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A Neo-Confucian Blog


A Neo-Confucian Blog

Once again I open a blog with a reference to an item on The NYTimes editorial page--this one on yesterday’s, for July 11th. The Times is the first thing I read every morning early, beginning with the front page headlines and going on to the editorials. (My other regular readings are in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly--plus, of course, several online news services that I have bookmarked.) This time the editorial didn’t evoke anger, only an initial sense of hopefulness that dissipated as I read on. It’s by a certain Jiang Qing (no, not Mao’s wife--different characters, surely) who is “founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang” --named, it must be, after the great Song-period philosopher Wang Yangming. Listed as co-author but apparently more editor is Daniel A. Bell, an Australian scholar who is himself author of a book on Neo-Confucianism. The editorial begins by stating that what China needs isn’t so much democracy as a government of Neo-Confucian “humane authority.” I immediately expanded that second word in my mind: he probably means humane authoritarianism, style of Singapore? And sure enough--hopes raised, only to be heavily dropped soon after.

As I have related on several occasions, I used to reply, when asked about my religion or philosophical leanings, that I was a Neo-Confucianist. And it’s true that that body of philosophy had a great appeal for me in my early career. I used it to counter the excessive claims that the Ch’an/Zen people were making in the 1940s-50s to most everything that was attractive in East Asian culture--spontaneity, humor, inner peace, transcendence of the worldly. I wrote, for a 1958 conference on Neo-Confucianism, one of that great series organized by John Fairbank and others, a paper on “Confucian Elements In the Theory of Painting.” And I traveled for weekend seminars in colleges and universities as one of Wm. Theodore  (Ted) de Bary’s team of experts to help persuade university administrators to start up China programs with Ford Foundation funding--seminars in which Neo-Confucianism was presented and promoted.

As a U.C. Berkeley professor I enjoyed for some years the friendship of a major Confucianist, Weiming Tu, who was in our History Department from 1971 until he moved on to Harvard in 1981--forced out, so we understood, when he divorced his wife and she chose to stay in Berkeley, obliging him to move elsewhere. (Fig. 1, a photo of Weiming Tu.) He is now some kind of dean at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, not one of my favorite places. I liked Weiming as a person while leaning in an opposite direction on those issues for which he seemed to me a counter-foil for Joe Levenson--Levenson constructing historical and intellectual situations in terms of tensions and contending forces, Weiming searching for grand harmonies and unities. Weiming was called to Singapore to advise that government on their adoption of a Neo-Confucian political stance. (In my video-lectures I point out that the great Neo-Confucian intellectuals of the late Northern Song would be Tea-Party types today, with their bitter opposition to the political reforms advocated by Wang Anshi and others.) But I benefited a lot from his scholarship. Weiming involved me, for instance, in a conference organized in 1981 by Peter Gregory on “Sudden and Gradual Approaches to Enlightenment”--my article for that, exploring implications of Dong Qichang’s “Northern and Southern Schools” theory, was printed in the Sudden and Gradual volume that Peter Gregory edited, published in 1988. (It was also at that conference that, in response to a limerick contest announced by Gregory, I composed the “Sudden and Gradual Limericks” that are the first items in the Ching Yuan Chai Treasury of Imperishable Ephemera, accessible on this website under Writings of JC. I won the contest, if only by composing more than anyone else. I still like the one about Ikkyû.) Fig. 2: Participants in Sudden and Gradual Conference.

Back to Jiang Qing’s editorial: I read on with interest--almost anything would be an improvement over the present regime in China--until I came to his plan for a government of “humane authority.” It would have a “tricameral legislature”--not, like ours, an attempt at balance between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but a House of Exemplary Persons, a House of the Nation, and a House of the People. Exemplary Persons would be made up of “great scholars” who would be “examined on their knowledge of the Confucian classics”--we are back, that is, to the old examination system of dynastic times. The “leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius,” and it would be made up of “descendants of great sages and rulers.” Only the House of the People would be elected.

 Augh--would this really be an improvement over the present Chinese government? Even if a Singapore-like attempt to implement it were made, it wouldn’t last long--nor should it, in my view. It would pull back into 21st century China too much of the worst of their past. I have often asked rhetorically, thinking of the relative peace and prosperity of China under the Manchus, or of Hong Kong under the British: How long has it been since China produced a native government that any sensible person would want to live under? Some time in the Ming? Is there some ingrained set of qualities in the Han Chinese that works against their ability to govern themselves effectively and humanely? I hope the answer is no, and that I will have the satisfaction of observing such a government take shape while I’m here to watch it.


Finally, a word about making “a lineal descendant of Confucius” into a leading legislator. I used to know one of them--K’ung Te-ch’eng, 77th generation lineal descendant of Confucius, living in Taiwan and Director of the National Palace Museum when I carried out the great photographing project there in the early 1960s. (See Fig. 3, a group photograph--I am  second from left, K’ung at far right. For an account of that project, see CLP 117 on this website.)  But it was George Yeh, whom I had come to know while he was Chinese Ambassador in Washington D.C., who really facilitated that project.  I saw K’ung only when he and George gave one of their frequent banquets, in Taipei and later in Taichung, for our photographer Ray Schwartz and myself. Both K’ung and Yeh were great gourmets--or is it gourmands--making up the banquet as they went along, sending messages to the chef, sending dishes back to be recooked or supplemented--the banquets would go on for hours, and leave us uncomfortably stuffed. K’ung, I remember, brought a string instrument, the erh-hu? and played on it while he sang, or performed--I suppose it was k’un-ch’ü, or kunqu--whatever it was, it went on for very long stretches of time, and was not pleasant to the foreigner’s  ears. So I remember him as a good banquet host, but not as someone I would like to see heading one of the branches of a government I live under.

China lost its best chance in recent history at a more liberal and enlightened government back when Zhao Ziyang lost out to the awful Li Peng and the party elders in the Tiananmen confrontation of 1989--I am now working on a video-lecture in which I allude to that tragic and far-reaching turn of events. The lecture is on “The Birth of the Goddess of Democracy,” which I take to be the greatest interaction of history and artistic creation accomplished in our time. So I end this blog and return to my work on that lecture, which eventually, I hope, you will all be able to view on this and the IEAS’s websites.

James Cahill, July 11th.

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