Nakae Chomin: The “Modern” Confucian

Nakae Chomin from Wikipedia
Nakae Chomin (中江兆民), courtesy of Wikipedia

Switching gears, I was recently reading a great collection of essays in the book Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture, and the final essay in the book covered the life and thought of a Meiji-era Confucian scholar and journalist named Nakae Chomin (中江兆民, 1847-1901).

Nakae Chomin was a very representative figure of his time. He was a young boy during the final days of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate, and learned Confucian-thought in the local school in his native domain of Tosa. Later he was dispatched to learn Western learning in France, and he developed a life-long interest in Jean-Jacques Rousseau the great philosopher and author of “The Social Contract”.1

Much has been made of Nakae’s influence from Rousseau and his promotion of French-style egalitarianism, but what the article in the book above shows is that Nakae was equally influenced, by Confucian thinking with Rousseau’s ideas helping provide a modern “vocabulary”. Nakae was influenced in particular by the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius (孟子, Mōshi in Japanese), who represented a more “idealistic” view of Humanity, and the need to cultivate the inherent goodness in oneself, or it would be lost and corrupted.

As Nakae wrote in 1901 in Ichinen Yūhan (一年有半, “A Year and a Half”):

Civil rights is the highest principle; freedom and equality are the greatest justice. Ultimately anyone who opposes principle and justice (理義, rigi) will suffer retribution. There may be a hundred imperialisms but none will ever destroy principle and justice. The imperial sovereign should be revered, but this reverence depends on his revering principle and justice. This principle even existed in China where early on Mencius and Liu Tsung-yüan [773-819] observed it, and it is not an exclusive possession of the West.
(translation by Prof. Matsumoto Sannosuke)

Reading this really, really struck me. I had never heard the terms “civil rights”, a modern Western term, used in conjunction with “principle and justice”, a pair of ancient Confucian terms. I found this so fascinating how Nakae can blend the two in a perfectly viable, and compelling way, in a way that’s represents the best of both worlds. It shows that Confucianism, despite what high-school textbooks taught me, is a vibrant tradition that learns and adapts the teachings of other great thinkers, but also that Asian political thought is by no means “antiquated” and backwards compared to Western thinking.

Instead, it shows that great minds have arisen in my parts of the world, and Nakae’s writings and ideas represent the best of both Rousseau and Mencius.

P.S. After last week’s huge volume of posts (some accidentally mis-scheduled), I am taking it slow this week to let readers catch up. Next week will be back to regular schedule.

1 I read some of the The Social Contract in high-school and again on my own in college. It’s actually a really brilliant book, and a very balanced view of how democracies, society and government should work.

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A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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