Chinese Philosophy: Contemporary

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The People's Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong (18931976). This date marks an important watershed in the development of Chinese philosophy. Since 1949 the official ideology of the communist regime on mainland China has without question been Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, while other thoughts were ruthlessly suppressedespecially during the period of Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1977. The nationalist regime had been driven to the island of Taiwan, which in the early twenty-first century still carries the banner of the Republic of China (ROC, 1912). The official ideology of the Republic of China was the Three People's Principles, formulated by Sun Yat-sen (18661925).

Yet apart from anticommunist and political struggles, other thoughts were more or less tolerated. In Hong Konga British colony not taken back by China until 1997freedom of speech was protected. Furthermore, refugee scholars were allowed to develop and express their thoughts in borrowed space and time. Additionally, there was the Chinese diaspora overseas. Among the various elements in the development of Chinese philosophy, there are several mainstreams of thought that can be discerned. This entry will examine Maoism, Western liberalism, and contemporary neo-Confucianism.


The success of Maoism has been credited to Mao Zedong's talent to adapt Marxism-Leninism to the Chinese soil. Mao contributed two articles"On Contradiction" and "On Practice"to expound the philosophy of dialectical materialism. He believed he had succeeded the orthodox line of Marxism-Leninism after the death of Stalin, and as such battled against Western imperialism on the one hand and soviet revisionism on the other. According to Feng Youlan (Fung Yu-lan), Mao's thought went through three stages (Feng 1992).

In the first stage Mao advocated new democracy; in the second, he promoted socialism; and in the last stage he was obsessed with extreme leftist thought. The first stage was represented by Mao's essay "On New Democracy," published in 1940 (Mao 1967). According to his diagnosis at that time, China was not ready for a socialist revolution and had to go through a transitory stage of new democracy. This new democracy was led by the proletariat, the workers and farmers, in conjunction with the petite bourgeoisie. Together they formed a united front, and even the national capitalists were allowed to play a part. This united front joined forces to deal with the problems of a semicolonial, semifeudal society.

When the PRC was established in 1949, the government policy followed such a guideline. But the stage abruptly ended in 1954 when the constitution was drafted. Mao's thought entered the second stage, composed of big change: The goal for the next five years was to accomplish a socialist revolution. Thus the nature of the revolution determined what should be done at any particular stage in the revolution, regardless of actual societal conditions. The telos was a kind of utopian socialism, which surfaced after Mao took control to become the great helmsman of the new China.

In the final stage of his thought, Mao went against the bureaucracy and his own party organization and initiated the disastrous Cultural Revolution, putting his authority behind the Gang of Four. His intention was to do away with private property and to establish communes, which he believed would allow poor people to eat without pay. The release of the destructive powers of the Red Guards caused damages unprecedented in Chinese history.

Mao died in 1976, and in 1977 the Gang of Four was removed by Deng Xiaoping (19041997), who adopted an open policy to bring about the revival of China. Since then, capitalism has been seen as a necessary stage for China to go through before the socialist revolution can be implemented. As the doors of China opened to the outside world, many intellectuals were attracted by thought other than Marxism. One editorial in the People's Daily News in the 1980s said that Marx's ideas were the product of the nineteenth century, that they did not provide all the answers, and hence it was desirable to further develop Marxism. Revisionism, therefore, seems to no longer be a crime, and a prevalent view shared by both mainland China and overseas scholars in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is that a healthy interaction between Marxism, Western liberalism, and Confucianism may find a direction for the future of China.

Western Liberalism

Western liberalism was imported to China near the end of Qing dynasty (16441912), but somehow it failed to adapt well to the Chinese soil. The most famous liberalin the early Republic of China era was Hu Shih (18911962), a disciple of John Dewey, who during the New Culture Movement (c. 1919) promoted the ideals of democracy and science vigorously, urging for wholesale westernization or modernization without reservation (Chow 1960). Yet his approach by gradual reform quickly lost its appeal and radicalism became the vogue. After the communists took over mainland China in 1949, Hu left for the United States, then in 1958 went to Taiwan to serve as the head of Academia Sinica, where he remained until his untimely death in 1962. In his later years he disengaged from political activities and avoided making severe criticisms of the nationalist government underthe leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (18871975). Instead, he put an emphasis on tolerance.

