Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Rise of Political Confucianism in Contemporary China

(Note: In June 2008, The China Beat published my commentary "China: Democracy, or Confucianism?", which helped to draw wide attention to Jiang Qing (蒋庆)'s research on Political Confucianism. I learned last week that, an international conference titled "The Origins and Development of Social and Political Reflection in East and West" was held at Uppsala University, Sweden, and Prof. Wang Rui-Chang from Humanities School of the Capital University of Business and Economics presented a paper to explain Political Confucianism more clearly. I'm posting an excerpt of Prof. Wang's presentation with his permission. – Xujun)

The Rise of Political Confucianism in Contemporary China
by Wang Rui-Chang

Abstract: Political Confucianism is a newly emerged school of thought addressing political and social reform in Mainland China. It challenges the current prevalent democratic movement, both inside and outside of China, which proposes governance with legitimacy wholly resting on the ballot. Instead, Political Confucianism advocates the wisdom of “centrality and harmony” contained in Confucianism, especially the Confucian tradition of Gongyang School that flourished in the Han and late Qing dynasties in China. It is aimed at revitalizing Confucianism and reconstructing the politics of the Kingly Way in the modern global context. The present paper is meant to give as clear as possibly a presentation of Political Confucianism to current, especially Western, scholars for critical evaluation.

Background of the Rise of Political Confucianism

Probably anyone who cares about China may have not failed to notice that China is witnessing a revival of Confucianism and traditional culture: more and more scholars come to talk about “national studies”(guoxue); university teachers giving lectures on national television channels become “star scholars” overnight; classics recital classes for children are sprouting up in many parts of the country; thousands of books on Confucianism or traditional culture are piled high and sold well in book stores every day; attending “national studies training class” hosted by the prestigious universities has come to be a fashion for businessmen, civil servants or other part of the more fortunate and affluent part of the population; even the state leaders, as the Canadian political science scholar Daniel A. Bell put it, have also “rediscovered Confucianism."

In 2005, Fang Keli (1938- ), chairman of the Society of the History of Chinese Philosophy, observed:

"Since the May 4th Movement, the New Confucianism movement in modern China has undergone three generations of Confucian scholars and three stages of development. I think, with the 2004 Confucian Conference in Guiyang Yangming Academy ( also known as Summit Conservatism Conference ) as the starting point, the whole New Confucianism movement has now entered on its forth stage, i.e. a stage on which Mainland China Confucians represented by Jiang Qing, Sheng Hong, Kang Xiaoguang, and Chen Ming play the leading role."

In a sense, New Confucianism is a new Neo-Confucianism, a modern version of the Neo-Confucianism as represented by Cheng Hao (1032-1085), Cheng Yi (1033-1107), Zhu Xi (1130-1209), Lu Xiangshan (1139-1193) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529) from Song to Ming Dynasties.

As to the question of politics and social development, the New Confucians unanimously hold the position that China’s traditional political system and the political ideas embodied therein are out of date, and modernization with democracy and science as its true meanings is destined to be China’s political and social future. They argued that although democracy as well as science has been created and developed by westerners in western history, it is rather a “universal instrument” regardless of East or West. Furthermore, democracy, they hold, is actually the inner demand of the logic of Chinese cultural development, it is an instrument by which the ancient sages’ ideal of “making the world under haven impartial and common to all” (tian-xia-wei-gong) could eventually be fulfilled. As the most creative and influential New Confucianism exponent Mou Zongsan put it:

"Modernization takes its origin in the West. However, once it occurs, it is no indigenous product confined to particular countries; as far as it is truth, it is universal. Therefore, every nation must admit it. To put in our old Chinese words, we call it 'the Way of Kingliness', or 'Storing the world in the world itself (letting people themselves rather than emperors decide their own destiny).' To put it in new words, it is 'an open society' or 'democratic politics.' This is a common ideal. For these reasons, although democratic politics originated from the West, we should also realize it according to the requirements of our own inner life."

