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Being in the WorldDialogue and Cosmopolis$

Fred Dallmayr

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780813141916

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813141916.001.0001

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(p.203) Appendix B Cosmopolitan Confucianism?

(p.203) Appendix B Cosmopolitan Confucianism?

Chinese Traditions and Dialogue

Being in the World
University Press of Kentucky

I greatly appreciate this opportunity to participate in this second “Nishan Forum on World Civilizations,” a forum that seeks to underscore and strengthen the idea of the “harmony of cultures with diversity.”1 This is indeed an important idea and one that has been dear to my heart for some time. I greatly welcomed the motto of a “dialogue among civilizations” launched by the president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, at the end of last century, a motto picked up by the United Nations General Assembly when it decided to designate 2001 as the “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.” A year later, in 2002, I published a book titled Dialogue among Civilizations: Some Exemplary Voices. About the same time, I joined a global nongovernmental organization that is called “World Public Forum—Dialogue of Civilizations.” I have been active in that organization since that time and presently serve as its executive cochair.

I am very happy to see that the idea of civilizational dialogue has also found a home in China, more particularly in the Nishan Forum, whose inaugural meeting in 2011 coincided with the tenth anniversary of the UN “Year of Dialogue.” I am even more happy noting the location of the Nishan Forum near the birthplace of Confucius. No better place could have been found for a forum on world civilizations, because Confucius, in my mind, embodies perfectly what it means to be civilized. Here I have to confess to you my long-standing fascination with, and attraction to, the sage of Qufu. It is now roughly two decades ago, in 1991, that I first visited China. The occasion was an international conference held at the University of Nanjing on the topic (p.204) “Traditional Chinese Thought and Culture and the Twenty-First Century.” The central focus of the conference was the relevance and viability of indigenous Chinese traditions in the face of the relentless modernization and Westernization of the globe. Among Chinese traditions, Confucianism clearly occupied the limelight of attention. The University of Nanjing was kind enough to provide me with a guide who, after the conference, took me to Qufu and also the sacred mountain of Taishan. So, my roots in the Confucian tradition are deep (although I am not, and do not claim to be, a professional Sinologist).

The issue I want to address today is the relation between world civilizations, and especially the dialogue among civilizations, and Confucianism. The issue needs to be explored on two levels. First, I want to profile more clearly the meaning of a dialogue among civilizations; and for this purpose I need to differentiate such dialogue from other possible—and historically recorded—relations between cultures or civilizations. Next, I want to examine how Confucianism fits into these relations among cultures and what role it can play there. Finally, I ask: Is Confucianism a suitable partner in the dialogue among civilizations today?

Relations between Civilizations

Relations between cultures—we know well—are not always friendly, welcoming, or dialogical. A main example of abstention from dialogue is the limit case of deliberate nonrelation, that is, the avoidance of cultural contact. For a variety of motivations—which may range from fearful apprehension to haughty arrogance—a culture may choose to shun outside contacts and to concentrate entirely on the cultivation of indigenous legacies or traditions. In common parlance, this practice of avoidance is called “isolationism.” Avoided outsiders are not necessarily demeaned (although there is a strong tendency to do so); they may also be considered simply irrelevant or insignificant. They are in any case not recognized as equal members of the human family. Epithets designating outsiders may range from the neutral expression “foreigners” to such clearly pejorative labels as “infidels,” “savages,” or “barbarians.”

There are advantages and disadvantages associated with isolationism. From the perspective of the avoiding culture, a main advantage (p.205) is the exclusion of harmful or destructive influences, especially influences seen as debilitating for indigenous ways of life. Such protectionism is particularly important (and even sensible) in the case of weak or fledging societies in danger of being overrun by external products and practices. The disadvantage of isolationist policies is the danger of cultural stagnation or ossification, of the progressive routinization of social conduct, stifling all impulses of innovation or cultural reform. Isolationism of this kind was practiced to a large extent during the Qing dynasty in China—and the price to be paid was scientific and economic stagnation (rendering China vulnerable to unequal treaties and other forms of external control). For different reasons, isolationism—the avoidance of “foreign entanglements”—was practiced by the United States during much of the nineteenth century, but with less grievous results. In large measure, the internal dynamism of a young and expanding nation provided a sheet anchor against stagnation—although tendencies toward dogmatic fixation were evident in “Know Nothing” movements (directed against immigrants) and other modes of self-enclosure.

