The Self, Refracted: A New Confucian Approach to Respect

Yi Chen

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I re-examine the Confucian concept of “respect” (敬). Respect as a premise of East Asian cultures has played an underappreciated role in one of the most turbulent historical upheavals, when in China the Confucian tradition was challenged by the allegedly “Western” values of “Science” and “Democracy” in the May 4th movement of 1919, and in the New Culture movement of the 1910s and 1920s.
In the wake of the May 4th Movement, from 1923-24, a nation-wide “science and metaphysics debate” involved leading intellectuals including Zhang Junmai (張君勱), Ding Wenjiang (丁文江), Hu Shi (胡適), Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀), and Wu Zhihui (吳稚暉), who argued for and against deriving truth or meaning of life from metaphysical assumption, or through (Western) empiricism. As the debate focused more on the foundation of truth in an abstract way, a genuine engagement with the deeper implications of what it means to be “human”, in the Darwinian sense, and “humane” in the Confucian tradition is lacking.
According to a recent study by Lydia Liu (2009), Lu Xun (魯迅, 1881-1936), the preeminent writer at that time, implicitly expressed his skepticism of the validity of this debate in his short story “The New Year Sacrifice” (《祝福》) published in 1924. Liu discusses how Lu Xun, inspired by Ernest Haeckel’s recapitulation theory of developmental biology, translated “life-germ” as a neologism renya人芽 (human-(plant)seedling), adapted from the original Japanese (ningen no me人間の芽). While “The New Year Sacrifice” is often read as an exposure of Confucian gender oppression, Liu considers it as Lu Xun’s personal inquiry on the gaps and fissures between traditional Chinese and Western values. One of the most interesting thoughts that follow from this encounter, yet to be developed, is the potential for “biomimesis” in the cultural domain: could (and should) our cultural system emulate and adopt the deeper principles of nature, rather than simply imitating nature’s superficial appearance?
Developed from a New Confucian concept of the Self, proposed by Weiming Tu at the 2018 World Congress of Philosophy, which emphasizes “enabling constraints”, I re-examine the etymological implications of the Chinese characters used in the Analects on the concept of lǐ 禮 (Ritual-Propriety), which indicate a strong connection with observations of nature, such as the propagation of bamboo stalks manifest in the character that means “restrain” (節). Such connections can guide an interpretation of the Confucian lǐ as expressing fundamental principles of (human) nature, rather than establishing a dichotomous opposition between nature and culture.
Responding to such cultural biomimesis, an aesthetic vision that respects the fissures in and between relationships of human beings and among species can reshape the concept of “human-seedling” in a context of emotional, perceptual, and intellectual shades and hues of hierarchies and order. In this framework, the May 4th movement could be re-analysed as refracting such an immanent, resilient aspect of the self –– a self that may not be restricted to human-being, but being “humane” –– into its components. Their re-synthesis lets the self emerge from the tension between personal emotion and social responsibility, not simply as a single “human”, but as a contribution to the planet as a whole.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventThe 14th Biennial Conference of the Nordic Association for China Studies (NACS)
: When China Faces the World: Engagement or Disengagement? Marking the Centenary of the May 4th Movement
- Bergen, Norway
Duration: 13 Jun 201914 Jul 2019


ConferenceThe 14th Biennial Conference of the Nordic Association for China Studies (NACS)
Abbreviated titleNACS


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