My study revolves around the unduly neglected figure of the late-Qing and early Republican Confucian scholar Liao Ping 廖平 (1852-1932). Instead of attempting to write an intellectual biography in a traditional sense, my project will approach Liao’s political thought during the period stretching from the late 19th to the early 20th century as an avenue for exploring the broader intellectual changes during this “transitional era”. My choice for focusing on Liao was in part motivated by his overall relevance to the history of traditional Chinese “classical learning” (jingxue 經學). More importantly however, I believe the development of his thought reflects a more general attempt on the part of traditionalist scholars during this period to reunite Confucianism with history by building bridges between classical Confucian texts and newly imported “Western learning”. At the time when “classical learning” still held sway, canonical texts (jing 經, “classics”) were not merely authoritative Confucian writings, but also constituted the basis for imperial political legitimacy. As such, “classical learning” was not simply the product of traditional Confucian scholarship, but counted as the vehicle for a whole vision of society and politics. During the last decades of the 19th century, traditional Chinese political institutions as well as inherited cultural and moral ideals came to be seriously challenged, both internally and externally, thus casting doubt on the established sociopolitical order. As a result, Confucian classics ceased to be an exclusive source of political legitimacy. In turn, Confucian learning became severed from Chinese history and politics. During this “post-classical” era, Chinese intellectuals became confronted with a sociopolitical as well as a civilizational crisis.
Liao Ping was a master of the “New Text” school of Confucianism, a school focused on articulating the Confucian ideal of practicality in institutional arrangements in the “outer” domains of society and politics. Building on the early Han dynasty ideal of the “uncrowned king” (suwang 素王), Liao conceived of Confucius as a sage-king who had put forward novel socio-political institutions to be realized in a future society. According to Liao’s line of reasoning, the classics created by Confucius are not to be discarded as historical remnants, but should be seen as repositories for visions of a history that is yet to come and as holding indications of future events within themselves. As such, Liao firmly believed that the intellectual legacy of Confucius could continue to form the main resource for building a modern Chinese nation-state.
My project will start by examining the intellectual milieu in which Liao Ping came of age. As a second step, I will discuss the main ideas in Liao’s approach to “classical learning” and investigate how he tried to reconstruct a new form of jingxue by integrating non-Confucian forms of knowledge. Finally, I will provide an account of his conception of politics and the emergence of the new global order he envisaged. In Liao’s view, such a universal order could unite the whole of humanity in a single community organized around the ancient Confucian ideal of a moral social order.