Another type of nonrelation or (better) defective relation between cultures or civilizations is unilateralism, that is, the one-sided imposition of ideas and practices by one culture on another. Sometimes, the imposition or transference may be only partial and occurs less through strategic design than through cultural contagion or osmosis.2 Thus, what is often referred to as “Westernization” is in many ways a nearly subliminal process of the dissemination of cultural symbols, signals, and preferences. When this dissemination is backed up by military and administrative power (as it frequently is), we speak of “imperialism” and/or “colonialism”; a widely used code word for the latter today is cultural-political “hegemony.”3 The pursuit of imperial or hegemonic policies is a constant temptation of big nations and large civilizations—although it can also surface among smaller or medium-size countries striving for bigness or greatness (such as a “Greater Germany,” a “Greater Serbia,” or a “Greater This or That”). The perceived benefit of such policies is the acquisition of geopolitical power, of landmasses and resources. The drawback is the endemic defect of unilateralism, that is, the atrophy of the ability to learn (from others) and hence the danger of autistic self-enclosure (which approximates imperialism to isolationism).

(p.206) As history teaches, imperialism/colonialism has been a steady companion or by-product of Western civilization, from the Macedonian and Roman empires in antiquity to the British and French empires in modern times. To a lesser extent, imperialist ventures can also be found outside the Western orbit, for example, in Islamic culture and some East Asian countries (mainly Japan). Curiously, although certainly a big or large civilization, China has historically not been drawn to political or military imperialism (although its cultural contagion has certainly affected much of Asia). One can speculate about the different proclivities toward imperialism. As cultural historians tell us, China has traditionally found a certain fullness or wholeness in the Middle Kingdom, which mitigated the impulse for expansion. By contrast, Western civilization was always marked by a sense of lack or haunting disorder, which fueled the desire to impose political order on the world, both at home and abroad.4

Irrespective of the correctness or incorrectness of this speculation, one conclusion can be drawn: namely, that wholeness or completeness cannot be found through unilateralism, that is, the top-down imposition of order from one civilization on others. This leads me to what I consider the most promising or beneficial mode of the encounter between cultures or civilizations: the mode of “dialogue among (or between) civilizations.” In this mode, cultures do not spurn or shun each other; nor do they seek to foist one way of life on other cultures (in an exercise of cultural and/or political imperialism). Rather cultures here are willing to undergo a learning experience promoted through dialogue, mutual testing, and constructively critical interrogation. Under the auspices of interrogation, wholeness or completeness cannot be presupposed or unilaterally fabricated. Instead, wholeness here is an ongoing process and only tentatively anticipated in the cut and thrust of mutual engagement. To this extent, wholeness cannot be summed up in a static formula but is a dynamically moving feast accomplished through imaginative and creative renewal.5

Creative encounters of this kind are relatively infrequent in history; but they are not without precedents. Thus, in the early centuries (CE), sustained learning processes took place between Christian theologians and Greco-Roman intellectual and cultural traditions. A few centuries later, these processes extended into a triadic conversation among Christian, Islamic, and Greco-Roman strands of thought. (p.207) Almost a millennium earlier, one may recall, fruitful cultural exchanges were carried on in the Far East, among Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian traditions or ways of life. Whatever the frequency of such exchanges may have been in the past, our contemporary age of rapid globalization renders dialogical engagement not only more possible but also a near-mandatory obligation—unless we want to descend into unilateral domination or the “clash of civilizations.”

Confucianism and World Civilizations

If the ideal types of cultural encounter are as I have sketched them above, what are the implications for Confucianism and contemporary practitioners of the Confucian tradition? What are the lessons that especially Chinese Confucianists can draw from my discussion? As it seems to me, practitioners have sometimes wavered between the sketched options, and this may have something to do with their preferred definition of Confucianism. The Taiwanese scholar Liu Shuxian distinguishes among three versions or strands of Confucianism: a spiritual or philosophical version, a public or “politicized” version, and a popular or grassroots set of beliefs. Already before him, the mainland philosopher Liang Shuming had differentiated a “spiritual” or philosophical Confucianism from a public or “institutional” type— a distinction particularly useful for present purposes. Clearly, if the accent is placed on the public or institutional variant, then Confucianism is basically an indigenous perspective of little significance for the outside world. Confucian teachings, from this angle, are mainly an appendix of imperial rule and a constitutive element of Chinese, especially Han, identity. In the words of Liu Shuxian: public or politicized Confucianism served “as the official ideology of the dynasties.”6

