In 1915, Gu Hongming (Ku Hung-Ming) - a Chinese man born in Penang, educated in the UK, who rose to prominence serving an imperial government official in the waning years of Qing Dynasty China - published a book, The Spirit of the Chinese People, that was aimed to convince Europeans and Americans of the modern significance and utility of ancient Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. It was one of several books he wrote, the one, now, a hundred years later, that might be most widely cited still. In his own time he was something of a cross-cultural phenomenon. An anti-modernist, he defended the value of traditional Chinese ideas and practices while energetically engaging with intellectuals in the West on questions of how best to define and defend universal "civilization." He believed that Westerners could not only understand Confucianism, but they could absorb it into their own lives in a transcendent global-cultural unity. His idealism would be swept aside by the brutalities of the twentieth century, but it is instructive to look back on his book from the vantage of a hundred years.
Before we start, I should simply state that we will ignore here the rhetorical conventions of Gu's day that are so out of place in our time. His championing of the "real Chinaman" and his sweeping generalizations about the national character of England and Germany and France are rather off-putting today. He gets caught up, at times, in using the devices of Western Orientalism to refute the excesses of Western Orientalism. But we will set all that aside and assume the best about Gu: he was working to bring Chinese and Western ways of thinking into dialogue with each other, searching for points of contact and profitable intellectual exchange.
The first thing to notice about Gu is perhaps the most obvious: he not only believed in the intelligibility of cross-cultural understanding, he lived it. Although his cosmopolitan background - he was an early "third culture kid" - might have been unusual in his day, he demonstrates a fundamental human capacity to find meaning in more that one cultural context. In that regard, he stands as a tangible contradiction of various assertions that different cultures are incommensurable. Some might argue that certain ideas embedded in one culture -- say, ren 仁 -- are simply untranslatable into, for instance, English. While a one-for-one word correspondence may indeed be problematic, Gu rejects non-translatability in The Spirit of the Chinese People and forges ahead:
Love includes all true human affection, the feeling of affection between parents and children as well as the emotion of love and kindness, pity, compassion, mercy toward all creatures; in fact, all true human emotions contained in that Chinese word, jen (仁) for which the nearest equivalent in the European languages is, in the old dialect of Christianity, godliness, because it is the most godlike quality in man, and in modern dialect, humanity, love of humanity, or, in one word, love. (53)
We could take Gu to task for foregrounding "love" as a translation of ren, and "godliness" opens up all sorts of problems, but notice how these are only facets of a fuller exposition. If we focus in on something like "the humanity found in the bond between parents and children" we would be closer to the core (dare I say "heart") of ren. And that is the point. We should not expect word-for-word translatability. But if we enter into a serious conversation, if we seek out a variety of sources and perspectives, construct a semantic field of several terms and phrases, then we can come away with a good understanding of what ren means and entails, even if some of the isolated, specific concepts used in a larger discussion would not, in and of themselves, serve as adequate translations.
Another kind of incommensurability might come when we try to accommodate the claims of one culturally-embedded system of thought (let's call it a "philosophy") to the concerns and understandings of another differently culturally-embedded philosophy. That is to say, while a philosophy might be comprehensible to people from other cultural contexts, its claims cannot be adapted and used or enacted in that other cultural context. Notice how Alasdair MacIntyre states the problem thusly:
...Confucianism appears to face a recurrent type of dilemma: either it retains its highly specific and concrete character, thus tying itself to particular Chinese forms of social relationships of a traditional kind and, while not necessarily exempting the concrete embodiment of these forms altogether from moral criticism, rendering its moral standpoint inseparable from loyalty to these now often radically changing forms, or it makes itself relevant to types of social order in which these forms of social relationships do not or no longer exist, but in so doing it empties itself of specific moral content and so diminishes its doctrine of the virtues by specifying them only in barren generalities. (120)
He says a lot with that "barren generalities." And he is saying here, essentially, that Confucianism, as a philosophy that arose and was given meaning within a Chinese cultural context, cannot really be invoked or employed to address issues in a modern American cultural context. If a person tried to be an "American Confucian" she would have to either construct a social setting that somehow replicated "Chinese forms of social relationships of a traditional kind" or settle for a rather un-Confucian-like set of "barren generalities". An American and a Confucian might be able to understand and talk to one another, by MacIntyre's lights, but neither could take on an authentic form of the other's culture. A modern American could not really be Confucian or follow, as a way of life, Confucianism.
