The Universal Ambitions of China’s Illiberal Confucian Scholars

T.H. Jiang and Shaun O'Dwyer/"The Kingly Way" in Chinese caligraphy

Amid today’s talk of a coming civilizational clash between China and the West, it is easy to find philosophical experts on China holding forth on the cultural contours of Sino-Western civilizational difference. “China has always been and always will continue to be a communitarian society,” some have insisted; and its Confucian ethos is not a doctrine like America’s liberal individualism, but is instead the “ongoing narrative of a specific community of a people, the center of an ongoing ‘way’ or Dao.

Such explanations amount to orientalist fantasies. How an industrialized society like modern China, transformed by both Communism and market reforms could still be defined by primordial cultural characteristics is not explained. Moreover, far from being a continuous, deeply organic narrative of the Chinese people, Confucianism is a diverse set of doctrines that have been ideologically contested, marginalized, reinvented and imposed as state dogmas at different times in Chinese history. This point holds for a brand of illiberal, statist Confucianism being promoted today in some of China’s leading universities, a brand whose future is still uncertain, but whose proponents hold out great hopes for its adoption into Chinese Communist Party orthodoxy. Moreover, this reinvented nationalist Confucianism is not without precedent in the modern history of East Asia; over a century ago, Japanese scholars educated in Europe were the pioneers of such a reinvention. This precedent, its cross-cultural inspirations, and its present day historical parallels in contemporary Chinese intellectual life merit examination, in view of the claims made by scholars for the cultural centrality of Confucianism in a morally renewed, globally rising China.

The Rise Of Confucian “Scholars Of The State”

In the summer of 2018, dozens of university students and new graduates gathered in Shenzhen to help workers in the Jasic Technology Corporation organize a labor union. Within a month, 50 students involved in the protest had been arrested by the government. Many of them remain in detention. Unlike previous activists who identified themselves as human rights defenders, these students proudly claimed themselves to be Marxists and even Maoists—not apologists of the status quo, but as militant challengers of the so-called “red capitalism,” the combination of capitalist economy and authoritarian governance promoted by today’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They learned Marxist theories and protest tactics in various students-led Marxist societies and reading groups at Beijing University, Renmin University, and Nanjing University. To prevent further radicalization of university students, Beijing University’s authorities coercively reconstituted its Marxist Society in January 2019 and appointed new student leaders willing to express their allegiance to Xi Jinping Thought.

What makes this reconstitution blackly comical was the decision of the university authorities to invite a Confucian scholar, Yang Lihua, to deliver the first lecture for the new society. A professor of Chinese philosophy, Yang has no expertise in Marxist scholarship, and the speech he delivered was all about how to be a virtuous person based on his reading of Reflections on Things at Hand (Jinsi Lu), a twelfth century Confucian text which constituted the official ideology of late imperial China. Sun Xiguo, the second speaker and Executive Dean of the School of Marxism at Beijing University, contrived to connect Yang’s Confucian homilies with Marxist doctrines, and cited sentences from Neo-Confucianism to interpret the basic tenets of Marxism-Xi Jinping Thought.

This attempt to synthesize official Marxism, Xi Jinping Thought, and Confucianism at Beijing University may reflect a larger ideological trend in 21st century China. In June 2019, Qiushi, the organ of the CCP Central Committee, posted an article asking people to be confident in “the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” According to its definition, this culture is “an organic whole composed by outstanding Chinese traditional culture, the revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture.” This statement vindicates the longstanding observation that the CCP has been increasingly interested in using “traditional culture” to strengthen its legitimacy since the 1990s, even though the Party authority seldom mentions the term Confucianism in its official documents.

While the CCP is still ambivalent in whole-heartedly embracing Confucianism, many Confucian scholars in China have been ready to embrace the CCP, aspiring to be its “scholars of the state.” As early as 2005, the “holy trinity” of Chinese socialist culture promoted by Qiushi was already heralded by Gan Yang, an influential scholar with strong nationalistic sensibilities. Drawing upon the concept of “syncretizing three traditions” (tong san tong 通三统) in classical Confucianism, Gan argued that in contemporary China, intellectuals and the ruling party should strive to syncretize three distinctive but complementary traditions: the Confucian tradition, the Maoist tradition, and Deng Xiaoping’s tradition.

