In the course of my recent trip to China, I gave several talks on Chinese philosophy. On three different occasions, with three different groups of Williams College alumni and students, I discussed pre-Qin texts and how we might think about them from the perspective of contemporary America. I did something rather similar at the conference I attended: a paper and presentation more specifically on "Confucianism in Modern American Life." And, finally, the good people at China Hang-Up (by way of the The Economic Observer) produced a podcast with me, which ranged over a variety of pre-Qin thinkers.
If you have a stray half an hour, you can hear the podcast here...
One point I tried to make in the podcast, and which I would like to return to, is that "Chinese philosophy," and "Chinese culture" more generally, are much bigger than "Confucianism."
I mention this because a good deal of current thinking and publishing and argumentation in Chinese philosophy centers on some variant or aspect of Confucianism. Indeed, my sense is that when the term "Chinese philosophy" is uttered, the first and most prominent referent in people's mind is "Confucianism." Perhaps I'm wrong about that; I hope so.
If it is true, though, it is somewhat understandable, given the centrality of Confucian thought to public life in imperial China. That's a well-known story. But the foregrounding of Confucianism distracts attention from the influence and presence of other schools of thought in the Chinese tradition: Legalism, Daoism, Buddhism, the "school of names," and Mohism. Some of these were almost lost after the Qin repression (Mohism comes to mind in this regard) but texts survive and are present for us today; they are all elements of the great mosaic of "Chinese philosophy."
A reminder of the breadth and diversity of Chinese thought seems necessary now, especially when neo-traditional thinkers are looking to reestablish something like a Confucian hegemony within "Chinese culture." Yes, I am thinking again of Jiang Qing. He sees modernization (which he conflates with "Westernization") as a fundamental threat to what he considers (I guess) to be an authentic "Chinese" identity in the world. Here is how he opens his recent book:
A glance over China's current world of thought shows that Chinese people have already lost their ability to think independently about political questions. In other words, Chinese people are no longer able to use patterns of thought inherent in their own culture - Chinese culture - to think about China's current political development. (27)
This strikes me as fundamentally mistaken. With the passing of Maoist totalitarianism and the emergence of "rights consciousness" and the growing individualization of society, Chinese people are at last gaining precisely the "ability to think independently about political questions." But Jiang feels that this new independence of thought is not sufficiently "Chinese," most especially "Chinese" in a particular "Confucian" sense. Indeed, he sees Western liberalism as a primary threat to Chinese identity. Again, he is missing a more fundamental point: the centralized power of the party-state apparatus is right now much more of a threat to his notion of a revitalized, neo-traditional Chinese identity than Western liberalism has ever been. But it would be rather impolitic for him to state that fact quite so explicitly (in the introduction to the recent book, Daniel Bell points out that the conference that gave rise to the volume had to be held in Hong Kong because of certain political sensitivities - sensitives that would not exist were Jiang operating in a politically liberalized context...).
I just don't understand Jiang's anxieties, his worry that if his version (we might call if "fundamentalist") of Confucianism does not gain a politically centralized position than "Chinese culture" is somehow at risk. The survival and reinvention and expression of "Chinese culture" under conditions of globalized modernity does not rely upon one particular view of Confucianism. "Chinese culture" involves deep historical and literary narratives, many of which have little to do with "Confucianism." When traveling around Anhui a couple of weeks ago, particularly in Huangshan, I was reminded of this depth of historical experience: at various places around the mountains, lines of poetry are either carved into rocks or quoted on signs, reminders of scholars who came there and observed the natural beauty and put their feelings down in words. Many people know these lines; they can be quoted in many different ways, all making metaphorical reference to a particularly Chinese experience: the grandeur of Huangshan.
Similarly, the architecture of the Huizhou district of Anhui is distinctive. The physical culture of the area expresses a specifically Chinese response to geographic and economic conditions. And it survives now as a reminder of that distinctiveness, a particular Chinese meme in the vast global vocabulary of architectural experience.
We could go on. "Chinese" cultural products and performances are to be found in many, many areas of human life: language, literature, cuisine, architecture, agronomy, history, and, yes, philosophy. It's all "Chinese". And much of it is available for circulation and recombination in the contemporary global cultural economy.
One last thought: "Confucianism," too survives in a variety of different forms, some of which are quite open to more accommodation with liberalism than Jiang Qing would admit or accept. Stephen Angle's recent book, Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy, draws upon the thinking of twentieth century thinker Mou Zongsan to construct a "Progressive Confucianism" that, while still distinct from liberalism, opens a path compromise and coexistence with liberalism. Also, Leigh Jenco has done some great work of late on the thinker Zhang Shizhao, whose notion of political "accommodation" has some resonance with contemporary theorists of agonistic democracy. Again, a much more open-ended and liberal-accommodating perspective than Jiang's.
So, let's just remember: "Confucianism" is always more than certain neo-traditional fundamentalists say it is; and "Chinese Philosophy" and "Chinese Culture" are always more than "Confucianism."