Among the liberals in Taiwan, one individualwho stood out was Yin Haiguang (Yin Hai-kwong, 19191969), honored as a spokesman for the democratic movement in Taiwan under the authoritarian rule by the nationalist regime. In 1966 the government (the ministry of education) prevented Yin from teaching his classes at Taiwan University. He would be diagnosed with cancer in 1967 and die two years later.

A follower of logical positivism, Yin was not a deep thinker. His mentors included Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, Karl Popper, and F. A. Hayek. For Yin, only formal and empirical sciences are cognitively meaningful, yet he was willing to risk his life to fight for the implementation of democratic ideals. In his later years he returned to tradition and lauded Mencius's affirmation of moral courage to defend what is right under adverse environment (Yin 1966). Because he dared to stand up against the mighty powers of an authoritarian regime, eventually Yin was viewed as a martyr and gained respect because he was able to fulfill the duties of an intellectual as he saw it. At the turn of the twenty-first century certain aspects of Western liberalism have held a great attraction for some liberal-minded intellectuals on mainland China since it opened its doors to the outside world.

Both in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the influx of various trends of Western thought has not ceased. In recent years, these trends poured into mainland China with great speed. Although a majority of Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century criticized Confucianism, that tradition never died. In fact, the most creative talents were found in the contemporary New Confucian movement, which sought to bring about a synthesis between East and West (Bresciani 2001). Despite the prediction of Joseph Levenson in the late 1960s that Confucianism would become something dead that could only be found in museums (Levenson 1968), it appears to be thriving at the present time like a phoenix reborn from the ashes.

Contemporary Neo-Confucianism

Confucianism may mean different things to different people, but it is possible to adopt the following threefold division (Liu 1998): (1) spiritual Confucianism, the tradition of the great Confucian thinkers; (2) politicized Confucianism, the tradition of Han Confucianism that served as the official ideology of the dynasties; and (3) popular (or vulgar) Confucianism, belief at the grassroots level that emphasizes family values, diligence, and educationand note that Confucianism in this last stage cannot be separated from beliefs in popular Daoism and Buddhism or various kinds of superstitions. The three forms of Confucianism must be kept distinct on the conceptual level, however, although in reality they are intricately related. Indeed, institutional Confucianism died when the last dynasty was overthrown in 1912, but the other forms of Confucianism survive. For example, some sociologists, such as Peter Berger, believe that vulgar Confucianism has contributed a great deal to the economic miracles accomplished since the 1970s by Japan and the so-called Four Mini-dragons: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea (Berger and Hsiao 1988). Politicized Confucianism has also attracted a large number of admirers. The cover of the June 14, 1993, issue of Time magazine was a portrait of Confucius; the issue reported that Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, was of the opinion that the kind of soft authoritarianism practiced in Singapore posed a greater challenge to Western liberalism than did Islam.

Spiritual Confucianism is a vigorous movement of thought. In 1986, mainland China designated Contemporary New Confucianism as a national research program for a period of ten years (Fang 1997). At first its scope was not clearly defined; it included scholars with various backgrounds, such as scholar-thinker Liang Shuming (Liang Sou-ming, 18931988), scholar-statesman Zhang Junmai (Carsun Chang, 18871969), historian Qian Mu (Ch'ien Mu, 18951990), and intellectual historian and political commentator Xu Fuguan (Hsü Fu-kuan, 19031982). After broad consultations and extensivediscussions under the guidance of Fang Ke-li and Li Jingquan, the directors of the program, ten case studies were completed.

