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Chinese History and CultureSeventeenth Century Through Twentieth Century$

Ying-shih Yü

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231178600

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231178600.001.0001

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Confucianism and China’s Encounter with the West in Historical Perspective

Confucianism and China’s Encounter with the West in Historical Perspective

(p.351) 18. Confucianism and China’s Encounter with the West in Historical Perspective
Chinese History and Culture

Ying-shih Yü

, Josephine Chiu-Duke, Michael S. Duke
Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This study takes issue with Samuel P. Huntington’s identification of the Chinese Communists as “Confucians” and discussion of contemporary China in terms of Confucianism. It gives a brief account of how the Chinese Confucian elite—the best-known reform-minded Confucians—responded, mostly positively, to Western civilization when China encountered the West in recent centuries. The encounter is discussed under the three headings of religion, science, and democracy. “Sinic civilization” is demonstrated to have been remarkably open to foreign influence. The essay concludes that it is not Confucianism but Communism that inhibits China's development of democracy.

Keywords:   Confucianism, Religion, Science, Democracy, Dao, The Way, Jesuits


The thesis of a “clash of civilizations” has been much debated since Samuel P. Huntington published his famous article in Foreign Affairs in 1993.1 In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996; page numbers in parentheses for this title only), Huntington gives his original thesis a more detailed documentation and, at the same time, also somewhat modifies some of the sharp formulations in the earlier article. However, the book is essentially an elaboration, not a revision, of the original argument. To avoid distorting Huntington, I would like to present the core of his argument by quoting him:

In the late 1980s the Communist world collapsed, and the Cold War international system became history. In the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among people are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural. … People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. (21)

(p.352) Then he explains to us why this “reconfiguration of global politics” is likely to lead to a “clash of civilizations.” Again, in his own words:

Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together. Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart. Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization. Political boundaries increasingly are redrawn to coincide with cultural ones: ethnic, religious, and civilizational. Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs, and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming the central lines of conflict in global politics. (125)

Now, how are we to evaluate such a grand theory? Since it lies beyond the limit of my expertise to comment comprehensively on Huntington’s thesis, I shall make only a few observations relating, directly or indirectly, to the purpose I have set myself in this essay.

To begin with, I agree with Huntington that “a civilizational approach may be helpful to understanding global politics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (14). This is so because it recognizes “culture” as very much relevant to the process of modernization in non-Western societies. In the case of China, for example, when American modernization theory was in its heyday, leading historians such as John K. Fairbank, Joseph Levenson, and Mary C. Wright generally viewed Confucianism as an obstacle to the modernization of China. In 1991, I also made the observation that “Clio has been taking a new turn in the direction of culture in the past two decades”; as a result, “culture as a relatively autonomous force in history is now more clearly recognized than ever before.”2 To the extent that Huntington sees the Confucian tradition as a living cultural force in today’s China, I have no quarrel with the new “paradigm” he has proposed.

In the second place, however, it is my considered opinion that Huntington’s sweeping discussion of post–Cold War reconfiguration of global politics requires serious qualifications. With the total collapse of the Communist system in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Cold War era indeed came to an abrupt end in the Western world in 1991. However, the same cannot be said of Asian communism. The Chinese mainland, North Korea, and Vietnam taken together—about 1.3 billion Asian people—comprise one-fifth of the world population and still live under Communist rule. The premature announcement of the coming of a worldwide post–Cold War era by Huntington and others in the West seems to suggest that communism in the East simply does not count. Here, the deep-seated West-centric bias of Western observers is unmistakably shown at its worst. It is true that since the adoption of the so-called openness and reform policies in the 1980s, mainland China has been undergoing (p.353) very considerable economic change, and the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to control its people has also been decreasing. However, no one in his or her right mind can possibly deny the continuing existence of communism as a political system in China. The Four Cardinal Principles—the socialist path, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Chinese Party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought—are still very much in operation and, moreover, repeatedly emphasized by the party leadership. The beginning of the post–Cold War era in the West cannot be dated from the 1980s when the Soviet Union pursued a course of glasnost and perestroika. For the same reason, we cannot say, even by the widest stretch of imagination, that the Cold War is completely over in East Asia as it is in Europe. As a matter of fact, it is interesting to note that when then-Vice President Gore of the United States toured the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) in the Korean Peninsula in early 1997, he reportedly remarked, “The Cold War is still with us here!” When the Chinese Communists launched their missile exercises over the Taiwan straits in March 1996, the Cold War even turned heated.

