Modern China
From the Critique of Confucianism to the Confucian Revival
Zhang Huan's Giant Confucius Installation
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Map of East Asian in 1914 (showing "spheres of influence" in China)
The Challenge of Modernity
The collapse of the imperial state [in 1911] roughly coincided with China’s entry into the modern era. The Qing empire’s inability to adequately respond to the challenges of modernity led to the disintegration of age-old social and political institutions. However, in the aftermath of the Republican revolution the initial efforts at creating a strong and modern state ended in abject failures.The bleak situation was exacerbated by the moribund economy, political uncertainty, and rampant corruption. There was a pervasive sense of disillusionment with China’s weakness and backwardness, coupled with resentment of its low standing in the international arena, brought into sharp relief by a series of traumatic encounters with the Western powers and Japan. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 243)
May Fourth Movement Poster
During the early twentieth century many educated Chinese, especially those who have received a Western education, came to have faith in the power of reason and science. ... Many among the urban elites shared a somewhat naive belief that modern ideas and institutions, derived from Western paradigms, could be readily appropriated by the Chinese, as they discarded their burdensome traditions and embarked on a crash course of modernization. This kind of progressive and anti-traditionalist trajectory was perceived as being part of a larger process of epochal civilizational change, spearheaded by the irreversible ascendancy of science and technology. ... All of these trends were given a potent political expression by the May Fourth Movement, which was initiated by patriotic students in Beijing on May 4, 1919. The students, along with their supporters among the intellectuals and the general public, were frustrated with the social and political status quo. ... While political makeover and modernization were on the top of the national agenda, a number of intellectuals argued that political transformation had to be accompanied with corresponding changes in the cultural sphere. That led to a reevaluation of central aspects of traditional Chinese civilization, including religion. ... Within that context, Confucianism was identified as the main culprit, as it was perceived as constituting the core of China’s traditional culture, although there were also anti-religious sentiments directed at other traditions, which were dismissed as dated superstitions. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 243-4)
Baihau (vernacular writing)
New Culture Movement: Cover of "New Youth" (La Jeunesse) Magazine
Chinese characters for the "New Culture Movement"
New Culture Movement: Cover of "New Youth" (La Jeunesse) Magazine
Cover of the Novel "Family" by Ba JinIt was as if the far-off events at Versailles and the mounting evidence of the spinelessness of corrupt local politicians coalesced in people’s minds and impelled them to search for a way to return meaning to Chinese culture. What did it mean to be Chinese? Where was the country heading? What values should one adopt to help one in the search? In this broad sense, the May Fourth movement was an attempt to redefine China’s culture as a valid part of the modern world. In the attempt, not surprisingly, reformers followed different avenues of thought and conduct. Some May Fourth thinkers concentrated on launching attacks against reactionary or irrelevant “old ways” such as Confucianism, the patriarchal family, arranged marriages, or traditional education. Some focused on reform of the Chinese writing style by using contemporary vernacular speech patterns in works of literature, thus putting an end to the inevitable elitism that accompanied the mastery of the intensely difficult classical Chinese. Some had a deep interest in traditional Western art and culture, while others looked to the avant-garde elements of that culture, such as surrealist and cubist painting, symbolist poetry, graphic design, realist drama, and new fashions in dress and interior decoration. Some sought to reinfuse Chinese traditional arts with a new spirit of nationalism by borrowing a selective range of Western painterly techniques. (The Search for Modern China, 288-9)
Portrait of Chen Duxiu
The open assault on Confucianism, which began in 1916, was led by Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), editor of a magazine titled The New Youth. Earlier reformers had attacked certain of the concepts of Confucianism, often in the name of a purified and revitalized Confucian belief or, with less obvious partisanship, combining criticism of certain aspects with praise of others. Chen, by contrast, challenged Confucianism from beginning to end, realizing as he did so that he struck at the very heart of the traditional culture. For him, a partisan of “science” and “democracy,” Confucianism stood simply for reaction and obscurantism. He identified it with the old regime, with Yuan Shikai’s attempt to restore the monarchy, with everything from the past that, to his mind, had smothered progress and creativity. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, Second Edition, Volume 2, 352 [RTTP Readings, 121])
Cover of the New Youth MagazineThe pulse of modern life is economic, and the fundamental principle of economic production is individual independence. ... In China, the Confucians have based their teachings on their ethical norms. Sons and wives possess neither personal identity nor personal property. Fathers and elder brothers bring up their sons and younger brothers and are in turn supported by them. It is said in chapter 30 of the Record of Rites: “While parents are living, the son dares not regard his person or property as his own” [27:14]. This is absolutely not the way to personal independence. ... According to Western customs, fathers do not discipline grown-up sons but leave them to the law of the country and the control of society. But in the Way of Confucius, “When one’s parents are angry and not pleased and beat him until he bleeds, he does not complain but instead arouses in himself the feelings of reverence and filial piety.” This is the reason why in China there is the saying, “One has to die if his father wants him to, and the minister has to perish if his ruler wants him to.” ...
