- Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam
Rethinking Confucianism is a collection from the UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series consisting of sixteen excellent essays that reexamine the meaning and role of "Confucianism" in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam largely in light of two central presuppositions. The first is that Confucius represents the cultural backwardness and conservative agendas that many progressive thinkers in Asia saw as an obstacle to positive change. The second is that Confucius provides the core values, in all their permutations, of a stable and human-centered community, such as the kind that has recently been credited with enabling the economic growth in so much of Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. Rethinking Confucianism challenges both of these presuppositions on a number of grounds, but in general—and despite the fact that this grand text takes generalization to be more of an impediment than an aid to serious study—I will say that the challenge focuses more on the failure to properly frame the discussions around "Confucianism" in a context that is specific enough to do justice to the inquiry.
For instance, specific geographical, cultural, historical, and sociopolitical factors must be taken into account that show how Confucian thought was initially "appropriated" by Japan, Korea, and Vietnam and then later "reappropriated" in the twentieth century by these countries and by China as well. This goes hand in hand with the philosophical reality that Confucianism itself must be defined and, as this tour de force of essays shows, must happen in a specific context for any [End Page 337] real meaning to be gained from the analysis. As the editors express it, "The contingent and indeterminate nature of Confucianism—even the term itself is problematic—must be addressed before any more generalized social science style 'ideal types' can be applied to the political, sociological, or economic analyses of the uses of Confucianism in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam before and after 1900 " (p. 2). They continue, "Rather than monolithic paradigms, the chapters present a picture of a complex arena of shifting fields of intellectual and popular culture in East and Southeast Asia that were informed and inscribed by the Confucian repertoire of world-ordering." To bring this out, and as the Introduction to the work indicates, this lengthy analysis for better understanding past and present views of Confucianism and their relevance for the twentieth century is framed in light of the following categories or concerns: repertoires of world-ordering techniques; premodern appropriations of "China" and "Confucianism"; sociocultural variations in state-societal formations; the "modernization narrative" as a problem; Confucian theory and practice in different historical contexts; literati identity, gender, and medicine in Confucian discourse; reappropriations of Confucianism in the twentieth century; and terminology.
These frames of reference can be cast even more broadly into three main themes. The first is repertoires (of world-ordering techniques), which connect the cultural agents in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, who "creatively monitored, preserved, and reformed the complicated socio-political structures of their times to deal with the ongoing historical process of change" (p. 4). These "Confucian" elites were generally perceived as failures by 1900. The second theme is appropriations (of China or Confucianism), which includes the premodern appropriations of "China" and "Confucianism" and the reappropriations of Confucianism in the twentieth century. The third theme, variations (in state-societal formations), must also address the "modernization narrative" as a problem, particularly in light of the fact that some Asian countries (such as China and Vietnam) are reinventing their history after a sharp rejection of their past identity. This reinvention evokes a "tentative and cautious" return to Confucianism as a reaction against modernity instead of as a movement into Western postmodernity. Moreover, this theme includes analyses of how Confucian theory and practice are variously defined in different historical contexts, as well as in the different contexts of...