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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 shaped by revolutionary means.

Thus when Confucian values and theories were systematically examined—most imposingly in the remarkable series of volumes edited by Arthur F. Wright in the 1950s and 1960s1—they were seen as the values and theories of a vanished civilization, a view only underlined by Levenson’s own contributions to those volumes. Most of the historical work on twentieth-century China—if it was concerned at all with problems of ideology—concentrated on problems of Chinese communism, whether in its Comintern antecedents, or its “nativist” lineaments. One learned that communism, rooted in social conditions that were spawned by the disintegration of the old Confucian-bureaucratic social order and by the impact of Western imperialism, was the antithesis of Confucianism.

Two volumes edited by W. Theodore de Bary can be seen as having marked an influential shift in direction.2 In Self and Society in Ming Thought and The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism de Bary and an impressive list of contributing scholars dug deeply into the Confucian ethos, as the contributors to Arthur Wright’s volumes had done. But furthermore, by enlisting the philosopher T’ang Chun-i as a contributor to both volumes, de Bary also introduced scholarly readers outside the subfields indicated by the volumes’ titles to an important corrective: though T’ang Chuni’s essays were on topics related to the Ming dynasty philosopher Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), they were also written by a living philosopher-teacher who had no trouble at all—from his base in Hong Kong—in seeing Neo-Confucian thought as both deeply moving and pertinent to his modern needs.

What happened was that many readers now began to see their views of Confucianism as having been too limited; some went further and identified themselves as victims of an emphasis on “modernization” theory that had refused to give adequate attention to traditionalist ideologies in a time of change. Similarly, as familiarity with Chinese communism grew, public attitudes toward Mao’s China followed a cycle from hostility to awe to acceptance and now to skepticism. It has become less unthinkable to see Chinese communism as connected with the Chinese culture of the past and easier to evaluate Chinese conservatism as being a more lively and variegated force in twentieth-century Chinese life than we had previously allowed.

A further jump in this whole process can be seen from the fact that T’ang Chun-i himself was given new assessment—now as a philosopher in his own right rather than as a historian of other philosophers—in an essay written by Hao Chang for Charlotte Furth’s stimulating volume on twentieth-century thought, The Limits of Change.3 In his absorbing essay, Chang took as his starting point the philosophical manifesto issued in 1958 by T’ang Chun-i and three other Confucian philosophers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The date itself is an intriguing reminder that those working in Chinese history have almost certainly subsumed 1958 as standing for the Great Leap Forward in the People’s Republic of China and hardly as a momentous year in Confucianist thought.

Professor Chang argued eloquently that this “New” Confucianism was not a mere response to modernization but part of an ongoing and powerful tradition that was responding to a profound crisis of meaning in modern society. Chang disputed Levenson strongly on several counts, especially concerning the effects of emotional humiliations on the Chinese nineteenth- and twentieth-century psyche. Here Chang continued a critical argument already suggested in his book on the late nineteenth-century reformist Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, a man whose relationship to his own Confucian past was deeply ambiguous—and who had also been previously studied by Levenson. Chang points to the complexity of the New Confucianist formulations and their usages, such as hsing—“moral creativity of the human mind”—and jen—“unimpeded flow of fellow feeling”—and elaborates on the religious aspects of these terms. He links T’ang’s works of the 1950s sensitively back to the Idealist Confucian philosophy of Wang Yang-ming in the sixteenth century, and discusses their shared sense of the importance of the view that every man can be a sage. For T’ang that argument, now updated, can show how both democracy and modern science are important for the creation of jen in our own time. Yet Chang also points out the sense of frailty that lies at the core of T’ang’s beliefs:

In one of his works, T’ang Chun-i tried to drive home the value of Confucianism in this direction by envisaging the absurdity of human life without the guidance of a spiritual-moral ideal. Looking at the enigma of human existence in terms of whither and whence, he compares life to a small isolated light-tower standing in the middle of a vast sea in the night. Just as the light-tower is surrounded by boundless darkness, life beyond its beginning and end is also shrouded in unfathomable mystery.