I agree with one critic who contends that Huntington at times tends to interpret the facts to suit his theory.3 It is obviously his overenthusiasm for the all-encompassing idea of a “clash of civilizations” that has led him to make the following statement: “In the post-Cold War world, culture is both a decisive and a unifying force. People separated by ideology but united by culture come together, as the two Germanys did and as the two Koreas and the several Chinas are beginning to” (28). In this case, Huntington’s distortion of facts to suit his theory is complete. He makes no distinction between a post–Cold War Europe and a Cold War Asia. There can be no question that ideology still separates the two Koreas as well as the two Chinas on the opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait. Even in the case of the two Germanys, it is also too superficial and simplistic to suggest that they “come together” because of “culture” yet are still separated by “ideology.” I am convinced that it is his obsession with his grand theory that has led him to believe that the Chinese Communists have somehow resumed their Confucian identity.

Last but not least, let me say a word or two about his idea of a “clash of civilizations” with respect to Confucianism. In his Foreign Affairs article of 1993, Huntington straightforwardly identified Chinese Communists as “Confucians.” It is to his credit that he toned down this kind of talk considerably in the 1996 book. However, he continues to define present-day China in terms of Confucianism, as if communism no longer mattered to the Chinese conduct of international affairs. This is clearly shown in his repeated reference to the so-called Confucian-Islamic connection. Central to the thesis of a “clash of civilizations” is his deep worry about a “Confucian-Islamic alliance.” Anyone who refuses to be blinded by theories can readily see that the “connection” exists only between the Communist regime in Beijing on the one hand and some of the anti-Western (p.354) Islamic states on some others. The following words of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafiquoted in The Clash of Civilizations are worth quoting here:

The new world order means that Jews and Christians control Muslims and if they can, they will after that dominate Confucianism and other religions in India, China, and Japan. … Now we hope to see a confrontation between China that heads the Confucianist camp and America that heads the Christian crusader camp. We have no justification but to be biased against the crusaders. We are standing with Confucianism, and, by allying ourselves with it and fighting alongside it in one international front, we will eliminate our mutual opponent. (239–240)

Needless to say, Colonel Qadhafi’s rhetoric fits the “clash of civilizations” paradigm perfectly. However, one wonders whether Huntington really takes seriously and at face value the words of a man who, after all, is not particularly known for his understanding of Confucianism.

Speaking of a “clash of civilizations,” the confrontation between Christianity and Islam indeed has its deep historical roots traceable to the Crusades of the twelfth century, if not earlier. Both religions derive their mono the ism from a Jewish source. As such, both are equally possessive and exclusive in character, requiring total commitment on the part of their believers. In a sense, the clash between the two may be viewed as inevitable in hindsight, but what can we say about the possibility of a confrontation between China and the West? All I can say is that the present rivalry between China and the West (mainly the United States) makes sense only if it is understood, basically, as the unfinished business of the Cold War. Our minds become confused on this point for the following two reasons: first, many of us have been misled by the recent “post–Cold War” language, a language originated, as pointed out above, in a deep-seated West-centric bias. Second, in the last two years or so the Chinese Communist Party has skillfully manipulated Chinese nationalistic feelings of a fanatic kind directed specifically against the United States. With the bankruptcy of Marxist ideology, the party faces its most serious legitimacy crisis ever. It is much in evidence that the party is making a subtle move to resuscitate the bankrupted totalitarian ideology by pumping nationalism into it. This is clearly a move from “socialism” to “national socialism,” which is practically synonymous with Deng’s slogan “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It is this new wave of nationalism that has often been mistaken as a revival of Confucian culture in China.4

Whether it is “socialism” or “national socialism,” China today is still very much under the sway of an avowedly anti-Western ideology of Western origins. In the name of “revolution,” this ideology must also of necessity take anti-Confucianism as its very point of departure. Up to this day, we have yet (p.355) to discover a single instance of a positive statement about the Confucian tradition in the party’s official publications. Should the confrontation between communist China and the West become unavoidable, which no one in his or her right mind would like to see happen, the blame could in no way be laid on Confucianism. What ever causes it might possibly involve, it will most certainly have nothing to do with a “clash of civilizations.”

In what follows, I wish to give a brief account of how the Confucian elite responded to Western civilization when China came face to face with the West in recent centuries. I shall discuss this encounter under three headings: religion, science, and democracy. I believe that only through such a historical analysis can we get a more realistic sense as to the possibility of a clash between Confucian and Western civilizations.


