From Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo

Tonghak as a religion underwent vast transformation between its founding by Ch’oe Che-u in 1860 and the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Particularly, it saw shifts in its socio-political aims and its spiritual doctrine, made possible by the legalisation of the movement and wider influences upon its makeup. Carl F. Young traces these developments in his work Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way (2014) in part of a broader narrative which saw the movement become a viable platform for nationalist voices by the 1919 March First Movement. As part of this transformation, the most apparent change is in the organisations “rebranding”, a change in name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo, announced in late 1905. This change in name is reflective of the wider developments Young traces, particularly within the religious sphere.

Firstly, the change in name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo is representative of the movements desire to separate itself from the negative image it acquired during the 1894 rebellion, which was neither promoted nor led first by official Tonghak leadership, but began as a reaction to local economic concerns. Most involved were of lower social status,  of which Tonghak initially attracted due to the centrality of folk religious elements in its early meetings and worship. Tonghak is described by Young as an almost hybrid or union of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and native Shamanism – involving aspects of Buddhist meditation and Confucian ethics – and those native folk elements, for example Che’-u’s supposed healing power, or the healing power of the yŏngbu (talisman) were among reasons why many were initially attracted to Tonghak. [[1]] The detachment from its folk elements and practices we see later in the spiritual and doctrinal developments of the religion can be viewed as a response to the 1894 uprising; an attempt to control how it was perceived by the masses. It too indicates a shift in its target audience, from peasant masses it once attracted before and during the 1894 rebellion towards the attraction of those from educated classes, alienated by the Confucian system but attracted by the preaching of its virtues. Young Ick Lew argues that this is what attracted Chon Pong-Jun, leader of the first 1894 rebellion, to Tonghak. [[2]]  Carl F. Young makes the case that a tension between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures – folk elements conflicting with Confucian values – may have contributed to divisions within the movement. [[3]] Ultimately, it seems these ‘high cultures’ were deemed a greater necessity to the long term survival of the organisation (something of utmost importance to its highest leadership) due to its appeal to those alienated educated classes who were to assume leadership roles and ensure the continuation of Tonghak dissemination and expansion.

Young applies Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘imagined communities’ to the reorganisation of Tonghak into Ch’ondogyo, claiming it to be a ‘reimagining and refocusing of the parameters that held together the religious community that had been founded by Che-u’. [[4]] It can be argued that the refocusing of doctrinal aims in the detaching itself from folk religious practices ‘refocused the parameters’ of the movement in terms of its makeup, shifting the extent of its influence but in turn preserving the community. Further consolidation of this occurred in the establishment of Ch’ondogyo’s official teaching: In nae ch’on. This principle emerged officially in 1907 – translated as ‘humans are heaven’- and claimed that the divine resides within humans and pervades all creation. Anyone could attain full contact with the divine regardless of learning or social rank, allowing for potential widespread appeal, while also calling for proper ethical behaviour as a way of showing respect for heaven. The ethical and moral implications of the doctrine may have appealed to those more educated who were attracted to Tonghak due to its promotion of Confucian virtues and ethics. In nae ch’on presented Ch’ondogyo as a rational religion, in contrast to what was perceived as ‘irrational’ folk practices, and served as the foundation for social action the movement promoted.

Finally, the change in name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo can perhaps be seen as a reflection of the organisation’s involvement and interaction with foreign ideas via the Japan’s intellectual scene. Its initial name ‘Tonghak’ translates as ‘eastern learning’, a deliberate choice as opposed to ‘western learning’ (Sohak). Here, it presented itself as a ‘national’, Korean alternative to the Christian mission present in Korea in the early twentieth century. The movement was to provide the moral foundations for a transformed Korean society, and fill the apparent spiritual vacuum caused by the ‘discrediting of traditional neo-Confucianism and a weakened Buddhism’. [[5]] The adoption of ‘Ch’ondogyo’ translated as ‘teaching of the heavenly way’ removes the distinction between east and west, a distinction perhaps not needed nor desired following interaction with reformist thinkers in Japan and acceptance of western intellectual currents, political and social thought. Young claims that it was this western political and social thought encountered in Japan via its leader Song Pyong-jun and the movement’s involvement with the Ilchinhoe that allowed for the ‘systematisation and rationalisation of Tonghak ritual and doctrine’, and moved Ch’ondogyo away from aspects which tied it to the 1894 rebellion and negative image. [[6]]

