In the morning, hear the Way: in the evening, die content!

                        Confucius, The Analects

            In China, there has been a "love-hate syndrome" regarding the tradition since the May 4th Movement in 1919. Here we mean by the term "hate" cultural radicalism, and by the term "love" cultural conservatism.

            The May 4th Movement is very important as the symbol of the New Culture Movement which created the paradigm of anti-traditionalism in the modern history of Chinese culture. Its slogan was "Down with Confucianism" and its program was anti-tradition. The leader of the New Culture Movement, Chen Duxiu, strongly criticized the Confucian ethical code and introduced science and democracy from the West. Under his guidance New Youth became the leading periodical in which the radical intellectuals of the Movement attacked the Confucian tradition.

            As opposed to Chen Duxiu, Liang Shaming and his book entitled Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies represented the tendency to save traditional culture, especially Confucianism. He proposed that the intellectuals lead the Chinese people to perfect Confucianism and that the future world culture be a revival of Chinese culture.

            During the period of the New Culture Movement, Chen was the leading figure of cultural radicalism, and Liang the leading figure of cultural conservatism; both were embodiments of the Chinese cultural tradition. The attitude of anti-tradition (Westernization) manifested the essence of the Chinese tradition because in a sense it was the Chinese cultural tradition itself which determined the anti-tradition of the May 4th Movement.

            The reasons for this are as follows:

            (1) In traditional China there had been a practical spirit characterized by an eagerness for quick success and instant benefit. In its eager pursuit of short range concrete goals it rejected both the positive reasoning of science and the transcendental consciousness of religion. In the period of the Movement, the program which aban-doned the Confucian tradition and drew upon Western culture issued mainly from short term concrete motives, not from ultimate or aca-demic considerations. Since 1841 Confucian culture had been attacked by the sciences, and modern Chinese intellectuals came to realize that in the short term the Confucian tradition no longer could resolve the serious crises in China. Hence, they introduced with ur-gency Western culture on a large scale for the salvation of China.

            (2) At that time radical intellectuals accepted Western culture with an urgent and open mind because they were influenced by the tolerant spirit of traditional Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese cul-ture does not appeal to fanatical religious passions, but assimilates diverse alien cultures. In the history of world culture traditional Chinese culture has accepted and assimilated alien cultures more easily than do other cultural traditions. For instance, indigenous Con-fucian culture integrated Indian Buddhism. The same tolerant tra-dition enabled modern intellectuals to learn and accept Western culture.

            In sum, since the beginning of this century several anti-tradi-tional movements have ended by returning to the way of tradition which has formed "the collective unconsciousness" of the Chinese people. Tradition coexists with us and continues.


            As it is impossible then to discard tradition from top to bottom, it would be wise to develop a new understanding of tradition. This would be to dialogue with the tradition creatively and to interpret it in a new perspective. Contemporary hermeneutics can provide a new method and the theoretical grounds for such dialogue and inter-pretation.

            According to hermeneutics, tradition is the basic fact of our existence in the world. Both text and interpreter are involved inter-nally in the tradition. It is then not a tool which we can use or arbi-trarily lay aside; rather the value system which exists before us determines our horizon and forms the presuppositions of our under-standing. In a sense, the understanding of tradition belongs to tradi-tion and we live in this understanding of tradition; that is to say, everyone makes his or her value choice of tradition and reforms it according to this choice. Tradition is not the unchangeable matter which already has passed away, but the living existence which is continually reinterpreted. It is in tradition that history can approach us, and that we can understand tradition. Hence the so-called "her-meneutic circle."

            For contemporary hermeneutics, tradition is a "prejudice" in the sense both of Heideggerís pre-structure of understanding and Gadamerís historical elements of understanding. Gadamer con-siders prejudice itself to be not a negative element, but a legitimate and valuable starting point for the understanding of tradition.

            Although to some extent an interpreterís horizons are deter-mined by the tradition, they have their present horizon. We not only understand the present in the tradition, but also understand the tradition in the present. The interpretation of tradition, in fact, is a process in which the horizon is reframed and created, and in which the prejudice is tested and transformed in a fusion of present and past horizons. Thus, interpretation contains a subjective reconstruction, and produces a new horizon. The fusion of horizons is the aim of the interpretation of tradition and the result of a dialogue between the present and the past.

            The main idea of the present paper consists in interpreting the Confucian tradition from the viewpoint of ethics, by means of the contemporary hermeneutics and in the frame of reference of moder-nization.



            Ethics is the core of Confucian culture which is grounded in the patriarchal society of ancient China. In ancient Chinese society moral principles pervaded the whole political system, shape values and norms of behavior, and formed the criteria for the evaluation of social behavior. Corresponding to this social character, traditional Chinese culture, and Confucianism in particular, highly develops the moral tradition; indeed Confucianism is basically a culture in which morality is central. Therefore, Confucianism regards ethical thought as its root, and the interpretation of the Confucian ethical spirit is of importance in understanding the characteristics of Confucian culture.

