Confucianism and Modern Society

Workshop Report
Confucianism and Modern Society

Leiden, The Netherlands
28-29 May 2009
Convened by: Prof. HO Hsin-chuan & Prof. Axel Schneider

In the contemporary Chinese-speaking world, the relationship between Confucianism and modern society is one of the most significant unresolved issues. During the period of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Confucianism was blamed by new intellectuals for impeding China’s modernization. “ Down with Confucius and Sons !” and “ Throw the stitched volumes into the toilet for thirty years !” were prevalent popular slogans at the time. The anti-Confucianism campaign continued after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and reached its climax during the Cultural Revolution.

But is there now an irreversible hiatus between Confucianism and modern society? About ninety years ago, Liang Shou-ming, one of the most important modern Chinese philosophers, pointed out that Chinese culture is not bad, but just premature and unsuited to the times. In recent years, following the rise of the “Four Mini-Dragons” (Four Asian Tigers): Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore and of China, Liang’s question is once again under discussion. Many scholars wonder if the change in historical situation in modern China has also changed the fate of Confucianism? It is a highly complex and controversial issue, but now is the moment for us to rethink the question: Is Confucianism suited to the times?

The workshop focused on related themes regarding the relationship between Confucianism and modern society. In particular, whether the most important achievements in modern society are incompatible with Confucianism? If the answer is “yes”, this is a catalyst for further, in-depth, discussions; and if the answer is “no”, it raises the question: are there any resources in Confucianism which could be driving forces for China’s modernization? Perhaps Confucianism has not been forgotten in the contemporary world, but we are eager to ask: is Confucianism today something only to be found in the museums, or could it be a phoenix reborn from the ashes in modern society?

In this context, the debate on the compatibility of Confucianism and modernization has gone beyond early, primarily economic, concerns and focuses now more on issues of politics and ethics. Can a Confucian vision of heavenly and human nature be reconciled with a modern post-Enlightenment understanding of human nature and particularly of ethics? What can the Confucian view of history, of human existence in time, contribute to our understanding of global modernization processes in the 21 st century? Will it undermine positions of ethical and, by implication, political pluralism or rather reinforce them? What is the potential connection between Confucianism and Western intellectual trends critical of liberal modernity such as communitarianism? Is there any resource in Confucianism that could be a driving force for China’s modernization?

During this workshop we engaged these complicated and controversial questions from philosophical, political, sociological and historical perspectives, always with an eye on contemporary debates in East Asia on the relationship between Confucianism and modern society.

Last Modified: 19-03-2010