Confucianism is not a religion in the ordinary Western sense. However, scholars today are in general agreement that there is a religious dimension in Confucianism with such notions as Heaven and Dao 道‎ as its focus. As a religion, Confucianism has shown from the beginning an open, flexible, and inclusive character; it contrasts sharply with the possessiveness and exclusiveness of both Christianity and Islam. As a matter of fact, this is also generally true of all other Chinese religions, including Daoism and the various sinified sects of Buddhism. This important fact perhaps explains, at least partly, why religious wars were virtually unknown in Chinese history. Almost without exception, modern historians of Chinese religion assure us that Chinese religious life is characterized, above all, by a syncretic outlook, with religious tolerance as a central builtin feature. Historically speaking, religious syncretism reached its peak in Ming China (1368–1644). Ming Taizu 明太祖‎, the founding emperor (r. 1368–1398), openly espoused harmony and mutual complementarity of the Three Teachings—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism—thereby setting the tone for religious syncretism during the entire Ming Period. The greatest influence on syncretism, however, came from the leading philosopher, Wang Yangming 王陽明‎ (1472–1529), who initiated a Confucian discourse on the unity of the Three Teachings. He was prob ably the first major Confucian thinker in Chinese history to admit that each of the Three Teachings captures a partial vision of the same Dao (Way). As a consequence, his followers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries developed this syncretic outlook in different directions.5

It was in a religious atmosphere marked by pervasive syncretism that Jesuit missionaries came to China. The culturally sensitive Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who arrived in China in 1584, was very quick to discover the prevailing syncretism among the Confucian elite. He wrote:

(p.356) The most common opinion today amongst those who believe themselves to be the most wise is to say that these three sects [i.e., the Three Teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism] are one and the same thing and all be observed at once. By this they deceive themselves and others, too, creating the greatest confusion, for it seems to them that, where religion is concerned, the more ways there are of putting things, the better for the kingdom.6

Needless to say, from his exclusivist Christian point of view, syncretism was unacceptable because it was “a betrayal of principle” or “an attempt to secure unity at the expense of truth.”7

Ironically, however, it was largely syncretism that accounted for the early success of the Jesuits’ work in China. One of Ricci’s crowning achievements was undoubtedly his conversion of many leading members of the Confucian elite. Among them were Xu Guangqi 徐光啓‎ (1562–1633) and Li Zhizao 李之藻‎ (1565–1630), who, together with Yang Tingyun 楊廷筠‎ (1557–1627), were collectively known as the “three pillars of evangelization.” However, the interesting fact is that Chinese converts among the Confucian elite “were expecting to operate a kind of synthesis with Christianity itself.” What Xu was advocating “was not the pure Christian doctrine, but an amalgamation of Confucianism and Christianity similar to that which had emerged in the sixteenth century between Confucianism and Buddhism.” In the case of Yang Tingyun, he wanted to enlarge the Chinese syncretic framework to include Christianity in order to establish the “unity of Four Teachings.” According to Father Niccolo Longobardo (1559–1654), Yang Tingyun really believed that the universal principles under lying all three Chinese teachings were in agreement with the Christian “Holy Law.”8

It is also highly interesting to note that both Jesuit missionaries and Chinese converts made common efforts to prove that ancient Chinese ideas in the Confucian classics coincided with those of the Bible. For their part, the Jesuits were persuaded that such terms as Shangdi 上帝‎ (Lord on High) and Tian 天‎ (Heaven) in Confucian texts must be references to the Christian god. They even speculated that the Chinese in very early times must somehow have already known about the God of the Bible. Even as late as 1704, the Jesuit Joachim Bouvet (1656–1730) still insisted that the Confucian classics contained “a mysterious and prophetic summary of all the principles and of the whole economy of the Christian religion and nothing else.”9

On the other hand, Chinese converts seem to have been less concerned about the absoluteness and exclusiveness of the Christian Truth than about the Confucian emphasis on the sameness of the human mind and the universal accessibility of Dao to every one. This Confucian faith is most vividly expressed by the twelfth-century Confucian philosopher Lu Xiangshan 陸象山‎ (1139–1193):

(p.357) If in the Eastern Sea there were to appear a sage, he would have this same mind and this same Principle (li 理‎). If in the Western Sea there were to appear a sage, he would have this same mind and this same Principle. If in the Southern and Northern Seas there were to appear sages, they too would have this same mind and this same Principle. If a hundred or a thousand generations ago, or a hundred or a thousand generations hence, sages were to appear, they likewise would have this same mind and this same Principle.10

What ever the original intention of this statement, it has since then suggested to Confucians that neither Confucianism nor China could have an exclusive claim to the true Way. Indeed, this common understanding prob ably made it easier for many members of the Confucian elite to be converted to Christianity in the seventeenth century. Li Zhizao, for instance, showed his admiration for Matteo Ricci by paraphrasing Lu Xiangshan, saying, “There are the same minds and the same principles in Eastern and Western seas.” This may well be understood as an important reason why he finally accepted the religious faith of the sage from the Western Sea.11