For him, the Confucian tradition is the soul of the “Chinese identity” and “Chinese civilization,” and must be protected at any cost. The Maoist tradition includes the extant socialist political institutions (one-party rule, the People’s Congress, the unitary system, etc.) and the egalitarian ideal of social justice. Deng’s tradition, the most recent one, represents the growing respect for individual rights in the course of marketization. Gan acknowledged that these three traditions could easily be in conflict, so he arranged them into a hierarchical order: the protection and promotion of Confucianism is the end in and of itself, while socialist institutions are instrumental in defending the political and cultural sovereignty of Chinese civilization. If individual rights conflict with Confucian values and socialist ideals, then such rights must be subordinated to higher-order values.

This revival of Confucianism has become part of the Zeitgeist of contemporary China. What lies at the core of this project is to redefine the relationship between the Communist Party, the Confucian tradition, and Chinese history, as Gan has done in his syncretism. Liu Xiaofeng, a professor of classics at Renmin University, promotes the idea that the CCP, as an elite group, is the modern incarnation of premodern Confucian literati-bureaucrats, whose superior intellectual and moral virtues entitle them to function as the grand tutor of the people.  In contemporary China, argues Liu, the task of the CCP is to uphold lofty moral ideals (moral politics or “the Kingly Way”) in order to resist the nihilism and relativism of liberal modernity, exemplified by the way of life and normative political ideals of the United States.

Many Confucians openly express their excitement when the Party speeches and documents employ quasi-Confucian terms. Chen Ming, an advocate of Confucian civil religion, regards Xi Jinping’s slogan of “the China Dream” as an ideological innovation very friendly toward the basic tenets of Confucianism, and defines his academic task as reinterpreting the China Dream through the Confucian lens. Zeng Yi, a professor of philosophy at Tongji University in Shanghai who praises monarchy and traditional gender hierarchy, explicitly claims that Confucians must actively search for political and ideological supports from the extant regime because Confucianism is by nature a doctrine for the ruling authority. A revival of Confucianism is not complete, according to Zeng, without Confucianism restoring its overarching role of organizing the Chinese way of life on the political level.

Illiberal Nationalist Confucianism 

At first glance, it’s very easy to interpret this Confucian revival as a hyper-nationalistic project in contemporary China, but there is another side of this ideological movement. Despite their frequent emphasis on “Chinese characteristics,” these Confucians repeatedly argue that Confucianism is a universal value that can provide novel solutions to political and social problems humanity at large is facing. In their view, liberalism, democracy, and even modernity itself, are irredeemable because they generate nihilism, value relativism, hedonism, consumerism, and collective mediocrity.

To support their critiques of these Western values, they are eager to find allies among Western philosophers and intellectuals who critique modern liberal democracy from a similar perspective. Carl Schmitt’s definition of “the political” as friend-enemy relationship, and his critique of parliamentary democracy, are handy tools for pro-authoritarian intellectuals to reject the legitimacy of liberal democracy, but Leo Strauss provides far more profound resources. Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang are prominent followers of Strauss’s political thought, and they have succeeded in making him one of the most popular Western political theorists in Chinese academia. Strauss’ idea is that the philosopher, instead of aspiring to enlighten the entire population, should respect existing traditions, religions, social conventions, and political authorities. This inspires Chinese Straussians to argue that intellectuals should stop disseminating liberal and Enlightenment ideals in China and that Confucian ethics as the ultimate “nomos” of the Chinese nation should be upheld by the extant political authority, the CCP, which is itself a reincarnation of Confucian elites.

Strauss’ argument that ancient Platonic philosophy is superior to modern Enlightenment thought also inspires Chinese Straussians to find parallels between Greek philosophy and classical Confucianism. In a reactivated “quarrel between the ancients and moderns,” as Liu Xiaofeng puts it in his book Shitelaosi de lubiao, they envision China, as the representative of the “ancient” surrounded by modern liberal democracies, as a noble force that can resist the degenerate influence of modernity and break the myth of “the end of history.”

