Yongsōng and Kongzi: The Great Enlightenment Movement and Its Similarities to Confucianism

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can certainly be considered a troubled time for the Korean people, particularly caused by the failure of the Chosōn dynasty, from 1392-1910, as well as Japanese oppression and colonialism from 1910-45. For Paek Yongsōng, among others, the preceding period was seen as one where freedom and independence were superseded by corruption and restraint. In addition to this, Buddhism, throughout this period, was severely weakened due to an “anti-Buddhist, pro-Confucian”1  policy implemented by the Chosōn dynasty. Due to this reduced influence, Paek Yongsōng went on to translate Buddhism into Korean and thus began a new movement; The Great Enlightenment Movement. As exemplified by Woosung Huh, the term ‘great enlightenment “was simply Yongsōng’s translation of Buddha, the literal meaning of the Great Enlightenment Movement is the movement of Buddha.”2 

In addition to Yongsōng’s work surrounding the modernisation of Buddhism, there are several similarities that can be made to Confucianism that so heavily dominated Korean society in the centuries preceding the foundation of Yongsōng’s Great Enlightenment Movement. This analysis will be made by focusing on a brief statement made by Yongsōng in Enlightenment Ocean Like the Sun. Within this work, Yongsōng explains his view of an authentic Buddhist and how one attains goodness by creating merits, as seen below:

“There is no place where you cannot create merits: if you are filial to your parents and respect your teachers and elders; if you are friendly to your brothers and harmonize your family; if you keep your residence clean; if you work for the public good according to your ability and keep clear of private desires; if you propagate the truth of Great Enlightenment to all the people in the world) so that they can remove superstition, and tread a righteous path… and if you do not commit any evil and instead practice good deeds, then you will create merits.”3 

Critically, one of the main similarities shared between Confucianism and the Great Enlightenment Movement is the importance of filiality to elders and the essential role that family plays in leading one to eternal goodness and enlightenment. As seen above, there is a clear focus on the importance of respect and filiality towards family and elders in aiding one towards goodness. The similarity to Confucianism is evidenced when focusing on the works of Kongzi, otherwise known as Confucius by many in the western world. In Book One of his analects, Kongzi writes that “a young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors”4 , he goes on to summarise the point by saying that “the gentlemen applies himself to the roots. ‘Once the roots are firmly established, the way will grow’”.5  Thus, when assessing Kongzi’s writings in conjunction with the writings set out by Yongsōng and the Great Enlightenment, the argument can certainly be made that modern Korean Buddhism and Confucianism were quite similar both in thought and practice, particularly regarding their teleological approach to goodness.

Further similarities between Confucianism and the Great Enlightenment Movement are seen when focusing on the role of the individual in society. As seen above, Yongsōng writes that if one can ‘keep clear of private desires’, they thus can create good merits. Moreover, Yongsōng writes that another element that makes one a good Buddhist is the ability to “see other people go well.”6 Therefore, an understanding of others and a communal approach to life is a key element in aiding one towards being a good Buddhist and thus reaching the ultimate individual salvation as alluded to throughout Yongsōng’s works. In a not too dissimilar manner, Kongzi and thus Confucianists also discuss the importance of providing for society through individual action. In Book Fourteen of Kongzi’s Analects, we can see the importance of the individual and their role in society as it states, “in ancient times scholars learned for their own sake; these days they learn for the sake of others.”7 Furthermore, in Book Sixteen, Kongzi states that finding joy by “commending the excellence of others”8 is a beneficial type of joy. This is unlike arrogant behaviour or idle behaviour that Kongzi considers to be harmful types of joy. Thus, one’s individual actions in relation to society can play a key role in aiding them towards the ultimate goodness, or joy as referred to by Kongzi in this case. Therefore, when assessing Kongzi’s approach to one’s role in relation to society, we can see several similarities to Yongsōng’s approach. Particularly, we see the essential role that individual action and behaviour can have in aiding one’s journey to ultimate goodness- another idea shared by both ideologies.

