Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Last Confucian

The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity by Guy S Alitto, 233 pages

Liang Shu-ming was twenty-five years old when his father, noted civil servant and scholar Liang Chi, killed himself as a protest against the destruction of China's traditional culture.  Liang Chi had himself been an advocate of Westernizing reforms, and his son's education had prioritized learning English over studying the Analects.  Yet the student Liang Shu-ming, captive of revolutionary politics and utilitarian philosophies, grew to become perhaps the greatest champion of Confucianism in the twentieth century.

Alitto successfully navigates the difficult intersection of history, biography, and philosophy.  He places Liang's Confucian traditionalism in the context of other anti-modernist and anti-Western movements, from German Romanticism to Hindu nationalism.  Liang opposed what he saw as an alienating, individualizing Western intellectualism with the Chinese intuitionism of Confucius, which seeks balance and harmony rather than riches and domination.  This understanding of Confucius' life and thought enabled Liang to propose a kind of reform Confucianism which broke with the traditional schools by claiming to recover the authentic spirit of the master, while it simultaneously connected his Confucianism with contemporary European philosophical and cultural movements.  This last was vitally important, for Liang believed that if Chinese culture was to survive, it needed to become a global culture.  No ivory tower intellectual, Liang had nothing but contempt for those who believed that "an essay or report written was a task accomplished", and Alitto emphasizes Liang's active application of his philosophy, especially his intensive efforts to inspire a rebirth of virtue among the Chinese peasantry under pressure from foreign domination, militant nationalism, and civil war, until the Japanese invasion and then the triumph of the Communists put a practical end to his efforts.

As Alitto tells it, this end was present in the beginning, as Liang's entire life was shadowed by that of his contemporary Mao Zedong.  It is unfortunate that at times the author seems predisposed to judge the former by the standards of the latter, and it would be interesting to know if the passage of time would have produced a different perspective - the book was published in 1979, only three years after Mao's death and nine years before Liang's.

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