Zhang Junmai’s Early Political Philosophy and the Paradoxes of Chinese Modernity


  • Eric S. Nelson Hong Kong University of Science and Technology




Zhang Junmai, modernity, May Fourth Movement, lifeworld, rationality, democratic socialist politics


This article examines the significance of reflexive self-critical modernity in the development of early “New Confucianism” by reconsidering the example of Zhang Junmai in the context of the May Fourth and New Culture Movements. Whereas these movements advocated scientific rationality and thorough Westernization, Zhang’s education and research in Germany before and after the First World War led him to a critical perspective on Western modernity informed by its contemporary crisis tendencies and Western philosophical and social-political critics. Zhang adopted elements from German Idealism, life-philosophy, and social democracy to critique the May Fourth and New Culture Movements and reconstruct the “rational core” and ethical sensibility of Confucian philosophy. Zhang’s “self-critical modernity” was oriented toward a moral and social-political instead of a scientific and technological vision of Westernization. Zhang’s position was condemned by New Culture champions of scientific modernity who construed Zhang’s position as reactionary metaphysics beholden to the past without addressing his self-critical interpretation of modernity that adopted early twentieth century Western critiques of the spiritual and capitalist crisis-tendencies of modernity. In response to this complex situation, Zhang articulated a phenomenological interpretation of the social-political, ethical, and cultural lifeworld, drawing on classic and contemporary Chinese and Western sources, which endeavoured to more adequately address the paradoxes of Westernization and modernization, and the crisis of Chinese ethical life.


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10. 01. 2020

How to Cite

Nelson, Eric S. 2020. “Zhang Junmai’s Early Political Philosophy and the Paradoxes of Chinese Modernity”. Asian Studies 8 (1): 183-208. https://doi.org/10.4312/as.2020.8.1.183-208.

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