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  • Confucianism and Modernity—Insights from an Interview with Tu Wei-ming
  • Bingyi Yu and Zhaolu Lu

On November 6 and December 5, 1997, we visited Tu Wei-ming, professor of Chinese history and philosophy and Director of the Yenching Institute at Harvard University. The questions we brought to Professor Tu were manifold, but we had one concern that was central. It seemed to us that although we are entering a new millennium, the basic human dilemma remains fundamentally the same as it has been through the ages: we must all live together on this planet, but we fight among ourselves for the limited available resources. How can we make this turn into a new century—this turn of the millennium—a genuinely human turn in the best sense? What mode of thinking will enable us to create a new world civilization—and not just a new "world order"? How will our past, particularly our many cultural traditions, affect our future? As members of the scholarly community who are Chinese, we are especially concerned with the question of what role Chinese culture, in particular the Confucian tradition, can play in the remaking of our world.

During our two interview sessions, we made known our concerns, and Professor Tu shared some of his most recent thoughts on the relationship between traditional Confucianism and modern civilization. He also elaborated his earlier views on the history of civilization, on the construction of planetary culture, and on the modern relevance of traditional Confucianism. For this article, we have organized some of the results of our interview under three headings: (1) the clash of civilizations and the dialogue of civilizations, (2) Confucian humanism and the "New Humanism," and (3) tradition and modernity.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Dialogue of Civilizations

In 1993, one of Tu's colleagues, Professor Samuel P. Huntington (at Harvard's Olin Institute of Strategical Studies), published an essay titled "The Clash of Civilizations" (Huntington 1993). In this essay, Huntington claims that international political conflicts and the future of human development can both be explained in terms of a clash of civilizations, and he further elaborates this theory in his 1996 work The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington maintains that historically the sharpest and cruelest conflicts are all deeply rooted in the divergences of civilizations from each other. He claims that in the future a divergence between Western and non-Western civilizations, rather than political and economic differences, will define the battleground where international conflicts arise, and that the clash between traditional Confucianism on the one hand and both Islam and the non-Islamic West on the other will be the focal point of international conflicts. These conflicts will determine the future structure and orientation [End Page 377] of international politics. So far, this "clash of civilizations" theory continues to receive a strong response worldwide that is both favorable and critical.1

Professor Tu criticized the Huntingtonian understanding of civilization as a rather one-sided point of view that represents a fashionable but unhealthy current that has persisted in American society since the end of the Cold War and is typical of the narrow-minded political model that has come out of that era. Although the "clash of civilizations" theory continues to be widely popular, Tu predicted that its influence will decline, because its very foundation is problematic. First of all, it does not correctly represent the mainstream currents in modern civilizations. Tu emphasized that it is a dialogue of civilizations, not a clash, that appropriately characterizes this mainstream. Moreover, conflict exists not just between civilizations; it arises internally, within each civilization system as well. Countries and regions around the world are confronted with the conflict between improving material life and maintaining moral and spiritual values, between fostering economic growth and preserving the environment, between protecting individual rights and safeguarding the community, between change and stability, and so on. Problems like these are not unique to any one civilization system. The fact that these problems are common to different civilization systems indicates that a wide-ranging dialogue between different civilizational and cultural streams is both possible and necessary.

In the 1940s the German philosopher Karl Jaspers proposed...