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  • A Topography of Confucian Discourse: Politco-philosophical Reflections on Confucian Discourse since Modernity
  • John Berthrong (bio)
Lee Seung-hwan. A Topography of Confucian Discourse: Politco-philosophical Reflections on Confucian Discourse since Modernity. Translated by Jaeyoon Song and Lee Seung-hwan. Paramus, NJ: Homa and Sekey Books, 2006. xii + 256 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 1-931907-27-7. Paperback $29.95. ISBN 1-931907-34-X.

What to do with Confucianism? This is a question that engages many contemporary Chinese, Korean, and Japanese intellectuals. Simply deciding what we mean when we use the term “Confucian” or “Confucianism” is not entirely clear and has become a hotly contested issue in East Asia and among the East Asian diaspora. This is especially fascinating for a tradition that not long ago had been given up for dead. In the 1920s, many of the best and brightest young Chinese intellectuals mounted and sustained philosophical and historical attacks on what they considered the incubus of a dead Confucian tradition on the current Chinese situation. At its most simple and pragmatic level, the argument was crystal clear: Confucians were in charge of the Chinese ship of state when it ran aground, with disastrous consequences, when it encountered the unknown shoals of Western imperialism. It did not really matter that no other country could actually stand against the tide of Western imperial might; the fact still held that Confucians were in charge and were held responsible for the catastrophe.

A recounting of the general historical interpretation of the role Confucianism played in the demise of the various traditional East Asian cultures is critical to understanding the task that Professor Lee set for himself in collecting this set of stimulating essays on Confucian discourse. In short, Lee explores the various contexts and pretexts of the assorted ways that missionaries, historians, philosophers, and public intellectuals sought to define Confucianism. His basic argument is that all of these parties have interpreted the Confucian Way in order to fit their own agendas. The Jesuits had one agenda, the European Enlightenment audience for the Jesuits back home had another agenda in which the Confucians were to play a role, Western imperial policy makers had yet another interpretation, and, of course, various Asian intellectuals responded to these interpretations as part of the Western imperial and colonial assault on the peoples and cultures of what the Westerners called “East Asia.” Lee argues that this kind of construction of alternative discourses about the history and nature of Confucianism continues today and includes the various theories of postmodernism that are now so popular in Europe and North America. Even these new postmodern theories, alas, are often just the last in a long string of Western interpretations of Confucianism as a perfect example of the culturally different other, an exotic and distant mirror in which the Western eye finds itself endlessly refracted and distorted through its interaction with other cultures and traditions. [End Page 120]

The condemnation of the role that Confucianism played in the demise of traditional China was sustained and broadly conceived by both Asian and Western intellectuals. In the first place, the modern reformers pointed out that the Confucians were such an insular, self-satisfied, and petrified group of civil servants that they did not have the sense to realize that they were in trouble. Moreover, young Chinese (and Korean) intellectuals in the 1920s would also have a perfectly good counterexample of what needed to be done to resist the degradation of what the Chinese called the “semi-colonial status” of China in the first part of the twentieth century. This would, of course, be the rise of modern Japan. The lesson drawn from the Japanese case is that there was no reason for an East Asian country to fall prey to Western colonial status if it modernized, and a distinct part of the modernization package was the condemnation of the Confucian past, save for its preservation in the museum of cultural history.

The Korean case was even more poignant. If China had slipped into semicolonial bondage by the early 1920s, Korea had fallen prey to the one successful case of East Asian modernization and nation building and had become incorporated into...


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