Zhu Xi and Confucian Democracy

Ying, Jingcai, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
White, Stephen, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

In recent years, Confucianism has re-emerged as a prominent political ideology in China, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) increasingly turns to China’s traditional cultures to shore up its legitimacy. This recent political revival of Confucianism corresponds to the scholarly trend that began in the mid-1990s. From the late-90s until the present, the dominant anglophone voices in Confucian political theory are in favor of replacing liberal democratic values with Confucian communitarian ideals. More recently, however, those Confucians with a liberal bent have sought to reconcile Confucian values with Western values. For these synthesizers, liberal democracy has much to teach Confucianism and can help the two-and-half-millennium-old tradition adapt to our late-modern time.

Situated in these political and intellectual contexts, this dissertation explores the following question: how should political power be arranged in the service of Confucian ideals? As suggested by the brief overview above, many Confucians scholars have addressed this question. This project differs from previous investigations because its source of inspiration is an important but often overlooked Confucian figure, Zhu Xi (1130–1200). As I shall detail, Zhu Xi’s philosophy can help us lay a firmer moral foundation and construct stronger justifications for integrating egalitarian elements of Western political thought into Confucian learning. My main thesis is that Confucian ethics—defined by Zhu Xi as the universal exhortation for all human beings to pursue moral perfection or sagehood by self-cultivation—is best supported by a participatory democracy that encourages all citizens to be politically active (Chap. 1), to learn from meritorious teachers (Chap. 2), to assert their legitimate individual interests (Chap. 3), and to embrace non-Confucian traditions (Chap. 4). If this dissertation’s arguments are persuasive and its participatory vision of Confucian democracy compelling, it can both contribute to Confucian political philosophy, which is currently dominated by communitarians and liberals, and serve as a democratic counterpoint to the CCP’s authoritarian propaganda. Although I do not believe that an immediate democratic revolution is necessarily the best route forward for China, I do think that democratic ideals can flourish in Confucian soil.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Zhu Xi, Confucian political philosophy, Confucian democracy, Democratic theory, Comparative political theory
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