            "The Confucian ethical spirit" proposed here as a working-concept is inspired by Max Weberís notion of the Protestant ethic as the basis of the capitalist system. Similarly, the Confucian ethical spirit as a value system, which consists in a way of life, an ethical code, values and moral thought, etc., represents the ethos of Chinese culture and is fundamental to the interpretation of Confucianism. In sum, the world of Chinese culture coincides with its world of values. As for the deep structure, the system of values is the soul of the cultural system, with the former determining the latter. Weberís famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is a successful paradigm of axil-interpretation of the Protestant ethic, and in this spirit I will attempt a macro-interpretation of the Confucian ethical spirit as one integrated system, including the following three components:

            (1) the ethical thoughts produced by the Grand Confucian Masters (Confucius and Mencius) as a sub-system of moral thought,

            (2) the ethical codes which are associated with social life and individual conduct and are regulated by the ethical thought as a sub-system of social behavior; and

            (3) the structure of moral psychology which results from the sedimentation of (1) and (2) in the deep level of the mass mind through the long process of historical evolution and cultural inte-gration as a sub-system of moral psychology.

            Of course, we should pay attention to the differences and connections among the above three components in the axil-inter-pretation of the Confucian ethical spirit. We begin with an overall genealogical analysis of Confucian ethical thought, which generally speaking underwent three major stages of development.

            (1) Confucius (551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (372-289 B.C.), primitive Confucian ethical thought: (a) the pattern of cosmo-ethics advocating that "Heaven and man accord with each other"; (b) the pattern of political ethics characterized by the unity of benevolence (jen) and propriety (li); (c) the goodness of human nature; (d) the theory of righteousness and profit: the Superior Man prefers righte-ousness to profit; (e) the ideal personality; and (f) the self-cultivation of the moral character.

            (2) Dong Zhongshu (179-104 B.C.), Confucian ethical thought of the Western Dynasty: (a) discarding the Hundred School and respecting only Confucianism; (b) demonstration of the origin of moral principles from the points of view of moral theology: the Heaven of nature is attributed to the Heaven of morality, while the Heaven of Morality is attributed to the divine Heaven; (c) the three cardinal guides: the sovereign guides the subject, the father guides the son, and the husband guides the wife, along with the five constant virtues: jen, righteousness, li, wisdom, and fidelity as specified in the feudal ethical code.

            (3) The Cheng Brothers, Cheng Hao (1032-1085 A.D.) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107 A.D.), Neo-Confucian ethical thought: (a) dualism of human nature: as man is endowed at birth with good and bad, so human nature is divided into the two parts: the nature of Heaven and the nature of earth of which the former is superior to the latter; (b) opposition between human desire and the Heaven principle; (c) asceticism, maintaining the principle of Heaven and repressing the desire of man.

            Dong and both Zhu and the Cheng brothers deviate from the orthodox path of Confucius. On the one hand, the so-called Dongís Confucianism is actually a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism, Le-galism, the Yin-Yang School and the five elements theory. His three cardinal guides, as an ultimate rule for the Chinese feudal ethical value, derive from the famous legalist in the Pre-Qin Dynasty, Han Fei and his three rules of service: the subject serves the sovereign, the son serves the father, and the wife serves the husband. On the other hand, Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism results from the syntheses of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Its doctrine of asceticism comes from Buddhism, whereas Confuciusís and Men-ciusís ethical thoughts essentially have a stronger humanistic spirit and emphasize that the Superior Man should make unceasing efforts to improve himself. Both neither propose the three cardinal guides, nor advocate asceticism, but propose the plain living and true tradition of the Confucian ethic. This tradition and its ethos are the subject matter of the following axil-interpretation, according to the extant Confucian texts, The Analects of Confucius and Mencius.

            In Chinese traditional society, all social relationships are based on consanguinity and family relationships; thus family morality determines social morality. Confucian ethics is first of all a family ethics. For example, Confucius said: "Filial piety and fraternal duty are the foundation of jen" (Xie Er, The Analects); Mencius held that "family is righteousness" (Li Lou Shang, Jing Xin Shang, Mencius).

            The value system of Confucius and Menciusís ethical thoughts includes the following five aspects:

            (1) A pattern of cosmo-ethics: this holds that Heaven and man are in accord with each other, and that the way of man coincides with that of Heaven. Its function lies in: (a) explaining the origin of morality as human nature originates from heavenly nature, knowing human nature equals knowing Heaven; and (b) describing a certain kind of human state: one should be subject to the will of Heaven.