       Confucius lived in a feudal age. The ethics he promoted is the ethics of the feudal age. The social mores he taught and even his own mode of living were teachings and modes of a feudal age. The objectives, ethics, social norms, mode of living, and political institutions did not go beyond the privilege and prestige of a few rulers and aristocrats and had nothing to do with the happiness of the great masses. How can this be shown? In the teachings of Confucius, the most important elements in social ethics and social life are the rules of decorum, and the most serious thing in government is punishment. In chapter 1 of the Record of Rites, it is said, “The rules of decorum do not go down to the common people and the penal statutes do not go up to great officers” [1:35]. Is this not solid proof of the [true] spirit of the Way of Confucius and the spirit of the feudal age? (SCT, E2V2, 353-6 [RTTP Readings, 121-3])
Individualism vs. Collectivism
The ancients said that the relationship between the wife and her husband was like that of the minister and his ruler, and so men took precedence over women and men were honorable while women were contemptible. From this, every evil theory designed to keep women from having freedom followed: for example, the theories that the yang force leads while the yin force follows and that men take action while women follow. ... An absolute inequality was accordingly formed between men and women. ... [W]omen have duties but no rights. Because household responsibilities cannot be assumed by men, all the tasks of managing the household are given to women. Out of fear that women might interfere with their concerns, men made up the theory that women had no business outside of the home. By doing so, they deprived women of their natural rights. Giving women duties without rights allowed men to live in idleness while condemning women to work. Keeping women at home allowed men to pursue education while women were trapped in ignorance. Isn’t this the greatest of injustices? ... If we do not utterly abolish the false doctrines of the Confucian writings, the truth will never again be heard. (SCT, E2V2, 392-4 [RTTP Readings, 124-5])
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Karl MarxWith the Communist victory in the civil war and the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, all religions in China had to contend with a governing ideology that had little sympathy for traditional religious beliefs and practices. ... From the outset, the Party adopted the negative stance towards religion that is emblematic of Marxism, according to which religion is “the opium of the people.” The Communist state asserted its control over religion by instituting policies that restricted the activities of the clergy, expropriated religious properties, and imposed state supervision over religious organizations, amidst a general atmosphere infused with intimidation and fear. Notwithstanding the deteriorating situation in regard to religious freedom, during the early period of Communist rule the state and the party largely abstained from directly engaging in brutal repression of religion. ... Despite the efforts of the Communist Party to educate its populace about the worthlessness of religion, many people continued to hold on to their faith and engage in traditional religious observances. The disappearance of religion, which according to orthodox Marxist dogma was to follow the establishment of socialist society, was not exactly happening. Accordingly, not only was there an intensification in the anti-religious rhetoric and propaganda, but gradually more repressive actions were introduced in order to stamp out the persistent presence of “superstitious” beliefs and practices among the Chinese populace. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 249-51)
Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) with portrait of Confucius instead of Mao
Tolerance, Severance & Revival
Confucius with a (communist) hammer and sickleSince the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), “Confucian studies on the mainland were carried out only in line with Marxism and Communism”, and one distinctive feature of the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chinese scholars toward Confucianism was their reference to it as “critical inheritance.” ... [T]here were three major periods of development in this respect, each with a clear policy orientation dependent on the specific political conditions and needs of the particular time. During the first phase of the creation and establishment of the communist regime from 1949 to 1964, this critical inheritance policy was pursued, while at the same time there was still some talk of eliminating Confucianism altogether. During the second period of the Cultural Revolution between 1965 and and 1976, the policy line abruptly shifted toward “complete severance” or the complete eradication of Confucian tradition and teachings. And in the third period, from the death of Mao Zedong and the downfall of the Gang of Four to the present, the posture of critical inheritance has been revived. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 105-6 [RTTP Readings, 111-2])