In addition to the above-named scholars, the program also included six philosophers: Xiong Shili (Hsiung Shih-li, 18851968), Feng Youlan (18951990), He Lin (Ho Lin, 19021992), Fang Dongmei (Thomé H. Fang, 18991977), Tang Junyi (T'ang Chün-i, 19091978), and Mou Zongsan (Mou Tsung-san, 19091995). Later, four younger scholars were included: Yu Yingshi (Yü Ying-shih, 1930), Liu Shuxian (Liu Shu-hsien, 1934), Cheng Zhongying (Cheng Chung-ying, 1935), and Du Weiming (Tu Wei-ming, 1940). The addition of Ma Yifu (18831967), a noted scholar in classics studies from the older generation, was also added. Eventually, fifteen names were chosen, and these fifteen may be assigned to four groups in three generations (Liu 2003):

The First Generation:

Group I: Liang, Xiong, Ma, and Zhang

Group II: Feng, He, Qian, and Fang

The Second Generation:

Group III: Tang, Mou, and Xu

The Third Generation:

Group IV: Yu, Liu, Cheng, and Du

Liang, Xiong, and Ma have been recognized as the three elders in the first generation, all of whom chose to remain in mainland China. Only Zhang, as the leader of a third force political party, fled overseas. Liang is seen as the person who initiated the movement, but it was Xiong, known only in a small scholarly circle, who became the spiritual leader of contemporary neo-Confucianism in the narrower sense. The three important representatives of the movement, Tang, Mou, and Xu, were disciples of Xiong.

The scholars in Group II were somewhat younger. Feng and He chose to remain in mainland China. Qian Mu fled to Hong Kong, where he and Tang became the cofounders of New Asia College, an undisputed center for contemporary neo-Confucianism. Fang, once a teacher of Tang, fled to Taiwan, where he taught at Taiwan University and had Liu and Cheng among his disciples. Xu and Mou also went to Taiwan, and from 1963 to 1969 made Tunghai University in Taichung a second center for contemporary neo-Confucianism.

the importance of the three generations

Without question, the mainstay of contemporary neo-Confucianism is represented by the second generation of scholars: Tang, Mou, and Xu. They signed the famous "Manifesto for a Reappraisal of Sinology and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture," drafted by Tang and issued on New Year's Day in 1958. The other signatory was Zhang, of the first generation (Liu 1996). The third generation scholars, disciples of Hong Kong and Taiwan New Confucians, received advanced academic training and had teaching careers in the United States, thereby acquiring an international dimension in their thought (Liu 2003).

For obvious reasons only refugee scholars outside of mainland China were able to make significant contributions to the further development of Confucian thought. Fang, of the older generation, received his academic training in the United States. He had a grand scheme of philosophy of culture with a comparative perspective of a fourfold division: ancient Greek, modern European, Chinese, and Indian. He also strongly criticized the dualism of modern European thought, which was believed to have a hidden nihilistic tendency (Fang 1957). Fang opted for messages of creative creativity and comprehensive harmony of primordial Confucianism (Fang 1981), as well as urging others to overcome the limitations of different cultures in order to bring about a synthesis of East and West.

Tang and Mou were also well versed in Western philosophy. While Tang had a Hegelian bent, Mou showed an unmistakable Kantian temperament. The famous manifesto drafted by Tang urged the sinologists in the West to study the Chinese culture not just through the eyes of the missionaries, the archaeologists, or the political strategists, but with a sense of reverence and sympathetic understanding of that culture. According to the manifesto, the wisdom of Chinese philosophy is crystallized in its philosophy of mind and human nature (xin and xing ), an unmistakable reference to Sung-Ming neo-Confucianism. Although recognizing the need for the Chinese culture to learn from the West by absorbing its achievements in science and democracy, the manifesto claims that there is something invaluable in the Chinese tradition and suggests that the West may learn from Chinese thought in the following five items:

(1) The spirit to assert what is here and now and to let everything go (in order for nature to take its own course);

(2) All-round and all-embracing understanding or wisdom;

(3) A feeling of warmth and compassion;

(4) The wisdom of how to perpetuate the culture;