I have chosen the Jesuit mission to China in the late Ming and the early Qing (1644–1911) dynasties to illustrate my point because, unlike in the late Qing, Christianity and commerce remained largely separate. Therefore, it can give us a clearer idea with regard to the Confucian response to Christianity in more purely religious terms. The relationship can by no means be described as a conflictual one. In the first six or seven decades, Chinese Confucians and European missionaries generally accommodated each other, resulting in a basic convergence between Confucian and Christian ideas. The final break between the papacy and the Qing court in 1724 involved many factors that do not concern us here. As far as religion itself was concerned, the break became inevitable only when the papacy abandoned the early accommodation policy of Ricci and took an exclusivist approach. Confucianism, by all accounts, played no significant role in it.12


Confucian response to Western science has always been positive and enthusiastic. China’s earliest systematic exposure to Western science also occurred in the seventeenth century. As is widely known, it was the Jesuits’ strategy to use their scientific knowledge, particularly of astronomy and mathematics, to attract Chinese interest in the Christian faith. Though living and working in the age of the Scientific Revolution in the West, the Jesuits refrained, for theological reasons, from transmitting some of the most spectacular new discoveries to the Chinese world of learning, notably Copernicus’s heliocentrism. Nevertheless, (p.358) the total body of scientific knowledge they brought to China, despite its limitations, was rich enough to create a revolutionary impact on Chinese scientists.13 According to Nathan Sivin, Wang Xishan 王錫闡‎ (1628–1682), Mei Wending 梅文鼎‎ (1633–1721), and Xue Fengzuo 薛鳳祚‎ (d. 1680), the first scholars in China to respond to Western science were “responsible for a scientific revolution” in China.14

The introduction of Western science also affected the development of Confucian learning in important ways. One was a growing emphasis on the importance of knowledge of the external world. Here we may take Fang Yizhi’s 方以智‎ (1611–1671) redefinition of the Confucian concept of gewu 格物‎ (investigation of things) as an example. He was greatly fascinated by Western astronomy, mathematics, physiology, and natural philosophy as he found them in the books published by the Jesuits. Having critically examined and carefully compared them with their Chinese counter parts, he became convinced that investigation of physical objects in the external world had been an important part of sagely learning in ancient China, which had contributed enormously to humans’ physical well-being. As a result, he gave the concept gewu an interpretation diametrically opposite to the one offered by Wang Yangming that had dominated Confucian thinking since the sixteenth century. Wang took wu to be “things within our minds,” not “things in the external world,” which he dismissed as irrelevant to moral cultivation. On his part, Fang not only extended the concept of wu to include “things” external to our minds but, more specifically and emphatically, “things” in the natural world. Consequently, he also understood the Confucian notion of li 理‎ (principle) differently. Li for him refers not only to “moral principles” but “principles of things” (wuli 物理‎) as well. Among his writings are a series of studies on the structure of the universe (astronomy) and on the human body (physiology). This was clearly impossible without the help of the scientific literature provided by the Jesuits.15

The extremely favorable response from leading scholars such as Fang did much to redirect the attention of scholars of younger generations to mathematical and scientific studies, among whom were Wang Xishan, Mei Wending, and Fang’s second son, Fang Zhongtong 方中通‎. Throughout the Qing Period, we find indigenous scientific tradition carried on in China continuously. Rediscovery and critical examination of ancient works of mathematics, science, and technology formed an important part of Confucian classical scholarship in the eighteenth century. Some of the leading classicists, including Dai Zhen 戴震‎ (1724–1777) and Qian Daxin, 錢大昕‎ (1728–1804), were also first-rate mathematicians. Confucian scholars continued to study Western mathematics and science. In 1799, Ruan Yuan 阮元‎ (1764–1849) compiled, with the help of Qian and others, a collection of biographies of 280 astronomers and mathematicians, among them thirty-seven Europeans. He also shared the view with many others that mathematics and science must be made a component part of Confucian training.

