The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity by Guy S. Alitto

Alitto, G. (1986). The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Guy S. Alitto’s work The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity was first published in 1979, before being reprinted in its expanded version in 1986. The work is in essence a biography of Chinese conservative intellectual Liang Shu-ming; a life which Alitto proves can provide us with unique insight into the intellectual history of twentieth-century China. Analyzing an extensive list of primary sources, Alitto examines China’s dilemma of modernity in the context of Liang’s promotion of a modern Confucian China. Importantly, Alitto examines Liang’s lifelong struggle with the contradiction between his conception of the Confucian “Chinese spirit” (an ideal to which humanity should aspire) and his pragmatic acknowledgement of the necessary tools which a Chinese state would need to survive in the modern world.

Prior to the publication of The Last Confucian, there had been a variety of biographic works written on China’s more famous twentieth century liberals. Alitto’s work, however, represents one of the first important works on a conservative Chinese intellectual pursuing the question of China’s modernization. The Last Confucian thus gives voice to the conservative thought which played a crucial role in the intellectual discussion of China’s future.

The last of a line of Confucian scholars, Liang Shu-ming was raised in a family which by the turn of the century was working to safeguard traditional values while involved with state reform on the bureaucratic level. Liang’s father, Liang Chi, was in fact engaged with the local bureaucracy through the progressive constitutionalist reform movement. Alitto makes the point that the relationship between Liang and his father was in many ways to set the tone for Liang’s own quest for cultural identity later implicated in his later intellectual work.

In addition to familial influences, we learn through Alitto’s treatment of Liang’s early years that Liang was concerned from a young age with the nature of human existence, a preoccupation which contributed to the development of his “sage-identity”. As Alitto suggests, it is Liang’s existential interests which may in part account for his eventual turn to Confucianism alongside his opposition to what Liang viewed as the immorality of the modern era.

While engaged as a revolutionary during the early republican years of China, Liang Shu-ming turned to Mahayana Buddhism. Eventually obtaining a position at Peking University where he taught courses on Buddhism, Liang retired from revolutionary activities to immerse himself in the academic environment. Liang’s Buddhist period, Alitto shows through an analysis of Liang’s essays, gradually gave way to his eventual embrace of Confucianism after years of existential questioning. Another lifelong mission for Liang was to define Chinese culture and what he termed the “original Chinese spirit”. It was this definition (relatively unchanging throughout Liang’s life), Alitto contends, that formed the basis both for his comparison of Chinese culture with that of Western and Indian-Buddhist traditions and for his envisioning of the Chinese state in the modern world.

It was also while at Peking University that Liang first encountered radical proponents of ‘westernization’. Intellectual modernizers in China during the 1920s were of the belief that the means to modernization was through westernization. In Liang’s view, however, modernizers of this ilk engaged in the self-indulgent, materialist lifestyle of the age.

An opponent of this ‘East versus West’ construct of modernity, Liang promoted the humanistic values espoused by Confucianism. Alitto’s treatment of Liang’s Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies (1923) assists us in understanding how Liang saw Chinese culture in relation to Indian-Buddhist and Western civilizations. The Indian-Buddhist spiritual tradition was an especially personal comparison for Liang, whose own foray into Buddhism made him particularly sensitive to the movement of Chinese intellectuals toward Buddhist teachings that was an ongoing trend in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Alitto then traces Liang’s intellectual development through his involvement as a social reformer in the rural reconstruction movement of the 1930s in Shantung. Significantly, Liang developed – through a rather organic process – new strategies for social reform which bore some similarity to the ideals espoused by the Yenan Communists. Liang argued for localistic leadership, collective moral foundations, and mutual responsibility. On a structural level, he emphasized that the interests of the masses ought to be more closely integrated with the bureaucratic machinations of the state.

As Alitto’s analysis shows, Liang opposed both the anti-imperialist May Fourth dissidents and rejected the ideals promoted by Sun Yat-sen. Yet Liang believed that technology and other fruits of modernization did have a place in China. Throughout his career, Liang argued in favor of an ideal fusion of Confucian tradition and modern Western advancements. Alitto cites Liang’s own words in conveying the tremendous weight of responsibility the reformer believed had been placed on his shoulders. Indeed, Alitto explains that Liang saw himself as a sort of cultural preservationist tasked with creating a place for the tao in modern China. This task he took very seriously throughout his life, as he believed Confucian values alone could save not only China from the degeneracy of modern times, but humanity both Eastern and Western.

An important theme of Alitto’s work is his treatment of the clash between Liang’s orthodox Confucian ideals and Mao’s Marxist prescriptions for a modern China. Alitto’s perceptive explication of this juncture helps readers to develop a sense of how one vision for a uniquely Chinese society could be promoted by two radically disparate thinkers. While Mao embraced the class struggles of Marxism, Liang saw the agrarian communalist ideal as classless. Even still, the core beliefs of both men converged on the possibility of a new and modern China built upon the ‘Chineseness’ of its history. Yet, Alitto notes, both Liang and Mao opposed vehemently the propositions of Westernized liberals and members of both the KMT and Communist Party. Like Mao, Liang believed that China must return to its agrarian roots; beginning with the return of urban bourgeois intellectuals to rural life.

Interestingly, Alitto questions whether ultimately Liang may have influenced Mao, whether consciously or unconsciously. After all, the two held several important conversations in 1938 upon Liang’s trip to Yenan. Alitto is careful not to speculate, but his detailed comparison of these two and their ideals yields considerable insight.

In the later years of Liang’s life, the advent of war found Liang and his Democratic League caught in the middle between the Communists and KMT. Never shying away from his critique of government policies, Liang frequently drew censure. Among his detractors, Mao publically denounced Liang in 1953 for his opposition to the hardships born by the rural population during the Communists’ development campaign. 

Through the lens of Liang Shu-ming’s life, Alitto comments on the larger “East versus West” theme that underlies the work as whole. The incongruence of Liang’s own intellectual practice provides a useful foil to point at the complicated nature of the question of Chinese modernities. Liang was among the foremost champions of preserving China’s “spiritual” tradition – a way of life inherently linked to communalist living and a more traditional structural ordering of society. In many ways, Alitto argues, Liang saw himself not as a nationalist, but as a “messianic” culturalist whose view of China’s transition into a modern society did not accompany any specific governmental prescriptions.

With The Last Confucian Alitto has provided us with an engaging medium through which we may better understand the dilemma of modernity in early twentieth century China. Not only does Alitto’s portrait of Liang Shu-ming give insight into the man himself, but it also serves as a starting point for discussions of the role conservative intellectuals played, alongside their liberal counterparts, in determining China’s future.