(5) The attitude that the whole world is like a family.

the three traditions' doctrine

In his later years Tang devoted himself to tracing the origins of insights in traditional Chinese philosophy. The last work he published was a comprehensive system of philosophy conceived in his lifetime. The book deals with the whole existence of humans and tries to understand the different activities of the mind, distinguishing the following nine worlds:

(1) the world of discrete things;

(2) the world of species and genus in terms of empirical generalization;

(3) the world of functional operation;

(4) the world of perceptions interpenetrating with one another;

(5) the world of contemplation of what is transcendent and vacuous;

(6) the world of moral practice;

(7) the world of aspiration toward God;

(8) the world of emptiness (śūnyatā ) of both the self (ātman ) and elements (dharma );

(9) the world of the embodiment of heavenly virtues.

Mou, however, was perhaps the most original thinker in his generation. Going further than the manifesto, he formulated the doctrine of three traditions:

(1) The assertion of Daotong (the tradition of the Way): We must assert the value of morality and religion, jealously guarding the fountainhead of the universe and human life as realized by Confucius and Mencius through a revitalization of the learning of the mind and the human nature.

(2) The development of Xuetong (the tradition of learning): We must expand our cultural life and further develop the learning subject as to absorb the Western tradition of formal sciences such as logic and mathematics on the one hand and empirical sciences on the other.

(3) The continuation and expansion of Zhengtong (the tradition of politics): We must recognize the necessity of adopting the democratic system of government as developed in the West in order to fulfill truly the political ideal of a government of humanity of the sages and worthies in the past.

After Mou dug deeply in the Chinese tradition and devoted himself to scholarly studies of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, in the latest stage of his thought he brought into focus a comparative perspective. In Intellectual Intuition and Chinese Philosophy he pointed out that the major difference between Chinese and Western philosophies lies in the fact that the three major Chinese traditions all believed in the possibility of intellectual intuition, whereas major Western traditions deny that there is such a possibility. Mou used Kant as his point of departure because Kant believed that all human knowledge must depend on sensible intuition, and only God has intellectual intuition. For Kant, freedom of the will, immortality of the soul, and the existence of God can only be postulates of the practical reason, hence Mou was of the opinion that Kant could only develop a metaphysics of morals, not a moral metaphysics. In Phenomenon and the Thing-in-itself Mou made a distinction between what he called "ontology with adherence" and "ontology without adherence." The former has been highly developed in the Western traditions, and the latter has been elaborately formulated in the Oriental traditions. When the infinite mind puts restrictions on itself, the knowing subject is formed; this is the result of a dialectical process. The adherence of the knowing mind and the realization of the infinite mind actually share the same origin. It is here that a foundation for the unity of the two perspectives can be found (Liu 1989).

Because the second generation neo-Confucians developed their ideas within a most adverse environment, they tended to stress what is positive in the Confucian tradition. But the third generation neo-Confucians face a very different contextthey presuppose the pluralistic framework of the West. For example, Du Weiming feels that there is no need to prove that the Confucian tradition is better than other spiritual traditions, so long as it can be shown that it is one of the worthy spiritual traditions in the world; from modern to postmodern era, the flexible understanding of reason and the emphasis on harmony in the Confucian tradition are to its advantage. Liu Shuxian offers a new interpretation of liyi fenshu (one principle, many manifestations) which he inherited from Sung-Ming neo-Confucian philosophy. He fully realizes that the Confucian tradition certainly does not have a monopoly of one principle, which would find different manifestations in different spiritual traditions. For example, the Golden Rule, credited to Confucius by Hans Küng, has been formulated in different ways in the East and in the West as well as in the ancient and modern times (1993). Thus, Liu vigorously supported the formulation of a global ethic in the awakening of a global consciousness. Because the world has turned into a global village with only limited resources, and because people need to live peacefully together, certainly the Confucians will have something significant to say in the future.

See also Chinese Philosophy: History of.


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Shu-hsien Liu (2005)

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