If the beginning and end of life are seen as arbitrary and absurd, within the life process every phase is riddled with troubles and sufferings. The reason is that life is bound up with all kinds of cravings. Built into every kind of craving, such as the craving for the satisfaction of physical needs, for love, for honor, and even for the realization of lofty ideals and values, are unavoidable disappointments and frustrations. In view of the pervasiveness of sufferings and troubles in the life-world, it is no wonder that high religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity almost all start with pessimistic premises about life.

In T’ang’s view, however, Confucianism provides an invaluable source of spiritual support enabling people to face the existential situations of life with equanimity and courage. T’ang’s view in this regard found an echo in an observation put forward by Hsu Fu-kuan and strongly supported by Mou Tsungsan, that Confucianism had its origin in a profound sense of sorrow and difficulty that was believed to have pervaded people’s outlook on this world in the ancient Chou dynasty. 4

In an essay in the same volume on T’ang’s own philosophical mentor, Hsiung Shih-li, Professor Tu Wei-ming also criticized Levenson’s conceptions of the collapse of Confucian value, and reaffirmed the complexity and vitality of the tradition even in its twentieth-century guise:

To study Hsiung Shih-li as embodied in his philosophical treatises is to witness the unfolding of a profound vision, deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition and yet singularly relevant to some of the vital issues of the modern world…. Although his ideas have far-reaching implications, they are centered around a single concern: to live authentically as a Confucian thinker amidst depersonalizing forces in contemporary China.5

If we draw together these and other passages on contemporary “Confucian” philosophy as given in The Limits of Change, we find a number of recurring themes: the profundity of the Confucian vision, and the sense that this vision responds to personal crisis; the need for authenticity, and the strength of negative forces opposing man’s ethical endeavors; the recognition of loneliness and sorrow as features of experience and the need for intellectual courage in confronting them.

All of these themes emerge also in Thomas Metzger’s difficult, remarkable, and stimulating book, Escape From Predicament. The opening sections of this book are dominated by T’ang Chun-i, and it seems to me that Metzger has two main purposes in using T’ang as he does. The first is to set the scene for the practicality of what Metzger is attempting: T’ang “has shown us how one can philosophize in the twentieth century,” writes Metzger, and in the second chapter of the study he makes a powerful attempt to underscore the basic elements of T’ang’s belief system. These include T’ang’s distance from Western ideas of rationality and conflict, his rejection both of Locke and Hume in his quest for a way to avoid the mistake of “keeping static the inherently moving.” T’ang’s central belief is that “the self participates in a noumenal flow of empathy”—i.e., he suggests that the fellow feeling of jen I have already mentioned is fundamental to human perception.

T’ang also sees the filial piety of the Confucian tradition not just as a process of deference but as a means of “completing oneself.” He sees man as able in a sense to “match heaven” since man partakes of the “godlike” in that “he is the sole existing vehicle of that moral assertion needed to put the world right.” Since there is moral decay and corruption in this world, “self-assertion” is necessary to the Confucian; but that self-assertion has little to do with Western individualism—the Confucian rather seeks to “become one in feeling with…the heart of benevolence shared by all men.” Metzger is obviously deeply interested in, even accepting of, these formulations, though he does refer at intervals, in affectionately critical vein, to T’ang’s “Panglossian optimism,” his “pathos of immensity,” and to his possessing “the cheerfulness of a kind of metaphysical YMCA.”

