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  • Tang Junyi: Confucian Philosophy and the Challenge of Modernity by Thomas Fröhlich
  • Chor-yung Cheung (bio)
Tang Junyi: Confucian Philosophy and the Challenge of Modernity. By Thomas Fröhlich. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. viii + 324. Hardcover $152.00, ISBN 978-9-004330-14-6.

Thomas Fröhlich's book has made an important contribution to Tang Junyi scholarship. It is probably the most systematic study of Tang's philosophical thought in English so far. While there are a number of pioneering works in English that have touched upon various aspects of Tang's philosophy, Fröhlich's is a fully-fledged monograph dedicated to the study of Tang in a comprehensive manner. It covers, among other things, the ideas of mind (xin 心) and nature (xing 性) in Tang's thought (Chapter 5), his civil theology (Chapters 5 & 10), moral vision (Chapter 6), cultural conservatism (Chapter 4), his philosophical ideas on history (Chapter 11), politics and the demonic aspects of the political (Chapter 7-9), and his critique of totalitarianism (Chapter 12) and modernity (Chapter 4). Fröhlich even examines Tang's exilic experience in Hong Kong after 1949, believing that this is important for an adequate understanding of his cultural patriotism and critique of modernity (Chapter 4). Tang's hybrid, idiosyncratic and grammatically complex style of Chinese writing in many of his philosophical works is also scrutinized since, according to Fröhlich, this conveys Tang's concern about the limits of philosophical/discursive exposition as a means to attain intuitive insights and transcendental understanding (Chapter 5).

The subtitle of Fröhlich's book is "Confucian Philosophy and the Challenge of Modernity." I believe it is Fröhlich's central claim in the book that Tang's response to this challenge is essentially modern, political and liberal. I regard this as the most original contribution made by Fröhlich in the advancement of Tang Junyi scholarship.

Fröhlich points out that "Tang hardly ever used the now common label of 'new Confucianism'" (p. 5) in his works. But this is not the main reason why Fröhlich thinks that it is more appropriate to describe Tang's reconstruction of Confucianism in the 20th Century as "modern" rather than "new/neo". To Fröhlich, while Tang adopted a relatively conservative cultural worldview in the modern world and believed that a normative reconstruction of Confucianism was necessary when facing the malaise of instrumental rationality, cultural alienation and materialism, Tang was convinced that "a rigid insistence on traditional orders of political and moral values was untenable for modernizing societies." (p. 2) [End Page 650] Fröhlich is also of the view that Tang accepted that "many emancipatory facets of political modernity–among them constitutional government, human rights, the rule of law, and democracy–had Western, not Chinese origins." (p. 3) This acceptance of constitutional government by Tang was drawn from a fundamental lesson in modern history that "[a]ny attempt to implement a totalistic, substantial reintegration of modern society would inevitably come at the cost of traditionalism, dogmatism, authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism." (p. 5)

Tang's reconstruction is modern not only because he recognized the secularized and disenchanted context of modernity as unavoidable. He at the same time argued that Confucianism's "positive limit-concepts" (pp. 130-137) of individual self-fulfillment and inner sagehood could provide the kind of normative underpinning and cultural identity required in regulating the individual's moral pursuit in a modern society. No doubt, Tang's ideas of individual self-fulfillment and inner sagehood were very much inspired by neo-Confucianism's theory of mind (xin) and nature (xing). What distinguished Tang's approach from other leading neo-Confucian thinkers such as Wang Yangming, according to Fröhlich, was his grounding of these ideas in a civil-theological framework that is anchored in religious tolerance (pp. 243-246), in which the essential unity of the human mind and Heaven (the absolute) was to be achieved by an act of religious intuition or philosophical faith having given due regard to the importance of "efforts" (i.e. gongfu) (p. 131) that were neither revelatory nor discursive, but "the working of the ultimate reality, i.e. the mind's...