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Confucian revival inseparable from China’s realities

ZHANG ZIHUI and MIN MING | 2021-03-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A Confucius memorial ceremony held in Xuchang, Henan Province, on Sept. 28, 2020 Photo: CFP

As a fundamental feature of the Chinese cultural identity, Confucianism gradually waned in modern times, when Western learning was introduced to China, Chinese and foreign cultures were integrated, and major reforms were carried out to save the nation from subjugation. In the contemporary era, as China has grown rapidly in its overall national strength and discourse power in the international community, Confucianism has begun to revive. 
However, the best approaches for reviving Confucianism are still under debate in academia. In the face of opportunities and challenges presented by cultural collisions, mutual learning between civilizations, and multiple values, Confucianism has been caught in a dilemma. Scholars debate whether or not Confucianism should stick to existing thought paradigms and traditional ideas, or blend into diverse cultures by removing spatial and ethnic barriers in a global context. 
Reviving Confucianism
Reviving Confucianism is not simply about “re-entering the public space,” as since its founding, Confucianism was never disconnected from the land that has nourished it, or the big stage of Chinese society comprised of politics, the economy, and the cultures of different historical periods. 
Technically, however, its value and significance were indeed obscured or weakened due to complicated social factors during several periods, so that it broke away from the center of the big stage and was marginalized. Therefore, to revive Confucianism in the contemporary era is to clarify its value and significance in our times and bring it back to social life through creative transformation and innovative development, thus contributing to thought, cultural, and spiritual construction amid the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 
Through the lens of history, during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–221 BCE), Confucius founded the Confucian school by incorporating benevolence (ren) into rites (li) based on the ritual system initiated by the Duke of Zhou (named Jidan) following the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE). Thereafter, Confucianism went through more than 2,000 years of ups and downs. 
In modern times, as China was plagued by national crises, Confucianism’s purpose—to benefit society—couldn’t be attained by a single internal upgrade. The guiding principle of zhong ti xi yong, which takes Chinese learning as the foundation and Western learning for practice, could hardly ease tensions between traditional Confucianism and modernity. 
At that time, excessively politicized Confucianism was no longer what it had been. The Chinese nation, which suffered from domestic turmoil and foreign aggression, was in urgent need of profound reforms, on multiple levels and in all aspects. 
For the above reasons, Confucianism declined through modern historical waves. Not until the reform and opening up did a revival surface. Escalating conflicts from multiculture highlighted the importance of embracing national cultures, while Confucianism was reincorporated into the social cultural system, heralding a new age of development. 
Along with globalization and modernization, the fast growing Chinese economy has brought about dramatic changes to social life, which has also made the revival of Confucianism realistic and likely. Reviving Confucianism is realistic given the development of the times, the economy, and cultures. 
Noting that the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is relevant to the revival of national cultures, renowned Chinese philosopher Tang Yijie said that Confucianism was the historic root of the Chinese nation, since it inherited the cultures of the Xia, Shang, Zhou dynasties. “We cannot afford to cut off the root,” he said.  
Moreover, prevailing materialism as a result of abundant material wealth created from economic development has formed a stark contrast with the poor inner worlds of the people. As a philosophy for life and method for self-cultivation, Confucianism can provide rich nourishment for people’s spiritual pursuit and lend intellectual support to China’s socioeconomic development. 
In addition, diverse cultures and values have sparked a certain degree of identity confusion. In this regard, the identification with historical communities fostered by Confucianism that carried forward time-honored ritual civilization can guide wandering souls to find their homes. 
The likelihood of its revival also matters, which is manifested in the strong vitality that radiates from its theoretical base and intrinsic wisdom. 
From the theoretical base, Confucianism is a life philosophy which integrates sense and sensibility. It takes propriety and righteousness as moral standards for humanity; considers civility essential in terms of the pursuit of personality; and regards cultivating one’s mind, managing one’s family, governing the country, and making the world peaceful as the perfect course for a successful life. 
All these criteria can provide effective guidance for contemporary Chinese people to deal with various relationships in the market economy, resolve conflicts between reality and the ideal, and build their spiritual homeland. 