Overall, tracing the development and shift from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo is interesting in the study of how foreign ideas came to influence religion in Korea, and how its leaders responded to pressures to keep the movement alive and well regarded. We see that the shift allowed for a more universal audience, as indicated in its new meaning. Too, its new doctrine allowed for a new duality, appealing to both those who valued  the teaching of Confucian ethics and virtues but also those who desired a new religious community which allowed anyone to attain contact with the divine. This new apparent widespread appeal is arguably what made Ch’ondogyo a viable but also successful platform for nationalist voices later in the decade.


[[1]] Carl F. Young, Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: the Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo movements and the twilight of Korean independence (Honolulu, 2014) pp. 8-9.

[[2]] Young Ick Lew, ‘The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with Emphasis on Chon Pong-jun’s Background and Motivation’ in The Journal of Korean Studies 7 (1990), pp. 149-180.

[[3]] Young, Eastern Learning, p. 18.

[[4]] Ibid., p. 114.

[[5]] Ibid., p. xix.

[[6]] Ibid.



The Value of Education: A Comparison of Confucianist and Anarchist Objectives

A common element of Anarchism and Confucianism is the value both philosophies place upon education, and the role education held, whether theoretically or in practice, in propagating their objectives. In their chapter ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Choson Korea’, Deuchler explores the role of literature for ‘indoctrination’ in promoting Neo-Confucian ideals and virtues among elite women which proved to ensure the stability of the domestic realm, and subsequently the stability of the state and society functioning under Confucian hierarchy. Through exposure to works such as Elementary Learning (1189), Illustrated Guide to the Three Bonds (1432), and Instructions for Women (1475), virtues and morality were to be transplanted into the household, and women were to act as ‘the guardians of Confucian norms in the inner realm’ in Korea.[1] Too, Tocco in their ‘Norms and Texts for Women’s Education in Tokugawa Japan’ discusses the extent of women’s education within Tokugawa Japan, and provides example of a woman’s education as accessed through moral guides and texts whose foundations lay in Neo-Confucian ethical precepts which stressed the importance of filial piety and kinship. Both Deuchler and Tocco illustrate well how the education of women in preparation of their managerial and ethical domestic responsibilities came to play a role in the upholding of a Confucian hierarchical society and ideals of filial piety.

A direct comparison between Confucianism and Anarchism can perhaps be made in their conflicting objectives; the Confucian upholding of hierarchy versus the anarchist aims to dismantle hierarchy and those social institutions which serve it, namely state institutions, and familial structures. The value of education therefore is found and placed in competing goals.

Dirlik in Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (1991) emphasises the perceived importance of education among early twentieth century anarchists in achieving revolutionary change. Education is presented as an ‘instrument of revolution’, a tool to create a self-awareness/revolutionary consciousness which would in turn allow for a successful, conscious uprising to dismantle those institutions.[2] Education within anarchist philosophy is also presented as the equivalent of revolution, for there is no distinction made between process and goals of revolution: revolution is a necessary condition for the possibility of anarchist education, but revolution cannot be achieved without education. An anarchist education therefore taught truth and public-mindedness – freedom, equality, and the ability for self-governance – as the means and ends of anarchist revolution.

Kanno Sugako (1881-1911), a central figure in the early Japanese anarchist movement, clearly voiced the need for women to develop self-awareness, and is reflective of wider anarchist ideas on the importance of education in achieving this social consciousness:

‘For us women, the most urgent task is to develop our own self-awareness […] women with some education and some degree of social knowledge must surely be discontented and angry about their status.’[3]

Here she also suggests how education may allow for women to think critically of their status within society. Kanno implies the importance of education in achieving self-awareness, and suggests that this self-awareness of women’s status in society is not recognised to a great extent. Yet, she also suggests that some degree of education must be enough to make one critical of their status – perhaps even one of a Confucian grounding. This seems to conflict slightly with one argument presented by Deuchler, that Japanese women, through their ‘indoctrinating’ education, were complicit in and ‘contributed to the perpetuation of the Confucian system’ which in turn served to promote hierarchy and uphold patriarchy.[4] While this may be true on a macro-scale, their use of the term ‘indoctrination’ suggests those educated women themselves were uncritical, and it is this implication I find dubious. With little evidence written by women themselves proving as a limitation in their work, no outright rejection of a system which suppressed the visibility of women at this time does not necessarily mean there was no critique or ‘self-awareness’. Rather, it serves as a reflection on the success of the patriarchal system in limiting women’s purpose to the domestic realm.

