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Opening Democracy in Contemporary Confucian Philosophy, David Elstein identifies himself, correctly, to be filling a gap in English-language scholarship (pp. ix, 24). That gap, as the title partly suggests, is a lack of Anglophone accounts of contemporary Sinophone Confucian views of democracy. We have in English a robust discussion of the relationship between Confucianism and democracy, but there is very little connection between that discourse and the same discussion occurring amongst scholars in Chinese. Thus one of the main aims here is to communicate the Sinophone discussion to readers otherwise cut off from it, and to evaluate its arguments.
Elstein selects six thinkers from Taiwan and Mainland China for his purposes, chosen in virtue of their historical and philosophical significance and interest (p. ix). By this standard his selection undoubtedly succeeds: About half of the book devotes itself to the historically predominant and philosophically challenging line of New Confucian thought, and these views are then contrasted with those of two very different--and certainly among today's most intriguing-thinkers in mainland China. Throughout, Elstein deftly portrays complex metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political views in translation, which stands as a feat in itself, while also critically evaluating the theoretical and practical validity of their claims.
The six thinkers are given a chapter each, divided into two groups, "Overseas New Ruism" and "Ruism in Mainland China." Except in the book's title, Elstein adopts the term "Ruism" for what is more commonly called "Confucianism," reserving the latter term for the teachings of Confucius himself rather than the tradition more broadly. He also uses "Daoxue" rather than "Neo-Confucianism," perhaps to more clearly distinguish it from modern New Confucianism--that is, "New Ruism." (I stick to "Confucianism" hereafter, following the title.) In any case, the first group traces the New Confucian line predominant especially in Taiwan through the figures of Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (1909–1995), Xu Fuguan 徐復觀 (c. 1903–1982), and Lee Ming-Huei (Li Minghui) 李明輝 (1953–). The second group includes one figure close to that line, Deng Xiaojun 鄧小軍 (1951–), and two who diverge dramatically from it, Jiang Qing [End Page 1] 蔣慶 (1953–) and Bai Tongdong 白彤東 (1970–). To contextualize the discussion, Elstein begins with two introductory chapters on the modern historical backdrop of Chinese Confucian political discourse and on classical Confucian political thought, respectively.
The selective history presented in Chapter One focuses on major figures and intellectual movements that have shaped modern Confucianism's relation to democracy. One recurring theme, for example, is how early modern attempts to base political and social reform in Confucian tradition (such as those by Kang Youwei 康有為 and Tan Sitong 譚嗣同) were rejected not so much in substantive response to the content of Confucian teachings, but rather due to a reactionary stigma that the political situation had lent tradition. This stigma was especially strong following Yuan Shikai's 袁世凱 use of Confucian rhetoric to undermine the Republican revolution, and after the propagandizing of traditional culture by the Nationalist government to increase loyalty (p. 13). The resultant liberal anti-Confucian attacks, Elstein points out, were very much responded to in Mou Zongsan and Xu Fuguan's views of democracy (pp. 7, 9, 17). Connections are drawn as well between the New Culture Movement's push against inequality (exhibited in its advocacy of vernacular writing) and its rejection of Confucianism, which was viewed by many to be incompatible with constitutional government and democracy (pp. 6, 9–10). In addition to historically grounding the subsequent discussion of Confucian positions on democracy, this section stands alone as a concise account of the tensions between Confucianism and the complex social and political forces of China's early modernization.
Chapter Two demonstrates potential conflicts between modern democratic thought and classical Confucian political theory so as to illuminate challenges modern Confucians must overcome. Elstein himself rejects the possibility that classical Confucianism supports democracy, arguing that in Confucius and Mencius not only is there "simply no consideration of [democracy] as a possible form of government," but that there are also "political commitments...