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Religion Library: Confucianism

Modern Age

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Other Confucian revisionists included Liang Shuming (1893-1988), who combined Confucian thought with elements of Buddhism, Marxism, and Western liberal democracy and wrote an influential book, Dongxi wenhua jiqi zhexue (Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies), in which he argued that traditional Chinese thought (i.e., Confucianism) was both distinct from and superior to Western thought. Another Chinese thinker, the philosopher Xiong Shili (1885-1968), influenced his students Tang Junyi (1909-1978), Mou Zongsan (1909-1995), and Xu Fuguan (1904-1982) to invigorate Confucian thought with new energy and expression, leading to the "New Confucianism" movement of the mid- to late 20th century. These Confucian thinkers fled mainland China and became active in academic circles based in Hong Kong and Taiwan following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party, which both maintained and intensified the May Fourth Movement's anti-Confucian campaign, especially during the "Cultural Revolution" of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Under their leadership, "New Confucianism" became a way in which Chinese thinkers could see themselves as both fully modern and completely traditional, without having to sacrifice one for the sake of the other. "New Confucianism" probably is best understood as both a revival and a reform of the "Neo-Confucianism" of the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. The appeal of "New Confucianism" grew in part from the observation made by both East Asian and Western commentators that the miraculous economic development of post-World War II Japan and the "four little dragons" (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) was facilitated by Confucian values, much as Max Weber (1864-1920) once argued that Protestant Christian values helped facilitate the rise of capitalism in the early modern West. The popular link between modern East Asian economic success and Confucianism is ironic, however, given the traditional Confucian suspicion of merchants, who historically ranked below scholars, farmers, and artisans in the ideal Confucian social hierarchy.

Tu Weiming: Public DomainMore sophisticated advocates of Confucianism's place in contemporary East Asian life include the Harvard University professor Tu Weiming (b. 1940), who describes "New Confucianism" as the "third wave" of the Confucian tradition (after the "first wave" of classical thinkers such as Kongzi and Mengzi and the "second wave" of "Neo-Confucians" such as Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming). Tu likens contemporary Confucianism to a great ocean wave in order to express the movement of the tradition within the East Asian cultural world and into the broader world of the modern global city -- an arena in which Confucianism is viewed and taught as (among other things) a distinctive religious tradition (albeit clearly not without controversy).

 

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