Compte rendu : The Sage and the People

Jeffrey L. Richey. [Book review of] Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval. The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China. The China Quarterly, vol. 225, March 2016, pp. 253-254. DOI :

Any scholarly investigation into the much-vaunted “Confucian revival” in contemporary China must answer three basic questions. First, what does “Confucian” mean, especially in a contemporary Chinese context? Second, how should one classify what is seen as “Confucian”: as moral philosophy, political ideology, religious tradition, social custom – as all of these, or none? Third, what does this alleged “revival” tell us about contemporary China, especially in terms of its relationship to the past and its prospects for the future? This English edition of a richly descriptive ethnographic study by two French scholars, originally published in French in 2014, addresses all three of these questions clearly and convincingly.

9780190258146Billioud and Thoraval argue that “popular Confucianism” (minjian rujia) is part of what happens when post-Maoist China begins to re-evaluate its past within a social framework that has repeatedly experienced disruption due to the uprooting of individuals from one collective context (e.g. the imperial or feudal society of pre-Revolutionary China) and their reinsertion into another (e.g. the proletarian or ideocratic society of Maoist China). Once it became clear both that all individual life must be embedded in some social collectivity and that all cultural pasts (not just those favoured or condemned by a particular political regime) are, in some sense, up for re-evaluation by the present, it becomes possible for small groups – unaffiliated with the party-state and disconnected from local traditions – to selectively mine China’s cultural past in order to infuse present-day Chinese lives with meaning and purpose. One might argue that this is precisely what Confucians in every age – beginning with Confucius himself – have done, which makes the third question posed above (what does this alleged “revival” tell us about contemporary China?) all the more poignant. But first, attention must be given to the second question (how should one classify what is seen as “Confucian”?).

In addressing this question of taxonomy, the authors avoid a common problem in both Chinese and non-Chinese scholarship on Confucianism by rejecting Western categories of classification. Instead, they choose three Chinese categories with which to classify “popular Confucianism”: jiaohua (“educative transformation,” discussed in chapters one to three), anshen liming (literally, “settling down and getting on with one’s life,” but figuratively closer to something like “searching for inner peace,” chapters four to six), and lijiao (“teaching of rites,” chapters seven to ten). By jiaohua, the authors mean those aspects of Confucianism that are perhaps most vividly associated with the tradition, such as formal educational institutions, practices and texts. However, in the hands of activists who advocate “popular Confucianism,” these aspects become both reactionary and creative ways of presenting critiques of, and alternatives to, both the Western liberal university model and the Communist “people’s university” model introduced to China during the 20th century. In the authors’ narrative, the rise of guoxue (“national studies,” or self-consciously Chinese approaches to the study of Chinese culture) during the late 1990s and early 2000s facilitated a new interest in Confucianism as, in the words of one informant connected with People’s University (Renda) in Beijing, “not only the object of academic research but also of research on the Way and the destiny of Man (rendao de yanjiu)” (p. 38). Through Confucian-themed guoxueban (“national study classes”) offered to business managers and government workers by Chinese universities, all kinds of people – including entrepreneurial young women – enter into “master–disciple” relationships (the traditional dyad through which Confucian traditions are transmitted) and thus both perpetuate and invigorate Confucian traditions. Similarly, anshen liming – or finding in Confucianism one’s personal meaning and purpose – becomes a distinctively Chinese way to reject both Western and Maoist values. Ironically, perhaps, advocates of Confucianism as anshen liming see it transcending its Chinese origins and its ideological character: “There are no racial or religious limits to Confucianism: It can solve the world’s problems!” (p. 113). Yet most of those interviewed by the authors seem to have discovered anshen liming through specifically Chinese master–disciple relationships, including connections with religiously minded entrepreneurs from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as mainland activists who seek to enshrine Confucianism as a sixth officially recognized religion (zongjiao) alongside Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity. Finally, the deliberate revival and transformation of Confucian ritual practices (lijiao) – such as the commemoration of Confucius’s birthday in his home city of Qufu – provides concrete, material expressions of the spiritual quests embodied in jiaohua and anshen liming.

All three arenas of “Confucian revival” have generated successful instances of what the authors call the “double dream of popular Confucianism: continuity and autonomy” (p. 289). Through institutional self-improvement schemes, personal spiritual discovery and local community-building, pre-modern, rural, elite Confucian traditions have been appropriated by post-modern, urban, popular sectors of contemporary Chinese society. So what does this alleged “revival” tell us about contemporary China? Among other things, it would seem to herald the Confucianization of China’s middle class – now the world’s largest – in ways that suggest that revived, reimagined rural roots and traditional culture can be used both to undermine and to reinforce state control. Whether the cultural-historical snapshot of early 21st-century China captured by this volume will be an enduring portrait remains to be seen, of course. But its authors have provided us with a compelling and complex narrative of what it means to be Confucian in contemporary China, which makes their work an indispensable resource for all in Chinese studies.

Jeffrey L. Richey

Texte du compte rendu reproduit avec l’aimable autorisation de The China Quarterly et de Jeffrey L. Richey.

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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