But the second main purpose that Metzger has in emphasizing T’ang is to enlist him as a major ally in the extraordinarily difficult task of reconstructing the pathos and tension at the heart of the earlier historical Neo-Confucian view of the self and the world; in other words he sees T’ang as a precursor of his own work and as a stimulant for it. The “predicament” of Metzger’s title is that of men trapped in the Confucian “ethos of interdependence,” an interdependence between that “godlike power” that T’ang spoke of, and an “anxious fear of moral failure”—between, one might say, autonomy and anxiety. Much of Metzger’s book is an attempt to identify and analyze that anxiety and sense of failure, an elusive concept at best, but one he pursues with intellectual elegance and tenacity.

Writing of the Confucian idea of t’ien-ming—“What heaven has decreed”—Metzger gives a graphic summary of what he is attempting. Here he comments on t’ien-ming by relating the concept to the thought of Chu Hsi, the Sung dynasty philosopher (1130-1200) whose commentaries on the Confucian classics made him perhaps the most influential Chinese thinker of the last 1000 years:

Yet although the idea of t’ien-ming thus validated the importance of the intervening human will, it also underlined the predicament within which this will found itself. Since it limited the human capacity to decide the contest between good and evil, Chu Hsi’s statement that “man” can “control heaven and earth” was at best an oversimplification, an enthusiastic utterance ignoring the power of “heaven.” Heaven existed not only as a source of moral power, an imperative to use this power, and an object to be controlled through the use of this power, it also could thwart the use of whatever moral power the self was able to muster. Locked into this unending encounter with something unpredictably elastic and awesomely immense, the self oscillated erratically between the status of a victim and that of a demigod. The self had immense capabilities, but they could be exercised only in a slippery cosmic arena.

It is Metzger’s contention that this predicament, which he elsewhere summarizes as “a paradoxical alienation from a constantly accessible truth which had to be pursued,” was not simply the condition in which a few philosophers or reflective politicians found themselves. Rather he argues that the sense of predicament was pervasive in China after the eleventh century, and that clichés describing it form the basic “grammar” (Metzger acknowledges Kenneth Burke’s influence here) that inform traditional Neo-Confucian discussions. Therefore “what was controversial for Neo-Confucians was not the fearful predicament they found themselves in but the formulae of enlightenment they advanced to get out of it.”

This is a challenging idea, and the very lengthy third chapter of Metzger’s book is an erudite and ingenious attempt to marshal enough evidence for the pervasiveness of Confucian clichés throughout Chinese history and thinking to prove the existence of the predicament. There are some major assumptions in the historical argument that scholars will battle over indefinitely. One particularly important one is Metzger’s assumption that since the collapse of the great Wang An-shih political reforms in the eleventh century, during the Sung dynasty, a particular kind of hope had gone out of the Chinese statesman-scholar’s world:

The Neo-Confucian sense of predicament is now clear. Whatever the great “revolutions” of Sung society as analyzed by modern scholars, the “outer” realm of political and economic affairs had been mostly drained of hope since the disappointment with Wang Anshih’s reforms. Perceiving theirs as a society shaped largely by the selfish pursuit of profit and wrongly designed institutions, Neo-Confucians could labor conscientiously with a spirit of moderate realism but could not hope to realize their classic goal of social oneness, political order, and economic well-being.

Nevertheless determined to pursue this goal, they turned to the “inner” life of moral striving as a prerequisite, but here again, in the eyes of both the Lu-Wang and the Ch’eng-Chu school, they were confronted by a massive tendency toward moral failure based on inescapable cosmic conditions which they could all too easily sense in their own individual minds. The world, both in its history and in the present, was largely a moral wilderness.

Another of Metzger’s assumptions concerns the importance of the sense of fear of moral failure as a motivating force in the traditional Chinese world, the fear that Metzger interestingly links to water imagery that is both regenerative and has the power to drown. Another is the pervasiveness of that “perception of rampant evil” that Metzger finds running through Ming and Ch’ing dynasty writings. Metzger sees this sense of pervasive evil as having three important sources in the Confucian tradition of thought: first, the individual’s feeling he has made a bad choice, freely arrived at; second, the awareness of the universal weakness of the human will; third, the perception of an “inherently degenerative force” that is “immanent in the very flow of existence and constantly threatening to ‘overcome’ the self.”