Despite the value of education being found competing goals, both philosophies emphasised the importance of moral teaching. The moral aims of Confucian education however were confined within the family, and were to ensure good Confucian household and the teaching of children Confucian moral values, whereas moral education among anarchists aimed to achieve a public revolution of morality as to achieve its humanitarian goals. This apparent divergence from private teaching of filial piety towards a public revolution promoting equal respect across humanity is interesting, and raises the question of whether the popularity of anarchist ideals within China and Japan was viewed as, or came as a rejection of traditional values of Confucianism.


[1] Martina Deuchler, ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Chosón Korea’ in Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush and Joan R Piggot (ed.) Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea and Japan (Berkeley, 2003), p. 152.

[2] Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley, 1991), p. 90.

[3] Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Pre-war Japan (Berkeley, 1993), p. 53.

[4] Deuchler, ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Chosón Korea’ in Women and Confucian Cultures, p. 165.

Deconstructing the ahistorical conception of “Womenhood” and “Confucianism”

Recent studies on premodern Chinese philosophical ideas, especially Confucianism, had increasingly adopted post-structuralist and constructivist theoretical approaches. Scholars, especially feminist historians and philosophers, are seeking to clarify and redefine preconceived conceptions through discourse analysis, and the reinterpretation of the past and the present phenomena by tracing their historical formation processes.
This tendency in the academic field of East Asian and gender history is well exemplified in three scholarly works—Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan1 , Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation2 , and The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism.3) The three readings are tied together nicely by their shared goals to problematise the concept of a universal “womanhood”4 used by Western as well as East Asian scholars.5 

One reoccurring theme is the authors’ collective appeal for future scholars to fix their analytic gaze upon “female subjectivity”.6  This appeal is reflected in Barlow’s The Question of Women, which introduced the use of future anterior tense into the academic writing of women in China. It was also directly mentioned in Women and Confucian Culture and Confucianism and Women. The introduction of Women and Confucian Cultures provides a rather comprehensive definition of “subjectivity” for the purpose of this discussion, stating that it encompasses the subject’s “interior motives, identity formation, and perceptions of the world”.7 With this adjusted focus, feminist historians will be able to recognise women as agents and the formation of gender in East Asia as a social process. This then allows them to account for changes in gender identity and relation, the evolution of social and ideological factors that influenced their formation, as well as the potential reimagination of an original East Asian female identity.

Consequently, as a very, if not the most, influential philosophical and ideological tradition in the Sino sphere, Confucianism became a target of deconstruction for some scholars to make sense of its role in gender formation and oppression. Ko and Rosenlee both sought to challenge the traditional monolithic conception of Confucianism in their writing. One important point they both raised is that there is no conceptual equivalent in East Asian cultures for “Confucianism”. For example, the Chinese term Ru, although very close to, is not entirely congruent with Confucianism.8 Another example that poses a significant challenge to this monolithic interpretation is the changing nature of the Confucian social order and its implication on women’s social status across time and countries, of which Ko and Rosenlee both offered thorough evaluation in their books.

It is worth noting that a discussion over the nature and development of gender and women in East Asia does not only have a significant implication on feminism; women and gender are two good lenses for historians to look through to understand the influence and evolution of Confucianism values in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese history. Confucianism casts a different level of impacts on gender relations under different historical contexts, and women’s lives and status is an extremely good indicator of the function and operation of these Confucian traditions in various times, societies, and across different regions.

