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In May 1989, protestors in Tiananmen Square erected a plaster statue of the Goddess Democracy. For almost a week, it faced off against the giant portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The juxtaposition seemed to sum up the choice facing China: communist rule or liberal democracy.

Jiang Qing, then in his thirties, viewed neither option as acceptable. Like those who hoped for democracy, he saw the suppression of the Tiananmen protests as a sign that the communist regime lacked legitimacy. But he denied that liberal democracy was the correct solution. A few months after the end of the protests, he published an article arguing that “Confucianism should replace Marxism.” It was the manifesto for a new movement: Confucian integralism. In the ensuing years, Jiang has offered a detailed plan for remaking the Chinese state. In the process, he has become one of the most widely discussed intellectuals in China, and one of the most unjustly neglected by the West.

Son of a high-ranking communist official, Jiang was a cradle Marxist. As a young soldier, he read Das Kapital in his spare time, convinced that it contained the truth about man and society. Later, while attending university, he was drawn to the more humanist writings of the young Marx and to the theories of Locke and Rousseau. He became, in his words, “a radical liberal, and a radical westernizer.” But the attraction did not last. Influenced by his reading of the Chinese classics, Jiang became convinced that liberalism and Marxism were both alien ideologies that cut the Chinese off from their ancient culture. Worse yet, both denied the importance of the sacred, leading to what he would later call, quoting Richard John Neuhaus, the “Naked Public Square.”

Drawing on the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, a classic Confucian text, Jiang argues that every government requires three forms of legitimacy: sacred, historical, and popular. Only a regime that governs in accord with the dictates of heaven, consistent with the nation’s culture and history, and commanding the support of its people, can achieve “a complete and integral legitimacy.” Communist regimes fail on all three counts. They mock the laws of heaven, denounce the past as oppressive, and trample the will of the people. Though liberal democracy consults the will of the people and protects important rights, Jiang argues that it, too, reviles the past and rejects the divine.

Jiang’s Confucian state would have a tricameral legislature. Popular legitimacy would be embodied in a House of the People, with members elected by universal suffrage. Cultural legitimacy would be embodied in a House of the Nation, made up of nobles, descendants of heroes, and representatives of China’s Daoist, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian minorities. Sacred legitimacy would be embodied in the House of Ru, an assembly of Confucian scholars chosen for their virtue and learning. Voting in concert, the two lower houses would be able to block initiatives proposed by the House of Ru, including those targeting religious minorities. But the House of Ru could unilaterally veto a bill supported by the other two chambers if it contradicts heaven’s teaching, as in the case of same-sex marriage.

Alongside the three houses of the legislature, Jiang envisions a symbolic monarch and a Confucian Academy. Once again, Jiang proposes a tripartite design that reflects the three forms of legitimacy. The tricameral legislature as a whole represents the will of the people. The symbolic monarch represents historical continuity. The Confucian Academy represents the supreme way of heaven.

Only a hereditary monarch of ancient extraction, ­Jiang argues, can represent the historical continuity of the Chinese state. Only a religious academy that derives its legitimacy from adherence to unchanging truths can resist the forces that would impel China toward genocide, unjust war, and destruction of the countryside. Though he has shed his youthful Marxism, Jiang continues to agree with many left-wing critiques of capitalist exploitation. But instead of supporting utopian dreams of perfect equality, he proposes the creation of a non-capitalist elite that can restrain the money power. 

Jiang insists that his system is not theocratic. He has drawn on the Confucian classics to argue for tolerance of religious minorities, and he implies that a Confucian state would permit wider freedom of speech and religion than the Chinese people currently enjoy. But his system is nonetheless based on the startling claim that “the sacred legitimacy of the way of heaven is prior to both the cultural legitimacy of the way of earth and that of the popular will.” The spiritual has primacy over the temporal.

Jiang’s argument is a challenge to the “diaspora New Confucians,” who live in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They have sought to reconcile Confucianism with ­liberalism and democracy. Li Minghui, a Taiwanese scholar and one of Jiang’s most outspoken critics, has argued that there is no fundamental conflict between Confucianism and liberalism. While rejecting extreme individualism, he advances a form of Confucian “personalism” that affirms liberal democracy. In Li’s view, Jiang’s proposal “stands little likelihood of ever being implemented—and if it were ever to find itself enacted, it could turn China back to the Middle Ages.” Other New Confucians accuse Jiang and his fellow “Mainland New Confucians” of being obsessed with power and politics at the expense of individual moral cultivation.

In turn, Jiang has accused the diaspora New Confucians of succumbing to an “extreme individualistic tendency,” an “extreme metaphysical tendency,” and an “extreme interiorizing tendency.” Confucianism once exerted social power through temples, academies, and imperial examinations. But since the abolition of the imperial system at the beginning of the twentieth century, most New Confucians have refused to think institutionally. Rather than treat Confucianism as a governing philosophy, they see it as an essentially private teaching. Ironically, in doing so, they have not succeeded in rescuing Confucianism from being a state ideology. They have invented a form of it that justifies liberal democratic regimes.

Jiang admits his proposal “is a high-flying political ­ideal.” He believes that three conditions must obtain before it can be considered a real possibility. First, there must be a society-wide revival of Confucianism. Second, a new class of learned and virtuous Confucian scholars must arise. Third, China’s constitution must be altered to recognize the public primacy of Confucianism, much as it has been modified to acknowledge property rights.

Confucianism now enjoys a certain vogue among Communist party elites, who see it as a tool of cultural diplomacy. As of last year, China had established more than five hundred “Confucius Institutes” in more than one hundred countries. Jiang speaks witheringly of “politicized Confucianism” that “has lost its ability to criticize the present system and engage in self-criticism” and seeks only to “defend the interests of the present system and the rulers.”

Instead of “politicized Confucianism,” Jiang hopes to create a “political Confucianism”: not a creed that serves the state, but a state that serves a creed. He admits that this is difficult to achieve. “Since the Han dynasty,” he writes, “Confucianism has been transformed into a political ­ideology solely in the service of the monarch . . . and the tradition of political Confucianism has nearly disappeared.” He longs for a spiritual power that transcends narrow national interests, standing above the polity.

In pursuit of his dream, Jiang has established a privately funded Confucian academy. It sits on a mountain peak in Guizhou, the remote province where he was born. On the ground floor of the main building stands a statue of ­Confucius along with two rows of tablets bearing the names of the sage’s great disciples. One row represents the more public and political school with which Jiang is identified, one the more private and introspective school claimed by his opponents.

Confucius taught that the practice of humanity comes down to two things: “tame the self and restore the rites.” These great tasks now occupy Jiang’s energy. “But to abide by the rites today is not to practice them exactly as they have been written,” he tells me, “since practicing an ancient code is impossible after the dramatic transformations we have experienced.” Jiang has therefore begun to produce “a new Confucian Rite, one which will preserve the spiritual depths of the ancient Confucian Rite and be well-suited for life in today’s society.”

Jiang publishes less often than he once did, but his labors continue. Far from the public controversies he once engaged, Jiang instructs his students, welcomes guests, and continues his studies. At mealtime, a bell summons the scholars to eat food grown on the grounds of the academy. Having become the most prominent advocate of a Confucian revival, Jiang Qing now works toward that revival quietly.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.