In contemporary China, politicized Confucianism is by no means defunct (although it is clearly overshadowed by neoliberal and socialist ideas). In fact, in the eyes of some prominent thinkers, the Confucian legacy is an ideal instrument for the political regeneration of China—and a bulwark against corrupting Western influences. A good example is the mainland thinker Jiang Qing. A defender of traditional cultural values, Jiang is mainly troubled by the onslaught of modernization, Westernization, and globalization—tendencies that in their combination threaten to undermine “Chineseness” or the fabric of (p.208) Chinese identity. As an antithesis to these dangers, he considers it crucial today to emphasize the political or public dimension of Confucianism—a dimension that, in his view, was first developed by the Gongyang scholarship of the Han dynasty. Only by recuperating this public strand—which does not involve a neglect of ethics—will it be possible to ward off the corrosive effects of modernity and Western liberal democracy, which are ultimately rooted in selfishness. As he writes: “In the guise of modernity, men become animals full of desire… . My understanding of tradition as opposed to modernity is that human desire must somehow be restricted by heavenly law.” On the political level, selfishness converts liberal democracy into a form of Social Darwinism that “will ultimately destroy the human race.” By contrast, “Confucianism puts its ultimate wager of human salvation on the reemergence of a sage king.”7

By using the language of salvation, it is clear that Jiang also attributes to Confucianism a distinctly religious quality—a fact evident in his statement: “The restoration of Confucian religion can restore China’s historical and cultural destiny, or Chineseness.”8 This aspect is even further underscored by the sociologist and social theorist Kang Xiaoguang, who combines a political or politicized version of Confucianism with the latter’s elevation to the role of a public or civil religion. Together with Jiang, Kang is opposed to Western modernity and liberal democracy; his central commitment is to Chinese nationalism or cultural recovery—which, in his view, requires sustained efforts to “re-Confucianize” China. Fashioned as a civic religion, Confucianism for Kang can provide substantive legitimacy for the Chinese government, a legitimacy lost or badly tarnished in recent times. More specifically, it can supply justification for (what he calls) “benevolent government” or benevolent authoritarianism wielded by eminent Confucian scholars. Thus, the project of re-Confucianizing China is not just an academic or purely scholarly endeavor (as assumed by some so-called New Confucians). In Kang’s words, the project involves two simultaneous agendas: “to Confucianize the Chinese Communist Party and to Confucianize Chinese society. When Confucianism replaces Marxism-Leninism as state ideology and Confucian scholars replace the communist cadres, the process of creating a benevolent government is complete.”9

As it seems, at least in the case of Kang Xiaoguang, the project (p.209) of Confucianization is not entirely limited to the two agendas but includes a third, more ambitious goal: the missionary aim to transform the entire world in the image of the Chinese tradition. In line with older Chinese conceptions of cosmic unity or harmony, Kang also envisages a kind of “idealistic” globalization leading ultimately to global unity under Confucian auspices. As one can see, the cultivation of indigenous traditions here shades over into cosmopolitical outreach; in terms of my earlier sketch, isolationism acquires overtones of imperial hegemony. I do not know how much appeal this nationalist agenda enjoys in China today; my sense is that it is rather limited. Most of the Confucian scholars (or practitioners of New Confucianism) with whom I am familiar do not support it but rather favor a more balanced, dialogical approach that combines cultivation of indigenous traditions with an openness to the winds of change coming from Western modernity, critical rationality, and liberal democracy. An outstanding example of this perspective is the famous manifesto of 1958 titled “Manifesto for a Reappraisal of Sinology and a Reconstruction of Chinese Culture” signed by four leading Confucian scholars in East Asia: Tang Junyi, Zhang Junmai, Mou Zongsan, and Xu Fuguan.

