Purdue University

Interview with Professor TU Weiming

Tu Weiming is Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy and of Confucian Studies at Harvard University.   He served as the Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Chairman of the Committee on the Study of Religion, Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Director of Culture and Communication at the East-West Center in Honolulu.  In 1988 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 2001, he was appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations to serve on the Group of Eminent Persons for the Dialogue Among Civilizations.  Since 1995, he has been the Chair of the Academia Sinica’s advisory committee on the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy.  In 2005, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from his undergraduate alma mater Tunghai University in Taiwan. 


1. What do you think of the Beijing Summit?  As a whole, what influence do you think this Summit will have on the promotion of religion or Confucianism in mainland China?
I think this meeting was very successful.  Given the current ambiance in mainland China, the theme of this summit with its focus on spirituality, faith, religion and modern society, was very creative.  In addition, there are a few things I consider very well done.  First, it was well organized.  In the arrangement of time and schedule, the participants were kept in close contact, which allowed everyone to come well prepared.  Also, all the topics for discussion were well defined.  What’s even more commendable is that the invited scholars were all leaders in the field, who also had very good rapport with each other.  From all aspects, I’ve learned a great deal.  Although I have had direct contact with nearly every one of these Chinese scholars, this was the first time I got together with all of them to discuss related issues. 

2. Many questions regarding Confucianism and Christianity appeared during the Summit.  Due to the time constraint, some of them were not fully discussed.  Would you please elaborate on those questions in greater depth?
I became interested in Confucianism when I was in high school. Because of this interest I decided to go to Tunghai University (in Taiwan) to study with Professors MOU Zongsan and XU Fuguan. Tunghai University also had many interesting resources for the study of Christianity.   At that time, I had some dialogue with Christians.  I also attended many Bible study meetings on campus.  Even then, I could sense that Christianity would be an important reference for me.  I came upon Kierkegaard at Tunghai University, whose existentialism has always exerted a great influence on me.  Then I went to Harvard University for graduate school and met many theologians.

In China, people’s acceptance of Christianity is less than complete.  For instance, Mr. XU Fuguan and Mr. MOU Zongsan, perhaps for personal reasons, had been very resistant to Christianity.  Among the New Confucians of that generation, I was probably closer to Mr. TANG Junyi because he engaged in religious dialogue with an open mind.  However, he was still strongly subjective and thought that Chinese, if one identifies with Confucianism, should at least be strongly suspicious of Christianity.  Now I think the three Chinese religions, i.e., Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, should at least be expanded into five to include Christianity and Islam.  They have all developed for several hundred years. In addition, I think we should also take into consideration folk religions and indigenous religions.

In my contact with Christians, especially Chinese Christians, (I think they are) strongly exclusive.  They consider Confucianism not a religion, and see it as far from being a religion.  There was a very good sociologist in Taiwan, ZHANG Zhenzhong.  I often dialogued with him.  Later, because of his wife, he became a Christian.  Once he told me that he could not dialogue with me anymore because he discovered a new situation: Many values that Confucianism doesn’t have, such as the belief in the transcendent and the spirit of sacrifice, can be found in Christianity.  The values that Confucianism has, such as ren, yi, li, zhi, xin (humaneness, justice, civility, wisdom, honesty), are all more perfectly and completely crystallized in Christianity.  I said if you believe so, then there is certainly no possibility for us to dialogue.  The only possibility is for me to learn from you.  I can understand it, but I think it’s relatively narrow.  Since then, there have been further developments in mainland China, such as LIU Xiaofeng.  Now his views have undergone considerable changes.  In the past, he held a strong view that if China were to become truly Westernized, to become scientific, democratic, and to develop legal rule, China must convert to Christianity.  Even Mr. TANG Yijie mentioned that because China didn’t have a transcendental and external God, it could not ensure the independent dignity of man, therefore it could not develop the rule of law in a real sense.   In my opinion, these views, whether they are academic interpretations or personal beliefs, are all somewhat radical.  Mr. LIU Xiaofeng once had a conversation with me, a dialogue between Christianity and Confucianism.  He argued that Chinese intellectuals had the responsibility to thoroughly eradicate the remaining poison of Confucianism and feudalism.  In addition to this, I’m a bit surprised that after Mateo Ricci, i.e., after the 17th century, or from the 19th century on, Christianity has been mostly a social Gospel.   In modern and contemporary times, very few Western theologians have come to China.  Of course, those who can engage in real dialogues are even fewer.  Because of monotheism and its unique experience, Christianity, especially the Protestants—the Catholics are more tolerant of other religions—are too exclusive. 
3. After many years of devoted studies in Confucianism, at the present stage, do you have a new direction, or will you persist in the direction you have been following? 
Confucianism, as a living tradition, has been in continuous development, but it has encountered many challenges since the Opium War.  There was a time, because the most outstanding scholars in China were against the Chinese tradition, the force against Confucianism was especially strong.  People thought Confucianism was in recession.  Some Western scholars were also influenced by Chinese scholars, and thought it was unlikely for Confucianism to develop further.  But even in this strong atmosphere of Westernization, Confucianism had started new development.  Even at the deeper level of philosophical thought, it was also developing.  When Westernization was in full bloom during the May 4th period, XIONG Shili developed his new Vijnanamantra (xin Weishi lun) through the Buddhist Vijnanamantra School.  LIANG Shuming was a devout Buddhist.  In order to save China and for the sake of the enlightenment of the Chinese, he directly participated in the work of Confucianism by going to the village of Zouping to help with the rural reconstruction.  ZHANG Junmai came back from Germany, and made great contributions to China’s first Constitution as one of the drafters.  FENG Youlan brought the influence of Dewy and new Pragmatism of the West to bear on Confucianism. 