In the face of the various problems generated by liberalism, democracy and modernity, the authoritarian Confucians believe that the West cannot overcome its difficulties without radically abandoning the complacency of the moderns and turning to Chinese philosophy and tradition for intellectual inspiration. Confucianism, they argue, with its emphasis on the sacred “heavenly mandate,” the idea of harmony, the use of rituals to regulate personal desires and interpersonal relationships, and the respect for the educated elite, is better at “settling down the restless mind of the modern people,” pursuing moral excellence, and achieving good governance. These values, they envision, are universal despite being “Confucian,” and China can set an example for the rest of the world to show that these Confucians ideals are able to compete with the liberal values of human rights, political equality, and democracy originated from the West.

Some Japanese Precedents

Reading the modern history of Confucianism in Japan against the backdrop of these Chinese “scholars of state” and their ambitions for Confucianism as China’s renewed, even global “Kingly Way” can induce a sense of deja-vu. Starting in the late nineteenth century, European-educated Japanese scholars wrote the script for the modernization and authoritarian interpretation of Confucianism. This took effect with increasing intolerance and zeal in the lead-up to the Second World War.

The far-reaching industrialization and modernization initiated by Japan’s Meiji Era leaders in the late nineteenth century were a source of tremendous opportunity and anxiety for those caught up in this transformation. While opportunities abounded for social mobility, reform, and innovation, such change also provoked a deep moral and epistemological crisis. From the 1850s onwards, following the United States’ forced ending of Japan’s policy of seclusion from foreign relations, the strange and frightening customs, institutions, technologies, and morals of militarily superior foreign nations manifested themselves forcefully for close study and emulation.

There seemed little choice but to reverse engineer and adopt everything that made those powers so capable, if Japan was to survive in a global struggle between nations. However, this process also appeared to require abandoning cherished political and spiritual doctrines through which people had once made sense of their world and their place in it; and adopting alien ways of thinking that appeared more able to make sense of and provide solutions to the urgent political and cultural problems confronting Japanese society. Yet at the same time, some of those ways of thinking appeared to threaten any sense of continuity in social hierarchy and order, such as the doctrines of liberalism, individualism, and republicanism that began flowing in with translations of European political thought during the 1870s.

Between the alternatives of a slavish, self-abasing adoption of European ideas and institutions, or of a nativist resentment that vainly rejected them, the Japanese were among the first non-European states to successfully forge a different path, providing a model for other non-European modernizers to follow, including in China. Japanese scholars’ studies of European political thought suggested not only that cherished traditional beliefs could in some way be modernized and their continuity ensured. It also seemed possible that the novel institutions of modernity, of the nation state, a European-style political system and mass education could be traditionalized, presented as being legitimated by time-hallowed beliefs continuous with a national past.

This process is not, however, inherently conservative or reactionary. Advocates for more liberal innovations, including representative democracy and individual rights, also sought out and invoked traditional beliefs, or exemplary historical figures, who could serve to make these innovations appear less alien and more continuous with indigenous customs and beliefs. Uchimura Kanzō (1861-1930), a Christian educator and journalist, saw profound affinities between the conscientious Confucianism of exemplary historical samurai leaders and the individualist Christian ideals he upheld. However, this liberal-individualist wing was soon marginalized, probably because authoritarian Shinto nationalist figures provided a more compelling narrative for an emerging nation-state struggling to assert itself in a world dominated by great power competition.

Japan’s Pioneering “Scholars Of The State”

One of the pioneering figures of the more authoritarian variety of Confucian “traditionalized modernity” was the Japanese scholar of the state Inoue Tetsujirō (1855-1944). Born in the mid-19th century, Inoue was of the first generation of elite-born Japanese who could avail themselves of a higher education in Japan and abroad, thanks to the far-reaching modernization efforts of the Meiji era reforms. Schooled in the Confucian classics by private tutors as a child, Inoue would go on to study European philosophy and sociology under American professors at the newly founded University of Tokyo.

After graduation, he lived in Europe between 1884-1890, traveling and studying Kantian and Hegelian philosophy in Germany. He arrived back in Japan convinced of the European Great Power’s capabilities to overwhelm Japan. He also returned with a conviction—shared with fellow Japanese conservatives—that German statism provided the model for ensuring a powerful Japanese nation in a hostile world, while the liberal and utilitarian ideals of individual rights and democracy gaining ground with some Japanese intellectuals threatened the ruin of national morality, and even the nation itself.

If Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss provide inspiration for some Chinese authoritarian Confucians today struggling with the influence of Western individualism and Enlightenment thought, Fichte and Right Hegelianism were inspirations for Japan’s conservative, modernizing statists 120 years ago. Following Hegel’s words in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, they embraced the idea of “the state, as the spirit of a nation, (as) both the law which permeates all relations within it and also the customs and consciousness of the individuals who belong to it.” They saw in Japan’s Imperial House, and in Shinto and Confucian practice and doctrine, the ancient, authentically indigenous materials of that spirit. Through the means made available by state-directed industrialization, of mass education, mass communications and military conscription, they expected Japanese subjects to cultivate their distinctive spirit, to subordinate their individual, selfish inclinations and revere the emperor as the embodiment of the state’s National Polity or Kokutai. This Kokutai ideology would ultimately destabilize Japan’s fragile new parliamentary political system.

Ensconced as professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo and as a propagandist for the Education Ministry, Inoue divided the rest of his career between the translation and teaching of European philosophy, to scholarship on Confucianism, Shintoism, Bushido, and Eastern philosophy, and to writing about Japan’s national morality. Along with other Japanese scholars like Nishi Amane (1829-1897), he translated European political, psychological, and philosophical texts into Japanese, yielding a vast vocabulary of Chinese-character based neologisms and terms for rendering, and indigenizing European concepts in Japanese, which subsequently passed into Chinese usage via the many Chinese who flocked to study foreign thought at Japanese universities in the first decade of the 20th century.

One of the notions Inoue helped popularize was the very idea of an Eastern philosophy. He sponsored, mentored, and befriended other Japanese scholars re-interpreting and modernizing spiritual and moral traditions in Confucianism and Buddhism as normative doctrines, and as intellectual subject matter for philosophical study. In doing so, he and his peers sought to elevate Eastern philosophy to a position of equality with Western thought. This was a conviction they also passed on to later generations of East Asian and European thinkers, which continues to the present.

In his elaborations of Japan’s national morality, Inoue provided an early template for later efforts in East Asia to retool Confucianism as a component part in a civil religion for the modern nation state. Inoue’s “national morality” was a strange but ingenious confection, drawing equally upon European nationalist thought, Hegelian ideas of “national spirit” or Volksgeist, reinvented Shinto and Bushido traditions, and Chinese and Japanese Confucian thought. Yet a Japanized Confucianism, that considered itself separate from and superior to the Chinese variety, was at its heart. It was a morality which unified the Confucian cardinal virtues of filial piety and loyalty, bringing together all the families of Japanese society into one great organic family connected by race and blood under the Japanese emperor, venerating him with loyalty and filial piety, and worshipping his ancestors who formed an unbroken imperial line going back 10,000 years to its Sun Goddess founder.

Acting as an agent of the Education Ministry over three decades, Inoue defended this morality and the sanctity of Japan’s Imperial House ruthlessly, against the dissenting Christian Uchimura Kanzō whom he famously accused of lèse-majesté, and against historians who questioned the myth of an unbroken imperial lineage. In the politically and ideologically unstable conditions of the 1930s, as military factions undermined and usurped civilian government, such intolerance for ideological unorthodoxy intensified. National universities became focal points for furious culture wars as Marxist students and professors were persecuted, liberal scholars were denounced and ousted, and even Inoue himself was accused of lèse-majesté for a single Chinese character error in the writing of an ancient Japanese emperor’s name in one of his publications.

The Kingly Way And The Decline Of Japanese Confucianism

Yet a new generation of Japanese Confucian scholars and “National Polity” ideologues had arisen who took Inoue’s Japanese Confucianism as common sense, and his ideal of a unique Japanese national morality superior to that of China. They warned against the inroads of a deracinating, ahistorical Western individualism and universalism into Japanese culture. As Japan pursued more imperialist ambitions, they extolled a global, civilizing mission for Japan in Asia and the world against Western power. Confucian scholars like Yasuoka Masahiro (1898-1983) invoked the ancient Confucian idea of the Kingly Way, which qualified Japan to exercise moral leadership over Asia—including China. In 1939, two years after the Nanjing Massacre in the Sino-Japanese War, Inoue Tetsujirō held out the hope that the Chinese would recover their Confucian national morality under Japanese guidance, taking Japan’s Kingly Way as their model.