  1. Ko, Dorothy, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan(2003 []
  2. Rosenlee, Li-Hsiang Lisa, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (New York, 2012 []
  3. Barlow, Tani, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (2004 []
  4. Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, p.151 []
  5. Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p1; Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, pp.3-6, 45-46; Barlow, The Question of Women, p.6 []
  6. Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, p.152; Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p.7 []
  7. Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p.2 []
  8. Ibid., pp.7-8 []

Christian Confucianism

“China also walked in the great Way, but within the most recent one or two thousand years, China has erroneously followed the devil’s path, thus being captured by the demon of hell.”[1] – The Book of Heavenly Commandments

According to many 19th century Christian missionaries and supporters of Confucianism, the teachings of Christianity and Confucianism are based on opposing philosophies which cannot coexist.  Christians of the Taiping Rebellion even went as far as to describe Confucianism as “the devil’s path.”  However, there are many ways in which their ideas overlap and events such as the Taiping Rebellion demonstrate that Confucian ideals can be adapted through a Christian framework.  While most scholars view the Taiping Rebellion through the lens of class or nationalism, Carl Kilcourse argues in his book Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, that the most important aspects of the rebellion are grounded in religion.  He describes the ways in which rebels adapted Christian theology and successfully integrated it with their own traditions, including Confucianism.  He argues that it was the ability to merge Christianity and Confucianism which made the movement initially successful.

Even though the rebellion’s leader Hong Xiuquan denounced Confucius, many aspects of the Taiping discipline reflect Confucian thought.[2]  Hong’s understanding of human nature shows that he was greatly influenced by classical education, especially the philosophy of Mencius, because Hong held an optimistic view of human nature.  Contrary to the Christian belief that original sin marks all of humanity as inherently evil, Hong’s belief that humans are naturally good reflects Neo-Confucian thought.  Additionally, the Taiping commitment to the Ten Commandments is reminiscent of the Confucian commitment to self-cultivation.  The idea that one can unlock one’s inner good nature by following the Ten Commandments seems to be based on the classic Confucian idea that one should commit oneself to learning and self-perfection.  The fifth of the “Ten Heavenly Commandments” is also connected to Confucianism.  The fifth commandment of filial piety is described in “The Book of Heavenly Commandments,” where it claims that, “the Lord God is the universal Father of all in the mortal world.”[3]  It adapts the Confucian principle that sons should be loyal to their fathers to portray the relationship between humanity and god as one of filial obedience.  Kilcourse uses the Taiping understanding of human nature, the Ten Commandments, and filial piety to show how much their Christian theology overlaps with Confucian tradition, demonstrating that despite Hong’s anti-Confucian rhetoric, he was greatly influenced by Confucianism.[4]

To explain the success of the Taiping ideology, Kilcourse uses the term “glocalization,” or the process of “localization [which] occurs when a foreign object, idea, or institution is taken to a new cultural environment, exposed to local influences, and thereby transformed into an original expression of the indigenous culture.”[5]  While Christians and Confucians alike declared the mutual exclusivity of the two ideologies, their principles and values were often adapted to compliment each other.  The ideas on which the Taiping Rebellion was founded draw from both Christianity and Confucianism, merging the two to create a foundation for the theology of the uprising.


[1] Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, (Columbia University Press, 2001), ProQuest Ebook Central,, 219.

[2] Carl S. Kilcourse, Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 110.

[3] Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 219.

[4] Kilcourse, Taiping Theology, 109-133.

[5] Ibid, 17.

The Interplay of Confucianism and Protestant Fundamentalism in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

“A fascinating example of the interplay between Chinese and Western ideas in a historical event of the first magnitude.”1 This summary, taken from the second volume of Sources of Chinese Tradition, neatly outlines the legacy of the Taiping Rebellion. This piece will argue that it is this interplay that contributed to the original success of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, due to the similarities between Confucian ideals and western Protestant Fundamentalism.

The importance of Protestantism in the foundations of the Taiping Rebellion cannot be overstated. As Thomas O’Reilly brilliantly explains, Protestantism as a denomination had come to China far later than Catholicism, and yet was quick to take hold. He points out that rather than focus on proselytising and active conversion, as previous Catholic efforts had done, the first Protestant missionaries instead devoted themselves to translation. In doing so, he argues that ‘the translated Bible constituted Protestantism’s most influential contribution to the Taiping Rebellion’. 2

However, translation alone does not account for the success of Protestantism in China. Reilly’s work, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, details how the success of the Rebellion in part came down to the inherent similarities of Protestant Fundamentalism and Confucian teachings. In particular, Reilly notes the importance laid on the hierarchical system of the Heavenly Father (God), Jesus (the Heavenly Elder Brother), and the leader of the Rebellion himself, Hong Xiquan (the Heavenly Younger Brother). In demanding complete obedience to this structure, Reilly shows that Protestantism shared much of the same core values and dogmas as Confucianism. Hong, having been extensively educated under the Civil Service Examination system, was thus deeply rooted in Confucian ideology, and it was therefore no great issue to tie in the new western religion to these ancient ideals.

