• Confucianism;
  • Pragmatism;
  • John Dewey;
  • Hu Shih;
  • tradition;
  • iconoclasm;
  • scientism;
  • change;
  • progress


This paper explores the Confucian veneration of the past and its commitment to transmitting the tradition of the sages. It does so by placing it in the context of the historical trajectory from the May Fourth attacks on Confucianism and its scientistic, iconoclastic approach to “saving China,” to similar approaches to China's modernization in later decades, through the market reforms that launched China into global capitalism, to the revival of Confucianism in recent years. It reexamines the association of the Pragmatism of John Dewey and Hu Shih with the scientistic iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement and argues that a broader scrutiny of Dewey's and Hu's works, beyond the period when Dewey visited China, reveals a more balanced treatment of tradition, science, and modernization. Pragmatists believe in reconstructing, not destroying, traditions in their pursuit of growth for individuals and communities. Despite a tension between the progress-oriented historical consciousness that Dewey inherited from the Enlightenment (a consciousness that some consider as characteristic of modern Western historiography) and the historical consciousness underlying Chinese historiographical tradition (one that views the past as a didactic “mirror”), it is possible to reconcile the Pragmatic reconstruction of tradition with the Confucian veneration of the past. This paper argues for a Pragmatic Confucian approach to Chinese traditions that is selective in its transmission of the past and flexible enough in its “preservation” to allow for progressive change.