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Smits, "Sai On (1682-1761) and Confucianism in the early-modern Ryukyu Kindgom," 1992

USC Dissertation in Religion.
August 26, 2009

Gregory James Smits, Ph.D.

Abstract (Summary)
This dissertation examines the development of Confucian thought, institutions, and government in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Prefecture, Japan; a separate kingdom until 1879) from the early seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century. The discussion induces a number of important figures in scholarship and government, such as Sho Shoken (1617-1675) and Tei Junsoku (1663-1734), but focusses mainly on the writings and statecraft of Sai On. Sai On was the outstanding scholar and politician in early-modern (1609-1879) Ryukyu, and one of the comparatively rare examples in East Asian history of a Confucian scholar who also held high, influential political office for an extended period of time (over thirty years). Through an examination of Sai On's career, this study draws a number of conclusions about Ryukyuan history and the Confucian tradition in East Asia.

Until Sai On's time, a mixture of Buddhism and native religious practices served as the ideological basis of government in Ryukyu. Sai On made a vigorous and largely successful attempt to discredit Buddhism and the native religion--at least as a basis for government and social organization--and to recast the practice of government along Confucian lines. In so doing, he developed Confucian thought in certain unique ways, and also came into conflict with the traditional aristocracy. More so than any other Confucian scholar, he made extensive use of the concept of situational weighing (ch'uan) as a means to unify theory and practice. One such use was to undermine the validity of popular Buddhist belief practice, which Ryukyu's traditional aristocracy perceived as a threat to its interests.

The discussion of Sai On is grounded in a thorough examination of key political, economic, diplomatic, social, religious, and intellectual contexts of his time and place. This contextual examination enhances our understanding of Sai On's activities and their significance within both the Confucian tradition and Ryukyuan history. The study includes extensive comparative analysis of Confucianism in Ryukyu, China and Japan, and will be of interest to students of East Asian intellectual history or Ryukyuan history. (Copies available exclusively from Micrographics Department, Doheny Library, USC, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0182.)

Advisor: Not listed