This return to Confucian ideals is echoed by Philip A Kuhn, who argues that Hong’s original aim of conversion ‘could best be accomplished by reconciling Christianity with the Confucian tradition’.3 Both Reilly and Kuhn note the importance placed on the adherence to the Ten Commandments, slightly altered from the Old Testament, but retaining much of the basic tenets. As well as this, Reilly mentions that the doxologies, or songs, were more likely to have been chanted rather than sung, and, more importantly, that ‘a report from the city of Suzhou states that that the singing of the doxology in that city included 28 verses of four to five characters each’, which naturally draws comparisons with the Three Character Classics.4 Of course, there were noticeable differences, notably in the granting of land to each family unit equally and the call that no-one should own private property.5 However, this speaks more to Hong’s plans for economic reform, and were as much rooted in the dissatisfaction and hostility to the Qing dynasty’s perceived failures as in religious doctrine.

Overall, it is clear that the reason for the early success of the Taiping Rebellion was due to the similarities between Confucianism and Protestantism. For a young man having dedicated his life to learning Confucian ways and being deeply disappointed in his failures, it is it perhaps easier to understand the allure that Protestantism held for Hong Xiquan. In integrating his classical education with the newness of western religion, he was able to marry the two together almost seamlessly. In the end, it was not a failure of religious belief and unity that saw the fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, but military, as it was weakened by internal power struggles and fracturing. It therefore stands as one of the major events of the 19th century in China and undoubtedly laid the groundwork for the later rebellions and uprisings of the 20th century and beyond.

  1. Theodore de Bary, William, Lufrano, Richard John, Wing-tsit Chan and Berthrong John, Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the twentieth century, (2nd ed. New York, 2000), p. 213. []
  2. O’Reilly, Thomas, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, (Seattle, 2014), p. 57. []
  3. Philip A Kuhn, ‘The Taiping Rebellion’, in John Fairbank (ed.), The Cambridge History of China: vol 10: Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911 (Cambridge, 1978), p. 269. []
  4. O’Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, p. 127. []
  5. Sources of Chinese Tradition, p. 225. []

The Nature of Xunzi: Comparison between Mencius and Xunzi on the nature of human essence

Xunzi, as a prominent Confucianist thinker in the period of Warring States, has a very distinct point of view on how to interpret and practice Confucianism from that of Menzi. The core difference in their philosophies is the different understanding of human nature. Mencius argues that human nature is good; Xunzi holds an opposite point that human nature is bad. This divergence leads to the distinct interpretations of functions and practices of ritual which are emphasized by Kongzi. According to Mengzi, the ritual and standard of being righteousness originate from the good nature of people, and Xunzi does not believe that people could follow what is virtuous, “deliberate effort” which is the teaching and learning of rituals and standards of righteousness set up by sages is required to educate a person to become a gentleman.

This divergence between Mengzi and Xunzi leads to different ways of applying their philosophies to real politics. Xunzi’s theory, in the later time, contributes to the development of Legalism which is the fundamental ideology of the rulership in Qin. Comparing to Mengzi’s doctrine of good human nature, Xunzi’s theory seems to be more practical and welcomed by the ruling class, since it leaves more space for an external agency to intervene in people’s life. Soles differentiates these two by defining that Mengzi’s virtue-based theory is agent-centred and Xunzi’s theory is rule-based which makes it consequentialist. People do not have to have a good intention or motivation while practising good and righteous behaviours, if they follow certain rules, the result will be good. This good result is the harmonious social order.1 It seems that Mengzi holds a more idealistic philosophy, and Xunzi is more practical, since the effort of a government is valued, and the outcome of this external effort is a stable society longed for by every ruler.

