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Religion Library: Confucianism

Modern Age

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

One measure of Confucianism's continuing vitality and influence in the contemporary world is the extent to which some Western thinkers have become interested in Confucianism as an alternative or corrective to what they see as the individualistic excesses of Western social values. In a startling example of how the "wave" of Confucianism washes up on non-Chinese shores, Western scholars such as the Christian theologian Robert C. Neville (b. 1939) have described themselves not only as "New Confucians," but also as "Boston Confucians": modern Christian thinkers who seek to incorporate the best of non-Christian traditions such as Confucianism into their Christian theological reflection, just as ancient Christian thinkers incorporated elements of Platonic and Stoic thought into their vision of the Gospel.

While Confucianism has enjoyed a resurgence outside of mainland China and even in the West, its comeback in the People's Republic of China has been a much slower process. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of June 4, 1989 (in which an unknown number, possibly thousands, of Chinese lost their lives in clashes with government forces), middle-aged and elderly Chinese increasingly regarded Chinese youth as bu xiao (un-filial), articulating their social concern through traditional Confucian moral vocabulary.

Yu Dan, promoter of Confucianism in contemporary China: Public DomainAs China has implemented sweeping economic reforms and a generation has become accustomed to unprecedented luxuries, many Chinese worry that the waning of Communist ideology, preceded by the decimation of traditional values throughout most of the 20th century, has created a moral vacuum in contemporary Chinese society, especially among young people. As a result, educational institutions from elementary schools to universities have begun to reintroduce Confucian curricula for the purpose of moral instruction. In some of China's largest cities, those alarmed at China's skyrocketing divorce rate have instituted Confucian marriage vow renewal ceremonies. Books about Confucianism have become bestsellers in China. The opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing featured quotations from the Lunyu as well as all sorts of Confucian imagery (such as "disciples of Confucius" holding up bamboo slips on which Confucian scriptures were inscribed, various expressions of  the character he or "harmony," and stylized movements illustrating the eight trigrams of the Yijing), and in 2009, the Chinese government subsidized the making of a $15 million film biography of Kongzi starring popular Hong Kong martial arts star, Chow Yun-fat. Finally, all over the world, the Chinese government sponsors partnerships with local universities that have resulted in Kongzi Xueyuan (Confucius Institutes) springing up everywhere from New Mexico in the United States to New South Wales, Australia. After a century of anti-Confucian campaigns, China seems poised once again to become the world's most Confucian society.


Study Questions:
     1.     What accounts for Confucianism's loss of influence in the early 20th century?
     2.     What was new about the "New Confucianism"?
     3.     What accounts for Confucianism's return to influence in the late 20th century?

 

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