From 1919 to 1949, in these 30 years, Confucianism developed on its own.  Xueheng scholars like CHEN Qinque, TANG Yongtong, and WU Mi insisted that classical Chinese was more important.  After 1949, Confucianism also developed in mainland China, mainly through the work of FENG Youlan, who underwent great hardship.  There were other scholars like FENG Qi, ZHANG Dainian, and LI Zehou.  Undoubtedly, they were not the mainstream.  Those who really identified with Confucianism and contributed to its development   were overseas, in Hong Kong, especially at the New Asia College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and at Tunghai University in Taiwan.  I was basically under the influence of this tradition.  Except for XIONG Shili, I had personal contact with all of them.  MOU Zongsan, TANG Junyi, and XU Fuguan were all my teachers.In 1985 I taught my first class of philosophy at Peking University.  At that time, I could sense that although it was exceedingly difficult, there was an authentic possibility for Confucianism to develop in China.  It was dependent based on efforts of a larger group of people outside China.   When I returned to China in 1985, there was a circle of Confucian culture outside of mainland China in East Asia, which took form in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  I directly participated in the development of Confucianism in Singapore.  At one time, Singapore established a center of Confucian studies.  In 1987 and 1988, it was indeed the focal point of Confucian studies in the world.  From 1985 on, over the past 20 some years, the change in mainland China has been shocking, but foreseeable.   In 1980, I was at Beijing Normal University for one year.  I could feel it then.  Later, when I went to Hong Kong and told others about my feelings, Mr. MOU Zongsan didn’t believe me at all, saying that unless Communism fell apart completely, there was no room for the development of Confucianism.  Mr. XU Fuguan thought my view was shallow optimism.  Mr. TANG Junyi was more sympathetic, but he also had a sense of helplessness.  In 1982, Mr. Wing-tsit Chan organized an international conference of ZHU Xi in Hawaii.  At that time, several ideas emerged.  YU Yingshi raised the term “wandering soul.”  (He meant to say that) Confucianism was tantamount to a wondering soul as it had no affiliation to political institution, hence no carrier.  More recently, Harvard University is soon to publish a book by an Australian scholar, John Makeham, entitled The Lost Soul.  The soul is still in search of the carrier.  He thinks the definition of the wandering soul is that the soul has lost its direction.  These are some comments on Confucianism.  However, in my view, the development of Confucianism in the East Asian societies has driven China to actively and conscientiously participate in it.  Looking ahead, I think the prospect of this development is great.  It shouldn’t be like the fever of Guoxue (Chinese Studies), or the fever of culture studies, which disappeared in five or ten years.   Now, I think we have reached a stage where China wants to find its cultural identity.  This force will become increasingly strong.

(Interview conducted by Alice Wang)



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