New Confucianism: A Critical Examination

By Jensen, Lionel M. | The China Journal, July 2005 | Go to article overview

New Confucianism: A Critical Examination


Jensen, Lionel M., The China Journal


New Confucianism: A Critical Examination, edited by John Makeham. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. vi + 262 pp. US$69.95/£42.50/Aus$ 108.00 (hardcover).

In the 1980s, Confucianism returned to respectability as New Confucianism (xinruxue). It was at a time when China was opening to the outside world while looking inward in search of cultural resources that might reassert cultural identity, offer moral solace and regenerate indigenous models for community in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. By 1986, this interest had metamorphosed into a state-supported research institute in Beijing, the China Confucius Research Institute (Zhonghua Kongzi Yanjiusuo), which over the next decade hosted three international conferences on Confucianism.

New Confucianism and the study of Confucius took on a scientific image, with projected research in Confucian studies organized into Five-Year Plans. New Confucianism, perhaps because of its alignment with the Party-state, survived the Tiananmen massacre and the ensuing campaign against bourgeois liberalism. The scholars in China, who were working in isolation or under selfcensorship, soon learned of a larger academic dialogue in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States over the restoration of Confucian studies.

The complicated story of this intellectual movement is the nominal subject of New Confucianism: A Critical Examination. Superbly edited by John Makeham, it is the first of two intended volumes that undertake a systematic examination of the many figures and figurations of this important neo-conservative intellectual tide (sichao). Whether apprehended as a cultural or a philosophical phenomenon, New Confucianism is, in Makeham's words, "a retrospective creation", which for more than two decades has "played a leading role in bridging the cultural and ideological divide separating mainland and overseas Chinese scholars by providing a shared intellectual discourse" and which has "proven to be the most successful form of philosophical appropriation, reinvention and 'creative transformation' of 'Confucianism'" (p. 2).

This is a work of admirable interpretative breadth, almost a third of which is written by Makeham. The introduction discusses the intellectual diversity embodied in the manifold forms of New Confucianism, which Makeham treats as a historically constituted intellectual community. His perspective on its divergent trajectories is delivered within the context of his presentation of the last six decades of Confucian thought and practice. The book captures the surprising modernity and inspired persistence of Confucianism, its diversity, pluralism and argumentativeness-a living, productive intellectual tradition.

Rather than a conference anthology, New Confucianism is an engaged meditation on a multidimensional intellectual field. The book is organized into four parts of two essays each, which proceed in reverse chronology. This progressive-retrogressive approach is employed to great effect by Makeham in the book's first two chapters, "The Retrospective Creation of New Confucianism" (an illuminating analysis of the diverse intellectual expressions of New Confucianism) and "The New Daotong" (a critical evaluation of the strategies of intellectual orthodoxy practiced by Confucianism and New Confucianism alike across a span of centuries).

Makeham establishes that prior to the 1970s, when its adherents were disciples of Mou Zongsan (1909-95) at New Asia College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong or of Xiong Shili (1885-1968) or Qian Mu (18951990) in Taiwan, New Confucianism could not be described as a specific philosophical movement. It lacked a "degree of integration and coalescence". In the years following 1986, the intellectual center of the movement shifted away from Hong Kong and Taiwan to China, where today New Confucianism continues to develop as a vital enterprise of philosophic reflection.

Two common assumptions are dispatched by Makeham: the assimilation of all recent Confucian movements into a meaningless uniformity of "core values" underwriting China's capitalist expansion, and the scholarly presumption that the locus of today's New Confucianism is found in a 1957 "manifesto" by Zhang Junmai (Carsun Chang, 1887-1969), Tang Junyi (1909-78), Mou Zongsan and Xu Fuguan (1903-82)-"A Respectful Declaration on Behalf of Chinese Culture to the World". …

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