Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam
In the popular imagination, and often in scholarly thought also, the single most defining feature of East Asian societies -- the crucial feature that is shared by otherwise diverse cultures -- is the legacy of Confucianism.
Published: Thursday, December 19, 2002
Before the “East Asian economic miracle” that began in Japan in the 1960s, both Western scholars and progressive Asian thinkers tended to blame Asia’s “failure to develop” on Confucianism, a supposedly outmoded, reactionary, and ossified philosophy that clashed with such modern, Western values as competitiveness, universality, and rationality, all — so the argument went — essential for economic development.
By the 1970s and 1980s, however, with the Japanese economy skyrocketing and with the spectacular rise of the Asian “little tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), academic and popular discourse did an about-face and began to laud Confucianism as the source for the industriousness, group-centeredness, and respect for authority that — so the argument now went — were essential for economic growth.
By the mid-1990s, with Japan falling into what now seems perpetual recession and with the Asian financial crisis that erupted in mid-1997, but with the Chinese economy continuing to grow at 7% per year or better, a great many scholars seemed to have slipped into academic catatonia, not knowing what, if anything, to say about the role of Confucianism today.
This inconsistency has led one observer to comment that if all the nonsense written about Confucianism could be gathered in one place, it would form an imposing mountain. Now, with a load of dynamite in the form of a 642-page volume, Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, sponsored by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and published in the UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, a group of distinguished scholars of contemporary and historical Asia has blown that mountain to smithereens.
This ambitious volume represents the results of a five-year study encompassing the role of Confucian civilization in Asia since 1200. Under the editorship of UCLA’s Benjamin Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, all highly regarded historians (Elman in Chinese classical studies, Duncan in the history of Choson Korea, and Ooms in Neo-Confucian studies of Tokugawa Japan), the book brings together sixteen new essays by scholars working in Asian history, economy, politics, and culture to reevaluate Confucianism historically from the regional perspective of East and Southeast Asia and from the unique national perspectives of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This is, as the editors point out in their Preface, “the first time in English that Confucianism has been looked at in such a sustained light in terms of its complex role in all these countries and in terms of multidisciplinary, cultural, and social science perspectives.”
The volume seeks to explain the present pan-Asian revival of Confucianism a century after it was declared moribund by leading thinkers in Asia as well as in the West. It critically examines the claims that Confucianism is a central factor in Asian economic success. The book also explores traditional Confucian views of issues such as gender, medicine, and ritual. As Arif Dirlik, the noted intellectual historian, puts it,
The essays demonstrate the critical power of concrete historian analysis. Their sustained focus on a common set of problems makes for a remarkably coherent collection. Elman’s concluding essay is a tour de force of critical analysis. The volume should be required reading for all interested in modern Eastern Asia.