The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Early Tokugawa Period

A review of A Vehicle of Social Mobility: Utilitarian Factors in the Rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Early Tokugawa Period, by Doyoung Park.

The social and intellectual role of Neo-Confucianism in the early Tokugawa period (1600-1868) defines a major field of research in the intellectual history of early modern Japan. From the postwar era up until the late 1970s, research contributions were dominated by a theoretical framework, which can be summarized under the term “modernization theories,” and of which the studies by the political theorist and intellectual historian Maruyama Masao 丸山真男 (1914-1996) are most representative (Maruyama Masao. Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan. Translated by Mikiso Hane, Princeton, Tōkyō: University of Tōkyō Press 1974). However, since the 1980s, the central premises of those earlier contributions have been called into question by studies with methods applied from the field of historical sociology. The studies by Watanabe Hiroshi 渡辺浩 (Kinsei nihon shakai to Sō gaku 近世日本社会と宋学. Tōkyō: Tōkyō daigaku shuppan kai, 1985) and Herman Ooms (Tokugawa Ideology. Princeton, New York: Princeton University Press, 1985) have been greatly influential in this respect. Both authors have pointed to the difficulties in the reception process of Neo-Confucianism in the early Tokugawa period, bringing about a re-evaluation of its role in the contemporary intellectual landscape. Park builds on the foundation of these developments in the field when he discusses the case of the Neo-Confucian scholar Fujiwara Seika 藤原惺窩 (1561-1619), who is generally regarded as one of the central figures involved with the introduction of Neo-Confucianism in the early Tokugawa period. In his analysis, which comprises four lengthy chapters, the author’s concern is directed to the social factors behind Seika’s effort to establish himself as a professional scholar of Neo-Confucianism, as well as its connection to the wider phenomenon of the spread of Neo-Confucianism in the early modern period.

At the beginning of Chapter 1, “A Neo-Confucian Convert from Zen Buddhism,” Park is referring to the scholarly debate between Fujiwara Seika and the Zen monk Saishō Jōtai 西笑承兌 (1548-1607), which took place at Nijō castle in Kyōto in the year 1600. He understands this debate as “one of the most significant scenes in the history of Confucianism in Japan” (pp. 24-25) because it marks “the first case of a direct philosophical conflict between Zen Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan” (p. 27). From his investigation into the history of Confucianism before the Tokugawa period, Park concludes that the study of its teachings had served practical interests of the Buddhist clergy rather than being the object of a philosophical discussion. The acquisition of Chinese linguistic skills, as well as practical knowledge about Chinese civilization through the study of Confucian sources provided them with important resources for the participation in diplomatic and trade relations with China. Park argues, therefore, because of the solely functional interpretation of Confucianism, its teachings never challenged the intellectual and social dominance of Buddhism before the Tokugawa period. Moreover, in view of the fact that there had been “virtually no concept of a Neo-Confucian philosopher in Japan, even though there were scholars holding Neo-Confucian knowledge” (p. 35) at that time, he regards Seika’s debate at Nijō castle as the emergence of a new type of scholar, who specialized in the philosophical study of Neo-Confucianism. At the end of Chapter 1, Park gives a survey of two dominant tendencies in research on Seika’s conversion from Buddhism to Neo-Confucianism and his establishment as a professional scholar. Whereas one group of researchers understands this conversion as the result of Seika’s intellectual encounter with the ethical teachings of Neo-Confucianism, others stress the importance of external influences such as Seika’s contact with Korean embassies in Japan, as well as his intellectual conversations with the Korean scholar Kang Hang 姜沆 (1567-1618).

In Chapter 2, “Revisiting Seika’s Conversion,” Park questions the accepted view in the research literature that Seika’s conversion to Neo-Confucianism signified a transition between two traditions and a change in his former philosophical outlook. Instead, the author argues that such a view resulted from a limited analysis of Seika’s conversion that only takes into account philosophical reasons. Therefore, for a broader understanding of Seika’s conversion, Park suggests a holistic approach that takes both internal and external factors into account. Park argues that in light of Seika’s eclectic scholarship, which neither adheres to one exegesis of the Confucian Classics nor rejects the influence of Buddhist or Daoist ideas, the argument that Seika’s conversion was the result of the scholar’s philosophical struggle with Buddhism is difficult to maintain. In the author’s view, Seika’s scholarly attitude towards the teachings of Buddhism does not qualify a characterization as “anti-Buddhist,” even after his conversion to Neo-Confucianism. Rather, Seika’s critique of Buddhist epistemology, and the lack of a practical ethical teaching should be understood as directed towards the contemporary social practices of Zen-Buddhist monasteries in Japan. Furthermore, Park argues that after his conversion, Seika still made use of his Buddhist networks in order to enter the circles of the cultural and political elite, a fact that contradicts a description of Seika as “anti-Buddhist.” Therefore, the author suggests instead that Seika’s philosophical outlook, as well as the economic and social aspects of his function as an intellectual, should be methodologically differentiated in order to analyze the scholar’s conversion from a “utilitarian perspective” (p. 74).

