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The Cambridge History of Confucianism

Confucianism has been a major force in the cultural history of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam for thousands of years, affecting the art, literature, science and politics of all these countries.

Kiri Paramore
15 August 2018

Editor: Kiri Paramore, Leiden

Words: 350,000

Confucianism has been a major force in the cultural history of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam for thousands of years, affecting the art, literature, science and politics of all these countries. Confucianism was not only a major ideological and cultural determiner in East Asian pre-modernity, but also played a crucial role in East Asia’s transition to modernity, mediating the importation of scientific and medical thought and the re-creation of major political ideologies of modernity like liberalism. Beyond Asia, Confucianism was also a major topic of intellectual discussion in early modern Europe – a foil for the political theories of thinkers from Voltaire to Montesquieu. In the nineteenth century European imaginations of Confucianism were central in the formation of key ideologies of Western imperialism related to ideas of a timeless despotic Orient. Confucianism continued to play a key role in the twentieth century, as a foil against which Chinese modernizers from Sun Yatsen to Mao Zedong formulated revolutionary ideology, but also as a rallying ideology of reactionary conservative states from the pre-WWII Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in occupied China, to Cold War South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Confucianism thus continued to play a considerable role in the political ideologies of WWII and the Cold War, mainly in the Asia-Pacific, but by extension also indirectly in the U.S. and beyond. Today Confucianism is enjoying a revival, particularly in mainland China, where some herald it as the blue print for a new system of international relations and domestic governance. This Cambridge History will introduce Confucianism through the entire long durée history of the tradition, beginning with its pre-historic Chinese roots, and extending through the entire history of imperial Chinese and broader Asian history into the contemporary period. 

Confucianism is increasingly referenced in contemporary writing on International Relations and Politics, Global History, and Comparative Philosophy. Yet in precisely these academic fields knowledge of the long durée, multifaceted and transnational history of Confucianism is surprisingly limited. This despite the fact that knowledge of the more than 3000 years of Confucian history is well established in specialist academic fields like Sinology and East Asian History. This volume seeks to make that large body of specialist historical knowledge on Confucianism readily available to a wider scholarly readership. In the tradition of the prestigious Cambridge History series, it provides a history of Confucianism which is long durée, comprehensive in terms of historical periods and coverage, represents the most up-to-date scholarly trajectories, and is written by leading global specialists in a manner accessible to professional scholars both in related fields and in the broader scholarly community.

This Cambridge History volume will present Confucianism in a process of continual and dynamic change which parallels the historical development of the societies it existed within. The basic historical approach of the Cambridge History series serves to reveal the inherent pluralism of the different manifestations of Confucianism, each existing in, being affected by, and also critically affecting particular historical periods and societies. The chronological outline of the book deliberately gives equal weight to early medieval, high medieval, early-modern and modern periods, as well as the ancient period often concentrated upon in general surveys of the tradition. This means that the book, despite being about a predominantly pre-modern Asian tradition, also interacts with the interests of a broad readership whose primary interest might be early modern or modern Asia, or global history.

The transnational nature of the coverage in this Cambridge History of Confucianism will be a major new contribution to the field, and one that will open out the knowledge presented to the broader scholarly community, notably including in the rising fields of regional, transnational and global history. Coverage includes a major focus on China, but also on historic areas, states and cultures today part of Korea, Japan and Vietnam, as well as integrating discussion of Confucianism’s impact in Europe and the United States. Rather than providing some token chapters for manifestations of Confucianism outside China, as has been done in some previous works, this volume instead integrates the transnational or transcultural history of Confucianism into most of its chapters dealing with the tradition post-700AD (by which time it was no longer unique to the Chinese imperial state). The transnational approach of many of the volume’s chapters  is important not only because this is a real part of the history, but also because transnational themes relate directly to the way Confucianism is currently being employed in contemporary I.R., global history and political theory. The combination of both traditional state-bound and transnational chapters throughout will result in a volume useful both for specialists, and for those trying to access specialist knowledge to understand the role of the history of Confucianism in global history, and in the I.R. and political theories of today which claim historicist legitimacy – including those of major East Asian state actors.

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