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It was with great delight that I received an advance copy of the essays, reviews, and other materials selected for inclusion in this book. The year of 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of Dewey’s departure from China after 27 momentous months during which he lectured in most of China’s provinces as they were then configured.

John and Alice Dewey arrived at Shanghai on April 30, 1919, just days before the May 4th student demonstrations which, when joined by workers’ protests, precipitated an inflection point in Chinese political and cultural thought. As James Zhixiang Yang’s essay in this volume argues, “the May Fourth movement provided scholars of a New Confucianism with an unparalleled opportunity to reform Confucianism.” Very much in the vein of Dewey’s pragmatic pluralism, the new Confucianism would be dedicated to synthesizing Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism and supporting the introduction of Western philosophy into China. As an internationally known advocate for progressive education, Dewey was in the right place at the right time. His lectures in Beijing, Nanjing, and elsewhere played an important supporting role in these political and cultural events, including the introduction of American-style school systems.

Readers wishing access to an expansive account of the relation of Neo-Confucianism to Deweyan pragmatism, as both continue to develop, can do no better than turn to Roger T. Ames’ essay in this volume. Dewey’s rejection of structural/analytic philosophical approaches in favor of genetic/functional models, for example, corresponds nicely to Neo-Confucianism “as a continuing cultural narrative [that] presents us with a rolling, continuous, and always contingent tradition out of which emerges its own values and its own logic.”

Most of the contributions to this volume continue the conversation regarding the relation between Deweyan pragmatism and Confucianism. The papers by Zhang Huajun and Len Waks discuss Confucian self-cultivation. Waks suggests ways the Confucian emphasis on the reverential study of classics and ritual performance can enhance Dewey’s democratic educational project. Zhang identifies many similarities between Dewey and Confucian thinking about individual self-cultivation to suggest ways education can create transactionally inclusive relationships in the context of global conflict.

Zhang’s paper builds on Zhao Kang’s contribution showing that Dewey’s pragmatism was initially presented to China as merely a method. Meanwhile, Lei Wang identifies other problems with Dewey’s initial reception in China. All three papers discuss and correct errors in Dewey’s original reception that still persist, thereby clearing the way for more fruitful conversations in the future.

Su Zhixin examines important differences between Chinese and American views on Dewey’s influence on Chinese education during three different periods of China’s history (the first 30-years, 1949–1979, and post 1979). Michael Peters offers some provocative criticisms of Dewey especially in the Chinese context. Zhou Hongyu and Li Yong provide a valuable review of the most recent studies on Dewey’s visit to China while offering useful suggestions for future research. Also looking toward the future, Sor-hoon Tan intersects Confucianism and Deweyan thinking regarding the role humanities in response to the global transformations brought on by Artificial Intelligence (AI). By revisiting the idea of “home education” Wang Chengbing and Dong Ming provide an original response to critics that underestimate Dewey’s claims regarding the educational and democratic value of working from local communities toward what Dewey called “the Great Community.”

Jim Garrison enriches the conversation further with his discussion of the relation of Dewey’s process philosophy to central ideas of Nichiren Buddhism. Both approaches avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, that is, the idea that we are progressing to some ideal end. Both are nevertheless committed to meliorism, that is, the idea creative intelligence can improve existing conditions as we find them. As Daisaku Ikeda, the world’s leading practitioner of Nichiren educational thought has said, “religion is important, but education is equally important.”

Although there are many institutional players in the growing interest in Dewey’s educational philosophy among Chinese educators, three stand out. The role of East China Normal University Press in the continuing revival of interest in Dewey’s educational philosophy has been enormous. Their publication of translations of the 37 volumes of Dewey’s Collected Works under the editorship of Liu Fangtong has altered the landscape of Dewey studies in China. Beijing Normal University’s Department of Education, founded in 1919 shortly after Dewey’s arrival (see Liu Xing’s contribution to this volume), has also played an important role in dissemination of his ideas. Fudan University’s Center for Dewey Studies was instrumental in the translation of Dewey’s Collected Works and has for some two decades sponsored international conferences focused on East-West interpretations of his work.

In this brief Foreword it has been possible only to scratch the surface of the delights that await the readers of the essays in this volume. Together, they testify to Dewey’s idea that education is the cornerstone of philosophy, and not merely one of its sub-disciplines. For Dewey, Nichiren Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism alike, education is the warp on which the tapestry of a culture, including its philosophy, is woven. Local cultures, with their histories, rituals, and ideals provide one educational reference point. Another is provided by goals and aspirations of a common humanity. Without education, as the growth of individuals and communities, including global communities, the cultural tapestries would be threadbare and slack.

On August 8, 1921, John and Alice Dewey departed China, sailing from Tsingtao on the first leg of their journey back to their home in New York. But as his correspondence reveals, China and its people remained in his heart. Now, 100 years later, it is important to recognize that despite some intervals of interruption and eclipse, there is an important sense in which Dewey never left China.


Director Emeritus, Center for Dewey Studies

Southern Illinois University Carbondale

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  • Introduction A Centennial Reflection on Dewey’s Visit of China


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