(p.359) Confucian response to Western science, early and late, serves particularly well as a caution that we must not blindly trust the sweeping generalization about so-called Sinocentrism, as Huntington apparently does (234–235). Contrary to conventional wisdom, “Sinic civilization” has been remarkably open to foreign influence. Had it been the Chinese propensity to reject things and ideas on the grounds of pure outlandishness, Buddhism would have had no chance at all to become one of China’s Three Teachings. Fang Yizhi justified his acceptance of certain Western scientific theories by citing the example of Confucius as his defense. Even a sage like Confucius did not hesitate to learn from a “foreigner” who knew something about “birds.” Eighteenth-century Confucians often expressed their great admiration for Western science, which, they openly admitted, was superior to its Chinese counterpart. Ji Yun 紀昀‎ (1724–1804), general editor of the imperial project known as Siku quanshu 四庫全書‎ (The Complete Library of the Four Treasures), said in no uncertain terms that the West far surpassed China in mathematics, astronomy, water control, weaponry, etc.16 A comparison between Western science and its Chinese counterpart also led Qian Daxin to come to the same conclusion. Then he went on to explain why this had been the case:

It is not possible that the ingenuity of Europeans surpasses that of China. It is only that Europeans have transmitted [their findings] systematically from father to son and from master to disciple for generations. Hence, after a long period [of progress] their knowledge has become increasingly precise. Confucian scholars have, on the other hand, usually denigrated those who were good mathematicians as petty technicians. … In ancient times, no one could be a Confucian who did not know mathematics. … Chinese methods [now] lag behind Europe’s because Confucians do not know mathematics.17

Here Qian Daxin obviously took Europe to be a civilization comparable to China. In the earlier part of the above-quoted essay, he also repeated Lu Xiangshan’s statement that “there are the same minds and the same principles in Eastern and Western seas,” but added that “there is also the same number” referring, in his case, to the universality of mathematical knowledge. Confucian universalism is not necessarily Sinocentric.

This continuing presence of Western science in Confucian consciousness throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had much to do with the response of the Chinese intellectual elite to the crisis of Western invasion in the post–Opium War period. Leading Confucian scholars concerned about China’s “self-strengthening” immediately focused their attention on the promotion of Western science as a matter of utmost urgency. Feng Guifen 馮桂芬‎ (1809–1874), who first served as an assistant to Commissioner Lin Zexu 林則徐‎ and later as secretary to Li Hongzhang 李鴻章‎, wrote a highly influential essay in (p.360) 1860 advocating “adoption of Western knowledge.” By this term, he meant primarily Western science. Trained in Confucian classics as well as in mathematics, astronomy, and geography, he clearly recognized science as the source of Western power. In his opinion, “Western books (in Chinese translation) on mathematics, mechanics, optics, light, chemistry and other subjects contain the best principles of the natural sciences”; it is also remarkable that he emphasized the central importance of mathematics in the early scientific training of students.18 From this time on, Western science was steadily moving toward the center of the Chinese educational system until it eventually replaced Confucian classics in the early decades of the twentieth century. Chinese worship of science reached its first peak during the May Fourth era when the idea was personified to become “Mr. Science.”19


Democracy is actually the core area of Huntington’s grand theory. In his 1991 article, “Religion and the Third Wave,” he suggests a causal relationship between Christianity and democracy that anticipates the theory of a “clash of civilizations.”20 In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, his view on this subject remains substantially unchanged. He writes:

During the 1970s and 1980s over thirty countries shifted from authoritarian to democratic political systems. … Demo cratization was most successful in countries where Christian and Western influences were strong. New democratic regimes appeared most likely to stabilize in the Southern and Central European countries that were predominantly Catholic or Protestant and, less certainly, in Latin American countries. In East Asia, the Catholic and heavily American influenced Philippines returned to democracy in the 1980s, while Christian leaders promoted movement toward democracy in South Korea and Taiwan. … [I]n the former Soviet Union, the Baltic republics appear to be successfully stabilizing democracy; the degree and stability of democracy in the Orthodox republics vary considerably and are uncertain; democratic prospects in the Muslim republics are bleak. By the 1990s, except for Cuba, democratic transitions had occurred in most of the countries, outside Africa, whose peoples espoused Western Christianity or where major Christian influences existed. (192–193)

As far as democratization is concerned, Huntington’s view of both Confucianism and Islam has been consistently negative. This perhaps explains why he thinks democratic prospects in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union “are bleak” on the one hand and attributes movements toward democracy (p.361) in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s to the promotion of “Christian leaders” on the other. I cannot pretend to know anything about the Muslim republics and South Korea mentioned here. As far as my knowledge goes, however, Christianity does not seem to have played any significant role in the recent democratization of Taiwan. Once again, he is interpreting the facts at will to suit his theory.

In The Third Wave (1991), Huntington offers a brief critical discussion of “Confucianism” based on the received view in the West that “traditional Confucianism was either undemocratic or antidemocratic.”21 He seems to be very confident in reaching an overall conclusion that “In practice Confucian and Confucian-influenced societies have been inhospitable to democracy.”22 To be fair to Huntington, he does not say that Confucian culture is a permanent barrier to democracy. Moreover, he even allows the possibility that Confucianism may also have “some elements that are compatible with democracy, just as both Protestantism and Catholicism have elements that are clearly undemocratic.”23 In the end, however, he is unswerving in his belief that “China’s Confucian heritage, with its emphasis on authority, order, hierarchy and the supremacy of the collectivity over the individual, creates obstacles to democratization” (238).

