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Religion Library: Confucianism

Modern Age

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Confucianism has been both lauded and condemned in the modern age. Confucianism, along with Taoism and Buddhism, has been blamed for China's inability to compete with the West during the 19th and 20th centuries. Confucianism has also been praised as the key to China's unique cultural heritage and strong social order. The post-colonial period of Confucianism's history (from the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 to the present) has been shaped by the disappearance of Confucianism's imperial sponsorship, the impact of Western powers, and the reform movement known as New Confucianism.

Chinese students protesting Confucianism on May 4, 1919: Public DomainWith the arrival of the expansive and aggressive Western powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Confucian tradition, like every other aspect of Chinese culture, was disrupted. On May 4, 1919, Chinese university students participated in massive public demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. They were protesting a provision of the Treaty of Versailles (the agreement that ended World War I), according to which the defeated Germany's colonial possessions in China were not restored to Chinese control, but instead were awarded to Japan, one of the victorious Allied powers. These possessions included the Shandong peninsula, the site of Kongzi's birthplace and the historic heart of the Confucian tradition. The "May Fourth Movement" that developed out of these protests eventually won Shandong back for China, but it also led to the popular condemnation of traditional Chinese culture in general, and Confucianism in particular, for retarding China's development in the modern era, especially in comparison with Japan. Many leaders of this movement argued for the wholesale abandonment of Confucianism -- derided as "the shop of Confucius' family" by some ideologues -- as a necessary precondition for China's modernization.  

A few Chinese intellectuals defended Confucianism from its anti-traditional, pro-modernization critics, however. Even Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian, 1866-1925), the "Father of the Nation" and architect of the post-imperial Chinese state, which embraced Western ideologies such as democracy and socialism, praised Confucianism: "We must revive not only our old morality but also our old learning. If we want to regain our national spirit, we must reawaken the learning as well as the moral ideals which we once possessed. What is this ancient learning? Among the human theories of the state, China's political philosophy holds a high place. . . . China has a specimen of political philosophy so systematic and so clear that nothing has been discovered or spoken by foreign statesmen to equal it. It is found in the Great Learning. . ."


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