With Japan’s wartime defeat in 1945, Japanese Confucianism’s reputation collapsed alongside the emperor-centered Shinto and National Polity ideologies it had been so closely associated with. However, the idea of modernized Confucian nationalism had long spread beyond Japan’s shores. In China in the 1890s, some reformers looked to the modernizing Japanese model in their hopes to reconfigure Confucianism as a state religion. Among the tens of thousands of Chinese students and intellectuals who subsequently flocked to Japan’s new universities in the following decades to study modern thought was the pioneering Chinese nationalist Liang Qichao (1873-1929). During his exile in Japan, Liang was deeply influenced by Japanese intellectuals and Confucians like Inoue Tetsujirō, and translated the latter’s work into Chinese. It is also noteworthy that he was the first to translate the political thought of Fichte into Chinese, in 1915—from a Japanese language source. The legatees of this international transfer of ideas ultimately include the present-day generation of Chinese nationalist Confucians.

A Liberal Or Illiberal Future For Confucianism?

No one can predict for sure whether this history of modern Confucianism in Japan will repeat itself in contemporary times, in the similar struggle within Confucian circles between the liberal-progressive wing and conservative-authoritarian wing in China today.

Taking lessons from the danger and failure of authoritarian Confucianism in pre-World War II East Asia, since the 1950s many Confucian intellectuals in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and North America have promoted the idea that Confucianism can be, and must be transformed into, a doctrine compatible with modern liberal democracy. Labeling themselves as New Confucians, liberal Confucians, Progressive Confucians, Confucian democrats, or Confucian perfectionists, these scholars argue that Confucian ethical values can better flourish in a liberal democratic regime in which the state is relatively neutral toward, or only moderately promotes, Confucian virtues such as filial piety, civility, and harmony. By embracing human rights, checks and balances, the rule of law, and competitive elections, they argue, Confucianism can get rid of its authoritarian dimension and realize its ethical ideals more effectively in the modern world.

After the Reform and Opening Up in the 1980s, this liberal version of Confucianism was once accepted as an intellectual mainstream in Mainland China. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, it has been gradually marginalized, as authoritarian Confucianism has been struggling for the upper hand along with China’s rapid rise. Earlier this year, one leading light for liberal Confucianism in Mainland China, the legal scholar Xu Zhangrun, was dismissed from his post at Tsinghua University and banned from overseas travel for his strident critique of Xi Jinping’s policies. Though the CCP and government have not yet embraced advice from the authoritarian Confucians to Confucianize the entire political ideology, they have understood the regime-threatening potential of liberal Confucianism since the first day of their rule in China.

However, scholars like Stephen Angle, Joseph Chan and their Mainland allies are still trying their best to convince rivals that a progressive reconstruction of Confucianism is more faithful to the Confucian spirit. Such a reconstruction looks back to the Confucians in Chinese history who tried to promote justice and discourage tyranny in government—of Confucius himself, quitting his post as minister to a prince in protest against his improprieties, of Mencius, who warned that it was righteous for ministers to overthrow and execute princes who acted like tyrants and robbers against their subjects, and of Xunzi, who famously declaimed that the “greatest of conducts” was “to follow the way (dao) and not the ruler, to follow justice and not the father.”

Today, a revitalized progressive wing of Confucianism is needed more than ever to remind authoritarian Confucians that it would be consistent with their principles to carve out an independent space as advocates of a higher way than just the will of the ruling elite, and as critics of government policy, rather than serve purely as uncritical scholars of the state.

American political commentators of diverse creeds could likewise learn from Confucians about the value of ritual deference in developing less polarizing means for dissent from political authority.

T.H. Jiang is a Beijing University graduate and currently finishing a PhD in political science in the United States.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University, Japan. His book, Confucianism’s Prospects: A Reassessment, has just been published by State University of New York Press.