Needless to say, this is not the place to engage in a comprehensive and detailed debate with Huntington on the nature of Confucianism and its changing political and social ideas over the past twenty-five centuries. For the sake of brevity, allow me to ask a very simple historical question: Given the supposedly inherent hostility of Confucianism to Western values associated with democracy, who were those Chinese first attracted to the very idea of democracy? Even a casual examination of the historical record will show that the earliest Chinese discoverers and advocates of democracy in the late nineteenth century were none other than the reform-minded Confucians. Wang Tao 王韜‎ (1828–1897), Guo Songtao 郭嵩燾‎ (1818–1891), and Xue Fucheng 薛福成‎ (1838–1894), for example, all returned from their respective years-long trips to Europe deeply impressed by the democratic ideals and institutions of the West. Wang and Xue, independently of each other, praised Eng land and America in terms of the Golden Age in China’s high antiquity. Wang Tao was prob ably the first Chinese scholar who identified three forms of state in Europe, which he called, respectively, minzhu 民主‎, or democracy; junzhu 君主‎, or monarchy; and junmin gongzhu 君民共主‎, or constitutional monarchy.24

At the turn of the century, there were two rival Confucian schools in China. The New Text school claimed Kang Youwei 康有為‎ (1858–1927), Tan Sitong 譚嗣同‎ (1865–1898), and Liang Qichao 梁啟超‎ (1868–1936) as its leaders; the Old Text school was led by Zhang Binglin 章炳麟‎ (1868–1936) and Liu Shipei 劉師培‎ (1884–1919). It is interesting to note that both schools advocated democracy, though each in its own way. The New Text Confucians were reformists in favor of constitutional monarchy while their Old Text rivals became revolutionaries pushing for republicanism. What is particularly remarkable about the two (p.362) groups is that they shared the very same interest in searching for the origins and evolution of democratic ideas in the Confucian past. Kang Youwei was the first late Qing scholar to carry out such a project. Inspired by Wang Tao’s writings, he divided Chinese history into three periods. He deemed the highest and most perfect form of government to be the “democracy” of the time of the legendary sage-emperors Yao and Shun; the second best form of government was “constitutional monarchy” in the early Zhou; and the worst form of government was the “autocracy” in place since the unification of China in 221 B.C.E. Through an extensive exegesis of certain Confucian texts, he concluded, finally, that Confucius was a most enthusiastic advocate of democracy in ancient China.25 We can easily dismiss this whole exercise as sheer nonsense. Nonetheless, it is extremely valuable as evidence showing the extraordinary enthusiasm with which Confucians responded to the Western idea of democracy in this early stage. Thus, Kang Youwei set an example to be followed not only by his disciples but by his rivals as well. Liu Shipei, for instance, wrote a book entitled Zhongguo minyue jingyi 中國民約精義‎ (Essentials of the Chinese Theory of Social Contract),26 which purports to trace the development of such ideas as democracy, freedom, rights, etc., throughout Chinese history.

During the May Fourth era, antitraditionalism reigned supreme and democracy and Confucianism were viewed as antithetical to each other, a view that has now also been widely accepted in the West. However, if we examine more closely the writings of the two May Fourth leaders largely responsible for the dissemination of this view, Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀‎ (1879–1942) and Hu Shi 胡適‎ (1891–1962), we see that the matter is rather complicated. Both men received classical educations in their early years and remained to the end of their lives committed to certain Confucian values. Chen made the following remark from his prison cell in the early 1930s:

Every feudal dynasty worshipped Confucius as a sage. The act of worship was inauthentic. Its true purpose was to strengthen dynastic rule. … This is the reason that during the May Fourth Movement we came up with the slogan “Down with Confucius and Sons.” However, intellectually speaking, the sayings of Confucius and Mencius are worth studying. Statements such as “The People are of supreme importance, and the sovereign comes last” (Mencius) and “In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes” (Confucius) all deserve to be further explored.27

It may be noted that by this time Chen had already been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party of which he was the founder. It is very revealing that he now not only had his second thoughts about Confucian culture but also reembraced Western democracy, which he had repudiated during his Communist period. On the other hand, Hu Shi as a moderate liberal never wholly abandoned some of the Confucian values that constituted the core of what he called (p.363) “the humanistic and rationalistic China.”28 In many of his English writings, he often emphasized the compatibility of Confucianism with Western liberalism and suggested that certain Confucian ideas and institutions might prove to be capable of furnishing China with a solid foundation on which constitutional democracy could be successfully established.29

