"The name Confucius was invented by the Jesuit missionaries"

3Q Anne Cheng

The UAB is now the first university in Spain to have awarded an honorary doctorate to an expert in the field of East Asian Studies. Anne Cheng, professor at the Collège de France, offered an acceptance speech entitled "The Return of Confucius to Modern China".


French Sinologist Anne Cheng, professor of Intellectual History of China at the Collège de France, received an honorary doctorate from the UAB on 28 November after being proposed for the award by the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting. Anne Cheng was sponsored by Professor Joaquín Beltrán and her acceptance speech was entitled "The Return of Confucius to Modern China". She is one of the top academic authorities worldwide on the world of Chinese thought and the works of Confucius.

When did you become interested in Chinese philosophy?

I am a bit like Obelix, the character who fell into a magic potion when he was a boy: that is what happened to me, since my parents were Chinese and came from an educated background. The first language I spoke was Chinese and then I learned French at school; that is why I like to say that I am the daughter of a scholarly Chinese family and of the French Republic. I first became interested in European literature and philosophy, but immediately realised that I could not avoid being drawn to the culture of my ancestors. Therefore, rather than falling into a magic potion, I was born into one.

Why did you then focus specifically on Confucianism?

AMybe it's due to atavism. I wanted to discover the context in which my ancestors in China had lived and my grandfather's character was markedly Confucianist because he was a civil servant and, at the same time, was very scholarly and knew calligraphy. When I later began writing about the history of Chinese philosophy, I became interested in other currents of thought, such as Taoism and Buddhism. But the tradition I first focused on was Confucianism, which resurfaces in modern China after almost a century of trying to destroy Confucianism. The nationalist regine of Chiang Kai-shek orchestrated a certain deformation of Confucianism. With the arrival of the Communists in 1949, there was the ambition of completely eradicating Chinese cultural traditions and Confucianism in particular, but now it has made a spectacular comeback and the question is what are the true intentions behind that.

Before we continue I would like to ask you about something: you say that there is no word in Chinese that is equivalent to Confucianism.

Actually, the name Confucius was invented by the Jesuit missionaries who were in China starting in the 16th and 17th centuries. They romanised the Chinese family name Kǒng Fūzǐ, which means Master Kong (his last name). The ism is an invention that comes from a discipline developed in the academic world in Europe during the second half of the 19th century, which felt the need to invent a tradition that could date back to Confucius, the person. The word Confucianism was created in the same manner as Christrianism: we take the main figure of Christ and transform it into an ism. However, when we speak of the philosophy opf Confucius in Chinese, we do not speak of the name Confucius. We speak of Rújiā, the teaching of a class of people in ancient China who in short were experts in the written culture and rituals. They were involved in the constitution of the first centralised empire, after the 13th century of the Christian era, because the government needed people who knew how to write for archiving tasks and to be able to transmit information to the borders of the Chinese territory, as well as people who mastered the rituals. The Confucians were convinced that ritual structures were necessary in order to have orderly human relations, especially in the hierarchical structure of society. The political structure has been and remains an extremely top-down model: the power of decision runs from the peak to the base and rarely goes in the other direction (bottom-up).

Do we have a deformed idea of the Confucian tradition here in the Western World?

I have always been surprised by the contrast of what happened between the 18th century in Europe, with philosophers such as Voltaire who consider China a philosophical nation par excellence, and the beginning of the 19th century with the invention of professional philosophy embodied by Kant or Hegel: it is precisely Hegel who decides that philosophy is of Greek origin. China is left out of this definition and becomes the great "other" philosophical discourse. All of a sudden, no one knows what to do with China, because there is no denying that it is a very ancient civilisation. Then, another discipline is invented and this one has become Sinology. Moreover, language experts put European languages into the Indo-European group, and the Chinese language is then even more marginated in this otherness since it does not form part of this group of languages.

You also maintain that the idea of Chinese alterity is used now by the State to go against aspirations of democracy.

For the translation into Spanish of my book on the history of Chinese thought Histoire de la pensée chinoiseI worked closely together with my translator Anne-Hélène Suárez-Girard, and we realised that even between two closely related languages such as French and Spanish, there were many points to be discussed. I had the same experience with my Italian translator: the alterity is everywhere, not only between two extremes of the Eurasian continent. What bothers me about relegating China to this otherness is that we are still within this Hegelian scheme. The Chinese are like us: they are equally consumerists, capitalists, connected to the web, etc. To continue to speak of Chinese alterity is to not understand the reality of today and validate a certain propagandistic discourse. China's official discourse finds it very easy to appropriate this notion to say: “we have a tradition that is completely different from yours, and therefore, we have nothing to do with your talks about human rights, democracy, etc.” The thirst for justice is universal. When children die due to a sanitary crisis or an earthquake destroys schools which were not correctly built due to corruption, there are demands for justice.

Is the figure of Confucius also being used?

Of course. In a China where there is a growth in power, there is a need for some type of national icon. But we could also ask ourselves if this unique icon that represents the whole of Chinese civilisation is not, in the end, a European invention. I find it funny that the statues we see erected all around China are very similar to the Jesuit representation of Confucius. They can be found on campuses, train stations, bookstores, large department stores, etc. 

What do you think of the development of Sinology in Europe's academic world?

Europe has a venerable tradition with Chinese studies and France is a leader in this: the Collège de France was the first academic institute in Europe to create a chair in Chinese studies. In Europe in general, Chinese studies were very common up to the Second World War, then the American Sinology became the dominant option. The Americans integrated the field of Chinese studies into the wider area of social sciences. In contrast, Europe tended to conserve the philological tradition. But there is no reason to consider ourselves on the sidelines because the language tradition is very important in these types of civilisations; we need to read the texts, and this is something the Americans not always do. And I am very happy to be here because the Sinology being developed in Spain is very dynamic.

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