Boston Confucianism: The Third Wave of Global Confucianism

By Berthrong, John | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Boston Confucianism: The Third Wave of Global Confucianism


Berthrong, John, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I. What Is Confucianism? (1)

The title of this essay is based on the hypothesis that Boston Confucianism is an emerging sub-set of the general modern revival of the Confucian Way now known as New Confucianism, broadly conceived. Before entering into any discussion of the philosophical and intellectual content of Boston Confucianism, a definition of the nature and scope of Confucianism in general and New Confucianism in particular is necessary. As the Confucian revival that began in the early twentieth century continues to gain strength and develops into new strains and currents of the New Confucian movement, the question of definition of terms is neither an innocent nor an idle question. As any intellectual historian knows, those who define and "own" the terms of discourse set the ground rules for who is considered inside or outside the circumscribed group.

The very definition of Confucianism per se is a contested issue. My strategy will be to begin with a discussion of the struggle to define Confucianism in terms of modern comparative scholarship and then prescind to more circumscribed definitions of such terms as "New Confucianism" and "Boston Confucianism." These terminological discussions of the origins and meanings of the definition of Confucianism are a fascinating place for discovering how contemporary scholars view the study of religion and philosophy. Or, as Master Kong taught so long ago, it is important to rectify terms wherever and whenever possible for the common good.

II. Cross-Cultural Comparison and Hermeneutics

The very task of defining what we mean by such terms as "Confucianism," "Neo-Confucianism," and now "New Confucianism," much less the wonderful cross-cultural hybrid of "Boston Confucianism," is a difficult and complicated undertaking. There is almost endless debate on whether or not it is possible to define such a protean set of transnational traditions encompassed by the English term "Confucianism." It is even suggested, from time to time, that no one in traditional East Asia ever thought of himself or herself as Confucian. While I appreciate the point about the gap between what modern Western scholars (2) stipulate as Confucian, I think, for instance, that scholars such as Mengzi, Xunzi, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), and his student Chen Chun (1159-1223) had an excellent idea about who they were as Confucians or Ru as they would have defined themselves over against other Chinese thinkers such as Yang Zhu, Mozi, and, later, Buddhists or Daoists. In any event, I find the answer to this question given by Kong Zigao (312-262 B.C.E.) of the Kong clan highly useful: "Prince Pingyuan said: 'From where is the term "Confucian" derived?' [Kong] Zigao answered: 'It is derived from the idea of the combination of the various exquisite virtues, and conjoining of the six arts, such that whether in action or repose he never loses the core of the Way.'" (3) At least one early Kong master had an excellent idea of the nature and definition of the patrimony of his clan.

This prolegomenon concerning getting clear about definitions is a necessary task if we are to overcome the tendency, so elegantly described by Zhang Longxi in Mighty Opposites, (4) of forcing the Orient and Occident into false dichotomies or needless misunderstandings. Zhang argues that what is needed is not more theory that shows how China is the opposite of things European but, rather, where the real differences lie between the two cultures. He would like the community of comparative scholars to move from a dichotomous stance to one that recognizes difference instead of simplistic contradictories. Zhang is one of a growing group of comparative theorists who argue that there is a possibility for understanding between and among cultures even where there is a great deal of "otherness" to be found. Although Zhang does not posit an essentialist reading of world culture, he is convinced that it is possible for people to exchange meaningful ideas across cultural divides, but he knows it is no easy task. …

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