Philosophy and Confucian Tradition

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Chen Lai
  • Houston, TX: 
    Bridge21 Publications, LLC
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Confucianism is making a grand comeback after having spent most of the 20th century under attack and derided as a relic of China’s imperial past and a hindrance to modernization. Prompted by the “Culture Fever” movement of the late 1980s and the emerging popularity of “Confucian” capitalism in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, China is beginning to embrace Confucius again. This movement, which has been dubbed “Mainland New Confucianism,” promotes multiple political, social, and philosophical points of view, from the political constitutionalism of Jiang Qing to the populist writings of Yu Dan.

Chen Lai, the author of Philosophy and Confucian Tradition, is regarded as one of the academic leaders of the Mainland New Confucianism movement. As a professor of Philosophy at Tsinghua University, where he also serves as the dean of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Chen is a well-respected public intellectual. In 2015, he was handpicked by Xi Jinping to lead a group study session for members of the Central Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Philosophy and Confucian Tradition is a collection of essays that offers readers a glimpse into Chen’s vast body of scholarship on the history of Confucian philosophy and serves as an introduction to his stance on its contemporary resurgence and potential impact on the future of Chinese society and culture.

Lai’s work contains thirteen essays, the majority of which focus on specific aspects of the work of Confucian thinkers throughout Chinese history. The book includes three essays on Classical Confucianism in the Warring States period (475–221 BC), three essays on early modern Neo-Confucian scholars such as Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, and Wang Fuzhi, and four essays on late 19th and early 20th century philosophers such as Xiong Shili, Ma Yifu, Liang Shuming, and Feng Youlan. While Chen’s clear style and keen observations render these case studies accessible to most readers, they will be of special interest to sinologists and scholars of comparative philosophy. Non-specialists, on the other hand, may want to focus their attention on the three chapters profiled below.

Chapter 1, “Review and Forecast of Modern Chinese Ideologies,” outlines Chen’s vision for Confucianism in the 21st century. Throughout most of the 20th century, Chinese traditional culture and values were depicted as impediments to modernity, first during the May Fourth and New Culture movements and later during the Cultural Revolution. The death of Mao Zedong and the Reforms and Opening Up of the 1980s signaled a change in attitude that resulted in a renewed interest in traditional culture and thought, particularly Confucianism. Chen supports this resurgence. He argues that, while Confucianism may “never be the ruling or hegemonic ideology in Modern China” (22), it can nevertheless serve a valuable role in the country’s modernization as “spiritual guide” for the Chinese people and a moral ideology that is complementary to the contemporary political and social systems of a China as a multicultural state and a member of a global community (16).

Chen makes a similar claim in Chapter 2, “Confucius and Contemporary China,” in which he argues against pessimistic evaluations made by Western sinologists regarding Confucianism’s chances of survival in the modern age. Drawing on Hegel and Leo Strauss’ philosophy of history, as well as Edward Shils’ theory of tradition, Chen promotes an optimistic view of Confucianism, claiming it can serve as a “substantive tradition” and a valuable resource for navigating China’s current reformation of its economy (27).

As a member of the academic branch of Mainland New Confucianism, Chen emphasizes the need to reintegrate Confucianism into the humanities and social sciences curriculums of the Chinese educational system. In Chapter 7, “Challenges of Chinese Philosophy at the Turn of the Century,” Chen gives an ardent defense of the inherent value of studying Chinese philosophy. In the early twentieth century, scholars such as Hu Shi and Feng Youlan, who were motivated by a desire to depict China as a modern nation, tried to demonstrate to their Western peers that China also had a valid philosophical tradition of reason and rationality. Despite shifts in the global balance of power, this project is far from over, as non-Western philosophers continue their efforts to develop a more inclusive concept of “philosophy” that promotes cross-cultural dialogue (123). Echoing some of the themes raised by Brian Van Norden in Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), Chen’s work offers a complementary perspective from a Chinese philosopher vying to show the enduring relevance of his own tradition in a globalized world.

Until recently, Chen’s body of scholarship has not received much exposure outside of sinological circles. Philosophy and Confucian Tradition adds to previous translations of Chen’s work, such as Edmund Ryden’s Tradition and Modernity: A Humanist View and Wang Xiaohua’s Confucius and the Modern World. Wang Qiuhai’s translation provides English-language readers with a more comprehensive access to the work of a scholar who has published over thirty monographs, and the majority of the essays contained within this book are accessible even for non-specialist readers. This accessibility may be hindered by questionable translational decisions, however. While the book follows the common custom of referring to figures such as Confucius and Mencius by their Latinized names (instead of Kongzi and Mengzi), it refers to the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi as “Zhuzi” (Master Zhu), which may confuse some readers. In addition, the translator has decided not to use the standard English translations of several key philosophical terms. For example, they render li (禮) as “rite” instead of “ritual” and tianming (天命) as “destiny” instead of the more commonly used “Heaven’s Mandate.” Finally, while the publisher’s mission to introduce the work of leading East Asian scholars to a Western audience is commendable, the high price of this volume has the potential to keep it out of the reach of many potential readers. These issues aside, Philosophy and Confucian Tradition is an insightful and erudite work by one of China’s leading public intellectuals and offers an important contribution to our understanding of Confucianism and Chinese philosophy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ori Tavor is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chen Lai is Professor and Dean of the Institute of Chinese Culture at Tsinghua University.



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