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Reviewed by:
  • Confucian Cultures of Authority
  • Sor-hoon Tan (bio)
Peter D. Hershock and Roger T. Ames, editors. Confucian Cultures of Authority. SUNY Series in Asian Studies Development. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. xvii, 258 pp. Paperback $27.95, ISBN 0–7914–6798–8.

This is a very useful collection of essays for higher undergraduate and graduate classes in Asian studies with a special interest in Chinese society and culture. Bringing together expertise in philosophy, literature, history, and the social sciences, it has both a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach. It is written well enough to be interesting and an enjoyable read even for those with considerable knowledge of the field.

Henry Rosemont's distinction between authoritarian and authoritative sets the scene for multidimensional discussions of authority. When exercised by coercion or threats of coercion based on strength or power, authority is authoritarian; when exercised by persuasion, based on knowledge and reason, authority is authoritative (p. 1). Much has been said about the authoritarian tendency of Confucianism. This volume offers a critical reflection on the authoritative characteristics in Confucianism and provides clues for dealing with the authoritarianism that historically overshadows Confucian practices in China.

Rosemont presents some sobering statistics about the degree of social injustice worldwide and argues that Western thought, which assumes human beings to be autonomous selves with inalienable rights for whom individual liberty is the highest value, is inadequate in achieving much needed equality and justice, and ultimately renders "liberty" an empty word for the greater majority of people. Classical Confucianism, with its assumption of relational persons who are comembers of communities, offers a better way to enhance human well-being.

Tao Jiang's chapter on Confucian political authority suggests that the traditional contrast between rule by law and rule by man should be replaced with a contrast between rule of ritual and rule by/of law, and the universalism versus particularism dichotomy should be avoided in understanding classical Confucian political thought. Adopting Thomas Kasulis's contrast between intimacy and integrity, Jiang argues that the rule of ritual gives rise to a kind of "intimate authority" that is personal yet "objective." In intimate relations, self and other are not sharply separated. Intimate knowledge has an affective dimension. Intimacy is somatic as well as psychological. Its ground is not generally self-conscious, reflective, or self-illuminating. Integrity, emphasizing opposite characteristics, is the premise of the rule of law. Jiang examines the historical Confucianization of law to elucidate the uneasy relationship between ritual and law within the traditional Chinese political system, and concludes that to accept the ideal of the rule of law, [End Page 465] Confucian China "will require nothing short of a radical cultural transformation from the intimacy-dominated political culture to the integrity-dominated one, even as intimacy retains its influence on the Chinese society" (p. 42). The chapter does not quite manage to realize the full potential of the interesting reconceptualization of classical Confucian authority by applying it to the historical analysis or in making the discussion relevant to contemporary Chinese politics.

Wenshan Jia examines how relational authority is constructed in contemporary Chinese society by employing a Confucian conceptual complex of wei (position)-ming (naming)-lianmian (face)-guanxi (relationship)-renqing. While the case studies are interesting and illuminating, Wenshan Jia's claim that "Confucianism is built upon the ontocosmology of wei and guanxi" is questionable; some might say that Confucius had no ontocosmology (whatever that is). Throughout the chapter, Jia emphasizes the inherence of moral and social hierarchy in Confucianism. This prompts readers to wonder if relational authority is inherently about inequality, an impression reinforced by Jia's conclusion that the continued relevance of the wei-ming-lianmian complex indicates that "China still has a long way to go before it transforms itself into a culture of relational equality" (p. 62). Is "the culture of relational equality" to replace relational authority and, therefore, to replace Confucian culture of authority altogether?

To examine the historical association of Confucianism with authoritarianism, it is important to understand when and how authoritarian interpretations came about. Keith Knapp's chapter on parental authority as seen in early medieval tales is an excellent contribution to this effort.1 Historical...