            (2) A pattern of political ethics: Jen is the prevailing moral principle of the Confucian ethic. Its value orientation directs the personal relationship to tend to the central harmony. Jen has two meanings: (a) to love members of oneís family, and (b) to love everyone. The way to cultivate jen is conscientiousness and al-truism, the practice of which is the same as the practice of jen. For Confucius, li contains the norms for behavior and the rules for social etiquette under the direction of jen. Obedience to li is likewise commitment to jen, the unity of which causes both personal relationships to be harmonious and the social order to be stable. This leads rulers to administer the affairs of state by means of li and virtues, which is the criterion for humane government.

            (3) The goodness of human nature: Confucius said: "There is an affinity among human natures" (Yang Huo, The Analects). He seems to imply that the original human nature is potentially good. Mencius maintained clearly that jen, righteousness, li and wisdom are all inherent in humankind, rather than being imposed upon it from outside; thus human nature was good.

            (4) The theory of righteousness and profit: (a) what is right, or moral obligations, is more important than what is profitable, or selfish desires; and (b) personal interests are subordinate to group interests.

            (5) The ideal personality: Confucius believed that perfect virtue was the highest moral character; one could enter the realm of the ideal personality and become a sage and a man of virtue only if one acquired truth, appreciated the beautiful and practiced perfect virtues.

            (6) The self-cultivation of moral character: the Superior Man should be concerned with the cultivation of proper thinking, the practice of introspection, the training of a virtuous mind and the "four-nots": not to adhere to oneís opinions stubbornly, not to assert something groundlessly, not to consider oneself in the right, and not to disrespect anotherís opinions.


            In evaluating the Confucian ethical spirit it would be super-ficial and unreasonable to negate entirely its value and that of traditional Chinese culture on the basis of the principles of Western morality and on the excuse of the needs of modernization.

            (1) As mentioned above, the Confucian ethical spirit is a value system consisting of sub-systems of moral ideas, social behavior and moral psychology. For contemporary Chinese people, this ethical spirit has penetrated into the deep structures of their minds and melted into their collective unconscious, whereby they are the carriers of this tradition. Consequently, it is their destiny to be en-gaged with the Confucian ethical spirit. They can get access to the future only by going through tradition. Hermeneutics can provide a theoretical basis for the legitimacy of tradition and its positive, creative interpretation.

            (2) The Confucian ethical spirit contains several value para-doxes. On the one hand, Confucius and Mencius state moral codes and norms of behavior which fit in with ancient Chinese society based on consanguinity and family relationships. These codes and norms represent local and negative aspects of the Confucian ethical spirit. On the other hand, as great philosophers who reflect the social conscience, they express the value of the life-world and the mission of human beings. These criteria and principles are universal and positive aspects of the Confucian ethical spirit. It is a very interesting phenomenon that the same ethical proposition implies both the negative and the positive value orientations at the same time in the Confucian ethical spirit, hence the following paradoxes.

            Central family: (a) negative aspect: lack of a sense of private property and a dependent personality; (b) positive aspect: respect for elders and love for the young, and a strong sense of responsibility for family.

            Heaven and man accord with each other: (a) negative aspect: man behaves in accordance with the will of Heaven; (b) positive aspect: love beyond the blood relationships (love everybody).

            Conscientiousness and altruism: (a) negative aspect: the suppression of individuality; (b) positive aspect: the spirit of tole-rance and devotion.

            Central harmony: (a) negative aspect: looks down on the sense of competition; (b) positive aspect: promotes harmony in personal relationship.

            Group consciousness: (a) negative aspect: represses the con-sciousness of subject and the will of individual; (b) positive aspect: objects to egoism, strengthens cohesion among people and advo-cates patriotism and collectivism.

            Relationship between sovereign and subject: (a) negative aspect: loyalty to the sovereign; (b) positive aspect: the people are the foundation of the state.

            Theory of righteousness and profit: (a) negative aspect: des-pises profit; (b) positive aspect: through the sense of righteousness, control of the desire for profit.

            "Four-nots": (a) negative aspect: propagates restriction of the ego; (b) positive aspect: objects to egocentricity.

            The self-cultivation of moral character: (a) negative aspect: underestimation of the importance of social practices for the self-cultivation; (b) positive aspect: training the moral will and a perfect personality.

            From the above it is clear that these positive aspects which have universal value to the Chinese nation are good factors in the tradition which should be inherited and carried forward by the present people of China.


            In the context of these value paradoxes the axil-interpretation of the Confucian ethical spirit acquires two important consequences: (1) discovery of the two-fold character (negative and positive) of the Confucian ethical spirit, and (2) explanation of the reason why the Chinese people can now carry forward the spirit. Here the key point is that inheriting the tradition presupposes its criticism; axil-inter-pretation is axil-criticism. The Chinese people criticize their own tradition in a process of self-transcendence which requires com-parative research on the Chinese Western traditions.

