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Confucius in East Asia

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Confucius in East Asia introduces fundamental patterns of East Asian history, spirituality, society, and politics through the lens of Confucianism’s development and impact in the region. For millennia, no East Asian regime has governed independently of Confucian influence; and even when Confucius and his tradition have been criticized or condemned, as has often been the case during the past century or so, they have been conspicuously present in East Asian affairs. It is impossible to understand the East Asian region, its peoples, or its role in global history without knowing something about Confucius, Confucians, and Confucianism. This short book aims to provide such basic knowledge in the contexts of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese history.

It is impossible to understand the East Asian region, its peoples, or its role in global history without knowing something about Confucius, Confucians, and Confucianism.

Each of the book’s four main chapters is devoted to a single country within East Asia as viewed through the lens of Confucianism’s historical development, spiritual significance, social impact, and political role there. Every chapter is divided into four sections. First, the origins of Confucianism in the particular country are discussed. Next, for each country, there is an explanation of how self-cultivation—the pursuit of intellectual, moral, and spiritual excellence as defined by the Confucian tradition—has been practiced in its national context. The third section of each chapter deals with the historical impact of Confucianism on social ideas, institutions, and practices of that country. Finally, each chapter considers the close ties between Confucianism and political institutions in each East Asian nation from antiquity to the present.

The book concludes with a look at Confucianism in contemporary East Asia. In various ways, each of the nations profiled in the book have rehabilitated Confucius as a symbol with meaning for modern East Asians. The governments of China and Việt Nam, although nominally Communist in orientation, annually spend large amounts of money promoting Confucian festivals, paying for the renovation and upkeep of Confucian academies and temples, and generally borrowing the prestige associated with Confucius to enhance the international images of their respective countries. Although modern governments in Japan and South Korea do not formally endorse Confucianism, the legacy of centuries of state support for Confucian traditions in these countries can be seen in everything from official school textbooks to the behavior of politicians in moments of national crisis. Government promotion of Confucianism is hardly the full extent of the tradition’s survival in modern times. Confucius and his tradition continue to serve as the basis for East Asian regional identity, as well as a resource for individual Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese seeking to make sense of contemporary life.

The many different strands of this multifaceted modern Confucianism do not necessarily all tend in the same direction, but they do constitute a web of identity, meaning, and practice that still lies at the foundation of East Asian life. Learning to see the unity and diversity of Confucian traditions across East Asian history, spirituality, society, and politics can help students understand what makes this region so distinctive, dynamic, and important today.