Feminist Encounters with Confucius

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Mathew A. Foust, Sor-hoon Tan
Modern Chinese Philosophy, Volume 12
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , August
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Feminist Encounters with Confucius is the witness to and the cumulation of recent scholarly engagement between feminism and Confucianism. Some of the earliest efforts were unequivocally critical, such as He-Yin Zhen’s “On Women’s Liberation” and “On the Revenge of Women,” declarations against patriarchal Confucian society published in 1907–1908. But in recent years, scholars such as Margery Wolf, Lisa Raphals, Dorothy Ko, and Chenyang Li have been arguing that Confucian ethics is in fact compatible with feminism, for instance, feminist care ethics. This compatibility is affirmed in the eloquent introductory chapter and vindicated in the rest of the book.

However, what makes this volume truly exciting is the next step it takes, from compatibility to mutual enrichment. As Mathew Foust and Sor-hoon Tan, the visionary editors of the volume, put it, this book shows “more than the prospects for Confucianism and feminism to ‘come to terms with each other.’” It suggests “how these traditions can respond to each other,” even “fortify one another when joined and deployed to address contemporary philosophical problems” (11). By engaging with key issues in feminist philosophy such as standpoint theory and theories of relationality, and by pressing contemporary subjects such as bioethics, domestic violence, and ecological crisis, the authors of the volume have opened up a new discursive space for dialogue and productive research.

The nine chapters in this volume are divided in three parts emphasizing, respectively, the experiential, the epistemological, and the ethical. Part 1, “Confucius’ Teachings in East Asian Women’s Practice and Learning,” focuses on the legacy of Confucian tradition in the realm of women’s lives. Ann Pang-White’s nuanced essay proposes to “re-read, re-appropriate, and re-imagine” the Confucian canonical texts Four Books for Women. In an engaging discussion of Confucian theory and practice of mothering, Ranjoo Seodu reflects on exemplary Chinese and Korean Confucian mothers from the past, and also on today’s “tiger mothering” and educational reform. Through an intersectional approach to the issue of Confucian sexism, George Wrisley and Samantha Wrisley offer a refreshing account of gender oppression that might be considerably alleviated through a “more egalitarian understanding of roles and deference” in Confucian ethics (93).

Part 2, “The Situated Self: Knowing and Being,” addresses epistemological encounters between Confucianism and feminism. In an examination of “Confucian reliability and epistemic agency,” Karyn Lai argues persuasively that the Confucian conception of knowledge, with its emphasis on epistemic context, shares feminist insights about situated knowledge in communities of practice. Protecting the feminist standpoint theory against objections such as relativism, Kevin DeLapp gives us Confucian role epistemology as a valuable resource. Andrew Komansinski and Stephanie Midori Komashin suggest that the notion of relational selfhood is shared by both Confucianism and feminist philosophy against the modern notion of selfhood, and they offer a nuanced account of debates within these kindred philosophical communities.

Part 3, “Feminist Confucian Ethics: Its Relevance in the 21st Century,” confronts some of the most significant ethical challenges of our time. Andrew Lambert reassesses the connection between Confucian ethics and feminist care ethics, concluding that Confucian ethics should be treated as a type of relational ethics; but care ethics should not. It’s an “amicable split,” however, in the end “enriching both approaches” (195). Sarah Mattice tackles the feminist issues associated with domestic violence, same-sex marriage, and Christian family values through an innovative and cogent engagement with Confucian role ethics. Taine Duncan and Nicholas Brasovan use ecofeminist critique to reevaluate Confucian cosmology. In the process they unveil the gendered, hierarchical nature of Confucian cosmology. But at the same time they enrich ecofeminism with a Confucian metaphysics of “the reciprocity of nature and persons” (233).

The significance of this brilliant volume lies not only in the seriousness and depth of its contributions, but also in the diversity of the authors’ approaches. This volume is exemplary, and one hopes for similar endeavors in the future. In the meantime, anyone interested either in feminism or in Confucianism will benefit from many perusals of these rewarding essays.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anna Sun is associate professor of religious studies and sociology at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mathew A. Foust teaches philosophy and East Asian studies at Central Connecticut State University. He is author of Loyalty to Loyalty: Josiah Royce and the Genuine Moral Life and several articles on Asian and comparative philosophy.

Sor-hoon Tan teaches philosophy at the National University of Singapore. She is editor of Challenging Citizenship and the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy Methodologies, author of Confucian Democracy and several articles on comparative moral and political philosophy.


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