Overall, when assessing the statement set out above, we can see some of the similarities that are shared between modernised Korean Buddhism, or the Great Enlightenment Movement, and Confucianism. Moreover, in some of Yongsōng’s other works such as Returning to True Religion, he discusses some other similarities to Confucianism, such as the equivalence between ‘benevolence’ in Confucianism and the ‘mind’ in Buddhism. Of course, there are many differences between the two ideologies, especially when comparing neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, with Yongsōng arguing that neo-Confucians “did not understand the way of [Kongzi], nor did they reach the level of [Kongzi] in their philosophy.”9 Despite this criticism, however, we can still see the admiration that Yongsōng had towards Kongzi and his ideology by separating his original views from those that later followed such as the Cheng Brothers. Thus, when examining the paragraph set out above, it is evident that there are several similarities between Confucianism and Yongsōng’s Great Enlightenment Movement, with both playing essential roles in the development of Korean society throughout history.

  1. Woosung Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, in Jin Y. Park (ed.), Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (New York, 2010), p.19. []
  2. Ibid., p. 26 []
  3. Ibid., p. 27 []
  4. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, 2005), p.3. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, p. 27 []
  7. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 42 []
  8. Ibid., p. 48 []
  9. Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, p. 33 []

No Country for Old (Wo)Men: The Evolution of the ‘Patriarchal Paradigm’

Throughout history, the role of women in China has been riddled by a ‘patriarchal paradigm’ that took hold both in familial and societal life. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan Piggott (2003) write of the ‘patriarchal family paradigm’, in which, “the ideal family thus prescribed [was] marked by gender hierarchy, patrilineal descent, and virilocal residence.”1 They go on to support this view by focusing on the legislative nature of this paradigm through avenues such as the Tang penal and administrative codes. Here, we see the differing roles in society of women and men, as the privilege of a husband’s status was not equally upheld for their wives.2 This is evidenced when assessing the Myörei Ritsu, which stated that murder, among other things such as failing to mourn a husband, was seen as a seditious offence. However, these offences were not as harshly punished for female victims. Ultimately, the role of women in society was one of a second-class citizenry that was in place to provide for husband’s and fundamentally, society. Thus, the ‘patriarchal paradigm’ is evident.

Despite this, however, as society evolved and developed, traditional family values that were upheld for centuries, began to find themselves on the end of criticism from some intellectuals. From these intellectuals, a critical movement grew which promoted reforms regarding the role of women, making the ultimate argument that “China needed healthy, educated mothers to produce citizens sound in mind and body.”3 

Upon further inspection, however, this reform for women was a goal-driven movement that focused on assisting the overall development of Chinese male citizenry, not the true liberation of women and their role in society. Susan Glosser corroborates this when she writes that, “men’s interest in educational and physical reforms for women grew out of this desire to maximise their own contribution to the nation.”4 Thus, the argument arises that the role of women did not truly evolve with these reforms, rather the ‘patriarchal paradigm’, as coined by Ko et al. (2003) evolved. Critically, the main role that these reforms played in altering the role of women was solely effective on the surface and no deeper. Thus, the ‘patriarchal paradigm’ evolved with the times, rather than the overall role of women in society. Ultimately, women were still categorised as the second-class citizenry, critically in place to aid the male population. As highlighted by Glosser once again, the approach to reform was one where young elite men shifted an age-old focus from good mothers to ideal wives.5 Thus, as this piece argues, it was still a woman’s kinship role over anything else that dictated their place in society.

This is exemplified when focusing on the explicit directive for women to improve themselves, otherwise known as the wenming, or ‘civilisation’ of women. This is evidenced most when focusing on the work done by Liang Qichao, who grouped the reforms for women into three categories of, productivity, education, and the cultivation of a strong and healthy body. He argued that by women educating their children before the age of 10, as was done in the Western world, China could ultimately compete with their western counterparts. As a result of Liang Qichao’s work, the first Chinese Girls’ school opened in 1898. Regardless of the clear benefit that this had regarding the liberation of women, at least in educational circles, the overall aim behind this move was driven by the ever-existing categorisation of women by their kinship role.

