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« More on Being Black and Chinese | Main | The Just Sentence »

June 21, 2011


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i remember a phrase from a book coauthored by reischauer and fairbank (and some other guy) on the history of east asian civilization. it went something like "confucianism was a hodgepodge of ideas." that was my first exposure to the idea that confucianism wasnt a school so much as a "vibe" (after the castle). and thats a pretty old book, so the awareness of confucius not being confucius is not new...

Yes, you're right. More sophisticated approaches to Confucianism, in both the West and in China, have long understood it in those terms. But I wonder if, in the wake of the new revival, and especially in the face of a stronger nationalist sentiment (since nationalisms everywhere always work to simplify and reify complex historical and intellectual currents), there is a threat these days of misunderstanding Confucianism as having been a more consistent and coherent ideology than it really was....

"儒" might be better translated as "literati" than "Confucian." Doing so explains how Mencius and Xunzi can both be "Confucians," for example.

At any rate, I take the suggestion that China has never been Confucian as more or less parallel to the suggestion that the West has never been Christian. Ever since Constantine up until now, Christian groups have had to compromise the core message of Jesus to a greater or lesser extent in order to better accommodate themselves as civic religions. To give the most obvious example, Jesus was clearly against violence if not an outright absolute pacifist. Yet the history of the West is a history of endless wars. Nevertheless, it's also fair to talk about the influence of Christianity on the West over the centuries.

Confucianism is in a similar boat, so near as I can tell.

I often think about these questions along the line you suggest here....

A few times in the past I've tried to read the Analects and didn't get far or get much out of it. Was it really a system of thought in itself? Or did it (as I suspect) only become a system of thought after all kinds of people annotated it, explained it, and worked it up into something that was usable as a system of social discipline? In the end that's what it seems most useful for.

As for 'Confucius Institute', I can't think of anything more Han-centric or ethnically divisive to promote overseas as the supreme symbol of Chinese culture and learning. I guess some Han person thought, 'Well, we haven't got a Cervantes or a Goethe, but we've got 孔子 as the Chinese equivalent of a towering literary and cultural figure. Let's use him'. Surely even 'Lu Xun Institute' would have been better than 'Confucius Institute'. Lu Xun was a pretty cool dude and not Han-centric at all.

Pi Xirui, the late-Qing Confucian scholar, said that the Han was the most Confucian dynasty, because it upheld New Text scholarship. While New Text scholarship prevailed, Confucianism was a sacred doctrine by which all state policies were justified. When Old Text scholarship later prevailed, Confucian doctrines became less and less relevant to the formulation of state policies.

As for Bathrobe's views, 人之易其言也,无责而已. In modern culture, ignorance seems to work rather like a shield.

人之易其言也,无责而已 - in other words, if you don't know anything, just shut up. Fine words, well spoken.

"In modern culture, ignorance seems to work rather like a shield". "Modern culture"? Spoken like a true font of ancient wisdom.

My comment was in line with points made in the article that "no coherent system of thought that may be labeled "Confucianism" existed..." and "if from the Analects and the writings ascribed to Mencius and Xunzi, Kongzi's two most important disciples..., we glean a 'Confucian' political program..." I am not an expert on Confucianism, which I candidly admitted.

In fact, 人之易其言也,无责而已 doesn't suggest much of a philosophy either, apart from rank arrogance and disdain. Is that all that modern 'Confucianists' have to hide behind?


a. Confucianism is not based on the Analects. It's based on the Four Books and the Five Classics. An alternate formulation is the Thirteen Classics.

b. 人之易其言也,无责而已, means one should speak responsibly. It is neither "rank arrogance" nor "disdain".

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