Yet another assumption would concern the radical approach to the world of action that Metzger ascribes to Chu Hsi and many later followers. The balances and shifts between this radicalism and the forces of “moderate realism” are very important to Metzger’s argument, since they provide a way of linking Neo-Confucianism to Maoism, which he connects with the radical impulses in Confucian thought, and thus let Metzger shift the gears of the argument into the closing sections of the book, in which the escape from the predicament can be discussed.

The sustained detail and intensity of Metzger’s argument seems to flag at this point. The trouble is that he is tackling so many topics at once. He wants to disprove Levenson’s views on the discontinuity within the Confucian tradition that marks “modern” China. He wants to refute Max Weber, who failed to see the central tensions born of religious doubt and cosmic anxiety that lay at the heart of Confucianism. He largely rejects Richard Solomon’s views that old patterns of psychological “dependency” in Chinese family and political life have been transmitted into current Chinese political culture. He gives short shrift to modern Western academic analysts of Maoism or of Chinese communism more broadly defined. If I may attempt a clumsy summary, Metzger is trying to show that the “radical” wing within the Confucian tradition, which had been torn by anguish for so long, found that the coming of the West reawakened a “traditional zeal for total reform.” The enthusiasm for realizing moral goals could thus be given its head once more.

This accounts for the burst of radical optimism that has suffused twentieth-century political quests in China, and can be found both in T’ang Chun-i and in the People’s Republic, for to both there is a “rising sense of impending solution.” The Chinese have long been used to appalling misery and crisis in their country, and hence can draw on a tradition that “defined moral action precisely as…coping with almost unbearable disasters.” If, Metzger points out in conclusion, the hopes are dashed, there will be a return to the earlier sense of “partial moral failure” and hence the old Confucian predicament will re-emerge among the senior cadres of the new socialist state. As Maoist imagery yields to the more cautious pronouncements of Teng Hsiao-pingism, we may well watch and wonder.

Confucianism, therefore, breathes as a living force for Metzger across a wide spectrum of time and society; it does not sit tidily within the sphere of conservatism once we see its radical potential, and in the hands of major current thinkers it is certainly neither farce nor fraud.

It is this sense of the recaptured relevance of Confucianism that gives such a sense of spontaneity to Metzger’s work. Indeed, there is more vigor and energy in this book than in any recent contributions to the story of Chinese communism that I can think of; reading it, one gets a feeling that a corner is being turned in Chinese historiography, and even though the goal is not clear, the general direction is: it is a search for enrichment and complexity in a zone where cliché had begun to rule. This is the sort of book that has the density and the originality to push scholars—even reluctantly—in new directions.

  1. 1

    Studies in Chinese Thought, edited by Arthur F. Wright (University of Chicago Press, 1953); Confucianism in Action, edited by Arthur F. Wright and David Nivison (Stanford University Press, 1959); The Confucian Persuasion, edited by Arthur F. Wright (Stanford University Press, 1960); Confucian Personalities, edited by Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett (Stanford University Press, 1962).

  2. 2

    Self and Society in Ming Thought (Columbia University Press, 1970) and The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism (Columbia University Press, 1975).

  3. 3

    The Limits of Change: Essays on Conservative Alternatives in Republican China, edited by Charlotte Furth (Harvard University Press, 1976).

  4. 4

    The Limits of Change, pp. 298-299.

  5. 5

    In his own valuable recent book, Neo-Confucian Thought in Action, Wang Yang-ming’s Youth (1472-1509) (University of California Press, 1976), Professor Tu Wei-ming acknowledges his own debt to T’ang Chun-i, and writes of Wang Yang-ming in similar terms—as an “epoch-making” thinker, whose own personal quest for sagehood involved that most fundamental of all struggles, the “struggle to be human” amid a “variety of depersonalizing forces.”

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