Modern Age

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. . ."

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.

Back to History