Now that my semester is drawing to an end (still have grading to do), my mind is turning toward my research question: why has Confucianism not gained greater prominence in the United States in the past century (or so), and what conditions might be necessary for Confucianism to have a greater intellectual and cultural presence in America?
These questions are tied to yet another, more abstract, query, which is never too far from my mind: how do systems of thought meaningfully move from one cultural context to another (i.e. Confucianism to America; liberalism or Marxism to China; etc.). But that question is rather too broad for consideration just now; so, let's stick to the more focused questions about Confucianism in America.
I have been thinking about Confucianism in America for some time now (check the pdf version of the paper mentioned here) and I am very much aware of the empirical problem: how can we measure the relative significance of Confucian thought in the United States? I have my own impressionistic sense that, in fact, not many Americans have a good understanding of the philosophy, and many fewer take it into consideration as they ponder issues in their own lives or society. But there's not a whole lot of empirical evidence to substantiate that vague notion.
So, let's turn for a moment to Ngram, the Google Books search feature that allows you to survey a significant corpus of texts for specific terms.
Using that tool, I searched for references to "Confucius" and "Confucianism" in books published in English in the United States from 1800 to 2008, to see if there is a trend over time, either a rising or a diminishing presence of those terms in American texts. I fiddled around with other parameters (taking the search back 1700 did not yield other significant data, and that chart was harder to see), and I post this here to provide a first look at how Confucius and Confucianism circulate in US publications.
(If you right click on the empty part of the graph, and then click "This frame," and then "open frame in new tab," you can see it much better):
The first thing to mention here is that the data have been normalized; that is, they take into account the rising number of publications over time so that the lines for "Confucius" and "Confucianism" are not skewed by the changing total number of books published (the statisticians can fight it out about whether that is the best approach or not.) A couple of things thus stand out here.
Notice the general stagnation of references to "Confucius" over time, and the modest increase in references to "Confucianism". This would suggest that in the nineteenth century, when there were relatively few translations of Confucian texts, the philosophy was generally identified with the person of Confucius himself. There appears to be an increase in references to "Confucius" along about 1920, but then a decline after 1960. As more texts are translated, and more interpretive work is done in interaction with Chinese scholars who are self-consciously considering their own culture and traditions in the 1890s and after, the term "Confucianism" becomes more prominent. We shouldn't place too much significance on the several notable spikes in "Confucius" references (e.g. 1829, 1867, 1910, etc.), as the total number of "Confucius" citations in any year is very small and the addition of just a few new books might create a spike.
Interestingly, if we combine the terms "Confucius" and "Confucianism" we see a more noticeable rising trend in references, especially since 1860, which would suggest a growing prominence in American publications:
Here we notice a dip after 1960. This might represent a time-lag effect: after coming to power in 1949, the fervently anti-Confucian CCP successfully shifted the American discourse on Confucianism: US intellectuals gradually came to believe that the ancient philosophy was just irrelevant for understanding contemporary China. And that attitude might have been reinforced by the initial idealism of the Cultural Revolution, when left-leaning American scholars might have thought the "New China" really was new. Things change after 1980, when Maoism is revealed to be a crushing failure and Confucianism re-emerges in the PRC and in the minds of American intellectuals. The apparent drop off after 1998 is harder to interpret, especially in light of the rising popularity of Confucian ideas and symbols in the PRC.
We should not, however, read too much into the generally upward trending line from 1860 to 1998. When we add some potential competitors for American intellectual attention, Confucius and Confucianism pale by comparison:
The scales here is a bit deceptive. If we round off the percentages we notice that, in 2008, there is a 0.0002% chance that "Confucius" is cited in American publications, and only a 0.0001% chance that "Confucianism" will be mentioned. If I am reading the data correctly, this suggests that "Buddha" (0.0008%) is four times more likely to be cited than "Confucius" (0.0002%), and "Buddhism" (0.0006%) is six times more likely to be cited than "Confucianism" (0.0001%). Also, the upward trends of "Buddha" and "Buddhism" are much stronger after about 1940 than those for "Confucius" and "Confucianism."
When we add "Plato" and "Aristotle" to the mix, the relative position of Confucianism is thrown into sharper relief: both are cited more frequently by close to an order of magnitude than Confucianism. The downward trends for the ancient Greeks after about 1960 might be indicative of the rise of modern and contemporary philosophy in the American intellectual zeitgeist as well as in academia.
All in all there are no real surprises there. We would expect that Buddhism would have more of a presence in American culture than Confucianism. As a religious practice, as well as a philosophy, Buddhism is explicitly promoted by adherents in locations (temples) particularly established to maintain and reproduce specific rites and beliefs. By contrast, there is very little by way of human and organization infrastructure for the propagation of Confucianism in America outside of academia. And the ancient Greeks are still considered to be foundational to "Western civilization" and promoted and read in the US with that sense of historical continuity in mind. Plato and Aristotle are supposed to make sense to us (or make us sensible). No such expectation attaches to Confucianism in America.
To some degree, then, our fun with Ngrams has (as my original discipline of Political Science is often accused of doing) rigorously quantified the obvious. Though, in this case the "rigor" is not terribly rigorous, just a couple of graphs.
At the very least the last graph gives us a visual representation of what Confucianism is up against in the US. Since 1960 it seems not to have made significant progress compared to Buddhism, and since 1980 is not really catching up to Plato and Aristotle, either.