...that, at least, is the thesis of a punchy op-ed in tomorrow's (I love globalization!) Seoul Times by Taru Taylor. I'll let him speak for himself:
Neo-Confucianism killed Confucius. In other words, it stereotyped him. Confucius, the great philosopher, had been the archetype of man solving the perennial problems of civilization. He had served as role-model of the Chun-tzu: the gentleman and scholar of Asia. He had played the midwife of "I Ching" ("The Book of Changes"), the matrix of Asian civilization, as had Lao Tzu.
Perhaps it is more to the point to say that the Joseon dynasty killed Confucius; that they used Neo-Confucianism to do so.
By Neo-Confucianism he means the revisions of the doctrine undertaken during the Song Dynasty in China - it was this form of the philosophy that later spread into Korea. I think he also means to include the general process by which the ideas of Confucius were used by political power-holders to justify their power, a process that goes back to the Han Dynasty in China and has significant implications for what the philosophy comes to mean. In its institutionalized form, Confucianism becomes more rigid and potentially doctrinaire, something quite different from the sense and feel of the Analects and Mencius.
I half agree with Taylor. Confucianism - as a guiding state ideology or as a deeply-infused cultural orientation - is largely dead in the world. Even in Korea, which is often referred to as the most "Confucian" society on earth (more so than China because it did not suffer as traumatic a cultural upheaval as communism imposed on Beijing). Modernization and its pressures is the more dominant socio-cultural force, and there are many ways in which modernization - with its profit motives and possessive individualism and material obsessions - undermines the world as Confucius would have wanted it. That is not to say that Confucianism, especially if we go back to the more fluid and flexible possibilities of the pre-Qin texts themselves, has nothing to say to modernists. That is what Taylor is up to as well, in his own, rather over-dramatic, way:
Bearers of dead Confucius — Bear him no more! This horror movie must end. Now. You are not dead, but you have the look of zombies. What to expect from a 615-year sleepwalk? You must wake up from the somnambulism that is Neo-Confucianism, to the philosophy of Confucianism. You must bury his dead stereotype, not praise it.
But if Korea would be more than a Confucian graveyard, the Korean must use Confucianism, the philosophy, to define his orientation....
Taylor then goes off on a tangent that is not really necessary for the revision of Confucianism (we all have our ways of trying to make the old books relevant now). But, I generally agree with him: we must reclaim Confucius from Confucianism, not just Neo-Confucianism, but all attempts to co-opt the philosophy in the interests of centralized power. We have to keep it open and accessible to everyday life and not allow it to be monopolized by political leaders.
It should be obvious now where I disagree with Taylor: it was not the Koreans who killed Confucius; it was the Chinese. It might be unfair to say that the Song Dynasty philosophers killed Confucius; rather, it is the larger process of the institutionalization of the doctrine, its codification and bureaucratization, that squeezed the nuance and subtlety and beauty out of the texts.
To maintain Confucius as an element of modern life, with continuing relevance for the ethical problems we face, we have to go back to the texts themselves, without mediation by institutional interest, and listen to the voices that are there.