New Confucianism

New Confucianism
The term xinrujia or xinruxue, loosely translated as ‘New Confucianism’, is increasingly understood as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon of the last twenty-five years, one that has garnered considerable attention in Western academic and media circles, yet is remote from the real religious and life experience of Chinese. It is cited by foreign pundits and Communist Party officials as a significant determining factor in China’s rapid and largely successful economic transformation. Followers and advocates, who have grown in number in the past decade, are principally found in academic institutions in Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei and the United States. The increasingly self-proclaimed existence of these dangdai xinrujia (contemporary New Confucians) is evidence of a revolution in cultural politics and emergent global intellectual affinities generated by the search of a deracinated intelligentsia for moral justification and the accidental advent of the Chinese economic miracle. By turns considered a matter of cultural identity, religion, philosophy and social ethos, in its vast range of contemporary cultural reference, ‘New Confucianism’, not unlike its predecessor ‘Confucianism’, is everything and yet no-thing.
Regardless of the manifold forms it assumes, xinruxue, its adherents would concur, is grounded in a mythopoeic conception of the moral self as the conscience of community and cosmos; ‘its primary purpose’, according to Tu Wei-ming, ‘is individual and communal self-realization with a view toward Heaven’. Beyond this commonality, there are distinct, and sometimes rivalrous schools of thought that lay claim to affinitive genealogical descent from the daoxue (learning of the path) fellowship of Zhu Xi (1130–1200), or the lixue (learning of principle) teachings of Cheng Yichuan (1033–1107), or the xinxue (learning of the mind) of Wang Yangming (1472–1529). As a whole, the present generation of ru (Confucian) scholars see themselves as the ‘third wave’ or ‘third era’ of legitimate succession from the heralded twin points of imperial-era Confucianism—the Han (206 BCECE 221) and Song/Ming (960–1644) dynasties.
Arguably any Confucianism put forward with good faith at any time after the revolution must be ‘new’; there have certainly been currents of ru advocacy running in the broader tumultuous stream of Chinese culture in the twentieth century and indeed in previous centuries. Nevertheless, today’s New Confucianism is a distinct product of China’s economic reforms, particularly the capitalist triumphalism of the Deng Xiaoping era. In this guise it is the principal cultural precipitant of this economic transformation. It operates as an ideology that unites the diverse contemporary constituencies of the meta-national entity that is ‘cultural China’ (wenhua Zhongguo) while explaining, in a mild chauvinist temper, the rapid economic expansion of China and the heralded ‘mini dragons’ of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
In the creative convulsion of the 1980s cultural discussion (wenhua taolun), Ruxue or ‘Confucianism’ returned to respectability alongside the Qigong revival, and the literary experiments in ‘roots searching’ (xungen), as China opened to the outside world while looking inward in search of cultural resources that might offer moral solace and regenerate indigenous models for community in the wake of spiritual crisis (jingshen weiji). So, alongside the searing retrospective self-reflection of Scar literature (shangwen), the conscious disarrangement of sense in Misty poetry (menglongshi) that announced the aesthetic coming to terms with the domestic trauma of the Cultural Revolution, Confucian revivalism first took its place as a discrete movement to reassess cultural identity, and quickly metamorphosed into a state-supported research institute in Beijing, the China Confucius Research Institute (Zhonghua Kongzi yanjiusuo). And, of the manifold cultural exuberances of this anxious era, New Confucianism, perhaps because of its alignment with the Party-state, was one of the few that survived the massacre at Tiananmen and the subsequent Campaign against Bourgeois Liberalization. It endured and became a discourse with multiple constituencies, as scholars in China who had long worked on the subject in isolation or self-censorship learned of a larger academic dialogue in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States over the restitution of Confucian studies.
The recent frenzy of reinvention follows a longer interval of multiple forms of conceptual invention. The term xinruxue may be traced to He Lin (1902–92), the Chinese idealist who, writing in the early 1940s, saw in the unfolding (kaizhan) of a ‘new’ Confucianism (specifically, the xin xinxue or ‘new learning of the mind’ of Wang Yangming), a cultural path for China’s reconciliation of subjective and objective spirit in a manner parallel to that sketched out by Hegel’s phenomenology for Europe. His vision was blocked by decades of oscillating violence against ‘revisionism’, bourgeois sentiment and tradition, most spectacularly the prolonged national campaign of the 1970s to criticize Lin Biao and Kongzi (piLin piKong), wherein everything that was wrong with China was placed at the feet of Confucianism.
He Lin’s was not the first mid-century affirmation of a ‘New Confucianism’, as there were others, just beyond these paroxysms of mainland political excess and from a slightly different angle, who had also directed their attention to the revival of ruxue. ‘A Respectful Declaration on Behalf of Chinese Culture to the World’ (Wei Zhongguo wenhua jinggao shijie renshi xuanyan), written in 1957 by the four great thinkers outside China—Zhang Junmai (Carsun Chang, 1887–1969), Tang Junyi (1909–78), Mou Zongsan (1909–95) and Xu Fuguan (1903–82)—and published the following year on New Year’s Day in Hong Kong and Taiwan, asserted a revitalization of the conservative intellectual alternative of xinrujia, but was in fact a dilatory extension of the late 1934 movement to bring about ‘cultural construction on a Chinese basis’ (Zhongguo benwei de wenhua jianshe), offering a new language of affirmative cultural conception but without a movement or school. Although Mou and Xiong Shili (1885–1968) may be credited with the invention of a line of xinru transmission, it was Xu Fuguan and Xiong Shili in particular who were responsible for the instruction of a younger generation of Chinese scholars who took up the cause of new Confucian studies with fervour.