The New Confucianism flourishing in Taiwan and Hong Kong has exerted strong and durable influence on Mainland China’s intellectual circles since the state of conflict across the Taiwan Strait was lessened and cultural exchange between the two sides became possible when Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, and at the same time the New Confucian masters have attracted many sincere followers in the Mainland, some of whom are now quite prominent scholars. But in a strict sense, by “Mainland China New Confucianism” we don’t mean the scholarship of this group of followers who just repeat the thoughts of their masters, but the thought of another group of scholars who, though in a more or less degree influenced by the oversea New Confucianism, are more creative in their thought and have gone on a quite different way from their oversea forerunners. In short, the Mainland New Confucianism is not the simple photocopy of the Oversea New Confucianism.

It should also be pointed out that Mainland China New Confucianism is a newly emerged school of thought that is still in its maturing process, and the major scholars under this name actually develop their own thought with no intentional cooperation and they often fail to agree on many issues.

Political Confucianism, on which the present paper is focused, is developed by Jiang Qing, the leading scholar of Mainland China New Confucianism.

The Main Arguments of Political Confucianism
1) Division of “Self-cultivation Confucianism” and “Political Confucianism

“Self-cultivation Confucianism” and “Political Confucianism” are a pair of terms first coined by Mr. Jiang Qing to denote the two traditions Jiang himself recognized in Confucianism after Confucius. The two traditions are contrasted with each other in many respects: firstly the former is created out of “existential concern," or “concern of life salvation," while the latter is out of “institutional concern,” or “concern of political legitimacy” ; secondly, holding human nature as innately good, the former approaches the issue of elevating human mind and human nature almost wholly by means of self-cultivation, thus moral improvement being none other than restoring one’s humanity a prior, political and social environment being of little relevance, while the latter, taking a realistic point of view of human nature and deeming it is empirically bad, holds that rituals, institutions and penalties are critically important in improving human nature or keeping men or women from moral degeneration; thirdly, the former is aimed at purifying personal life to become a sage or saint while the latter is directed to the construction of a desirable and stable political system and the betterment of society. In a word, Self-cultivation Confucianism is, by its nature, oriented to the inner life of moral idealism while Political Confucianism is oriented to the outer political structure of social realism.

These two traditions, Jiang argued, are all handed down from Confucius and are equally important. Yet unfortunately, after the Han Dynasty this Political Confucianism of Gongyang Studies was entirely neglected and was buried in complete oblivion, so much so that nowadays scholars equate the teachings of the Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism and the modern oversea New Confucianism with the authentic Confucianism.

2) Theory of Three-Dimensional Political Legitimacy

The central theory of Political Confucianism as advocated by Jiang Qing is the doctrine of political legitimacy. He argues that “political legitimacy” is the foundation of, and the prerequisite to, all political system, political process, political activities and tactics, without which everything political loses its meaning and value.

For Jiang, to be fully legitimate, a political power or regime must simultaneously meet three conditions: 1), it must be at one with, or sanctioned by, the holy, transcendental Tao as expressed or implied in the Confucian Scriptures, and as interpreted by the prestigious Confucian Scholars; 2), it must not deviate from the mainstream of the national cultural heritage and break the historical continuity of the nationality; 3), it must comply with the will or endorsement of the common people.

The first condition is of the divine foundation of a political power, which can be symbolized by Heaven; the second is of historical foundation of a political power, being symbolized by Earth, since national culture and civilization are closely connected with particular regions on the earth; and the third is of the human or secular foundation of a political power, symbolized by Human. This is the so-called “the three dimensions of political legitimacy of the politics of the Kingly Way”, a political idea rooted in traditional Chinese political culture.

The dimension of legitimacy of human will and desire sounds easy to be understood by modern people, especially by Westerners, for it seems similar to the democratic idea that government is legitimate to the extent that it derives from people’s support. But Jiang warns over and over again that this democratic dimension of legitimacy should not have superiority over the other two dimensions. A political system is legitimate if and only if all three dimensions of legitimacy are properly balanced, with no one dimension being superior to the others. Jiang argued, it is the ancient Chinese “middle and harmonious” way of thinking, anchored deeply in the Book of Changes and the Spring and Autumn Annals, that makes this non-linear, tridimensional understanding of political legitimacy possible.