The Manifesto clearly had a dual aim, captured in the two terms “reappraisal” and “reconstruction.” On the one hand, the authors criticized the tendency of some Western Sinologists to look down on traditional Chinese culture from the citadel of modern Western rationality and, thus, to adopt the haughty stance of “Orientalists.” On the other hand, the Manifesto encouraged Confucian scholars to be receptive to Western trends and perspectives (critically evaluated) and thereby to become able to reinterpret and reconstruct in new ways traditional teachings. Receptivity in the Manifesto also extended clearly to the political domain, where the authors envisaged a reconciliation—coupled with mutual correction—of Confucian meritocracy with central aspects of modern democracy. In general terms, the document urged philosophers and scholars everywhere—in both the West and the East—to reflect seriously on the teachings of all cultures and to keep or retain what is best.10 This spirit of cosmopolitan learning was exemplified and continued in the works of the authors, especially those of Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan. Although they did not study abroad, both were fully versed in both Chinese and Western philosophy and were masters in pursuing genuinely comparative or (p.210) cosmopolitan investigations. Tang’s The Spiritual Values of Chinese Culture offers an innovative “reconstruction” of Chinese philosophical traditions enriched by insights culled from both Plato and Hegel. On the other hand, Mou Zongsan is renowned for his probing juxtaposition of Buddhist and Confucian teachings and also his innovative reinterpretation of Confucianism with the help of Kantian or quasi-transcendental arguments.11

China and Relationism

As it seems to me, the Manifesto of 1958 charted a viable and promising course for Confucian thought and practice in our globalizing century. The document did not counsel Confucian self-enclosure in the service of an exclusivist Chinese identity. Nor did it endorse hegemonic expansionism, the missionary dissemination of Confucian teachings in the absence of reciprocal learning processes. In avoiding both of these temptations, the document (I believe) was true to the guiding spirit of the sage of Qufu and his heirs. If there is something like a Confucian ontology or metaphysics, then it is not an ontology of rigid self-identity nor of arrogant triumphalism, but one of continuous learning in close relationship with all peoples and all things in the world. In this respect, I follow the insight of philosopher Zhao Tingyang when he pinpoints as the central feature of Chinese culture the theme of “relationism” (which is equally far removed from relativism and absolutism). As he observes at one point: “Chinese philosophy engages itself so much in the problems of relations that its metaphysics or ontology of co-existence could also be identified as relationology.” On this point, he concurs with the New Confucian philosopher Du Weiming when he observers that the self or selfhood—to the extent that it is recognized in the Analects—is not an isolated atom but a “relational self” or a “center of relationships” that ultimately embrace the world in a “fiduciary community.”12

To be sure, the centrality of relationships in Confucian thought is not a novel discovery. As a matter of fact, the core of Confucian teachings is often summed up in the idea of five basic relationships (wulun): those of husband and wife, father and son (or parent and child), older sibling and younger sibling, ruler and minister, and friend and friend. What needs to be noted here is that these relationships are (p.211) not simply empirical-sociological constellations but ethical bonds involving distinct obligations and responsibilities. Clearly, such bonding relations are not peculiarly Chinese or limited to a given historical or geographical context but can be found in all societies everywhere and at all times. What is distinctive about Confucianism is that ethical bonds are not stipulated in a top-down fashion as abstract norms but are derived from concrete contextual encounters—whose meaning can be generalized (not in the mode of logical deduction but) through analogical transference. Moreover, not all the mentioned relations are tied to intimate family contexts (which may be culturally highly specific). Some of them are of a broader and potentially public character. This is especially true of the relations between ruler and ministers and between friends and friends—which present little or no obstacles to cultural transference.

What additionally needs to be recognized is that Confucian teachings are not exhausted by the five relationships. Equally and perhaps even more important is the underlying spirit or basic ethical inspiration undergirding these teachings: an inspiration manifest in a set of cardinal virtues ranging from jen (humaneness, benevolence) and li (appropriate conduct) to yi (righteousness or justice) and zhi (wisdom). Pride of place among these virtues is usually accorded to jen. In the words of the eminent historian of Chinese philosophy Wing-tsit Chan, jen should be seen as a general virtue “which is basic, universal, and the source of all specific virtues.”13 Its preeminence is equal to the Golden Rule. In the words of the Analects (6:28): “You want to establish yourself, then seek to establish others… . From what is near to you to seize the analogy [that is, to take the neighbor or other as yourself]—this is the way of jen.” Yet, as Du Weiming emphasizes, jen is not simply an abstract maxim but always functions in human relationships that are concrete and diversified and shaped, at least in part, by particular customs, ceremonies, or rituals. This is why he treats this virtue as a “living metaphor,” that is, a metaphor for an ethical and properly humanized way of life. Its practice, he adds, involves a “continuous process of symbolic exchange through the sharing of communally cherished values with other selves.”14