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Photo of Cultural Revolution "Struggle Session"
The Cultural Revolution
“Phase 2”
The religious situation rapidly deteriorated during the 1960s, and reached its lowest point with the violent suppression of all religions during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During this chaotic and turbulent period of perpetual revolution — ostensibly meant to stamp out the influence of “bourgeois” social elements that threatened the putative dictatorship of the proletariat — there was a wholesale attack against all ideas or things that could be construed as conveying traditional values or being linked with foreign influences. ... The revolutionary fervor and the violent war against religious traditions waged during the Cultural Revolution led to the closing or destruction of all monasteries, temples, churches, and mosques, along with the forced laicization of the clergy. No religious sect or tradition was spared from violent persecution. In the process of cleansing China from bourgeois elements and old-fashioned superstitions, countless religious artifacts, including statues, books, and paintings, were destroyed. The anti-religious expression was extended to people’s homes and their private lives. All expressions of faith, public and private, were proscribed. Individual instances of noncompliance with these guiding principles, which could simply mean the mere possession of a religious symbol or artifact, carried serious consequences, including harassment and imprisonment. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 251)
Cover of Liang Heng's Autobiography "Son of the Revolution"In general sociological terms, this political campaign virtually destroyed the existing social cohesion at the most basic level of organized life. For example, according to Confucius, people’s trust was of the first priority, above food and arms, for the security and peace of the state in times of external aggression. But during the Cultural Revolution, the penetration of the private sphere by the state and the collective mutual mistrust were carried to extremes by politicizing even the most intimate social relationships. Sons and daughters were indoctrinated and called upon to report their parents to the revolutionary committees for failing to abandon old customs and beliefs, to criticize and denounce them publicly, or even to break off relations with them. This kind of political suppression of filial piety, the central virtue in Confucianism, was aimed at breaking the long tradition of family cohesion and replacing familial consciousness with state consciousness. And it was extended to other intimate relations within and outside the family’s boundary, as husbands and wives or old friends found themselves criticizing and condemning each other to opposite political factions created by the campaign’s deliberate effort to separate “friends” from “enemies”. This was also a reflection of the Leninist-Stalinist doctrine of “class struggle” in opposition to the traditional Confucian appreciation of “harmony”. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 108 [RTTP Readings, 113])
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Chinese masses greeting Mao at Tiananmen
Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong (The Little Red Book)The indiscriminate anti-religious suppression and the sweeping inhumanity of the Cultural Revolution were accompanied with the growth of a cult centered on Mao’s revolutionary persona. Ironically, at its height the cultic veneration of Mao adopted many of the elements of organized religion, notwithstanding the official atheistic ideology espoused by Mao and the party. The image of Mao assumed mythical proportions as he effectively became deified. Within the mass hysteria that prevailed at the time, his eager followers, who were subjected to methodical propaganda and systematic indoctrination, worshiped him as if he were a living god. ... The cult of Mao had its own scripture, in the form of the ubiquitous Little Red Book, a collection of Mao quotations that was fervently read and memorized by the Red Guards, the youthful units assembled to serve as the revolution’s vanguard, and other devoted followers of the Great Helmsman. The recitations of the red book, which effectively functioned as a “bible” of sorts for the Red Guards, assumed forms reminiscent of religious rituals. In terms of practice, the cult’s followers were taught to cultivate revolutionary virtues and self-sacrifice, study the thought of Mao, and work for the common good and the welfare of the people.
