The role of Confucius in modern China, 1950 to the present
Smith, Richard T.
Master of Arts
The role of Confucius and Confucianism in Chinese culture has been an important question in contemporary Chinese historiography. From the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the present, Chinese scholars have sought to determine the relevance of Confucianism to the Marxist-Maoist values of the modern Chinese state. The Communist historians’ approach to this issue sheds much light on the perceptions, values, and political considerations which have shaped Chinese historiography over the past three decades. In his recent book, Critiques of Confucius in Contemporary China, Kam Louie traces the course of the "Confucian debate" in twentieth-century China. The social and political implications of this debate, however, are a surprisingly little-studied phenomenon in either Chinese or Western scholarship. This study of the changing interpretations of Confucius in Communist China has led to several conclusions concerning modern Chinese historiography. First, modern historiography reflects the central dilemma of twentieth-century intellectuals in China -- how to create a modern culture and yet retain the unique "spirit" of China’s glorious heritage. This tension between traditionalism and modernity pervades all realms of political, intellectual, and artistic life in contemporary China. Secondly, this study indicates the persistence of traditional attitudes and cognitive patterns in contemporary Chinese historiography* The use of formalism, stereotypes, and numerical configurations, for example, links historical writing of the past with the present, despite changes in ideology. Furthermore, the traditional perception of history as a chronicle of moral judgments is shared by modern historians, and, as in the past, current scholarship is manipulated by the state to serve political purposes. During most of the period from 195 to the present, traditional historiographical patterns have prevailed in Chinese scholarship on Confucianism. The Confucian debates of the late 195s and early 196s, however, represent a distinctly non-traditional approach to historical writing. At this time the dramatic liberalization of the state's academic policies allowed more freedom and experimentation in interpretations of the past. Most appraisals of Confucius during this interlude were relatively apolitical, reflecting the skepticism and critical scholarship of the New Culture Movement of the late teens and early 192s in China. Finally, we see that Chinese intellectuals have responded tentatively to the current regime's new policy of academic liberalization. Inherited social attitudes of fear toward authority, as well as the memory of the previous "rectification campaigns" that followed periods of "academic freedom,” have created tension and suspicion of the state on the part of China's much-maligned intellectuals. Contemporary philosophers and historians are now re-evaluating Confucius with one eye on "objective,” critical scholarship and another on state orthodoxy. The current orthodoxy, as expressed in the 198 catalog of Peking Museum of Chinese History is that: Confucius was the initiator of the philosophical school known as Confucianism. He stood for maintaining the order of slave society. In his late years, he mainly engaged in compiling ancient books and tutoring private students, thus becoming influential in the development of China's ancient culture and education. Confucius is thus stigmatized for his political conservatism, but praised for his enduring cultural contributions.