The above historical sketch clearly shows that the idea of democracy found its most sympathetic audience in China among the Confucian elites. By contrast, other social groups, including merchants and peasants, were generally not motivated enough to be actively involved in politics, social responsibility, human equality, the well-being of the people, etc., which are some of the closest Confucian equivalents to Western civic virtues. It was this Confucian “civic” spirit that disposed many Chinese intellectuals to Western democratic ideas at the turn of the century. This may smack of elitism today. However, it is elitism in the best sense of the word. I heartily agree with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who says: “Of all the cants in this canting world, the cant about elitism is the most futile. Government throughout human history has always been government by minority—that is, by elites. This is as true for democratic and communist states today as it was for medieval monarchies and primitive tribes. … The serious question is not the existence of the ruling elite but their character.”30 To give a most recent example, the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was to a large extent related to the partial revival of elite culture in post-Mao China. Commenting on this tragic event, Michael Walzer suggests that student elitism was prob ably rooted in “pre-Communist cultural traditions specific to China.”31 I believe he is right.

If I may borrow a new concept recently developed by John Rawls, I would like to think that Confucianism will do well as one of the “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” that forms part of the “background culture” of a constitutional democratic regime. Since democracy cannot flourish in a culturally impoverished land, a high level of elite culture is a precondition for the initial success of democratization.32 As beautifully expressed by Vaclav Havel: “In the moral world of antiquity, Judaism, and Christianity, without which the West would hardly have come to modern democracy, we can find more points of agreement with Confucius than we would think, and more than is realized by those who invoke the Confucian tradition to condemn Western democracy.”33 I only wish to add that it is equally unwise to invoke Western democracy to condemn the Confucian tradition.


Religion, science, and political systems are the three key areas in which a “clash of civilizations” are most likely to occur. The brief review above, however, shows that Confucian responses to the challenge of Western civilization in all these (p.364) three areas have been, by and large, very positive. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Confucians actively sought to incorporate what they considered to be the quintessence of Western culture into their own civilization without losing its identity altogether. This attitude is best expressed in Hu Shi’s introduction to The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China, written before he became an ardent advocate of “total Westernization.” He wrote:

How can we Chinese feel at ease in this new world which at first light appears to be so much at variance with what we have long regarded as our own civilization? For it is perfectly natural and justifiable that a nation with a glorious past and a distinctive civilization of its own making should never feel quite at home in a new civilization, if that new civilization is looked upon as part and parcel imported from alien lands and forced upon it by external necessities of national existence. And it would surely be a great loss to mankind at large if the acceptance of this new civilization should take the form of abrupt displacement instead of organic assimilation, thereby causing the disappearance of the old civilization. The real problem, therefore, may be stated thus: How can we best assimilate modern civilization in such a manner as to make it congenial and congruous and continuous with the civilization of our own making?34

Of the three elements discussed above, science and democracy, in particular, have been accepted by Confucians as essential to the rebirth of Chinese civilization in the modern world. Contrary to the conventional assumption, science and democracy are not promoted only by Westernized antitraditionalists in China. Liang Shuming 梁漱溟‎ (1893–1988), now known as a leading New Confucianist in twentieth-century China, was famous for his systematic exposition of the incompatibility between Chinese civilization and Western civilization during the May Fourth Period. Nevertheless, he admonished in earnest that the Chinese must take an “attitude of ‘complete acceptance’ of Western culture. … The two spirits [of science and democracy] are completely correct. We must accept them unconditionally. The urgent task facing us today is [to know] just how to introduce [them effectively].”35 What is widely known today as New Confucianism was born in Hong Kong in 1958 when four Confucian scholars published “A Manifesto to the World on Chinese Culture.” As rightly observed by Hao Chang, its authors tend to “interpret the Chinese intellectual heritage in ways that could accommodate modern Western values such as democracy and science”; it is the belief of these four New Confucianists that the basic Confucian value orientation, when understood broadly and in perspective, “would dispose the Chinese toward accepting Western science and democracy.”36 It is this New Confucianism that has been most sympathetically received by a new generation of intellectuals in mainland China since the 1980s.

(p.365) It is rather unfortunate that Huntington speculates a great deal about the prospect of a clash between Chinese and Western civilizations without a basic historical grasp of the developments of Confucianism in modern and contemporary China. He seems to rely heavily on Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore as the sole authoritative interpreter of Confucianism, who, as Havel says, takes great interest in the Confucian tradition only to invoke it to condemn Western democracy. I do not deny that a deep-seated antagonism does seem to exist between the regime in Beijing and the West. However, the source of this antagonism clearly lies elsewhere. It is only fair that Confucian culture be absolved of all blame.


