2002 Student-Faculty Fellows: Sewanee, University Of The South

China: Confucianism in Everyday Life

Mentor: James Franklin Peterman, Philosophy
Students: David John Atkinson ’02; Carl Joseph Dull ’02; John Rory Fraser ’04; Alan Barton Wray ’02


Fellows at the final panel discussion on our project. Zhongshan University, Guangzhuo, Guangdong Province. From left: Prof. Jim Peterman, Prof. Ai Xiaoming, David Atkinson, J. Rory Fraser, Alan Wray, Carl Dull

Abstracts of Reflections

Fellows in Guangzhuo, at an event for children from the country who have been sponsored by city families.

James Franklin Peterman

Doing this research has contributed to my professional development in three ways. First, it has given me a concrete experience of how sociological field interviews can be philosophically significant. We discovered the emergence of a new model for the family within the Confucian tradition, and are now able to describe a contemporary dao or language game of Confucianism. Second, this study provides evidence for an emerging thesis in my scholarly work on Confucianism: that Confucianism is primarily a dao, not a theory, and that this dao changes over time. Third, the trip has given me an experience of doing research in a faculty-student team. I feel for the first time confident of my ability to engage in research abroad with students and see a real advantage in doing so. I would not have been able to conduct these interviews by myself, either in terms of the amount of interviewing, note taking, and analysis has been required, or in terms of the quality of the interviews, which was quite high.

David John Atkinson

Aside from an earnest thirst for the mystical and for intellectual pursuits across largely undeveloped territory, my desire to go abroad and seek out the unfamiliar was the product of a persistent yearning to experience the unknown mysteries of the Chinese way first hand–to be swept away by the experience of a culture profoundly different from my own. This was, of course, an experience that could only be dreamed of while sitting fireside in rural America confined by the comfort and company of a Western worldview. Further, this was an experience that could only occur if the roots of Chinese culture had actually been able to stand firm through the process of modernization. Aside from the research goals I had set for myself prior to arrival in China, a hearty shift in perspective was the primary souvenir I hoped to salvage from my bags after a two month stint of studying and traveling throughout the PRC. My desire was fulfilled a hundredfold, and the success of our research proved equally fruitful, showing a resilient and vibrant tradition at work in even the most modernized areas of China.

Carl Joseph Dull

Despite the fact that I do not yet fully see how my experience in China will play itself out in the rest of my life, my experiences there have been incredibly rewarding. The trip itself was unique for allowing us to study a culture and society while being immersed in that society. Ultimately, Confucian values are still strong and are shaping modernization in China, and it was a unique experience being able to witness the interplay of a traditional worldview and modern social trends. Furthermore, our time spent studying traditional Confucian values in a modern Chinese society has helped me question and observe my own values. While undecided about my future, I plan on continuing my interest in international affairs, global issues, and ethical value determination.

John Rory Fraser

My experience in China was nothing short of altering. It altered my worldview, and it altered my approach to filmmaking. I also had some pants altered while I was there. Though culturally educational, I made an effort not to pretend I was culturally amorphous. I resolved to be an American in China, and I found that just being myself was the most successful way to engage people there. They enjoyed my explanation of why American motorists generally don’t play chicken with pedestrians, while I enjoyed their explanations of why Chinese motorists do. These type of interactions occurred at least 130 times a day, which provided for a full brain at the end of each one. The research that I documented was as interesting as it was surprising, and I will attempt to make a film that is both of these. In trying to account for my time spent there, I have felt relieved and sentimental all at once. There is no real way to account for all of it. When I return to China, maybe some aspects of it will become clearer, which will be fine and good. But the experience of being utterly lost in the crowd will forever be a part of my very first trip there, which the Freeman Foundation so kindly provided, and which I will try to impart to other westerners in my film and my writing on the subject.

Alan Barton Wray

In our research we interviewed students about their relationships with their families-probing for remnants of the Confucian tradition at the society’s most basic level, the family. In these conversations I was routinely blown away by the students’ honesty and articulateness, as well as by their heartfelt adherence to views and values that I had previously studied only in books. It became clearly evident over the course of our project that these students had a way (dao) about them that was distinctly Chinese and, arguably, Confucian as well. We expected from the onset that we would find differences between the life-orientations of Chinese students and our own deeply-ingrained, culturally-driven expectations and attitudes. Over the course of our research work, what struck me as truly different were the culturally-distinct approaches that our interviewees were accustomed to using in navigating through their daily experiences. The Chinese young people definitely revere the old and sacred traditions of their country, and they routinely employ unquestioned, non-negotiable tactics for living and growing successfully-ones that have been passed down for more generations than they could ever count. Their overwhelming sense of personal responsibility and their respect for inherited forms and structures of human relationships set these students apart from what we have come to expect from Americans of the same age. Ritual forms of Confucian teachings appear to be alive and well in the lives of contemporary Chinese-demonstrating the resilience and wide scope of applicability in what the Master of old laid down for his people.

Research Abstract

Conducting an interview with Deng Cong at Zhongshan University.

We draw the following conclusions from our research: First, we argue, using the results of our interviews, that Confucianism continues to structure our interviews’ relations to their families, by establishing the family as the decision making unit, by giving central place to the ideal of harmony, and determining a set of unquestioned responsibilities of students to their parents and siblings. Second, using our interview results and method, we critique Godwin Chu’s (The Great Wall in Ruins) claim that the Chinese tradition is in decay. Third, we argue that the research we have done supports Tu Weiming’s thesis that a distinct form of modernization is taking place in East Asia.

Venues for Sharing

Interviewing Deng Cong at Zhongshan University.
  • Panel Discussion on “Confucianism in Ordinary Life, The University of the South, October 22, 2002
  • Belmont University Convocation Series, Belmont University, Nashville, October 28, 2002
  • The Southeastern Undergraduate Philosophy Conference, Sewanee, TN, March 1 2003
  • Showing of an hour-long documentary film on our trip and research, The University of the South, January, 2003
  • Panel discussion, Asian Studies Development Program, March 6-9, 2003, pending receipt of travel funds from the University of the South
  • We plan to submit some parts of our research for publication in the United States.
  • We also have a commitment to translate our study into Chinese and secure a Chinese publisher from Professor Ai Xiaoming, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Zhongshan University, China