Research Project


Fate, Contingency, and Self-Assertion in Chinese Modernity. Comparing Mou Zongsan′s and Wang Hui′s Interpretation of Neo-Confucianism

Prof. Dr. Kai Marchal

This project aims at investigating the modern transformations of the divinatory, philosophical, and religious language centred on fate and freedom which can be found in the Book of Changes and its numerous canonical commentaries, and which is also one of the main sources of the Neo-Confucian discourse. I will investigate the relation between "Chinese modernity" and the Neo-Confucian discourse on fate and freedom, as analyzed by Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (1909-1995) and Wang Hui 汪暉 (born in 1959). In particular, I will focus on the conceptual transformations of divinatory concepts like "mandate/fate" (ming 命), "inner nature" (xing 性), "propensity of things" (shi 勢), and "time/timeliness" (shi 時) by these two thinkers.

The modern stance towards the world implies the avoidance of contingency and moral luck and presupposes the belief into genuine, non-empirical freedom according to the laws of reason. Before the arrival of modernity, the Chinese world shared a very different understanding of freedom, contingency and moral luck: Due to the widespread influence of the Book of Changes (Yijing 易經), in many aspects the most important philosophical book in pre-modern China, Chinese thinkers had a very optimistic outlook on the ability of human actors to understand and even control future events (compare Schilling 2009). Divination, various mantic methods, and exegetical practices were deeply influencing the political discourse and the self-understanding of cultural elites in Imperial China (Smith/Bol 1990; Smith 2008; Hon Tze-ki 2005). Not only did Confucian literati regard the Book of Changes as one of the most important canonical texts, but the divinatory logic itself is deeply anchored in Confucian key-concepts like "mandate/fate", "time/timeliness", "allotment/social role" (fen 分) and "inner nature" (compare Chen Ning 1997; Raphals 2002; Lupke 2005). Following Michael Lackner and Thomas Fröhlich, it could even be argued that the divinatory logic of the Book of Changes constituted nothing less than the "imperial metaphysics of the Empire".

Both Mou Zongsan and Wang Hui, in their respective genealogical narratives of "Chinese modernity", re-articulate very deeply anchored views on human existence and link them to the modern issue of self-assertion. How exactly are their respective "strategies of self-assertion" supposed to operate? To what extent do they depend on the traditional divinatory world-view which always links human agency, but also social and political hierarchies, to the conception of an overarching cosmic hierarchy? How secular are their understandings of the Neo-Confucian idea of "heavenly principle/pattern" (tianli 天理)? And how does the finitude of human agency relate to the infinitude of moral perfection (i.e. the ideal of timely, sagely agency)? And how is it even possible to think through issues of human agency and human freedom with the help of Neo-Confucian ideas which are grounded in the divinatory logic of the Book of Changes? Can divinatory ideas become the sources of political emancipation and critical thinking?

Modernity unfolds in different cultural contexts. We need further criticism of the often rather hegemonic discourses on Western modernity, but as China becomes a truly modern, global power and will certainly continue to transform global politics, we need to attend more closely and more critically to cultural claims about a genuinely "Chinese modernity". My project on "Fate, Contingency, and Self-Assertion in ′Chinese Modernity′" will investigate the continued influence of the traditional views of fate and freedom in contemporary China and rethink the value of Chinese "strategies of self-assertion" in a global world.

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