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Confucian China and its Modern Fate

January 29, 2010

Joseph R. Levenson. Confucian China and its Modern Fate: The Problem of Intellectual Continuity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

Joseph Levenson begins his trilogy, Confucian China and its Modern Fate by investigating modern Chinese intellectual culture in The Problem of Intellectual Continuity. The sequels, The Problem of Monarchical Decay, and The Problem of Historical Significance, which were not published until 1964 and 1965 respectively, continue the project articulated in this first volume: to seek an understanding of the relationship between what is called tradition and modern culture in China during the process of transition from a Confucian dynastic society to a Chinese communist society. Writing in a period when western scholarship largely subscribed to the theory that China made strides toward modernity only in response to the western threat, Levenson proposes the counter possibility of continuity in Chinese thought. He reaches back to periods before the West became a conspicuous presence in China in order to explore the possibility of early domestic origins of modern intellectual trends. For Levenson, the question of continuity between modern and pre-western Chinese thought is critical to the answering of the question, “How shall China see himself as a modern man and a modern Chinese together?” (p. xxxiii).

After exploring Qing intellectual disinterest in science and a decided anti-professionalism in Ming and later schools of art, Levenson concludes that confrontation with the West did in fact create a distinct rift in Chinese perceptions of culture when “the intimate association of bureaucracy with the mastery of high culture [which] was cracked by modern western pressure and its concomitant, Chinese Nationalism.” (p. 42). From this position, Levenson personally engages in the self-strengthening debates that dominated late nineteenth century intellectual exchanges. He traces the transition in Chinese intellectual attitudes toward western thought from the rejection of western values to the search for their Chinese origins and the embracing of foreign ideas before arriving at the creation of modern China. Levenson demonstrates that aggregates of piecemeal philosophies ultimately proved inadequate. China needed a new comprehensive philosophical base–a new Confucianism. Communism became the replacement. In Levenson’s own eloquent words: “Some compulsion seems to exist in many quarters to see Chinese communism not, indeed, as a foreign creed tamed down to traditional Chinese specifications,… but as Confucianism with another name and another skin but the same perennial spirit. Canonical texts and canonical texts, bureaucratic intellectual elite and bureaucratic intellectual elite–nothing has changed, allegedly–except, possibly everything” (p. 162).

Levenson seems to relish every opportunity that he finds to point out the paradoxes of these debates. Each approach to these problems of culture and modernization becomes a form of internal opposition under his pen. Levenson leaves few to wonder why it was/is so difficult to solve the modern problem of the simultaneous need to hold onto the past and to break away from it. He assesses this dilemma as a misunderstanding of tradition: “When traditionalists lost the will to develop tradition, and sought instead to repeat it, they changed its content. They saw it as an antithesis to the West, and development could only weaken it in that capacity. The strength which tradition would have brought them was lost” (p. 133).

Levenson’s subtle intellectual analysis leads him to the conclusion that change occurred in China as a direct result of western pressure. Although his framework was not strikingly new, his approach, exploration, and observations continue to be compelling. Levenson demonstrates a gift for finding the subtle in the obvious. Even as he draws the conclusion that western-impact stimulated China’s transition to modernity, he pulls all of the debates over culture and intellectual trends back to their basic origin, the question of power. “As long as one society is not being conclusively shaken up by another, foreign ideas may be exploited, as additional vocabulary, in a domestic intellectual situation.” While he recognizes the power advantage that the West had, Levenson does not fall into the trap of transmuting that power advantage into a belief that western ideas were therefore superior.

Surprisingly little emphasis is placed on the apparent purpose of the book, to analyze how Confucian China became Communist China. Levenson argues that the answer lies in society. Communism is a result of the Chinese reaction against the crisis that the West created by inflicting free trade and modern values on China a century earlier. Here, in painting communism as a social need of the Chinese, Levenson makes the typicality of his framework novel by challenging the implications of the western-impact theory, a theory which usually arrests the extent of western impact at the point of the pre-communist “progressive” developments which occurred between the Opium War and the Civil War.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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