The aetiology of the New Confucian movement is complex but, owing to the documentary industry of scholars like Fang Keli and Li Jinquan, an arc of this most recent revival can be inscribed through several salient points in the intellectual landscape:
• 1978, the recuperation of ruxue at a post-Cultural Revolution symposium on Confucian studies convened in October of 1978 at Shandong University, not far from the purported birthplace of Kongzi (Confucius);
• 1980, the establishment of the Kongzi yanjiu zhongxin (Kongzi Research Centre) in Qufu;
• 1982, the First International Conference on Zhu Xi at which the most eminent Confucian studies scholars from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China (Cai Renhou, Feng Youlan, Li Zehou, Liang Shuming, Liu Shuxian, Qian Mu, Xu Fuguan, Yu Yingshi) were gathered for the first time, and the earliest retrospective articulation of Mou Zongsan’s three generations theory (sange niandai) of ru doctrine was proposed;
• 1984, the 2,535 anniversary of the birth of Kongzi and the first massive public celebration of rites to the ‘first teacher’ (xianshi);
• 1985, the official visit of Tu Wei-ming, at Deng Xiaoping’s behest, to Beijing, the founding of the China Confucius Research Institute (Zhonghua Kongzi yanjiusuo), and the convening of the first national symposium on Kongzi in Beijing, when New Confucianism and the study of Kongzi turned scientific with projected research in Confucian studies organized into Five Year Plans;
• 1986, the national conference on the future of Chinese philosophy and the initiation of a domestic scholarly programme to study modern New Confucian thought, as well as the publication in Qufu of a new journal, Kongzi yanjiu [Confucius Research];
• 1987, the joint international conference (China and Singapore) on Confucianism as the cultural force behind East Asian economic development;
• 1989, 2,540 anniversary of Kongzi’s birth coextensive with the national symposium on Confucianism;
• 1994, 2,545 Kongzi birth anniversary and second international conference on Confucianism hosted in Beijing by the International Confucian Association;
• 1998, third international conference on Confucianism held in Beijing at which Confucianism and its contributions to human rights and ecology were addressed.
Owing to the co-emergence of the revival of Confucianism (fuxing ruxue) and Asian regional hypergrowth, many have concluded that this coincidence indicates causation. Chief among them are the ‘Confucian scholars’ Tu Wei-ming and Liu Shuxian, the sinologist Yu Yingshi, and eminent Communist Party officials. One very critical aspect of the intellectual context for these claims is Max Weber’s influential argument that late Qing Confucianism exhibited an ethic of accommodation with the world that inhibited the growth of capitalism and its modern rationality. The capitalist Confucians contend that Confucianism properly understood, that is New Confucianism, is as world-transforming as Puritanism, but without its otherworldly, transcendent yearnings. This particular brand of New Confucianism is only one of a growing number of post-Cultural Revolution era xinruxue manifestations, wherein the urge for a secure native identity by Chinese both at home and abroad was paramount.
Consequently, ‘Confucianism’, qua the traditional values of social hierarchy and familial tranquillity, exerts considerable influence over academic commentary on the political and economic reforms that have brought China unforeseen prosperity, as seen in recent works by Peter Berger, André Gunder-Frank, Samuel Huntington and David Landes. This common reading may be taken as the popular afterlife of an interpretative phenomenon that, having achieved conceptual assent in the West, has been regenerated in China, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong as an ideology of sensible capitalist development under the watchful eye of Kongzi (Confucius) and managed by authoritarian governments. Nothing confirms this creative misreading as effectively as a People’s Daily op-ed piece that appeared in 1996 and declaimed the harmony of Confucianism and China’s market Leninism, asserting that ‘Confucianism’s rule of virtues and code of ethics and authority’ were ‘the soul of the modern enterprise culture and the key to gaining market share and attracting customers’. This coincided with international symposia on Confucianism convened by Chinese officials, such as Gu Mu and Li Ruihuan who also provided funds for research into New Confucianism because of its advocacy of ‘harmony making for prosperity’.
The faith of this form of New Confucianism is likely to remain prominent in explaining the eminence of Asia in the twenty-first century, given the widespread acceptance of the facticity of Confucianism and of its principal explanatory role in the sophisticated accumulation of Asian capital and Chinese modernization. China’s capitalist achievement, or for ‘harmony above all’, or of the ‘pervasiveness of the Confucian mentality in contemporary East Asia’, occludes a necessary, broader vision of the nation’s definitive religious pluralism. In this way, the scholars of New Confucianism, whether in Boston, Hong Kong, Beijing or Taipei, commit the grievous error of Han era orthodoxy: aligning themselves and their readers with the official country, as Kristofer Schipper has pointed out, against ‘the real country, the local structures being expressed in regional and unofficial forms of religion’. In this way, all talk about a spiritual Confucianism or of Confucian humanism and any of the other manifestations of essentialist cultural self-definition, leaves New Confucianism especially vulnerable to the ardent populist critique of Dai Zhen (1723–77), who inveighed against followers of Song-Ming Confucianism for ‘slaying the people with principle’.
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