiang Qing (b. 1952) – the most prominent Confucian political thinker of our day…” Well, it would be interesting to know what kind of prominence he is meant to enjoy. Bell claims further: “Jiang’s views are intensely controversial in mainland China, but a conversation about political change among intellectuals and political reformers in China rarely fails to turn to Jiang’s proposals.” It obviously depends with whom you converse, but I have personally not witnessed any mention of Jiang outside of Confucian circles (except the one story I relate in my article about the government statement of 2004). Say, Yu Keping (民主是个好东西) or even Wang Hui, simply do not mention Jiang. Bell’s next claim: “It may not be an exaggeration to say that Jiang Qing has almost single-handedly succeeded in enriching debates about China’s political future.” I can of course understand why one would want sentences like these to be in an introduction to a book that must find a market, but, again: enrichment is a very flexible category and opinions might differ (here is what the Economist [admittedly, no neutral observer…] wrote last year: economist.com/news/china/21565228-westerners-who-l….

    There are certainly Confucian scholars who are more prominent than Jiang outside of academia (Tang Yijie, Tu Weiming, Chen Lai, etc.), but none of them would consider himself (a reminder that we are talking about a men’s only community…) a political thinker. But, even if Bell is right and Jiang Qing is the “most prominent Confucian political thinker of our day” in the PRC (outside of the PRC there are certainly more prominent scholars, at least on my count), then this is simply due to the fact that there are not too many out there and – I would hold – that Confucianism does not play much of a role at all in political reforms in China. When Bell seeks to place Jiang as an alternative to “both the current regime and Western-style liberal democracy”, he is simply ignoring a host of political thinkers that would also consider themselves as an alternative (from postmodern to New Left, e.g. Cui Zhiyuan).

    Just a note on Gan Chunsong, whom you mention as somebody who is more moderate than Jiang and Kang and who is really searching for a viable Confucianism. I agree. His earlier Institutionalizing Confucianism (制度化儒家及其解体, 2006) and his most recent Returning to the Kingly Way (重回王道, 2012) are indeed interesting. But, then, he also seems to get caught in what I write about in my article. When some districts in the last years changed their promotion policy (you could only be promoted if your parents attested to your filial piety), Gan was quoted in the Beijing Review as saying that this reflects China’s traditional values fully and that it might point towards a more rational promotion system – while on the ground, Ren Yuling (economist and part-time consultant to the state-council) lauded the same promotion practice and made it a point that authorities should always best turn to public opinion (if the parents refuse to comment on the official’s filial piety, the promotion law turns to public opinion instead…). That to me sounds like a more recent tradition…

    I should admit that my use of the word “radical” was unfortunate or at least imprecise, for it suggests that the more moderate and these radical Confucians are basically pursuing some similar goal or are about some similar Confucianism, while it is could be equally argued that they are about different things altogether. It also depends about whom one is talking. For instance, I would be at unease to place Jiang Qing and Joseph Chan on a spectrum ranging from moderate to radical… because the question would be moderate and radical in what?

    Finally the essentialism question: my take is that even if it might have been a “Western concern” at some point, there are in my view many non-Confucian “Chinese” scholars who are worried about Confucian essentialism. So I would be hesitant in making it a Western vs. Chinese issue. I find your comment on daotong intriguing. Wouldn’t you say that daotong in many debates refers to the ONE lineage of true Confucianism?

    I am sorry about the length of this post. I should really learn to be more to the point…

    • David Elstein says:

      Thank you for the responses. I have had a suspicion that Jiang’s actual impact might be overblown (and I might be guilty of that myself), but it’s a hard thing to determine. I think he’s worth knowing about, but I don’t know that he’s representative of a big trend in China.

      Gan Chunsong certainly essentializes Ruism as well, but I have to say I find where he goes with it more palatable than Jiang Qing. That episode you mention is interesting, because I didn’t get the sense in Returning to the Kingly Way that he insisted Ruism be the state ideology like Jiang does.

      I should have clarified that I was referring to essentialism among scholars who more or less identify as Ru. Maybe there are more people who question it and I just haven’t read them. I do indeed regard the daotong debates as a manifestation of that; it’s very important to sort out who’s in the true lineage. My point was among the Sinophone Ru philosophers I’m familiar with, the debate is largely about who’s in the true lineage, not whether there is such a thing.


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