Click for video of the Mao Loyalty Dance
Mao Button
Poster of Mao's Miraculous Mangoes
Click for the Miraculous Mangoes Video
It is also possible to draw parallels between the utopian belief in a perfect communist society and the various millenarian beliefs promoted by different religious groups throughout Chinese history. Finally, there was a pronounced puritanical streak in Communist outlook and practice, already observable before Mao’s grasp of supreme power. That was manifested in the proscription of an array of vices, such as gambling, prostitution, and drinking, which evoked the puritanical attitudes of the Taipings and other religiously-inspired movements. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 251-2)
Poster represeting the Cult of Mao
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The “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” Campaign
Already in 1973, Mao Zedong indicated that the criticism of Lin Biao and his followers should be combined with a thorough criticism of Confucius. In the following months, Mao’s remarks gave rise to a spate of articles in the Chinese media praising the Legalists and Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China. Obscure historical allegories, discussing events from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) and the subsequent founding of the (first Chinese) Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE), were used to support the Gang of Four (which sympathized with the Legalist philosophers). In the highly abstract and complicated debate that took place at the highest levels, Mao saw himself as a latter-day Qin Shihuangdi, who, as his example from antiquity did, opposed the modern-day Confucius: Zhou Enlai. To simplify the issues at stake: the Legalists, and Qin Shihuangdi, were seen as the progressive forces, opposing the Confucians who were considered reactionaries. In January 1974, the struggle was made into a large-scale, national movement. The media continued to publish articles that ostensibly were critiques of Lin Biao and Confucius. In fact, they were innuendo attacks on Zhou Enlai and other rehabilitated veteran cadres, including Deng Xiaoping. Although the movement had been reviewed by Mao himself, the Central Committee regularly had to send out circulars to clarify matters. In the eyes of the Gang, the movement was not as far-reaching as intended; Jiang Qing in particular continued to rally for the “seizure of the modern-day Confucian”. In December 1974-January 1975, Mao discussed the movement together with Gang-members and Zhou Enlai. Realizing that he had failed to oust Zhou, he turned his criticism on the Gang instead. Soon after Deng took over Zhou’s responsibilities in 1975, the ‘Criticize Lin, criticize Confucius campaign’ (Pi Lin pi Kong yundong, 批林批孔运动) was brought to a halt. (
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Mao Zedong Lying in State
In the Wake of Mao
Economic Revolution & the Goddess of Democracy

Deng Xiaoping as "Man of the Year" on the cover of Time in 1979
People's Daily NewspaperThe first open sign of a change in thinking came ... on December 22, 1980, [when] the People’s Daily carried a front-page article saying that Mao Zedong had made mistakes in his late years, especially in initiating and leading the Cultural Revolution, mistakes which had brought grave misfortunes to the Party and the people. But the assessment of Mao’s historical role was a delicate matter for the Party. Many of the leaders, formerly associates of Mao, had themselves been the victims of his policies during the Cultural Revolution. However, if they were simply to condemn the Chairman posthumously, they risked reopening the question of Party authority in a way that might jeopardize their own hold on power. ... The Party’s final conclusion was that Mao had been correct 70 percent of the time and incorrect only 30 percent of the time and that his errors had mostly occurred near the end of his life. (China: Its History and Culture, 228-9)
“Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal. Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?” (Chen Yun, senior Communist Party official under Mao and Deng, in The Economist)
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Beijing Olympics Poster for Coke
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics
[Deng Xiaoping’s] most distinguishing personal characteristic was pragmatism: he was widely quoted in the English-language press as saying that it does not matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice, and “seek truth through facts” (shishi qiu shi) became the slogan that the reformers heavily promoted in China. Market forces, the pursuit of profit, and even stock exchanges gradually became tolerated. To the extent that some Marxist theoretical justification was still necessary for such apparently capitalist behavior, it came to be argued that because China was still only in the “initial stages of socialism” a little capitalism was only to be expected. ...
Deng Xiaoping: "I don't care if it's a black cat or a white cat; if it catches mice it's a good cat"
Outside critics objected that China’s gradual, piecemeal, hybrid approach to economic reform could not possibly succeed, comparing it to trying to leap over the Grand Canyon in [a] series of small jumps rather than one big leap, but in practice it actually seems to have been more effective than the big-bang sudden shock therapy reform that was attempted in the former Soviet Union, where gross domestic product (GDP) actually contracted sharply after the initial privatization in the 1990s. According to American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates of purchasing power parity, by 2014 the real size of China’s GDP was almost five times that of Russia’s, although the Russian economy had originally been much more developed. ... Although most Chinese people remain poor by the standards of the world’s most developed countries, hundreds of millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of the direst poverty, and China’s major cities have become utterly transformed. (A History of East Asia, 370-1)
One of the direct consequences of the open-door policy of the post-Maoist period is the awakened nationalistic consciousness of China, which is manifested in increased concern for the country’s cultural heritage, especially Confucianism. ... Met with the cultural and intellectual challenge from the West as an inevitable process of modernization, coupled with the unexpected achievement of rapid economic growth in the post-Mao era, the Chinese Communist Party decided that some Western ideas might not be entirely desirable for and suitable to emulation at face value by Chinese society. And in this endeavor, they are finding an alternative value system in their own Confucian tradition. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 109 [RTTP Readings, 113])
Confucius Institute

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Daniel Bell's book on New Confucianism
New Confucianism