Confucianism for the Contemporary World: Global Order, Political Plurality, and Social Action

(Song, Bin. Review of Confucianism for the Contemporary World: Global Order, Political Plurality, and Social Action ed. by Tze-ki Ton and Kristin Stapleton, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017. Philosophy East and West, vol. 69 no. 3, 2019.

This edited volume consists of papers reflecting upon the significance of the contemporary revival of Confucianism for aspects of the global order such as capitalism, Asian modernity, liberal democracy, civil society, and mass media consumption. Read as a whole, the volume neither advocates a particular interpretation of Confucian thought, nor claims the efficacy of Confucianism in resolving human predicaments. Instead, it conceptualizes the Confucian revival as primarily an on-going social phenomenon and tries to analyze its broader impacts beyond the framework of the three epochs of Confucian intellectual history (classical Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, and contemporary New Confucianism). While immensely appreciating the objectivity of this volume’s editorship, my review of it in the following will respond to its varying chapters from the perspective of a Ru (Confucian) scholar currently working in the U.S.

Chapter Two “Confucianism, Community and Capitalism: Chen Lai and the Spirit of Max Weber” can stand alone for analysis, because it focuses on a significant and controversial issue concerning the relationship between Confucian ethics, capitalism in East Asia, and Max Weber. Relying upon Weber’s distinction of value rationality versus instrumental rationality regarding the role of the Protestant ethic in the generation of capitalism, Els van Dongen finds it contradictory for New Confucians to advocate Confucianism as both a moral project of correcting inhumane practices and a social project of developing modern capitalist economies in East Asia. However, from my perspective, Confucian thought typically does not dichotomize these two forms of rationality as Weber did. Confucius indeed taught “an exemplary person is dedicated to rightness, while a petty person is dedicated to profits” (Analects 4.16), but he also cared about the economic well-being of the people (Analects 13.9), and the Great Learning also taught that people should “do what is right to generate profits” (yi yi wei li 以義為利), a dictum for later Confucian merchants’ business practices. In other words, humane means for the prosperity of humanity are appreciated as moral instruments, and hence, a Confucian economic ideal would not allow the aforementioned dichotomy to take place. This means that while we consider the instrumental value of the Confucian ethic in developing East Asian capitalism, we should abandon the concept of linear causality. As a matter of fact, while a Confucian ethic helped to transmit the practice of capitalist economics from the West, it also transformed it so as to add special Asian features suitable for Confucian ethical scrutiny (1), just as Confucius once surreptitiously hinted at what he was always doing: creating while transmitting (Analects 7.1). In this way, no contradiction exists as such.

Chapters Three to Seven can be treated as one group of papers addressing the issue of Confucian democracy. We can use a spectrum to indicate the diversity of opinions among scholars who, either authoring chapters or being discussed in them, have advocated a specific Confucian attitude towards Western liberal democracy. The criteria of locating these scholars in the left or right side of the spectrum pertains to how strongly they endorse liberal democracy, and how far-ranging their advocacy of Confucianism is.

While embracing the full range of Confucian thought including at least its metaphysics, ethics and politics, Stephen C. Angle constructs concepts of political philosophy from within the Confucian tradition to respond to related global conversations, and he also advocates major premises of liberal democracy such as general suffrage and the independence of the judicial system, as universal, and hence, being welcomed by Confucianism. Therefore, Angle’s idea of “progressive Confucianism” stands at the far left since he advocates both liberal democracy and Confucianism in a whole-hearted, thick way. An-wu Lin stands a bit further to the right compared to Angle, because while appreciating that institutions of liberal democracy are conducive to the flourishing of civil society, Lin prioritizes the aspect of “outer king” over “inner sage” in Confucian thought (p. 108). In other words, Lin’s emphasis is to draw on Confucian political thought, rather than its ethics or metaphysics, to construct a Civil Confucianism (gongmin Ruxue 公 民 儒 學) in order to sustain the institutional infrastructure of liberal democracy. While critiquing the malfunction of key institutional arrangements of liberal democracy such as “one person one vote,” and trying to construct a theoretical model of a “hybrid regime” that champions both Confucian meritocracy and liberal democracy’s protection of universal human rights, Tongdong Bai advocates Confucianism mainly as a political philosophy built on a thin moral ground (p. 69), and thus, stands rightly in the middle on this spectrum. In comparison, despite not entirely abandoning moral values underlying liberal democracy, Daniel A. Bell’s criticism towards it is directly influenced by his understanding of Confucian political thought and tends to be harsher, and he even wishes to entrust NGOs in China with a task of setting up a Confucianinspired index to rank countries regarding their governmental performances (p. 58). Therefore, we have to put Bell a bit further to the right. The far right place in the spectrum is surely occupied by Jiang Qing, whose rejection of liberal democracy is based upon his idiosyncratic interpretation of the whole range of Confucian thought pertaining to metaphysics (Jiang Qing’s Confucian metaphysics mainly draws on Han Confucianism, and thus, inclines toward being theological), ethics, and politics.