            In the beginning of this century, Max Weber analyzed the value of Confucianism in reference to the Protestant ethic, and pointed out that Confucianism has unfavorable personality factors for the rise of modern capitalism. There are eight such factors: (1) a lack of the tension between this-worldliness and other-worldliness, nature and God, moral order and human weakness, religious obli-gation and social reality, rationality and non-rationality; (2) tolerance of the idea of magic; (3) contentment with things as they are; (4) lack of the notion of a calling or mission (5) lack of the sense of prophecy in Christianity and its idea of original sin; (6) ancestor worship; (7) patriarchy; and (8) lack of formal rationality. Weber sees these factors as hindering the rise of capitalism in modern China.

            However, the fact of the economic miracle of Japan after World War II, and in particular the high level of economic develop-ment in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea indicate that modernization of the economy can be part of a Confucian cul-ture. This spurs many scholars to reconsider the relationship bet-ween Confucian culture -- especially, the Confucian ethical spirit -- and modern capitalism, and some advance as a proposition the notion of "Confucian capitalism".

            However, the meaning of this proposition is vague, because it is not clear whether it refers to the fact that the Confucian tradition or ethical spirit can adapt to the developments of capitalism and economic modernization in East Asia, or designates the view that modern capitalism can arise spontaneously in a Confucian culture, that is, whether modernization results from the practice of Con-fucian culture.

            Even if it refers to the former we would note the two following points.

            (1) The Confucian ethical spirit which can adapt to moderni-zation is not the Confucian ethic as a whole, but the result of a horizontal fusion and creative transformation of tradition: it both discards the negative aspects in the value paradoxes of the Con-fucian ethic and carries forward the positive aspects.

            (2) Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the South Korea did not intend to popularize the Confucian ethic until they had achieved modernization of their economies. The popularization of the Confucian ethics, as a cultural policy, in fact, is intended to re-solve the moral crisis that occurred from Westernization. According to a principle of hermeneutics, the same text can be interpreted differently in different interpretative contexts. Similarly, the Con-fucian ethical spirit has different values in different social situations and interpretative contexts. Thus, the understanding of the Con-fucian ethical spirit in a country which is modernizing is very dif-ferent from that in a modernized country.

            Therefore, in such modernized countries as Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the South Korea, the realization of modernization is primary, and the popularization of the Confucian ethic is secondary. In other words, the former is the cause, whereas the latter is the effect. To reverse this causal relation is naive, so that the contemporary New Confucianistsí assertion that the Chinese people can achieve modernization by means of Confucianism is evidently impractical.

            The choice of ethical values, depends on the fusion of the horizons of tradition and modernization.

            Whether or not China can succeed in modernization, it is not the same as Westernization, and different traditions can develop different patterns of modernization. But as a social process which is distinguished essentially from traditional society, modernization has certain universal value standards, such as (1) knowledge: rational methods of sciences and the spirit of science; (2) politics: demo-cracy and rule by law: (3) economy: competition, standardization and specialization of production, revolution of sciences and techniques are the major agents of economic development; (4) society, ur-banization, bureaucratic administration, contractual association; and (5) mind: the full development of individuality, a spirit of self-reali-zation, awareness of competition, and so on.

            By contrast with these standards, the negative aspects in the Confucian ethical spirit conflict with modernization. In general and beyond doubt, the Confucian tradition as an integral complex of values has lost its charisma for Chinese society and the Chinese people at the present time. In the domain of ideologies, the normative role of Confucian ethical spirit has declined, but as a structure of moral psychology it still exerts an imperceptible influence on the masses of people. The value direction and norms of conduct fall into the state of anomie. In a word, Confucianism is being seriously attacked by modernization.

            Confucianism has fallen into a profound crisis as a faith in values, but this does not mean that the value of the Confucian ethical spirit has disappeared entirely. The Confucian crisis is due to the fact that the Confucian ethical spirit contains inherent value paradoxes whose negative aspects conflict with modernization and have obs-tructed this process in China. What is called the crisis of Con-fucianism refers to the fact that the system of Confucianism as a value whole has disintegrated and lost charisma in the face of the shock of modernization. In order to get out of the above value paradoxes and crises, the Confucian tradition must dialogue with modernization and carry out a horizontal fusion and creative trans-formation in which a new ethical spirit, new outlook on values, and new moral norms can arise, and a new charisma can appear. No doubt, this is a very difficult task, but a comparative interpretation of value paradoxes in Confucian ethical spirit and value standards in modernization may open a channel for positive dialogue and creative transformation.