The dimension of historical continuity of nationality is the most disputable one of the three, but Jiang insists that this dimension is indispensible. He cited Edmund Burke’s view to support his stance. As we know, in Burke’s eyes, state is an organic body, politics is the outcome of historical evolution, and thus social heritage, or even prejudices, should be taken with respect. Burke said: “To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitutions and renovate their father’s life.” For Jiang Qing, if the state was comparable to a father, then the legitimacy of historical continuity would be comparable to a father’s life blood, which cannot be neglected when considering establishing a political system.

This theory of three-dimensional political legitimacy is meant on the one hand to recognize, and on the one hand to circumscribe, the unbridled selfish human desire, whether of a collective nature or an individual nature, and by this way to create a better pattern of political system for China as well as for the world. For these reasons, Jiang asserts that human history, in a proper sense, has by no means “ended” as Fukuyama claims. On the contrary, it urgently waits to be re-created to avoid the“vital defect”in modern democratic politics.

3) Proposition of Tri-Cameral Legislature

To translate this theory of three-dimensional political legitimacy into realities, Jiang proposes to establish a tri-cameral legislature, with each house representing one dimension of legitimacy.

The House of Profound Confucians (Tong Ru Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the sacred Way, the House of National Continuity (Guo Ti Yuan) represents the legitimacy of cultural heritage and tradition, and the House of Plebeians (Shu Min Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the common people’s will and desire.

The particular way of choosing the members of each house of the legislature, and the mechanisms of check and balance among the three houses, are quite complex and are still under elaboration. Of this I can only give a very brief hint. The members of the House of Profound Confucians are chosen by nomination and appointment by non-governmental Confucian organizations and official Confucian institutions; the members of the House of National Continuity should be representatives of religions (including Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity) and descendants of great sages and historical figures. The members of the Plebian House are chosen by elections and functional constituencies. According to Jiang’ s latest opinion in An Explanation of The Diagram of the Kingly Way, The Position of the House of Profound Confucians is the highest, the Plebian House is the lowest, and the House of National Continuity is positioned in between. Bills of great importance must be passed simultaneously by all three. If a bill is passed by all of the three Houses, it is a perfect law. If not, it may be delayed, suspended or vetoed. By dint of this device of tri-cameral legislature the theory of tri-dimensional legitimacy is hoped to be embodied.

4) Restoration of Confucian Religion as the State Religion

Jiang’s Political Confucianism is closely connected with his views about the Religion of Confucianism. For Jiang Confucianism is not merely a theory, not simply a system of abstract ideas, it is a great religion embedded in Chinese civilization, being comparable to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. In ancient China, Confucianism played a role of state religion. To re-establish China’s political system, Confucianism as a religion is indispensible; it should again be restored as the state religion of China. He writes:

"As a state religion, Confucianism has defined the nature of Chinese civilization, molded the cultural identity of Chinese nation, and shaped the axiological consensus and spiritual convictions of the Chinese people.

In history Confucian religion has performed three functions: first, it provided political legitimacy for Chinese government by laying a transcendental and sacred foundation for politics; second, it provided ethical norms to regulate the social conduct of the Chinese people on the basis of rites; third, it provided religious faith for the people on the basis of transcendental and sacred values as interpreted by the Confucian sages. These three functions are not obsolete in the contemporary world. "

Jiang insists that, being faced with all-round challenges from the West, China must restore Confucian religion in all respects and at all levels. To put in his own words: “It is a task of top priority.”

To be sure, Jiang is against the prevalent idea of total separation of sate and religion, but he takes care not to go so far as to tighten state and religion strictly together as was the case in Middle Ages, or in Tsarist era Russia. But still his proposal to enshrine Confucianism as a state religion is deeply unpopular in China’s intellectual circles, even by some scholars otherwise sympathetic to Confucianism. For example, one of China’s top Confucianism scholars and professor of philosophy at Beijing University Chen Lai, welcomes the new departure in Political Confucianism research conducted by Jiang. In fact, he has helped to have Political Confucianism published. Still, he shook head at the idea that does not separate state and church apart. Their main worry is that other thoughts may be treated as heresies and suffer persecution once Confucianism is set up as state religion. To this Jiang answers:

"In the UK, the Anglican Church, the state religion established by the unwritten English common law, boasts of its privileges; in Northern Europe, the Lutheran church, as the state religion, also boasts of its privileges, In modern Greece, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as the state religion established by the Greek constitution, has its privileges as a rule. But all these countries remain the so-called liberal democratic countries. By the same token, to restore Confucianism as the privileged state religion by no means means spiritual persecution, it only means a certain consensus and unity of the Chinese national spirit and mind. No worry is necessary.”

