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The best known of the North American New Confucians is Tu Wei-ming, a professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard and the director of the prestigious Harvard-Yenching Institute. The mainland-born, Taiwan-educated Tu has made it his mission to re-Confucianize East Asia and to promulgate Confucianism as a universal religion perfectly suited to Asian modernity. Tu works in the tradition of Zhu Xi, a twelfth-century ru scholar who was heavily influenced by Buddhism. Zhu developed Kongzi's teachings into a full-blown metaphysical system based on the cultivation of harmony between oneself and the cosmos. This system was much more like a religion than the earlier Confucian tradition had been, and it became imperial orthodoxy and later spread to Korea and Japan. "Confucianism so conceived is a way of life which demands an existential commitment on the part of Confucians no less intensive and comprehensive than that demanded of the followers of other spiritual traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism," Tu wrote in 1976.
Tu's campaign has made some inroads. During the 1980s Lee Kuan Yew, then Singapore's Prime Minister, invited Tu and others to help set up a high school curriculum that included Confucian principles (the project fizzled amid vigorous protests from Singapore's non-Chinese population). And post-Mao China has begun to reappropriate Confucius, hosting symposia in Beijing every five years to celebrate his birth. In the main, however, the university-based New Confucians -- a new ru class, so to speak -- are theologians without a flock. Even on Taiwan, where religious observance is prevalent and where a man who claims to be Confucius' seventy-eighth lineal descendant lives, few residents identify their spiritual beliefs with the teachings of Master Kong. "Confucian values are very pervasive among the Chinese, but they're so diffuse that people don't recognize them as Confucian," Hoyt Tillman, a professor of Chinese cultural history at Arizona State University, explains. "They just say, 'That's the way we Chinese do it.'"
The upstart theories of the Brookses and Jensen only make the New Confucians' re-Confucianizing project more problematic -- for reasons that go beyond what they say about Confucius himself. The Brookses argue that the ru tradition, and even Chinese literary civilization, are not nearly so ancient and time-honored as is often maintained. And Jensen contends that New Confucianism is itself a largely Western product. At the turn of the century, he says, two Chinese intellectuals who were widely read in Western ideas grafted some of them onto the Chinese image of Kongzi and his legacy. Zhang Binglin used the cultural-evolutionary theories of Weber and Herbert Spencer to recast Kongzi as a secular quasi-modern, China's first rationalizer of a superstitious indigenous tradition; Hu Shi, who had converted briefly to Christianity, interpreted him as a revolutionary like Jesus who had taken a stand against hidebound religious authority. Jensen believes that the New Confucians are following Zhang and Hu's lead in viewing the ru tradition through the lenses of Western progressivism.
As might be expected, such views are vastly irritating to the New Confucians and other admirers of Chinese tradition. "I think that Lionel Jensen wants to be a little outrageous," says Tu, who was among Jensen's teachers. Wm. Theodore de Bary, a Sinologist at Columbia University who has written prolifically and sympathetically on Zhu Xi and his followers, says, "Confucianism is based on the study of Confucian texts, and the historical development of Confucianism doesn't depend on the theories of the Jesuits or other Western writers. That mistake was precisely what I wanted to avoid when I started studying the texts, back in the 1940s. So I started reading what the Chinese -- not Westerners -- said about Confucianism."
If it turns out that Confucius never existed, or that the Analects was composed over several centuries, the faith of many New Confucians is likely to be rattled a bit but not destroyed. As they like to remind their listeners, most of them have invested not in a long-dead historical figure but in a tradition that is still alive, and in a haunting body of literature that remains susceptible of holistic reading and continues to reveal, whatever the identities and intentions of its authors, a vivid portrait of an arresting man. "It's like Christianity -- Christianity isn't monolithic, and it has changed over the centuries to accommodate changes in society," Robert Neville, the dean of Boston University's school of theology, says. As Neville, a United Methodist minister and a Confucian who meets regularly with Tu and other academics in a group called the Boston Confucians, puts it, "The authority doesn't rest with the person but with the teaching."
Still, among younger Chinese-born scholars who have no ideological stake in Confucianism as a counterweight to Maoism, efforts like those of Jensen and the Brookses to place the reputed sage in the historical context of the culture that produced him come as a relief. "There's a myth about Chinese culture -- that it's different from Western culture in its static nature and durability," says Aihe Wang, an assistant professor of ancient Chinese history at Purdue University. "It's a kind of Orientalist myth. Anything that contributes to demythifying this point of view is very healthy."
Charlotte Allen, a contributing editor of Lingua Franca, is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (1998).
Illustration by Joan Hall
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Confucius and the Scholars; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 78 - 83.