Feb 13, 2020 in Informative

Confucian Moral Teachings in the 18th and 20th Centuries

In the 18th century, many European writers interpreted Confucian moral teaching as part of a “natural theology.” It happened because the Chinese rulers of those times widely promoted Confucian doctrines and tried to establish proper order in society, using these moral teachings. However, later, in the 20th century, some East Asian writers like Kang Youwei began to claim that Confucianism was a part of the “national essence,” meaning that it was in human mind and blood, and it did not depend on the religion or authority. This view was highly criticized by the other writers, especially Western ones, because Youwei’s personal preferences were felt in his statements. Thus, after analyzing his “Preface,” it becomes evident that there was not a difference between the 18th and 20th centuries or between East Asia and Europe, but it was Youwei’s personal opinion and protest against the rules established in his society.

Kang Youwei believed that every state should have a basic religion. He claimed, “The foundation of a state, that is, what people’s lives depend on, must be the cornerstone of a great religion that transforms popular practices and imbues people’s minds, so that they revere it through their actions and follow it to their deaths”. In such a way, the writer promoted Confucianism as a religion, and he was sure that if the state had no religion, it would be lost. However, he contradicted his personal belief that Confucianism was the national essence thus. If it were in human’s blood, they would not abandon it or forget, and there would be no need to impose Confucian ideas on the citizens of East Asia in the form of religion. Therefore, Youwei tried to prove the other countries that Confucianism was not a natural theology but a religion, and Confucius was “not a sage who had respectfully studied, codified, and transmitted the classics [but] a political reformer and a genuine prophet”. According to this belief, Confucianism had to be preserved as a ritual but not as a teaching. Youwein’s view of Confucianism can be explained by his dedication to this doctrine and his desire to save the society from a collapse.

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At the same time, the Western and East Asian writers and philosophers did not fully disagree with the explanation of the Confucian moral teachings. They just interpreted these teachings in different ways because of their views and national beliefs. For example, the Chinese philosophers would claim that “goodness emerges from goodness and evil from evil,” while the Western scholars would affirm that goodness is lovable and evil is hateful. Thus, the same concept is perceived differently. It happens not because of some national dissimilarities or mental abilities of each of these philosophers but because of their culture and traditions. In East Asian countries, Confucianism has existed for about two thousand years, and it is obvious that even today, people feel its impact on their worldviews. In European countries, the influence of Christianity is also evident. Although Christianity is a religion and Confucianism is a doctrine, the essence is the same. Moreover, Youwei’s statement can be explained from this perspective.

Youwei wanted to promote Confucianism as a reigion because he thought that religion was able to unite the citizens and add them some strength. As some other reformers, Kang Youwei believed that the Western countries were so powerful and cohesive because of the fact that they “supposedly” had a single national religion. Since the thinker wanted his country to prosper, he decided to call Confucianism a religion and compare his country to those of the West. In such a way, he equated the East Asian countries to the Western countries and opposed them to each other simultaneously. On the one hand, since China had no single religion, Youwei’s claim that Confucianism was a national essence had the right to exist. Hence, he wanted to establish one strong religion, proving people that it was their essence. On the other hand, since most of the people perceived it as a part of the natural theology, it could not be called a religion, and Youwei’s personal preferences were obvious. In any case, there was no significant difference in the views of Confucianism between the East Asian and European writers. The only difference was the perception of this moral theory and practice by these writers.

In the 18th century, China was governed by the Qing dynasty while in the 20th century, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was founded, and the perception of Confucianism changed significantly. When in the 18th century, the impact of the West on China was minimal, in the 20th century the invasion of Western traditions and political regimes was inevitable. The cultural and political differences between these two parties were reduced, and the Chinese old imperial system was replaced with the Republic of China. According to Goossaert and Palmer, “CCP policy was to focus on struggles against “landlords,” “class enemies,” and “counterrevolutionary elements”. They did not attack temples but their members and contributors. The CCP acted against different religions, such as Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism; however, it was difficult to eliminate them. One can see that the Party did not separate Confucianism as a religion here, which means that the members of this Party still believed it was a doctrine but not a religion. On the other hand, Youwei’s desire to see Confucianism as a national essence becomes clearer now. Since the 20th century was considered as the time of changes for East Asian countries, the desire to preserve proper order and peace in these countries was evident. Thus, although Confucianism remained the same, and it was still a part of the natural theology, to attract more adherents, something extremely new was needed. Therefore, the proclamation of the Confucian moral teachings as a new religion was a call for action, and Youwei wanted the citizens of his country to unite as, for example, Jews did when Jerusalem was lost, and save their land from these changes. This assumption proves that there was not a difference between the eras or countries but a difference in perception and beliefs, as well as in personal desires of the writers and activists.

After analyzing both Youwei’s writings and the views of European writers, one may conclude that the difference in the explanation of Confucian moral theories can be explained in the following way. First, the 18th century and the 20th century were quite different from the perspective of the development of Chinese society. However, the view of Confucianism did not change, and the only reason why it was called the “national essence” was the desire to unite the country by means of a new religion. Second, the European and East Asian countries did not differ significantly because they had similar notions of good and evil, the Lord of Heaven and the Way. The only difference was in their understanding and perception of these things; thus, the Confucian moral teachings were also interpreted differently. Despite these dissimilarities, one may conclude that Youwei’s statement was mostly based on his personal preferences and desires rather than on the time or country in which he lived.


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