The Trouble with Confucianism
At the time of the Cultural Revolution in China, Confucius was so shadowy a figure in most people's minds that the Gang of Four had to first resurrect him before he could be pilloried and crucified. Since that time, he has continued to haunt the scene. But despite this rejuvenated attention, his status is still unclear. In Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and other parts of East and Southeast Asia, as well as China, people are asking, "What does Confucianism have to offer today?" For some, Confucius is still the symbol of a reactionary and repressive past. For others, he is the humanist admired by generations of scholars and thinkers, East and West. Much depends on whose Confucianism one is considering, its time and place. In the face of such complications, only a scholar of Theodore de Bary's stature could venture broad answers to the question of the significance of Confucianism in today's world. De Bary explains the puzzling role and ambiguous character of Confucianism as a liberal humanist teaching that is often appropriated to serve conservative regimes. He discusses the tension between the ideal of the noble man in Confucius and Mencius and the figure of the exemplary sage-king turned authoritarian in the imperial dynasties. On the basis of evidence from both early Confucian teachings and historical developments, de Bary questions the Weberian characterization of Confucianism as a philosophy of acceptance and accommodation, lacking a critical voice or capability for self-transformation. Instead, he sees Confucianism as involving a prophetic voice, identified with the noble man as spokesman for the people's welfare but assigning no responsibility to the people for acting on theirown behalf. Institutionally this view became embodied in a two-class structure, a bureaucratic ruling class governing people with no power or responsibility themselves, and later in a one-party state, dominated by a Communist elite. Confucian thinkers in the past were not unaware of the problems, and we can all benefit from learning more about their troubled experience with Confucius' noble ideals.
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