- A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future by Jiang Qing, translated by Edmund Ryden, edited by Daniel A. Bell and Ruiping Fan
How important is Jiang Qing, whose extraordinary proposals for political change make up the core of the new book A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future? In his Introduction to the volume, co-editor Daniel Bell maintains that Jiang’s views are “intensely controversial” and that conversations about political reform in China rarely fail to turn to Jiang’s proposals. At least in my experience, this is something of an exaggeration. Chinese political thinking today is highly pluralistic, and for many participants Jiang is simply a curiosity—if indeed they are aware of him. Still, for three reasons Jiang is very much worth our attention. First, there is a vibrant and growing community of academics, activists, and intellectuals in China who engage Confucianism as a live, contemporary source of meaning, and Jiang is clearly one of the leaders of this group. Second, explicitly Confucian practices are being revived or re-invented in many areas of Chinese society, and a good number of those who are drawn to these activities are inspired by Jiang (for example, by his handbook on reciting the Classics) or even supporters of Jiang (witness the fact that Jiang was able to establish his Yangming Jingshe Academy with private capital). Finally, some thinkers who are quite sympathetic to Confucianism—or even identify as Confucians—find Jiang’s ideas very troubling. We thus have ample reason to give Jiang serious attention, and this well-designed volume makes it possible to gain access to and engage with Jiang’s arguments in English.
The book is comprised of four major parts: Bell’s substantial Introduction; three essays by Jiang; four shorter critical essays by Joseph Chan, Bai Tongdong, Chenyang Li, and Wang Shaoguang; and extensive responses by Jiang. Bell’s introductory essay provides a helpful biography of Jiang that details his changing relationships with both Marxism and the “New Confucianism” of Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan. In the final section of the Introduction, Bell also reflects on possible areas in which Jiang and his critics might find more common ground than Jiang has so far been willing to grant; as Bell notes, in the present volume Jiang refuses to make even a single concession.
Jiang’s three essays each concentrate on a key aspect of his political blueprint for a future Confucian China. Chapter 1 explicates his idea of threefold legitimacy (sacred, historical, and popular) and the tricameral legislature that he accordingly proposes. Chapter 2 introduces an institution he calls the Academy (Tai Xue), a powerful supervisory body made up of Confucian scholars with the “authority to appraise and [End Page 502] adjudicate the rightness of any [state] policy” (p. 57). In chapter 3, Jiang explains his conception of the state as an enduring spiritual and organic entity that is best headed not by an elected official but by a hereditary albeit largely symbolic monarch, a position best filled in contemporary China, he argues, by the heir of Confucius. The critical essays in the book’s third section cover a range of topics. Chan argues that Jiang is mistaken to seek an imposition of Confucianism as a comprehensive doctrine (in Chan’s terms this is a form of “extreme perfectionism”), though Chan sees room for Confucian values to be advanced in more piecemeal fashion. Bai says that adopting the religious and metaphysical approach to Confucianism that Jiang derives from Han dynasty Confucianism is a mistake, and argues that a Confucianism as universally accessible political philosophy, based in pre-Qin texts like the Analects and Mencius, is more suited to the contemporary pluralistic world. Li also challenges Jiang’s understanding of “heaven (tian),” arguing for a more immanent version of that idea and...