Despite Mengzi and Xunzi hold opposite opinions on the nature of human essence, and practices based on their philosophies differ in real life. They are not naturally in opposition to each other. Though Xunzi denies that human nature is good, he admits that there is an internal motivation of people to become good. In Chapter 23 of Xunzi: “People desire to become good because their nature is bad.” ((Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy 2nd Edition, pp298-310.)) He does not deny people’s instinct toward virtue, he only thinks that a normal person cannot learn the right concept of virtue without external help. So, Mengzi and Xunzi have the consensus that people possess the incipient power toward virtue. Instead of only mentioning the importance of external intervention, the system of Xunzi is consist of both people’s longing for becoming good and the teaching of sages.

Another similarity between Xunzi and Mengzi is that they are both Confucianists. Though Xunzi’s philosophy gives many inspirations to Hanfeizi and Lisi who are important figures in Legalism. The reason why Xunzi is still considered to be a Confucianist, like Mengzi and Kongzi, is that he believes that society operates in a harmonious way when people behave virtuously and morally which differentiate from Legalism that a prosperous country is based on laws and creeds. From this perspective, Xunzi and Mengzi’s theories are very similar to each other, people’s virtue can be improved by practising ritual and righteous behaviours to ultimately form a harmonious society. Even the core of their philosophies is ambiguously similar. It is sometimes hard to distinguish whether an action is out of good human nature or the intention of being good.

The subject described by their theory has nuance. The good nature possessed by people in the description made by Mengzi is towards the self-cultivation of a person, a person here is viewed as an independent individual. For Xunzi, the bad result of the society being chaotic and unstable is created by many people choosing to follow their instinct of self-profiting. If a person does not live in a society that requires them to live collaboratively, then human nature described by Xunzi is not evil. It is evil because it can cause social chaos, but when the concept of society is no longer included in the discussion, the judgement on people’s nature cannot be simply categorized as “bad”.

  1. Soles, David E. ‘The Nature and Grounds of Xunzi’s Disagreement with Mencius’. Asian Philosophy 9, no. 2 (1 July 1999), pp. 130-31. []

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. []

Lost in translation: Implications of Ogyu Sorai’s Rejection of the Wakun Method for Modern Readers

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) is perhaps best known for his political writings, yet his attitude towards language and the reading of Chinese texts is arguably of equal importance to any reader. As Thomas Kasulis outlines, the predominant way of reading classical Chinese literature in Japanese was the wakun method, in which a Chinese text was read with Japanese sentence structure and grammar. In doing so, this created what Sorai called a ‘bizarre and contrived hybrid” of both Chinese and Japanese1 . This simple description neatly gets to the heart of one of the greatest barriers of learning and interpretation of any reader: that of translation. In order to truly learn and understand classical Chinese texts, Sorai argued for learning the Chinese readings first, thus becoming familiar with the syntax and flow of spoken Chinese, and only then could one begin to translate it into more understandable Japanese.

Sorai argued that this ‘Japanification’ of Chinese readings and forcibly altered sentence structure led to an overcomplication and loss of information. Furthermore, he argued that since this translation itself came from the Heian era, it was by the time of the Tokogawa Shogunate some several hundred years out of date, and therefore written in an antiquated, archaic style that most ordinary Japanese readers would find it difficult to understand anyway2 .

His solution was to learn the original language before one can truly begin to understand its meaning. However, this is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Kasulis points out that Sorai had the benefit of a classical education under the Hayashi family, and had the ‘rare skill’ of being able to read and understand both Classical and modern forms. He was then able to set up his own school in order to teach this new method, dubbed Nagasaki after the area with the highest bilingual population at the time3 .

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this approach has major implications for the modern reader. Learning a language outside of state-mandated education is often time-consuming and can be prohibitively expensive, whether engaging a private tutor or using some other form, such as an online service. Thirdly, there is the issue of breadth. Sorai, being first and foremost a Confucian scholar, had only to learn Classical and modern Chinese. A difficult task, perhaps, but a singular one to which he devoted himself. For those whose interests are not quite so narrowed, it could easily leave one overwhelmed, thinking that all languages of interest must be mastered before one could even attempt to study anything of note.

Fourthly, there is the simple question of whether Sorai was right at all. The Nagasaki method came under criticism even in his own lifetime, notably from another Confucian Scholar, Arai Hakuseki, who pointed out the illogicality of the method in general, since the bilingual residents, being predominantly fisherman, had learnt Chinese from sailors and so could hardly be placed in the same linguistic realm as the Sage Kings of old4 .Taking this criticism, it would seem to rather invalidate Sorai somewhat.

