The modern rebirth of Confucianism from the spirit of Kantianism

The prospect of a living Confucianism adequate to modern Chinese conditions and experiences was a persistent question for Zhang. Zhang was skeptical of discourses of the comparative superiority of Eastern and Western civilizations in his article “The Crisis of European Culture and the Tendency of New Culture in China” (1922).35 Echoing the articulation of autonomy in Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Zhang argued for the emancipation of the self from false restraints. Individual and collective effort and action are decisive for reshaping the present in China. However, he recognized that contemporary Western civilization is itself deeply shaped by intensifying crises that it is unable to manage or resolve, and thus cannot resolve on behalf of China. There are three contributing factors to the contemporary crisis of the West: (1) a philosophical crisis of reason that has been truncated by positivism and undermined by growing irrationalism, (2) a social structural crisis of capitalist society that demands greater democracy and social-political equality, and (3) the lingering effects of the human catastrophe of the First World War.

Zhang criticized in this article the work of Liang Shuming (1893—

1988) Eastern and Western Cultures and their Philosophies (Dongxi wenhua ji qi zhexue This work developed the idea that there are three

cultures identified with the West, India, and China. It naively defended in Zhang’s assessment the superiority of Confucian China, contending that the declining West required spiritual salvation from the East, without adequate recognition of the East’s present precarious historical situation and the corruption endemic in Chinese social life. Zhang argued further that Liang, despite his resistance to the West, has already conflated and can no longer adequately distinguish traditional Chinese and modern Western ideas. Liang interpreted Eucken’s and the Confucian idea of life as both signifying “spiritual life” in the same way. Zhang remarked that although they are the same expression in Chinese (jingshen shenghuo), they have different connotations. Eucken’s conception of life is religious, transcendent, and universal in scope. It is Christian and presupposes the assumptions developed in the course of the history of Western philosophy. The Confucian idea of life is primarily ethical, immanent and this-worldly, and belongs to concrete everyday existence.

In 1922, Zhang, a pioneer of the new Confucian movement as discussed later in this chapter, rejected the “old” Confucian idea that traditional Confucian philosophy and practice are sufficient for contemporary Chinese ethical and spiritual life. It was questionable for him how traditional Confucianism could save China from its plight much less save the West as Liang contended. Zhang would develop in subsequent years a modernized form of Confucian philosophy that integrated elements of Western and Eastern thought and practice for the sake of a transformation of Chinese conditions.

The differences between Chinese and European conditions have led scholars to stress the incommensurability between the Western Enlightenment and the impossibility of a corresponding Chinese Enlightenment. Vera Schwarcz and Wei Zhang have discussed how the European Enlightenment was primarily a cultural and philosophical project and the Chinese May Fourth Movement of 1919 a political event.36 This movement, and the intellectuals associated with it, could not break with or overcome local Chinese social-political conditions. The May Fourth Movement’s cultural iconoclasm, modernistic nationalism, and reform-minded anti-traditionalism mirrored while being incapable of forming the conditions of cultural-political Enlightenment under Chinese conditions.

Zhang’s New Confucianism is a response to the impasses of Chinese modernity. He articulates a modern Confucian philosophy that has learnt from and is open to learning and adopting from Western modernity, in particular from Kantian philosophy and liberal-constitutional and social democratic political thought, in the formation of a distinctive Chinese modernity achieved through a form of enlightenment suited to its own conditions and needs.

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