Confucian Democracy

A/P Tan Sor Hoon

"People with a Confucian heritage should not have to choose between the false dichotomy of Westernization & authoritarianism. A Confucian way of life can also be democratic."

Starting out in an attempt to better understand Confucianism and its relevance to modern life, A/P Tan rejects Samuel Huntington�s judgment that �Confucian democracy?is a contradiction in terms. She argues that both the Western tradition of democracy and the Confucian tradition have valuable resources for modern living, but at the same time, both are in need of reconstruction. Societies with Confucian legacies in this part of the world are not condemned to authoritarian government or illiberal social order. Like other Asian societies, where East and West have been meeting for centuries, they could be the beneficiaries of two or several great traditions: they could bring about democracy without sacrificing their cultural heritage.

A/P Tan's monograph, Confucian Democracy, sets out to reconstruct a philosophical framework for Confucian democracy, through a comparison of the works of the American Pragmatist, John Dewey, who was arguably the most influential Western philosopher during the first half of the twentieth century, and pre-Qin Confucian texts. The reconstruction is based on detailed examination of key concepts found in the two traditions, such as individual, community, equality and liberty, in the context of different ways of pursuing ethical and political order. Some questions answered in the reconstructive process include: how could we conceive of individuals as social individuals without sacrificing individuality to the collective; how do we create and sustain harmonious communities that are not stifling internally and do not adopt "us-them" exclusionary mentality that is hostile to other groups; what is the relationship between ethics and politics; how do we move from the Confucian concern for government for the people to government by the people; how is it possible to respect authority and still be free?

Since completing the work on Confucian Democracy, A/P Tan has continued to elaborate, in journal articles and book chapters, on questions which were raised but could not be explored in detail in the book, such as how a Confucian civil society is possible and how it works; how we might purge Confucianism of its historical sexism for a more democratic understanding of gender within Confucian context while challenging some Western formulations of gender equality; whether there is room for creativity in Confucianism; how rituals as understood in Confucian ethics might improve democratic living; what are the differences between law and rituals and what are their relative merits as tools of government; why modern Confucians should desire democracy or advocates of democracy in East Asia should accommodate Confucianism.

Democracy as Pragmatic Experiment

A/P Tan's Deweyan reconstruction of Confucian democracy has led her into an exploration of the historical encounter between China and Pragmatist philosophy beginning with John Dewey's visit to China between 1919 and 1921, of how cultural differences lead to a Chinese Pragmatism that differs from its American cousin even though they share certain commonalities. She is currently working on a monograph that will explore the role of Pragmatism in China's quest for democracy.

Democracy as Culture

The Confucian democracy project taps into a wider field of questions about the relationship between democracy and culture, including questions about multiculturalism and cultural identity in politics, and whether the primacy of culture in some cases justifies antidemocratic political outcomes. A/P Tan's recent joint project with A/P John Whalen-Bridge from the Department of English Language and Literature is an international workshop on "Democracy as Art, Belief, and Culture." An edited volume is in the works that will examine the various connections between democracy and culture, exploring the conceptual and practical problems of conceiving of democracy as not merely a political system, but a culture, a whole way of life.


Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

"China's Pragmatist Experiment in Democracy." In The Range of Pragmatism and the Limits of Philosophy, ed. Richard Shusterman.Oxford:Blackwells, 2004.

Challenging Citizenship: Group Membership and Cultural Identity in a Global Age,(Ed). Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.



Tan Sor Hoon is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and was Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (Undergraduate Matters) for the term of 2005-2006.

A/P Tan's research interests include Comparative Philosophy, Confucianism and Pragmatism, Daoism, Legalism and Twentieth-century Chinese Philosophy. She holds degrees from Oxford University, National University of Singapore, and University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her doctoral research was a comparative study of the moral and political philosophy of early Confucianism and John Dewey. Prior to her doctoral studies, she has been Senior Research Officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Assistant Director at the Ministry of Law, Assistant Dean at the Civil Service College, as well as Corporate Development Manager at a listed company with diverse business interests in the region. She has been teaching at NUS since 2000 and was the recipient of an Excellent Teacher Award in 2005.

Apart from teaching and research, A/P Tan has also been involved in various outreach activities, including the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Project for secondary schools, the 6th Asia Europe Young Leaders Symposium held in Berlin, workshops for secondary school teachers involved in "Philosophy for Schools Program", etc.

Her detailed CV may by found here.


A/P Tan may be contacted by:

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Telephone: (65) 6516 6290

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Dean's Office, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences National University of Singapore

  • Add: The Shaw Foundation Building, Block AS7, Level 5
  • 5 Arts Link, Singapore 117570
  • Level 5 (Undergraduate) & Level 6 (Graduate)
  • Fax: +65 6777 0751
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