Why Confucius Counts

One would be hard pressed, surveying any of the political cultures in human history, to find a parallel for the continuity, longevity, and vitality of Confucianism. This moral and ethical system was given initial shape in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, drawing on traditions of history and ritual that reached at least half a millennium before that. It was codified and strengthened in the first two centuries AD, reformulated and reinforced by major philosophers in the twelfth century, and was still vigorous and subtle in the late eighteenth century—and astonishing record. The Confucian theorists offered apparently simple precepts for the relations between man and man, man and ruler, father and son, husband and wife; but they reached at the same time into the most difficult aspects of our relations with the forces of nature, and had much to say about the central problems of ethics and political activism.

Yet for all its remarkable range and complexity, Confucianism is not much studied outside specialized Sinological circles. The lack of interest in Confucianism is owing in part to its recent association with a disintegrating polity. Among nineteenth-century Western scholars, as among Chinese nationalist thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was hard to separate out Confucians from Confucianism, and to see any need to look for subtleties behind the banal façade of the “State Confucianism” that was claimed as their own by the Manchu rulers.

Lu Hsun and other influential Chinese writers of the 1920s associated Confucianism with decay and hypocrisy; Western scholars after World War II modified this view out of a sympathy for China’s past culture deeper than that which Chinese iconoclasts could admit to, but even here influential scholar-teachers often viewed any attempts at a twentieth-century Confucianism as being either farce or fraud. The late Joseph Levenson of the University of California at Berkeley, for example, tended to dwell on the sense of farce in recent Confucian ideas. He wrote of the earlier twentieth-century Confucian literati as being “manikins” and raised wry smiles with his image of Yuan Shih-k’ai, Sun Yat-sen’s successor in 1912, driving up to the Temple of Heaven in an armored car. But this sense of farce was in turn grafted to a complex ideological schema of Levenson’s own, in which he saw the nineteenth-century Confucian world as first made uneasily conscious of itself, and then bypassed, by the needs and preoccupations of the modernizing and Western-dominated Chinese society.

The late Mary Wright of Yale saw more fraud in modern Confucian thinking when she analyzed the attempts of Chiang Kai-shek’s theorists to take over the nineteenth-century values of the Ch’ing restoration statesmen; she warned Western readers not to be taken in by this attenuated and self-seeking parody of a once fine tradition. Her sense of this fraud was grafted onto her belief that we must focus clearly on the powerful dislocations and dissonances of Republican China in order to understand that China would only be …

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