Thus, as argued throughout this piece, despite some reforms for women in late nineteenth-century China, the overall reason behind the reform was still driven by the ‘patriarchal paradigm’. The ultimate move to liberate women in certain capacities was not compelled by a movement to provide women with rights, rather it was galvanised by a drive to improve the role of man, and to a greater extent, China.

  1. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, Joan Piggott. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. (California, 2003). pg.27 []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Susan Glosser. Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953. (California, 2003). pg. 5 []
  4. Ibid. pg.5 []
  5. Ibid. pg.6 []

The Twelve Point Pledge’s: The Human Body and Anarchism.

Shifu was a key figure in the Chinese social revolutionary movement, in particular the Chinese anarchist movement. Throughout his short life (1884-1915), Shifu oversaw the organisation of multiple anarchist and revolutionary groups including the Conscience Society (Xinshe) in 1912. Established in Hangzhou, the Conscience Society was formed as an anarchist self-improvement group that took up many similar practices to other anarchist groups such as the Promote Virtue Society created by The Paris Group. These self-improvement practices are most evidently seen when assessing the group’s ‘Conscience Society Covenant’. This can best be described as “an anarchist behavioural code tailored to the needs of an awakened Chinese moral elite.”1  The Conscience Society Covenant, otherwise known as the ‘Twelve Point Pledge’s’ were as follows:

(1) Do not eat meat.
(2) Do not drink liquor.
(3) Do not smoke tobacco.
(4) 4. Do not use servants.
(5) Do not ride in sedan chairs or rickshas.
(6) Do not marry.
(7) Do not use a family name.
(8) Do not serve as an official.
(9) Do not serve as a member of a representative body.
(10) Do not join a political party.
(11) Do not serve in the army or navy.
(12) Do not believe in a religion.2 

The most compelling element of the ‘Twelve Point Pledge’s’ is the first 3 pledges. This is because they do not directly relate to anarchism at its core; that being a movement committed to the abolition of government, and thus by association, bureaucratic institutions such as religion and, the institution of marriage. The question thus stands, how do the first three pledges relate to anarchism? 

Edward Krebs writes that during the spring and summer of 1912, Shifu wrote a series of essays to amplify his ideas on several points in the covenant.3 From these essays, we gain insight, not only into Shifu’s anarchism but also into the reasoning behind the first 3 pledges.

Firstly, Shifu’s belief in vegetarianism, on the surface, seems hardly essential nor relevant in regards to anarchism. However, Shifu’s inspiration can be drawn back to two key figures in social revolutionary history: Leo Tolstoy and Li Shinzeng. Both these figures were firm believers in the interconnected nature of a vegetarian lifestyle and anarchism. Furthermore, Shifu used these figures as inspiration in arguing that “vegetarianism was essential to non-violence and good health.”4 Thus, when assessing Shifu’s views on vegetarianism, we gain a true understanding as to why Shifu includes ‘Do not eat meat’ as his first pledge within the Conscience Society Covenant. To truly see a change in the world, we must also change our own habits.

Regarding the following two pledges (2 and 3), Shifu presents us with a scientific explanation behind their inclusion. Shifu notes that alcohol produces euphoria and thus undermines the brain’s ability to function.5 When focusing on the third pledge, Shifu offers a chemical analysis of tobacco, drawing conclusions from both western scientists as well as Li Shizeng. ((Ibid.)) Citing these two pledge’s, Shifu discusses the importance of science and its interconnected relationship to moral behaviour, and thus, anarchism.