(1.) Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993): 22–49.

(2.) Ying-shih Yü, “Clio’s New Cultural Turn and the Rediscovery of Tradition in Asia,” keynote speech to the Twelfth Conference, International Association of Historians of Asia, Hong Kong, June 24–28, 1991, published in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 6, no. 1 (2007): 39–51.

(3.) Richard Bern stein, “A Scholar’s Prophecy: Global Culture Conflict,” New York Times (Books of the Times section), November 6, 1996.

(4.) Ying-shih Yü, “China’s New Wave of Nationalism,” in Consolidating Third Wave Democracies: Regional Challenges, ed., Larry Diamond, Marc F. Platters, Yun-han Chu, and Hungmao Tien (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

(5.) See Judith A. Berling, The Syncretic Religion of Lin Chao-en (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) and Ying-shih Yü, “The Intellectual World of Chiao Hung [1540–1620], Revisited,” Ming Studies 23 (1988): 32–39.

(6.) Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 64.

(9.) Ritchie Robertson, introduction to Cultures in Conflict, ed. Urs Bitterli (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989), 8.

(10.) Fung Yu-lan, History of Chinese Philosophy, trans. Derk Bodde (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953), 2:573.

(11.) See Willard J. Peterson, “Why Did They Become Christians?,” in East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582–1773, ed. Charles E. Ronan, S. J. and Bonnie B. C. Oh (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988), 142.

(12.) See Zhang Guogang 張國剛‎, Cong Zhongxi chushi dao liyi zhi zheng 從中西初識到禮儀之爭‎ (Beijing: Renmin, 2002), 413–502.

(13.) See Willard J. Peterson, “Western Natural Philosophy Published in Late Ming China,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 117, no. 4 (1973): 295–322.

(p.366) (14.) See Nathan Sivin, “Wang Hsi-shan (1628–1682),” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York: Charles Scribner’s, [1970–1980] 1978), 14:159–168; quote from p. 160.

(15.) Willard J. Peterson, “Fang I-chih: Western Learning and the ‘Investigation of Things,’” in The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism, ed. Wm. Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 369–409.

(16.) Luo Bingmian 羅炳綿‎, “Ji Yun de xueshu sixiang yu siku tiyao de lichang” 紀昀的學術思想與四庫提要的立場‎, Xinya xuebao 新亞學報‎ 8, no. 8 (April 1981): 4–5.

(17.) Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1989), 83.

(18.) Teng Ssu-yü and John K. Fairbank, Chinas Response to the West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), 50–51.

(19.) See D. M. Y. Kwok, Scientism in Chinese Thought, 1900–1950 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965), and Charlotte Firth, Ting Wen-Chiang: Science and Chinas New Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).

(20.) See Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 29–42; see also discussion in Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), 374.

(22.) Ibid., 301.

(23.) Ibid., 310.

(25.) 寧武南氏‎ [China]: Ningwu Nan shi, Minguo 23 [1934].

(26.) See Hsiao Kung-chuan, A Modern China and a New World (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975), 197–200.

(27.) Zheng Xujia 鄭學稼‎, Chen Duxiu zhuan 陳獨秀傳‎ (Taipei: Shibao wenhua, 1989), 2:960.

(28.) See Hu Shih, “The Chinese Tradition and the Future,” in Sino-American Conference on Intellectual Cooperation: Report and Proceedings (Seattle: University of Washington Department of Publications and Printing, 1962), 13–22; quote from p. 22.

(29.) Hu Shih, “Historical Foundations for a Democratic China,” in Edmund J. James Lectures on Government, 2nd ser. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1941), 1–12.

(30.) Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 428–429.

(31.) Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 59–60.

(32.) See John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), xvi–xvii, 14, 64, and Ying-shih Yü, “The Idea of Democracy and the Twilight of the Elite Culture in Modern China,” in Justice and Democracy: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. Ron Bontekoe and Marietta Stepaniants (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997), 208–210.

(33.) Vaclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible (New York: Knopf, 1997), 201.

(p.367) (34.) Hu Shih, The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China (New York: Paragon Book Reprint, 1963). Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917–1937 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), 160.

(35.) Guy S. Alitto, The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 119–120.

(36.) Hao Chang, “New Confucianism and the Intellectual Crisis of Con temporary China,” in The Limits of Change: Essays on Conservative Alternatives in Republican China, ed. Charlotte Furth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), 276–302.