While being amazed by the striking diversity of scholarly views on Confucian democracy (2), I entertain a theoretical and normative stance similar to Angle’s in the indicated spectrum. Nevertheless, the diversity of scholarship on this point deserves an explanation. Here is my understanding of it: firstly, Confucian thought is historically long enough and thematically extensive enough to furnish sources for scholars’ varying interpretations. Secondly, and more importantly, throughout liberal democracies in the contemporary world, the social impact of Confucianism is either mainly historical (such as in East Asia), or barely visible (such as in the North-Atlantic Western world). (3) Such a vacuum in social reality makes scholars’ visions of Confucian democracy largely untestable hypotheses. If there is no substantial social growth of Confucianism in liberal democracies in the future, we can expect that scholars’ discussions of Confucian democracy will still be conducted mainly in a philosophical mode, and their views will continue to be diversified.

Another group of papers, Chapters Nine and Ten, should be of particular interest to English-language readers, since they focus on another influential contemporary New Confucian philosopher, Tang Junyi, who has been less wellknown in English-language scholarship. For Tang, the Confucian ideal of selfcultivation, sagehood, is realizable only in ephemeral moments of ecastatic experience. Sagehood “is neither a permanent state of mind nor an individual’s way of life, nor can it be realized by whole collectivities of human agents, such as congregations, nations, and classes.” (p. 140) Therefore, no stage of history can claim an ultimate norm to command humans’ striving; instead, sagehood should be treated as a moral ideal to empower humans to constantly heed, critique and transform inhuman practices in varying societies. I find that Tang Junyi’s understanding of moral ideal and his philosophy of history bear a striking resemblance with one of the most influential Christian theologians in the 20st century, Paul Tillich, who also powerfully condemns totalitarianism, authoritarianism and historical utopianism. However, I have not yet found evidence to prove Tang’s ideas derive from his reading of Tillich. If this is not the case, scholars should marvel at the fact that two contemporary thinkers from two different traditions have constructed a similar philosophy of history in an independent way!

Overall, my appreciation of this carefully edited volume derives mainly from the objectivity of its editorship, its diverse voices, and the way it emphasizes the social implications of Confucianism in the contemporary world. For scholars with practical concerns who wonder at the prospect of Confucianism in modern societies, the volume is a must read.


  1. I argued this was the case of Japanese capitalism as it was exemplified by the business practice of Shibusawa Eicchi’s in Bin Song, “Confucianism, Gapponshugi and the Spirit of Japanese Capitalism,” Confucian Academy (Chinese-English bilingual) 2018 (04): 79-89.
  2. I described the diversity of scholarly views on Confucian democracy in another review I recently wrote for a book with a similar topic. Please see Roger T. Ames and Peter D. Hershock ed., Confucianism for a Changing World Cultural Order, Honululu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017, reviewed by Bin Song at “Reading Religion: A Publication of the American Academy of Religion,”
  3. Using a survey, Chapter 12 in the volume indicates the failure of Chinese government’s overseas efforts to promote Confucianism and Chinese culture in the U.S., and thus, verifies to a certain extent my observation here.