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  • Lost Soul: "Confucianism" in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse
  • Sor-hoon Tan (bio)
John Makeham. Lost Soul: "Confucianism" in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monographs 64. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. xii, 397 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-02811-1.

This study of the revival of Confucianism in Chinese academic discourse will be welcomed by those who do not have easy access to Chinese-language materials or lack the time to keep up with that vast literature as well as the institutional developments and key events that have shaped that discourse since the 1980s. The story begins with "the Singapore experiment" — the introduction of "Confucian Ethics" into the school curriculum, the establishment of the Institute of East Asian Philosophies, and efforts towards a wider revitalization movement which eventually failed. However, the focus on creative transformation of ruxue and the rujia capitalism thesis made popular during this episode remain relevant for subsequent ruxue revivalism in China. Tu Weiming was a key figure in this experiment; his Singapore experience became a part of his strategy of revitalizing ruxue in mainland China by "exporting it and then importing it" (p. 41).

During the 1980s, interest in the relevance of the rujia capitalism thesis to China's modernization grew, and a discursive space opened up in both Taiwan and mainland China for ruxue as "the mainstay of Chinese traditional culture" (p. 54). The revival gained momentum in the following decade with increased interaction among academics in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong; establishment of organizations such as the International Confucian Association; and conscription of ruxue into the patriotic education campaign in the People's Republic of China (PRC). A major research project funded under the seventh five-year plan (1986–1990) provided resources and opportunities for research in ruxue, and by the 1990s Chinese academics in mainland China, such as Guo Qiyong and Zheng Jiadong, began to identify personally with ruxue as a system of values, practices, and cultural norms. The relation of ruxue to Chinese culture became a bone of contention in the critical debates between National Studies proponents and Marxist scholars. Rivalry developed between mainland and Taiwanese academics over the proprietary claim to both interpretation and future direction of ruxue, especially New Confucianism. Taiwanese academics shifted their focus to developing an "East Asian" ruxue in the second half of the 1990s, and National Taiwan University began a major project to develop a ruxue hermeneutics. However, the claim that ruxue has "become the common property of East Asian civilization" (p. 94) is in tension with certain exclusivist tendencies of ruxue-centered cultural nationalism.

The author sets out to develop four key themes: [End Page 576]

  1. 1. academic interest in ruxue has been sustained by intellectual cross-fertilization and rivalry between scholars in China and overseas Chinese scholars;

  2. 2. contrary to conventional wisdom, party-state support on the mainland for programs to promote patriotic education and "traditional virtues" does not underpin continuing academic interest in ruxue;

  3. 3. cultural nationalism rather than state nationalism better explains the nature of contemporary discourse on ruxue;

  4. 4. academic discourse on ruxue in China and Taiwan provides little evidence of a sustained or robust philosophical creativity in ruxue philosophy. (pp. 6–7)

It is difficult to evaluate Makeham's last theme as he does not engage the more difficult philosophical issues in sufficient depth, with the possible exception of chapter 8 examining Lin Anwu's critique of Mou Zongsan's moral metaphysics. It would probably be wise not to take Makeham's assessment for granted without some serious reading of the works of philosophers participating in this discourse, even though it seems to be echoed by some of the participants themselves. One should also ask what standards of philosophical robustness and creativity are being applied, and whether these are legitimate or even relevant to the Chinese discourse on ruxue revival. This is the least important theme, and one does not have to agree with it to appreciate the book.

The greatest strength of this work lies in the clear and engaging account of diverse views and debates fighting over the "lost soul" of ruxue. Distinctions among different ruxue — politicized versus vulgar...


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