Let's put aside the question of authenticity (since it is bound up with the larger question of whether it is possible for any ancient philosophy to be authentically lived in a modern context) and consider whether differently situated philosophies are as incommensurable as MacIntyre believes.
Gu thinks not. He clearly believes that Confucianism can be useful to Westerners facing the depredations of modernity. Although his choice of words is unfortunate at times, what he seems to be arguing is that Confucianism is a kind of civil religion. If we substitute "civil" for "state" in the following passage, we can see him begin to make Confucianism relevant to Europeans and Americans:
Again, the term chun tzu chih tao (君子之道 ) in the teachings of Confucius, translated by Dr. Legge as "the way of the superior man," for which the nearest equivalent in the European languages is moral law - means literally, the way - the Law of the Gentleman. In fact, the whole system of philosophy and morality taught by Confucius may be summed up in one word: the Law of the Gentleman. Now Confucius codified this law of the gentleman and made it a Religion - a State religion. (29)
Gu elaborates this notion of a civil religion, especially as it resides in and regulates and gives life to the family. He is a fierce traditionalist and insists that Confucian civil religion requires absolute loyalty to the emperor. We could, however, argue that, now, given the irreversible demise of imperial authority in China and most parts of the world, the civil religion that emerges from Confucianism can thrive in a more populist political context. Indeed, in the Introduction to The Spirit of the Chinese People, Gu suggests just such a possibility when he refers to the Chinese "religion of good citizenship". (III). And in that same Introduction he makes this argument:
In fact I really believe that the people of Europe will find the solution to the great problem of civilization after this war, - here in China. There is, I say here again, an invaluable, but hitherto unsuspected asset of civilization here in China, and the asset of civilization is the real Chinaman. The real Chinaman is an asset of civilization because he has the secret of a new civilization which the people of Europe will want after this great war, and the secret of that new civilization is what I have called the Religion of good citizenship. (X)
Confucianism, as the "religion of good citizenship," holds the solution to war torn Europe, a sentiment that Eza Pound seemed also to have believed (he published Cathay poems in 1915, too). The "real Chinaman" is one who practices Confucianism and is, in Gu's mind, the avatar of a "new civilization," one that advances a universal humanity and draws from "the best which has been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold was a favorite of Gu's) from all the world's cultures. Again, there is an obvious idealism in all of this, but one that rejects various assertions of incommensurability and spiritedly advances a global Confucian project.
For the most part, however, Gu failed in his intellectual efforts. The traditional imperial system he defended was not revived in China. Confucianism did not catch on in the West. The horrors of WWI did not produce a great reconciliation of civilizations, but only paved the way for the worse horrors of WWII.
Interestingly, however, Gu seems to have anticipated the work of Robert Bellah, who is generally credited with coining the term "civil religion" in relation to America. And now, a new book has been published that considers how that notion of "civil religion" might apply to Confucianism in China today: Confucianism, A Habit of the Heart: Bellah, Civil Religion, and East Asia. There is much to contemplate in this volume, more than we can consider here. But we should note Bellah's embrace of a kind of universal humanity not unlike Gu's. In the last chapter of the new volume, which might be the last of Bellah's work to be published, he resists cultural particularism, which holds that humans can find meaning only in specific cultural contexts and that universal humanity is, as MacIntyre would have it, barren:
What I would question.... is the idea that the global and the particular are mutually exclusive, that one lives in one and only one community, which, were it true, would surely make the idea of membership in "a single universal tribe" impossible. I would argue, on the contrary, that humans have almost never lived in one and only one community, that we almost always, and in modern times necessarily always, live in many overlapping communities...(208)
Gu is a living example of Bellah's point: a man who lived in more than one community simultaneously. And, if Bellah is right, Gu is not all that extraordinary in this regard. We all live in multiple communities, and we can find meaning in various cultural flows. We may have to work at it, study language and philosophy and history and literature, but we can, as humans, come to know the cultures of others and, more significantly, bring those cultures into our lives as communities of which we are a part. We can not only learn them, we can live them. Notice, too, that, while he does not invoke Bellah's notion of "civil religion" Henry Rosemont Jr., in his most recent book, Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion, also sees a religious-like project in Confucianism that can be adopted by contemporary Americans.
He may have gotten some things wrong - the absolute loyalty to the emperor thing, for instance - but Gu was clearly on to something.