In the first half of Chapter 3, “Conversion as Marketing,” Park presents his central hypothesis regarding the motivating factors behind Seika’s conversion to Neo-Confucianism. The author argues that two proceeding stages should be differentiated. The first stage was characterized by Seika’s institutional transition when he left his Buddhist monastery in 1591 in order to establish himself as an independent scholar. Park stresses that Seika continued to present himself as a Zen monk in the period shortly after his conversion, and the Korean Neo-Confucian scholar, Kang Hang, in fact, initially recognized Seika as a Buddhist monk. The second stage was characterized by Seika’s transition between traditions when he rejected the teachings of Buddhism and proclaimed himself to be an adherent of Neo-Confucianism. Park interprets this as a strategy of image-marketing by Seika in order to promote his career as a professional scholar of Neo-Confucianism. The author supports his argument by arguing that Seika had to compete in the intellectual market against Zen monks that had monopolized the field of Confucian studies (kangaku 漢学). Park further argues that Seika, in order to position himself strategically, stressed his professionalism in Neo-Confucian scholarship. Furthermore, Seika claimed that the authenticity of his scholarship was supported by his contacts to the foreign embassies, as well as by the Korean scholar Kang Hang. The second strategy was Seika’s effort to adopt the outer representations of Confucian institutions and practices, by which he tried to set himself apart visually from scholars of the Buddhist clergy. Park thus suspects that Seika’s main purpose with his conversation with Kang Hang was to learn about, not so much Confucian teachings, but rather Confucian practices and representations that might aid him to position himself in the intellectual market.

The second half of Chapter 3 is dedicated to a discussion of Hayashi Razan’s conversion to Neo-Confucianism, which Park similarly analyzes as another example of strategic marketing in the intellectual market. The author stresses the importance of Razan’s anti-Buddhism and his construction of a teacher-disciple relationship between himself and Seika, which were both instrumental factors in the competition over influence inside the Tokugawa administration.

Building on his analysis of Seika’s conversion, Park argues in Chapter 4, “Rise of Professional Neo-Confucianists,” that its historical importance lies in the definition of a role model for professional scholars of Confucianism in opposition to the traditional role model of the Zen scholar-monk. Due to the liberation of Confucian studies from the confines of the Zen monasteries, a growing number of independent scholars at all levels of society emerged at the beginning of the Tokugawa period. Park argues that the rise of private academies in the seventeenth century and the increase of book publishing have to be seen in this connection as well. However, despite the growing interest in Confucianism, its virtues did not pervade society as a generally recognized code of ethics. Rather, the motivations for engagement with Confucianism varied widely; from commoners decorating their bookshelves with Confucian literature in order to emulate the customs of the higher classes, to learned individuals following Confucian ethics as a kind of personal creed. The reception process of Confucian ethics was further complicated by the fact that some of its cardinal virtues were in conflict with the social structure of Japan’s early modern society and indigenous beliefs and values. Park, therefore, stresses that the rise of professional Neo-Confucian scholars occurred without the indigenization of Confucian values in the general society. Instead, he ascribes the increasing numbers of scholars in governmental services to personal patronage by individual political leaders and their particular interests in the Confucian teachings. However, Park warns against the mistake of misinterpreting this development as somehow proving that the teachings of Neo-Confucianism had become the legitimizing state ideology of the Tokugawa rulers. He argues instead that the influence of Neo-Confucian scholars and teachings on contemporary politics was rather limited, since the function of their scholarship was traditionally seen by the ruling warrior class as a tool for the acquisition of practical information rather than as a way for self-cultivation and ethical training. Park argues that at the beginning of the Tokugawa period political rulers took Neo-Confucian scholars into their service, because they appeared as just another group of information suppliers similar to the Zen monks.

Park’s dissertation thus concludes that the apparent dominance of Neo-Confucianism in the intellectual market of the early Tokugawa period was founded upon the popularity of the newly established guild of professional scholars of Neo-Confucianism rather than upon the general acceptance of Neo-Confucian values in general society and among political leaders. According to Park, a major reason for the attractiveness of the profession of the Neo-Confucian scholar was the opportunities it offered as a vehicle of social mobility to members of varying status groups.

Once published, Park’s study will be recognized as an important contribution to the field, as there is still a great need for comprehensive studies in western languages, which will incorporate recent methodological developments in order to re-evaluate the intellectual landscape of early modern Japan.

André Linnepe
Humboldt-University, Berlin

Primary Sources

Kana shōri 仮名性理
Daigaku yōryaku 大学要略
Seika sensei gyōjō 惺窩先生行状
Hayashi Razan bunshū 林羅山文集

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois. 2013. 200 pp. Primary Advisor: Ronald P. Toby.

Image: A Portrait of Fujiwara Seika. Wikimedia.


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