Confucian Iconoclasm

Textual Authority, Modern Confucianism, and the Politics of Antitradition in Republican China

By Philippe Major

Subjects: Confucianism, Chinese Religion And Philosophy, Intellectual History, Political Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture, SUNY Press Open Access
Hardcover : 9781438495484, 290 pages, December 2023
Paperback : 9781438495491, 290 pages, June 2024

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Table of contents


1. Reviving the Spirit of Confucius

2. Returning to the Origin

Interlude: Contextualizing Teleological History and Individual Autonomy

3. Performing Sagely Authority

4. Subsuming the Truth of Former Masters and Sages

Conclusion Hegemony and the Politics of Antitradition

Challenges deep-seated assumptions about the traditionalist nature of Confucianism by providing a new interpretation of the emergence of modern Confucianism in Republican China.


Confucian Iconoclasm proposes a novel account of the emergence of modern Confucian philosophy in Republican China (1912–1949), challenging the historiographical paradigm that modern (or New) Confucianism sought to preserve traditions against the iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement. Through close textual analyses of Liang Shuming's Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies (1921) and Xiong Shili's New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness (1932), Philippe Major argues that the most successful modern Confucian texts of the Republican period were nearly as iconoclastic as the most radical of May Fourth intellectuals. Questioning the strict dichotomy between radicalism and conservatism that underscores most historical accounts of the period, Major shows that May Fourth and Confucian iconoclasts were engaged in a politics of antitradition aimed at the monopolization of intellectual commodities associated with universality, autonomy, and liberty. Understood as a counter-hegemonic strategy, Confucian iconoclasm emerges as an alternative iconoclastic project to that of May Fourth.

An open access version of this book was published with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation. It can be found in the SUNY Open Access Repository at

Philippe Major is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for European Global Studies of the University of Basel. He is the coeditor, with Thierry Meynard, of Dao Companion to Liang Shuming's Philosophy.


"Major's work has the capacity to liberate twentieth-century Chinese philosophy as well as history from the interpretative shackles of the tradition/modernity dyad, thereby making possible intellectual life no longer subject to the hegemony of May Fourth ideology." — Lionel M. Jensen, University of Notre Dame

"Philippe Major offers a systematic engagement with and intervention in May Fourth historiography by reinterpreting Confucian conservatism as Confucian iconoclasm, with its radical and antitraditionalist stance and worldview. It's high time we had such a book." — On-cho Ng, Pennsylvania State University