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  • Humanism in East Asian Confucian Contexts by Chun-chieh Huang
  • John A. Tucker (bio)
Chun-chieh Huang. Humanism in East Asian Confucian Contexts. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2010. 168 pp. Hardback $35.95, ISBN 978-3-8376-1554-8.

The most informed and appreciative discussions of Confucianism typically note how the philosophical thought and practice associated with the teachings of Kong Fuzi 孔夫, or Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.), are humanistic in orientation.1 For example, Wing-tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy introduces the subject of Chinese philosophy with a brief chapter, “The Growth of Humanism,” followed by another, “The Humanism of Confucius.”2 Quite rightly, Chan recognized that Chinese philosophy generally, and not just Confucianism, is essentially humanistic in outlook and exposition. Still, undoubtedly, the humanistic character of Chinese philosophy was shaped in salutary ways by the thinking of Confucius and all who followed in his very ethical approach to the nature of humanity, the family, society, and the polity. The spiritual was not Confucius’s strong suit, and the transcendental simply did not compute in his thinking. The world was that of the here and now, and the problem he considered most directly was how to make the very best of every aspect of reality through mutually respectful and productive relationships. Wing-tsit Chan was hardly the first or the last to notice the profoundly humanistic character of Confucian thought. Joseph Needham called attention to much the same in his studies of Chinese thought.3 In the United [End Page 284] States, similar views were advanced by the preeminent authority on Confucianism at Columbia University, William Theodore de Bary.4 Most recently, Harvard professor emeritus Tu Wei-ming has developed multifaceted understandings of Confucianism as humanism in essays, books, courses, and any number of public lectures.5 Earlier, Benjamin Schwartz had also explored the extent to which Confucius and Confucianism might be rightly comprehended as humanistic.6

With his recent monograph, Humanism in East Asian Confucian Contexts, Huang Chun-chieh, dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences at National Taiwan University, joins the ranks of these highly respected scholars. Huang’s book makes an exceptionally valuable and much needed contribution to the series of which it is a part: Being Human: Caught in the Web of Cultures—Humanism in the Age of Globalization, edited by Jörn Rüsen, Oliver Kozlarek, Jürgen Straub, and Huang himself. Although humanism is a Western interpretive category, its very meaning suggests that humanism need not be tied to any particular segment or society within the world of human beings. Huang’s volume shows, in profoundly interesting and interpretively innovative ways, that there is every reason in the world to see East Asian expressions of Confucianism as equally manifesting East Asian expressions of humanism. In making his case, it should be noted, Huang avoids the sometimes misleading singular number for the general noun “Confucianism.” After all, leaving Confucianism in the singular might imply, especially for those who are just beginning to learn about the philosophy, that Confucianism was a single, monolithic entity, static in its allegedly authoritarian sameness, and seemingly impervious if not antithetical to change, transformation, and process. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Drawing on ideas that percolated from an international conference at Rutgers University in 2009, East Asian Confucianisms: Interactions and Innovations, Huang conveys the dynamic, creative, and multifaceted character of Confucianism, and its many contextual grounds, by speaking of it in the plural rather than the singular.7 Huang’s use of the plural form of Confucianism is not simply meant to convey some overall sense of the diversity of the tradition so much as to emphasize the fact that the volume is, in terms of scope, content, and methodology, one that goes beyond the confines of nationalistic and ethnocentric research of the sort that might generate a study of Chinese Confucianism and humanism. Rather than a narrow, nation-based vision, Huang distinctively draws on a lifetime of learning and experience, facilitating his citation of examples from the breadth of Chinese, not to mention Korean and Japanese, history. The multidimensional content of Huang...


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