One of Mou Zongsan’s controversial claims in his Nineteen Lectures on Chinese Philosophy is that neither Wang Yangming nor Zhu Xi represented the “true” spirit of Confucianism in their time, but that this rather was preserved and passed on by Hu Hong and Liu Jishan. What immediately strikes the western reader is not the question of whether Mou is right or wrong about this; it is that Mou thought it was an issue – that it mattered and was a worthy and reasonable matter to dispute and deliberate, upon which one could hold one position or another, because it had consequences.
Despite quarrels and debates, the rise and fall of scholars’ reputations, the conceptual overhaul of whole schools, a frequent question in Chinese intellectual history is that of fidelity of transmission. It would be easy (and a bit of stereotyping) to call this a sort of “conservativism” of Chinese philosophy, or of Confucianism at least, and it is true that it is concerned with maintenance of a tradition and thereby with that of culture as a whole. If cultural forms become stagnant and mired in convention, the whole civilization suffers; but so, too, if all forms turn to flux, or – more likely – are merely neglected. This concern is part of where Chinese philosophy derives its essential urgency (and without such urgency, philosophy degenerates into what its critics love to lampoon, “armchair” reasoning) – there are social stakes.
Mou however would not accept the term “conservative” unqualifiedly. Citing the Analects (2.23), he quotes:
Following the times, rite can be contracted or expanded; this was done in the Three Dynasties: ‘The Yin following the Xia ritual; what they subtracted or added can be known. The Zhou following the Yin ritual, what they subtracted or added can be known. As to the successors of the Zhou, even after a hundred generations, it can be known.’ … Thus Confucians were not diehard conservatives, ‘clinging to the remains and guarding the tatters’ of Zhou ritual. Zhou ritual was not impractical in itself, for if you yourself had real life, it would be practicable. The most important thing was to revive men’s lives.
Nineteen Lectures, 3