Regarding intrinsic wisdom, many excellent philosophical resources from Confucianism highly align with core socialist values. Such notions as “harmony in diversity” and “winning the world by virtue” are sources of contemporary Chinese theories like mutual learning between civilizations and building a community with a shared future for humanity.  
Based on the aforementioned reality and likelihood, Confucianism should confidently approach the center stage of society and engage in the grand narrative of the construction of contemporary China, and the world. 
Undesirable trends
There are two undesirable trends in debates over the revival of Confucianism. The first is fundamentalism, which approves of Confucianism in its entirety, on the basis of narrow-minded nationalism. The second trend is liberalism, which rejects Confucianism outright while blindly worshiping the West. These seemingly different trends are identical in essence. Both treat Confucianism irrationally and are seriously divorced from social realities in China. 
Anthony Giddens defines fundamentalism as a “tradition defined in the traditional way.” In his view, fundamentalists argue that traditions contain their own truth, a ritual truth, asserted as correct by the believer. Under this definition, fundamentalism is extremely conservative and has negative implications. Fundamentalists refuse dialogue and defend existing traditions as their pure beliefs. 
Confucian fundamentalists believe with religious fervor that basic Confucian codes and norms can be applied to contemporary society, completely intact. They have almost lost their academic critical thought and practical rationality, unrealistically regarding Confucianism as omnipotent and advocating to purely treat Confucianism as an ideology, such as Political Confucianism and Confucian Constitutionalism. 
Such a rigid, self-enclosed trend should be averted in the Confucian revival. Through a century of modern exploration, generations of Chinese people have fostered a brand-new socialist culture under the guidance of Marxist theories. Confucianism has always been a part of the new cultural tradition. It has blended into it. Thus it is extremely dangerous to allow narrow-minded nationalism to replace the current cultural traditions with Confucianism. Without a prudent attitude, assuming the absolute self-sufficiency of Confucianism in the construction of modernity will inevitably be detrimental to Confucianism.  
Undoubtedly Confucianism will continue to play an important role in the construction of modern, even post-modern society, but the way it functions is not what fundamentalists expect. It is essential to restore Confucianism to the contemporary context and enable its dialogue and fusion with modernity, thereby unleashing the vigor of traditional culture while keeping up with the times. 
Liberalism stemmed from the New Culture Movement in the mid-1910s and 1920s, when liberalists, represented by scholar Hu Shih, viewed Confucianism as a barrier obstructing China’s modernization. Chanting the slogan “Down With Confucianism,” liberals from that era called for the destruction of all traditions. The hypercorrection was somewhat justifiable in the historical context, but this radical, irrational behavior dealt a heavy blow to Confucianism. 
Concerning the disapproval of Confucianism during the period, modern Confucian scholars attempted to prove that Confucianism also carries the genes of freedom and democracy. 
Contemporary studies of Confucianism should carefully handle the field’s relationship with Western traditions. Confucianism’s contemporary legitimacy doesn’t have to rest on the approval of liberalism, and it shouldn’t seek freedom and democracy from traditional resources in a far-fetched manner. 
Surely the rationality and freedom pursued by modernity is not contradictory to the integration of other traditions, which will converge in new Chinese traditions. All in all, the mainstream ideology of socialism in contemporary China is unshakable. 
During the revival of Confucianism, timely adjustments should be made to adjust to reality and position itself in contemporary society. It should be a value choice in people’s lives and an important traditional resource in the construction of the Chinese nation’s spiritual homeland.
In summary, the revival of Confucianism cannot be separated from expressions of modernity. Neither conservative fundamentalism nor radical liberalism can create a bright future for Confucianism. Only through actions taken with clear cultural consciousness, strong cultural self-confidence, and the positive mentality of creative transformation and innovative development can the huge inner spiritual power of Confucianism be released. Then, Confucianism’s light of reason can illuminate journeys into the mind and soul, and Confucianism can truly be revived. 
Zhang Zihui and Min Ming are from the College of Philosophy, Law and Political Science at Shanghai Normal University.