What the virtue of jen implies is a broad openness to others (a willingness to “establish” others), which is opposed to self-enclosure or the celebration of narrow self-identity. In our age of relentless globalization, (p.212) this openness has to be extended in a cosmopolitan direction: not only to Western modernity but also to Indian culture, Islamic culture, and the cultures of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. No doubt, this process involves not only outreach and a steady adjustment to new experiences but also a simultaneous deepening of self-understanding, including a deeper cultivation of the Confucian tradition. No one has described this dialectical or dialogical process better than Du Weiming in his reflections on the two-pronged trajectory of New Confucianism in our time. As he points out, Confucian thought and practice today needs to be grasped as a twofold process: “a continuous deepening of one’s subjectivity [or self-awareness] and an uninterrupted broadening of one’s sensitivity [or sensibility].” The two sides of the process are intimately entwined or interdependent. In order to fully plumb its self-understanding, the Confucian self must overcome and decenter itself without erasing its willingness to learn; it must struggle “to eliminate selfish or egoistic desires” while at the same time extending its hospitality and receptivity to broadening horizons of the world.15 As it seems to me, these comments agree quite well with the opening lines of the Analects (1:1), where Confucius tells us: “To learn and at proper times to repeat what one has learned, is that not after all a pleasure? That friends should come to visit one from afar, is this not after all delightful?”


(1.) This paper was presented at the Second Nishan Forum on Confucianism and World Civilization, held near the birthplace of Confucius, May 21–23, 2012.

(2.) For different forms of dissemination and cultural borrowing, short of outright domination, see my discussion in “Modes of Cross-Cultural Encounter,” in Beyond Orientalism, 1–37.

(3.) For the persistence of “empire” and “imperialism” in our time, see Said, Culture and Imperialism; see also Hardt and Negri, Empire. Regarding “hegemony” see especially Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, trans. Winston Moore and Paul Cammack (London: Verso, 1985).

(4.) Admittedly, this is a broad, metaphysical speculation that is challenged by a great array of conflicting evidence. For some thoughts on the topic see, e.g., W. Somerset Maugham, East and West (Garden City, NY: (p.260) Doubleday, 1934); C. Northcote Parkinson, East and West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963); and Charles A. Moore, ed., Philosophy and Culture— East and West (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1962).

(5.) See on this point Connolly, World of Becoming; see also my “Being in the World: A Moving Feast” (chap. 1 above).

(6.) Liu Shuxian, “Contemporary New Confucianism: Background, Varieties, and Significance,” in Dallmayr and Zhao Tingyang, Contemporary Chinese Political Thought, 94.

(7.) Jiang Qing and Sheng Hong, To Nurture Virtue with Virtue (in Chinese) (Shanghai: Jointly Press, 2003), 56, 59, 184.

(8.) Jiang and Sheng, To Nurture Virtue with Virtue, 161. Compare also Jiang Qing, Political Confucianism (in Chinese) (Beijing: Jointly Press, 2003); and his A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future, ed. Daniel A. Bell and Ruiping Fan, trans. Edmund Ryd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

(9.) Kang Xiaoguang, Benevolent Government: The Third Road to China’s Political Development (in Chinese) (Singapore, 2005), vii–xlix.

(10.) For details of the Manifesto see Liu Shuxian, “Contemporary New Confucianism,” 96, 104–5.

(11.) See, e.g., Anja Steinbauer, “A Philosophical Symphony: Tang Junyi’s System,” http://www.fed.cuhk.edu.hk (accessed Feb. 20, 2012); Mou Zongsan, Intellectual Intuition and Chinese Philosophy (in Chinese) (Taipei, 1971); Mou Zongsan, Treatise on Summum Bonum (in Chinese) (Taipei, 1985).

(12.) See Zhao Tingyang, “All-Under-Heaven and Methodological Relationism,” in Dallmayr and Tingyang, Contemporary Chinese Political Thought, 60; see also Du Weiming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), 81, 88.

(13.) Wing-tsit Chan, “Chinese and Western Interpretations of Jen (Humanity),” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 2 (1975): 109.

(14.) Du Weiming, “Jen as a Living Metaphor,” in Confucian Thought, 81. As he remarks in another context, jen also mediates between humanity and nature, as well as between humanity and “Heaven.” Thus, a person striving for jen “must also be able to realize the nature of the ‘myriad things’ and assist Heaven and Earth in their transforming and nourishing functions.” See Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1979), 97.

(15.) See Du Weiming, “Neo-Confucian Religiosity and Human Relatedness,” in Confucian Thought, 133, 137.