In fact, the history of China also shows that such worry or fear is groundless.
(Wang Rui-Chang, penname Miwan. Some of his writings in Chinese can be found on


Joel said...

Thanks for posting this; it's really interesting. Couple of things that especially caught my eye:

1. "[Political Confucianism], taking a realistic point of view of human nature and deeming it is empirically bad..."This negative view of human nature, can it be found in traditional Chinese writing (is it part of the legalism school?), or is it a modern import?

2. The Edmund Burke quote.It's vivid English, but i'd argue that the parent-child metaphor is highly inappropriate.

So, I've been wondering for a while, when will the CCP officially become the Chinese Confucian Party? ;)

Alfonso said...

I have a strong feeling of deja vu.

Just looking for legitimacy to stay in power.

Bishop said...

Joel, the idea of innate goodness or evilness in humans dates back to Mencius (Mengzi) and Xunzi, both Confucian thinkers. Mencius held that humans where basically good and "learned" to become evil from others. Xunzi believed that humans were basically evil but through education could become good.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, very interesting and useful!

Just in case maybe you know some details of this paper, i.e. imprint, where it is published etc? I'm looking to reference this from my degree paper...


Regards, Kristina.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Kristina, this paper was presented by Prof. Wang in March at an international conference titled "The Origins and Development of Social and Political Reflection in East and West," held at Uppsala University in Sweden. I don't know if the conference published a proceeding of papers presented. If you'd like, I can ask the author for you. Let me know.

Anonymous said...

Hi Xujun, that would be very nice of you if you could ask about this! Thanks in advance!

Chinaeffect said...

i am starting a blog on this:

Luke Lea said...

Here is an excerpt from a letter I recently wrote to Fredrik Fallman, a Swedish expert on the subject of "cultural Christians" in China.:

I just finished reading Nanlai Cao's book, Constructing China's Jerusalem, which I found absolutely fascinating. What I find most interesting is the essentially pragmatic approach to the issues of belief. It reminds me of William James's essay on The Will to Believe, where the value of an idea is judged on its usefulness. Certainly the Hebraic conception of God, say what you will, has been the single most influential idea in Western intellectual history. One can almost imagine a kind of neo-Confucian Christianity in which the essentially egalitarian idea of a Creator (in whose eyes all persons are equal, who judges all by the same standard of justice, etc.) is substituted for the Confucian notion of a heavenly order based on principles of subordination. It would, perhaps, make for a more family centered civilization than we have in the West at the present time, a new kind of Christianity with Chinese characteristics, to use an overused phrase.

If the CCP is looking for a new model they might also investigate the history of Free Masonry, which played such a constructive role in the early history of the United States. Most of the founding fathers were Masons, as were their allies in Europe. It was an ecumenical organization which made it possible for educated men of goodwill to meet and talk across religious (and not so religious) lines.

Luke Lea said...

As I understand it, the ultimate foundation of traditional Confucianism was some "heavenly order" which was characterized by a relationship of subordination. The same could be said of every other pre-modern state ideology. Civilization arose in the aftermath of the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions in which military conquest was decisive; servitude was a necessary institution, apparently, as there are no exceptions.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, however, this necessity disappears. Now we have machines to do the work once done by slaves and serfs and peasants. Thus any new "heavenly order" will have to reflect this reality -- not only in China, but around the world. At least this is my hunch. For some historical background you might see here:

Or even here:

Luke Lea said...

Just in case there are follow-ups, so I won't miss them I'm checking the follow-up box