Early Modern Times – Confucian confusions

Early Modern Times - Confucian confusions

Dear readers,

This past week in the Foundation Year Program, I was kindly invited to reprise my lecture on classical Confucianism. Confucianism, as many scholars including myself have indicated, was very much in the minds of early modern Europeans. Indeed, the term ‘Confucianism’ itself originates in the early modern European encounter with China. Why was Confucianism of such interest especially to early modern missionaries and thinkers, and yet the source of Confucian confusions?

Confucianism originates in the teachings of Kongzi (‘Master Kong’, whose name was Latinised as ‘Confucius’), who lived 551-479 BCE, during a time of internecine strife known as the Warring States Period. This was an era of both disorder and intellectual flourishing: many schools of thought emerged at this time, including Confucianism. He and his followers taught that the Way out of immorality and chaos is that of virtue: in particular, if rulers cultivated virtue, harmony would be brought about in the world. Kongzi, however, thought that he was a loser, having failed to attain lasting public office. Furthermore, the early Confucians were persecuted during the unification of China in 221-206 BCE under the Qin emperor. Nevertheless, Confucian teachings did not disappear but were taken up by the successor Han dynasties as the ethical foundation of their rule. Confucianism became a Han-picked, Han-dy basis for a Chinese state philosophy that would last for thousands of years.

Although there had been indirect trade between China and the Mediterranean world since antiquity, the first sustained encounters with European culture were the Jesuit missions. The Jesuits were learned Catholic missionaries who sought to combat the Protestant threat in Europe by converting other parts of the world. Following the voyages and conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese, the Jesuits sought to establish a permanent presence especially in the Americas and Asia. Unlike the Jesuit missions in the Americas, including New France, the Jesuits who arrived in China in the late 16th century were confronted with a technologically advanced society and centralised state. They pursued a strategy of accommodation: in contrast to the syncretic blend of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in Ming China, they sought to show the compatibility of Confucianism alone with Christianity: Confucian morality is a rational ethics which could, they argued, be accommodated with Christian revelation. Thus, Jesuit accommodation consisted of rooms for Confucian guests: they presented the house of God as welcoming to Confucians and well-ventilated, even mission-airy.

It was the Jesuits who promoted the idea of  ‘Confucianism’, as if Confucius were predominant, when in fact Confucians saw themselves as developing a evolving body of teachings that they called ‘the teaching of the literati’ (scholarly class). This European term reflects the Jesuit strategy of isolating the classical Confucianism of Kongzi and Mengzi (372-289 BCE) from the later neo-Confucian synthesis of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. But Protestants and Catholic enemies accused the Jesuits of erroneously presenting Confucian rites as purely civil rather than religious in content. For their opponents, defending Confucian rites as consistent with conversion is contrary to the foundations of Christianity and a misinterpretation of Confucianism: two wrongs, they might have said, do not make a rite right.

Hearing of the civil rites controversy in Europe and fearing the potential instability wrought by Jesuit conversions (which were relatively small compared to those in Japan), the Confucian rulers of China expelled the Jesuit missions in 1724 (leaving only those Jesuits who were court astronomers and mathematicians). Meanwhile, the Jesuits’ glowing accounts of Confucian China, as well as their translation of Confucian texts, influenced Enlightenment thinkers such as Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and Voltaire. These intellectuals grappled with the question of why Christian revelation is needed at all if, as the Jesuits argued, Confucian morality alone is effective in China. Others, like Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, and Johann Gottfried Herder, regarded China as a brutal, despotic state–not an enlightened virtuous society. By the end of the 18th century, European views of China were largely negative. The idea that there could be a synthesis of Enlightenment rationality and the teachings of Kongzi was dismissed as a fraud, i.e., a con-fusion.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern Confuturism Studies Program

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