SPEAKING FREELY Constructing an American Confucianism
By Thorsten Pattberg
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BEIJING - There ruminates a discussion, from East to West, as to how the perfect American Confucianism ought to be constructed. Should it be transplanted from China; or implanted from within America?
There are two possible sinotypes: One is "Chinese-American Confucianism" and the other is "American-Chinese Confucianism". Obviously, a blending is possible, possibly even
desirable, but let us ponder a bit longer on those two extremes:
Chinese-American Confucianism means that Chinese language elements slowly sink into American society. American-Chinese Confucianism, on the other hand, refers to English words taking on Chinese meanings.
The difference between those two modes - or directions - of Western Sinification, if you will, is considerable, and their advantages and disadvantages must be addressed.
Chinese-American Confucianism feels exotic and unique, because an entire set of new terminologies, categories, and taxonomies will be imported from China to the US. At the same time, however, it may also feel intrusive and alien to the establishment.
American-Chinese Confucianism has literally skinned itself from its Chinese form and body-snatched English words as vehicle for entering Western thought. The words all sound familiar to the ear at first; however, the superimposed Confucian spiritualism may just feel otiose.
The two modes of American Confucianism are well represented, I think, in the main writings of two of the greatest contemporary American Sinologists and their schools:
Roger T Ames from the University of Hawaii favors Chinese-American Confucianism. He introduces Confucianism to America by importing Chinese key terminologies. For instance, the true name of the Chinese tradition isn't "Confucianism," but is "rujia", meaning a school of literati. Or, "Tianxia" (all under heaven) is very different from our biblical "Heaven," and so on.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Tu Weiming, a former Harvard professor (and US citizen), who best represents, I think, American-Chinese Confucianism. When he speaks about Confucianism, he does so in the most beautiful and eloquent English prose. For instance, Tu understands "ren" as "humanity," or even "concrete humanity". "Shengren" he calls "philosophers" or "sages," and so on.
There are many US scholars of the two alignments, and a little pattern emerges: in "China studies", it seems to be the case that ethnic Chinese scholars tend to switch, and switch so eagerly, to the English language, norms and categories; while Western scholars seem overtly keen on adopting at least some Chinese loanwords.
Both attitudes in East and West are understandable and perhaps reflect the human rational to make good use of what has been learned and acquired: the Chinese scholars make it known to the world that they mastered English; the non-Chinese scholars show their appreciation for Chinese culture.
The two groups together embody a terrific example of mutual learning, and national governments should take notice. Countries should try to balance exchange; perhaps always taking as many scholars in as they are willing to send out. Why, because if it's totally unbalanced, the two possible outcomes of American Confucianism - as seen - are not the same by quite a margin!
The overall influence of American Confucianism - really both of its modes - in American society is still largely insignificant, but it is certainly growing in East Asia studies. It will have to "modernize" for free America, above all.
In classical Confucianism, notorious for its hierarchies and code of conduct, as a rule, you don't want to be the butt of society, but belong to the elite - the learned and superior "junzi".
The large majority of the people are kept in place as moral slaves absolutely dependent on the sages' wisespeak.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Thorsten Pattberg is a Research Fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University.