Critically, he argues that those who want to improve society must also strive to treat their own bodies in a matter of accordance with these scientific findings. The main reason behind this is quite similar to the view set out regarding the first pledge. To improve society, one must also strive to improve their own body. This is exemplified by Shifu when he writes, “everyone should improve his own renge [human nature/quality] in order to assist the progress of society and mankind; if we develop our renge… everything we do will accord with the truth.”6

Therefore, when focusing on the first three pledges, we can understand why they were included, despite their lack of overt relation to anarchist ideals. In Shifu’s eyes, the commitment to the reforming of society begins with the reformation of one’s personal habits and way of life. Thus, there is a clear focus on physical practices such as eating, drinking and smoking. When assessing Shifu’s explanation for the first three pledges it is, therefore, clear to see their relation to anarchism and Shifu’s ultimate aim in socially reforming society.

  1. Krebs, Edward S. Shifu, soul of Chinese anarchism. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 1998. pg, 101. []
  2. Ibid. pg, 102. []
  3. Ibid. pg, 103. []
  4. Shifu wuncen [Shifu’s Collective Writing’s], pp. 85-92 []
  5. Krebs, Edward S. Shifu, soul of Chinese anarchism. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 1998. pg, 103. []
  6. Shifu wuncen [Shifu’s Collective Writing’s], pg. 100. []

Xunzi and Human Nature: The Political Implications

“Now without teachers or proper models for people, they will be deviant, dangerous, and incorrect in their behaviour. Without ritual and the standards of righteousness, they will be unruly, chaotic, and not well ordered.”1

Xunzi, a third-century Confucianist philosopher argues within his writings that “people’s nature is bad”2 , and that they must ultimately make a deliberate effort to do good, through actions such as rituals and self-cultivation. Yet, as seen above, another way that Xunzi argues that humans can deliberately better themselves is by being taught and led to do good by their superiors, or as Xunzi states, ‘proper models’.

This piece argues that Xunzi’s statement above provides a theoretical platform for authoritarian rule of law in political spheres. The main reason behind this is that fundamentally if Xunzi’s moral philosophy is that humans possess an evil nature and that violence and chaos are the natural progressions, and thus the best way to avoid this is through specific social norms of righteousness and ritual, it is logical to argue that the state should also invoke such standards. Essentially, Xunzi’s authoritarian models of moral education can easily translate to authoritarian views in a political context. Eric Shwitzgebel corroborates this when focusing on the difference between Mengzi and Xunzi regarding their political philosophy, with Xunzi likely to have a more authoritative political philosophy.3   

This is evidenced as early as the 17th century when assessing the views set out by the Japanese Confucian scholar, Ogyu Sorai. who played an influential role in convincing the Shogunate to reform towards Confucian principles; ultimately being appointed the private secretary to Premier Yanagisawa.

As highlighted by Arthur Tiedemann, Sorai, upholding Xunzi as a philosophical and moral guide, prompted numerous legal and political changes, all driven by the idea that humans are inherently evil and can only improve through the means mentioned above.4 

This is evidenced when examining the political actions undertaken during Surai’s reform programme. Within this, Sorai recommended that free movement should be curtailed, as well as the fact that all people should be registered into ‘census registers’.5 

When reverting to the primary source above, the danger of Xunzi’s views on human nature is clear when putting it into the political context. By separating ‘proper models’ and the other (the rest of humanity) per se, Xunzi prompts a theoretical situation where a political system of authoritarian rule is validated.

This has been evidently shown when assessing the role of Sorai and his reform programme. Thus the argument is clear that there is an inherent interaction between Xunzi’s philosophical view on human nature and its role in indirectly promoting the political philosophy of authoritarianism.

  1. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, Readings in classical Chinese philosophy, (Indianapolis, 2005), pg. 299. []
  2. Ibid, pg. 298 []
  3. Eric Schwitzgebel, ‘Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rosseau’, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 24:2 (2007), pg.15 []
  4. Arthur Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, (New York, 2005),  p.219. []
  5. ‘Ogyū Sorai: Confucian Conservative Reformer: From Journey to Kai to Discourse on Government’, in Huang C., Tucker J. (eds), Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, (Dordrecht, 2014), p.173. []