Review:Confucius and the World He Made by Michael Schuman (Basic Books, 2015)

Schuman assigns himself a difficult task, dissecting and sharing the extremely nebulous world of Confucianism in East Asia and the shape it has taken in China, Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan.  Schuman’s writing for the Wall Street Journal and Time aid him in developing a breezy journalistic style, his marriage into a Korean family give him both an insider and outsider perspective, and his willingness to do the research is laudable.  Beyond that, Schumann doesn’t just start with the Analects, but really does try to get into the history of Confucius himself, the history of Qafu, and the strange flexibility of Confucian doctrine.

Schuman gets into the difficulties of dealing with Confucius admittedly:  Confucius is a mythic figure and reformer already writing about a past that was mythic to Confucius himself. The layers of mystification are deep. Furthermore, Confucius and Confucianism comes off at first like a Sinological equal to a Hellenic philosophical school, and like Platonism, religious ideas accumulated in vaguely metaphysical notions prior.  It’s also important that early Confucianism was relevant on the study of classics existing prior to Confucius himself.

This flexibility in Confucianism makes it hard to pin down and hard to talk about consistently.  Confucianism has both democratic and anti-Democratic tendencies, both humane and inhumane elements, but has always been dependent on Imperial patronage.   Schuman’s history is interesting and in-depth, showing the development of different elements of Confucianism changing in response to legalism, Daoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  Neo-Confucianism role in many patriarchal imperial cults becomes clear but so does its deviation from classical Confucianism.  Schuman even hints at, but doesn’t go into, the idea that elements of Confucianism as we understand it were promoted by European missionaries.

Schuman’s writings on Confucianism in modern world, and its relationship to 20th century critics is more problematic. Schumann admires Confucius and East Asian culture, but as his last chapter reveals, is actually quite critical of the way it is being used by various governments in East Asia as a means of gas-lighting public order and painting more participatory ideas from democratic societies as Western, foreign, and corrupt. To combat this, however, Schumann often sounds like he is making excuses for Confucian excesses. In other words, Schumann knows his bias but out of respect for his topic, over corrects on the side of apologetics.

I found this book informative, readable, but very frustrating as it almost certainly will make no one completely happy. It isn’t an explication of the Analects. It’s not just a historical discussion of the development of Confucianism, and it is both critical of and apologetic for East Asian society. Schuman has difficulty dealing with post-Deng embrace of Confucius after the excesses of the cultural revolution or the criticism of Singapore’s ruler, Yew, to actually have Confucianism take off in Singapore.