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Reviewed by:
  • Confucianism for the Modern World
  • Christian Jochim (bio)
Daniel L. Bell and Hahm Chaibong, editors. Confucianism for the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii, 383 pp. Hardcover $80.00, ISBN 0-521-82100-2. Paperback $33.00, ISBN 0-521-52788-0.

Confucianism for the Modern World grew out of the “Confucian democracy” project and contains, in part, papers from a conference at Andong, Korea (pp. xi–xii). Unfortunately, the editors tell us little about either of these items, not even the conference dates. The volume presents a wide range of courageous efforts to defend the need for Confucianism in the world today. At the start, the editors claim that contributors to the book “argue for feasible and desirable Confucian policies and institutions” (p. i). Their contributions must, therefore, be judged primarily as Confucian prescriptions for the modern world. Readers will find little description of Confucianism as it actually exists today, although there is much good description of Confucian ideas and institutions from premodern East Asia, which contributors often present as the basis for their prescriptions for today’s world. For most readers, the main issue will be the extent to which each contributor argues successfully for Confucian policies and institutions that are both feasible and desirable in today’s world. In reviewing the contributions, I will keep this issue in mind.

I will begin by commenting on the epilogue by William Theodore de Bary, which seeks to answer the question: Why Confucius now? De Bary has little sympathy for those who would despair at the nature of historical Confucianism and, instead, turn to the “original Confucius” for inspiration. He argues that we must focus on the ways in which East Asian peoples have tried to implement Confucian ideas and ideals in actual historical practices and institutions. As he indicates, whether we look at cases of successful implementation or at failures, this is the only way we can hope to predict what will happen with similar efforts to implement Confucian ideas and ideals today.

But why bother? Are there not better sets of ideas and ideals for us to adopt today? De Bary thinks not, pointing out that his goal in The Liberal Tradition of China “was to show how Confucian ideas and ideals had survived, on their own merits, from age to age, not just from ideological inertia but because major thinkers in the past brought them to bear on pivotal issues of both perennial and contemporary relevance” (pp. 363–364). Why should these ideas and ideals continue to survive? And how can we assure that they will? De Bary’s answer is that we should insist that educational curricula everywhere incorporate, first, the study of classical texts and, second, efforts to stress the relevance of their content for personal reflection and self-cultivation. As for why the Analects, in particular, should be part of this effort, even outside East Asia, he points to “the appeal of Confucius as a person who achieved a measure of self-fulfillment in difficult circumstances” (p. 371). [End Page 59]

As much as I would instinctively agree with de Bary, I do not see how his argument would persuade other people around the world to include the Analects in their school curricula. After all, every society on earth has its culture heroes, recent as well as ancient, with strong personalities, “who achieved a measure of self-fulfillment in difficult circumstances.” In a sense, then, de Bary does not solve but instead simply highlights the problem facing all contributors to the volume. They need to convince readers not only that Confucian ideas and institutions are interesting and valuable, but also that they are preferable to other alternatives or, in other words, more “feasible and desirable” than the alternatives, including modern or Western ones. The various contributors are painfully aware of this fact and exert their best efforts to show how Confucian prescriptions for today’s ills are better than others. Moreover, some contributors embrace de Bary’s advice that, in developing Confucian-based prescriptions for today’s ills, we stay focused on ways in which East Asian peoples previously implemented Confucian ideas and ideals in actual historical practices and...


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