Sun, Mar 17, 2002 - Page 18 News List

Rethinking ancient thought

Thirty-year Taiwan resident Umberto Bresciani's book on neo-Confucianism is as clear a survey on the difficult subject matter as anyone could write

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Naked jogging is a long way from the essence of Confucianism, a system usually seen as standing for discretion, order, and family values rather austerely practiced.

But harmony achieved through ritual is nevertheless one of Confucianism's key principles, and towards the end of British author Anthony Powell's 12-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75) the central comic character, Lord Widmerpool, joins a hippie-style organization in the 1960s, the aim of which is to achieve spiritual harmony though ritual. He is later reported as having collapsed and died while on a communal, naked jog.

The aloof and fastidious Powell subjects the entire enterprise to both open and covert mockery. Such goings-on, however, were very characteristic of the era, and the East was where the participants looked for their inspiration and enlightenment. Powell's characters may not have consulted the Taoist classic I Ching (The Book of Changes), but real-life young people all over the Western world were immensely busy doing so.

The West had experienced periods of interest in what was seen as oriental mysticism before, in the 1890s and the 1920s especially. (Powell acknowledges this by making his hippie cultists echo phrases that first appear in part of the novel set at the time of World War I). But in that earlier period Confucianism in China itself, as this new study makes clear, was in fact at its lowest ebb.

The May 4th reformers of 1919 had condemned it as being at the root of China's troubles. "All thread-bound books [thus including the Confucian classics] should be thrown into the toilet!" they proclaimed. They thought Confucianism blocked modernization, and was the prime reason why China, once so strong, had fallen behind the expansionist, rapacious, but scientifically advanced Western powers.

Publication Notes:

Reinventing confucianism

By Umberto Bresciani

652 pages

Taipei Ricci Institute

Umberto Bresciani's survey is exceptionally lucid on a subject, neo-Confucianism, that isn't always easy to understand. The complexities involved in differentiating the transcendent and the imminent, for example, are not for the faint-hearted. But Bresciani makes such things as clear as anyone could, and this in itself is a major recommendation.

One remarkable feature of the enterprise is that the author is described as having spent the last 20 years as a businessman. Who would have believed that among the sober-suited, briefcase-carrying community there dwelt such scholarship and appetite for learning! It's heartening indeed, and makes you wonder how many more philosophers there are out there busily perusing share prices and the fate of the US 30-Year Bond.

Bresciani's method is to outline the New Confucian movement as it has developed over the last 80 years, and then to give a more detailed exposition of the lives and thought of 11 major thinkers who have contributed to it. These digests, which make up the bulk of the book, are in considerable detail and will be of great interest to readers wanting to get to grips with the inner dynamics of the phenomenon.

In China itself, Confucian ideas were effectively banned under Mao. They were considered relics of feudalism, and only Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong (毛澤東) thought was permitted. This changed after Mao's death. Today, some Chinese intellectuals are arguing that Marxism is a Western import unsuited to China in an unmodified form, and that a revised version of Confucianism, (當代新儒家) contemporary neo-Confucianism) should be the guiding principle of the state in the long term. Such views have not been seen as hostile by the authorities, and books have been published in China that survey and expound the concept, plus related ideas.

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