Cultural Restoration and Mou Zongsan

After a difficult half millennium, China’s place in the world is adjusting back towards its longer term norm, at a speed that continues to disconcert even the most diligent observers. With this positive correction comes an inevitable ‘spirit’ of revival, extending from the level of unreflective mood, through partially articulate attitudes, to the loftiest peaks of systematic cultural restoration. As this wave of revitalization intensifies, and refines itself, it becomes increasingly involved in a re-thinking of Confucianism and its historical meaning.

The philosopher most indispensable to this process is Mou Zongsan (1909-1995), the most brilliant of China’s New Confucians, setting the standards of intellectual rigor and audacity for the country’s third-wave of Confucian inspiration, following those of the Pre-Qin and Song-Ming periods. Describing the Confucian tradition as the “main artery” of Chinese culture, responsible not only for its own perpetuation and renewal, but also for the safe-keeping of the country’s Daoist and Buddhist traditions, Mou considered its renaissance a “necessity”. It not only should, but would return, assuming only that Chinese culture has a future. It is due to this indestructible confidence that Mou’s own name is inextricably bound to the wider prospects of Chinese national recovery.

mou zongsan

Mou recognizes that the Confucian tradition is more than an arbitrary ethnic peculiarity, to be retained out of some extrinsic commitment to cultural preservation. Rather, the task of cultural restoration is inherent to it, as a core feature, from the time of Confucius:

How did Confucius view the Zhou culture? His attitude was positive, ritual being always necessary. Whatever the period, a society will always need ritual. Confucius believed that the rituals instituted by the Duke of Zhou were in his time still useful. Of course they could be contracted or expanded with prudence but you ought not to radically overturn them. So his attitude was positive. However, it was through his re-vitalization of the Zhou rites that he came to develop what is called Confucian thought. For it was not that the Zhou rituals were without objective validity because of intrinsic flaws, but rather that they had lost effectiveness because the nobles were corrupt and degenerate and unable to carry the weight of the ritual and music. Corruption undermined their ability to uphold these rituals, and if they could not practice them, would not the Zhou rituals then become empty? Because they became empty, they became mere form, became so-called formalism. The Mohists and Daoists looked upon them as mere form and thus wanted to negate them. Confucius knew that the corruption of the nobility made the Zhou ritual empty, but he wanted to re-vitalize it. The Confucian attitude was that to make the Zhou ritual valid, it had to be first revivified.

Confucianism has undoubtedly undergone periods of victimization, but it cannot afford to retreat into victimage, because it has inalienable responsibility not only for its own restoration, but for Chinese cultural restoration in general. This argument can be extended still further, since Mou contends that even Western philosophy depends (unknowingly) upon the revitalization of China’s Confucian tradition for the re-awakening of its ultimate possibilities — as epitomized by the undeveloped potential of the Kantian system, to supply a practical path into the cryptic realms of the noumenon (following the thread of ‘intellectual intuition’). The world-historical destiny of philosophy, and the self-restoration of Confucianism, were conceived by Mou as a single cultural necessity.

Urban Future has no doubt that over the course of proceeding decades Mou Zongsan’s international reputation will be immensely enhanced, as he is recognized — in Jason Clower’s words — as “a philosopher of the first rank” with the intellectual stature of a Heidegger or Wittgenstein. It is thrilling to witness such a figure at the stage of early ascent, extracted from relative obscurity and projected into global consciousness as a cultural treasure of inestimable value.

For English readers, Clower’s contribution to the discovery of Mou Zongsan deserves special mention. He has already released a book on Mou and Buddhism, with an edited collection of Mou’s writings forthcoming (Late Works of Mou Zongsan: Selected Essays in Chinese Philosophy). As China’s cultural restoration unfolds, and Mou’s star rises, these volumes will eventually find their way onto a million bookshelves, as invaluable guides to a new world, and an old one.

(See also Clower’s introduction to Mou at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

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