Tang Prize winner Yu Ying-shih touts Confucianism, praises democracy (Focus Taiwan)

  • Yu Ying-shih, 2014 Tang Prize laureate in Sinology
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Princeton, New Jersey, June 20 (CNA) The winner of the first Tang Prize in Sinology said that he believes Confucianism plays an important role in the pursuit of democracy in China.

Chinese American historian Yu Ying-shih, who was named a prize winner in Taipei Friday, countered the widespread belief that Confucianism is incompatible with modernization and universal values such as democracy and freedom.

Instead, the ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Confucius (551-479 BC) is "all-encompassing," Yu told CNA at his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

The difference in understanding is based on some people's knowledge of Confucianism only through "Institutional Confucianism," namely the use of Confucian ideas as a political tool by authorities, he said.

"There is some basis to this (view), but it significantly neglects the importance placed (in Confucianism) on the individual and individual values, and it reduces Confucianism to a national ideology," Yu said. "This is an absolute misunderstanding."

The 84-year-old Princeton emeritus professor said there exists a "living" and "more expansive" Confucian system outside of the Chinese imperial court and among the general people in the two millennia since the great thinker lived.

Yu underscored the differences between Institutional Confucianism and a broader Confucian mindset by pointing out that Confucius himself was not appreciated by the feudal vassals of his time, leading him to travel across China as he worked to spread his teachings.

The two most important Neo-Confucian thinkers -- Zhu Xi (1130-1200) from the Song Dynasty and Wang Yangming (1472-1529) from the Ming Dynasty -- also emphasized the importance of the individual in their writings, he added.

Yu pointed out that Confucian thought was even a major influence over two of the earliest advocates of democracy in China -- Zhang Taiyan (1868-1936) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929).

Some people believe that democracy and freedom can only be achieved at the expense of Confucianism, but Yu considers such a viewpoint "too extreme."

"Democracy, freedom and human rights cannot take root in China" unless the Chinese people can find these universal values from their own tradition, the China-born scholar argued.

Yu said the biggest mistake of modern Chinese leadership was communist leader Mao Zedong's attempt to purge Confucianism from society during the Cultural Revolution -- a move that destroyed people's ability to empathize, he said.

This disregard for intellectuals can be seen in the way the Chinese Communist Party treated demonstrators in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, including civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Yu said.

Pu, who took part in a hunger strike during the demonstrations in Beijing in 1989, was arrested this year prior to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre apparently for his efforts to overturn the Chinese government's verdict on the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

"It was only a closed-door conversation. They did not interfere with the regime at all," said Yu, who is known to have sheltered many young refugees who fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

"Even the emperors were not this ruthless," he said.

Turning his attention to Taiwan, Yu warned that that the Republic of China government in Taipei should maintain its own principles and values of democracy and freedom and not be daunted when interacting with the Chinese Communist Party.

"Don't ever be careless," he cautioned.

He urged the Taiwanese people to cherish what they have: the ability to choose their own president and lawmakers, a "remarkable achievement" without precedent in the history of China.

The preeminent historian and sinologist was awarded the Tang Prize in Sinology for his original research and insight into the intellectual history of China.

He has been called "the greatest Chinese intellectual historian of our generation" and is highly regarded for his masterful grasp of Chinese history from early times to the present.

Yu brought previously neglected aspects of Chinese history into mainstream scholarship and has been credited with rescuing the Confucian heritage from "caricature and neglect" and stimulating younger scholars to "rediscover the richness and variety of Chinese culture after the ravages of Mao's Cultural Revolution."

(By Timothy Huang and Christie Chen)