The final conclusion then, would seem to be a balance between Sorai and a more favourable attitude towards translation. By all means, learning and immersing oneself in a chosen language is desirable for life-long study, or even if one simply has a great love of a particular culture. However, to enforce learning and total understanding before even attempting to study a piece of literature outside of one’s native language is simply not possible in the modern world. A better way, therefore, would be to find our own Sorai, someone who has already done the difficult task of translation, and use that instead as the basis for study. Naturally there will be errors, and one may have to change or alter a sentence to fit with the individual demands and peculiarities of a different language, but this is inevitable. To reverse the well-known saying, its not the way that you say it, but what you say that is most important.

  1. Thomas P. Kasulis. Engaging Japanese Philosophy : A Short History. (University of Hawaii Press, 2018), p. 347 []
  2. Ibid, pp. 348 []
  3. bid, p. 349 []
  4. Ibid, p. 349 []

Human Nature: How Perception of Human Tendencies Alters the Definition of Confucianism

The influence of Confucianism in Chinese culture and throughout the world is undeniable, but Confucianism itself is difficult to define, both because it is rooted in deeply philosophical, existential questions, but also because it has been interpreted and redefined by so many generations of thinkers.  One critical aspect which differentiates different schools of Confucianism is how one answers the question of whether human nature is inherently good or inherently evil.  Even just a hundred years after the death of Confucius, his disciple Mencius redefined his teachings by basing Confucian philosophy on the principle that human nature is inherently good.  This so changed the foundation of Confucian belief that the new school came to be known as Neo-Confucianism.  On the opposite side of the spectrum are thinkers like Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, who base their philosophical interpretations on the idea that humans are naturally inclined towards evil.  Although they all claim to be following and expanding on the teachings of Confucius, their approaches to Confucian teachings lead them in entirely different directions.

Daniel Gardner in his book, Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, argues that the Neo-Confucian views of Mencius had a greater impact on Chinese education from 1300 to 1900 than almost any other figure, apart from Confucius himself.[1]  Mencius famously argues that “all men have a mind-and-heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others: Today, no matter the person, if he suddenly comes upon a young child about to fall into a well, his mind-and-heart fills with alarm and is moved to compassion.”[2]  This belief in an innate sense of compassion influences his entire philosophy and it is the foundation of his belief that it is our duty to cultivate this compassion through self-reflection.  Gardner argues that it was required of anyone wishing to enter government service to internalise this philosophy of self-cultivation.  As a result, Confucianism, and its practice by those in official government positions, was a highly individualistic philosophy which recommended that the best way to serve others was by turning inward and through the perfection of oneself one could become an example for others.

Ogyu Sorai argued for the opposite approach.  He agrees with Xunzi that  humans are predisposed towards evil, claiming that “men are not sages, and that evil inevitably abounds while good is scarcely to be seen.”[3]  This pessimistic view of human nature leads him to the conclusion that humans cannot attain moral perfection on their own.  Arthur Tiedemann’s analysis of Sorai’s writings in Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600-2000 argues that Sorai was convinced that traditional schools of Confucianism like Zhu Xi and Ito Jinsai, “had failed to fufill the basic aim of scholarship: to provide for the needs of the people and the general social welfare. The NeoConfucians were too preoccupied with metaphysics, philosophical idealism, and personal cultivation.”[4]  Other schools relied on the inner good nature of the individual to eventually lead them towards goodness and virtue, but Sorai thought this perspective was unrealistic because it placed too much pressure on the individual.  He argues that without established social and political structures to guide and support people, their material welfare would be neglected and as a result, the evil tendencies of human nature would be manifested.

The real opposition in these views lies in the contrasting ideas the true nature of human beings.  If, as Mencius claims, humans must look within themselves to find good, then Confucianism is a philosophy which focuses predominantly on the individual and encourages an almost religious approach to personal perfection through self-reflection and self-cultivation.  In this form of Confucianism, laws and government authority have little effect because one is expected to govern oneself and set an example for others.  But, if one takes Sorai’s view that humans possess a natural evil which they must overcome, it is necessary to look outside oneself, to social and political institutions to correct this inherent flaw.  In this sense, Confucianism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of community and advocates for the structure and support which rituals and laws provide to keep individuals in check.  These contradictory views both claim to be “fulfilling the Confucian teaching, not breaking with it,” but their social and political implications are vastly different.[5]  The way in which Confucianism is interpreted in this case determines whether it is defined as a religion or as a political ideology.

[1] Gardner, Daniel K., Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, (Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central,, p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. 65.

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., (Columbia University Press, 2005), ProQuest Ebook Central,, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 218.

[5] Ibid., p. 219.

Managing Confucian Virtue: Women’s Roles in the Transmission of Confucianism.

Women are seemingly afforded a meagre role within the intellectualism and Confucian ideals of Song China. Their position in the lineage-family structure meant that their function was commanded by the dominance of their male counterparts. However, when examined in closer detail, women’s role in coordinating the household meant that she had a significant influence in the dissemination of Confucian ideals through direct access to the familial environment through which Kongzi’s ‘virtue’ was developed.

The organisation of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was primarily structured by ‘jiazu’, or lineage-family which favoured patrilineal relations.[1] Families were organised and divided by the allocation of a father’s property to his sons and family dynamics were governed by the relations between men. By the necessity of performing rites to a common male progenitor, female autonomy was restricted entirely by the dominance of males within these local structures. Consequently, women initially seem to have a limited role in the Confucian dynamics of family.

‘Discord arises in families mostly when women provoke…with words’.[2]

This implies that women were seen as an obstruction in the ordered arrangement of society and that they purposefully aimed to disrupt the predetermined Confucian family setting, especially if they engaged with the intellectual privilege of ‘words’. It suggests that, based on societal organisation, women would not achieve the ‘individual perfection’ which Kongzi promoted that lead to an ordering of the world based on Confucian morals.[3] This further suggests that women were disengaged with Confucian ideals and on a local level were seen as selfish and untrustworthy. Their key value was in the continuation of the family line with the birth of a son. This afforded them no place in either the household hierarchy or the evolution of Confucian thought.

However, despite the role of the female being dismissed by the moral conduct and expectations of society, women’s role did become increasingly prevalent as they became vital for the transmission of Confucian ideology within the family dynamic. Particularly in the countryside, the importance of family and kinship was expressed through ancestral rituals and conjugal relations. Philosophical thought acted to transform this into a Confucian ideology which could be transmitted locally. Lineage-family divisions presented an opportunity for women to gain more autonomy within a smaller circle of power. When a husband passed away, mothers claimed increased authority over their descendants. It thus simplified relations within the family and decreased the risk of female conflict with in-laws which had previously acted as a curb on women’s power. Moreover, the idea of ‘Zhueni’, or the ‘women’s charge’ became characterised by the ability of women to directly transmit Confucian values and influence the behaviour and structure of their family.[4] They were responsible for the allotment of domestic power and allocation of living space, physically governing Kongzi’s desire for virtue to be transmitted by those closest by blood relation. Consequently, women adopted a significant role in the transmission of Confucian values as they became managers of the family sphere, the place where virtue was propagated.

To live in the neighbourhood of Good is fine…’.[5]

With increased presence and action within the family, women were the creators and upholders of the Confucian ‘Good’ and responsible for the family’s collective realisation of wisdom. This is exemplified in the production of female didactic texts in the Song. ‘Mr Yuan’s Precepts’ and ‘Zeng Family Instructions’ established the parameters of female autonomy within the family sphere and exerted a Confucian influence over the function of women in this period.[6] Their social significance may have been decreased by the level of gender control and separation in these texts, but it is increased by the very fact that women were integral to the dissemination of the Confucian message.

[1] Dorothy Ko, Kim JaHyun Haboush, Joan Piggott, Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea and Japan, (California, 2003), p.125.

[2] Ibid, p.127.

[3] Philip Ivanhoe, Bryan Van Norden (Eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, (2005), p.3.

[4] Dorothy Ko, Kim JaHyun Haboush, Joan Piggott, Women and Confucian Cultures, p.128.

[5] Philip Ivanhoe, Bryan Van Norden (Eds.), Readings, p.10.

[6] Dorothy Ko, Kim JaHyun Haboush, Joan Piggott, Women and Confucian Cultures, p.128.