Conference Announcement: ‘Confucianism and World Disharmony: The Quest for Harmony in Difference’

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28-31st August, 2019

Bond University, Queensland, Australia

About the Conference:

The international conference ‘Confucianism and World Disharmony: The Quest for Harmony in Difference’ will be held from Wednesday 28th August to Saturday 31st August 2019 at Bond University on the Gold Coast, Australia. It is hosted by the Centre for EastWest Cultural and Economic Studies and the Faculty of Society and Design (Bond University), organised with support from the World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures and The Centre for EastWest Relations (Beijing Foreign Studies University).

Conference Theme:

For over three thousand years, Chinese philosophy and Confucian thought have built up sophisticated approaches exploring social, political and environmental harmony. One of the key understandings of these approaches is that a diversity of roles and relationships are required for the evolution of sophisticated states and adaptive cultures.

Confucianism became one of the main drivers of societal norms across much of East Asia, and has been going through a global academic revival over the last two decades. The Confucian tradition has insights that can help us reflect on the root causes of, and remedies for, disorder in the 21st century. An engaged Confucianism can be inclusive of diverse national identities and build bridges of dialogue to alternative philosophical and religious traditions. The conference has been designed to draw in a wide range of intercultural, interdisciplinary and critical viewpoints.

Keynote Speaker:

The keynote speaker will be Professor Chenyang Li (School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) who specializes in Chinese and comparative philosophy, and has written widely on related political, cultural and educational issues.

Prominent Scholars:

Prominent Scholars making presentations at the conference include Professors Rogers Ames, Tian Chenshan, Chenyang Li, Raoul Mortley, Bee Chen Goh and others from East Asia, Australasia, the United States and Europe.

Panels and Themes:

Delegates can suggest or form their own panels, but the following issues are central to the overall Conference themes:

  • Harmony and Everyday Experience in Confucian Thought
  • The Language and Practice of Harmony: Comparative Perspectives
  • Confucianism in Expanding Asian and Global Contexts: North to South, East to West
  • The Confucian Approaches to Aesthetics
  • Confucius and Confucianism: Philosophy and Institution
  • Confucianism and Education
  • Avoiding Conflict and Moderating War: Transformative Relations in Confucianism
  • Chinese Diplomatic Dialogues: Past and Present
  • ‘Peace’ in Comparative Perspectives
  • Conceiving a Good Life: Confucian and non-Confucian Perspectives
  • Inter-Cultural and Inter-Civilizational Approaches to Global Harmony

Contact Details:

For further details about the Conference and Submission details, contact one of the following:

 Dr.R. James Ferguson (jferguso@bond.edu.au); Dr. Yi Chen (ychen@bond.edu.au); Professor Roger T. Ames (rtames@hawaii.edu); or Professor Tian Chenshan (cstcewr@bfsu.edu.cn).

For early Registration: To attend the Conference, in whole or part, please contact Cindy Minarova-Banjac, theResearch and Communications Coordinator for the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies at Bond University (cminarov@bond.edu.au).There is no cost, but registration is necessary since places are limited.

Anarchism and Daoism- 无政府主义与道教

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A common misconception in mainstream texts and media is the idea that Confucianism has always been a doctrine for the ruling class whereas Buddhism and Daoism appeal to the “ignorant masses” (Welch & Seidel, 1979, p. 1). However, all three indigenous philosophies have contributed to shaping Chinese culture which views the universe as a harmonious and inter-related whole. While Confucianism puts emphasis on morality and how people should maintain proper relationships to achieve an ideal state of harmony (or ‘harmonisation’ depending on the translation of he, 和), Daoism is more individualistic and mystical, relying on instinct and consciousness rather than rules to govern social conduct (Jing, 2008). 

            The name daojia, 道家 or “school of the dao” was created by the historian Sima Tan in the text, Shi ji (“Records of the Historian”), which was written in the 2nd century BCE and later completed by his son, Sima Qian. According to Sima Qian’s classification (liujia zhi yaozhi, 六家之要指), the Daoists are one of the Six Schools in Ancient China, which also include the Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists, the Logicians and the Yin-Yang school (or school of Naturalists). The classification of Daoism as a single school meant that historians compiled a list of texts such as the Laozi, 老子 and Zhuangzi, 莊子 of the pre-Han period that shared similar views on themes related to cosmology and ontology. Some of these themes include discussing ‘the Way’ (dao, 道, lit. “path”) as the ultimate metaphysical force in the cosmos, and ‘wu’ (無, “nothingness” or “nonbeing”), as a state that is complementary to being rather than meaning non-existence. Through the idea of wu, Daoists went one step further than the Greeks by expanding the traditional definition of ontology as examining the ‘being’ or existence of a human being by dealing with the concept of nothingness. This resulted in heated debates during the 3rdand 4thcenturies over whether things in the world were born from nonbeing or being (Chai, 2012). The eventual consensus in the Daoist school was that dao gives birth to both nonbeing and being and so, dao itself must be beyond the sphere of existence and non-existence.

            Once institutionalised, the experts and practitioners of Daoism began to promote self-cultivation practices or “techniques of the Way” (dao shu, 道術), which would help individuals realise the daoand live a more harmonious life. While some of these techniques included adopting a sceptical mind and finding meaning in indirect, non-argumentative writing, often in the form of poetry and parable (Hansen, 2007), the political implication of Daoist thought was its opposition to authority, government, and coercion. As Loy (1985)noted, the Daoist concept of “spontaneity” (or wu-wei, 无为, lit. “without exertion”) was contrasted to the Confucian practice of obediently following teachers and traditions. For the Daoists, rules and social conventions restrained individuals from expressing their true nature, while natural movement was a way of promoting freedom and egalitarianism. Hansen (2007) argues that from a Confucian perspective, the rejection of order through authority and rulers was anarchist since the role of government was to promote moral character, whether by education, attraction or force.[1]

            However, whether this is a correct understanding of Daoism is debatable. For instance, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy John Clarke (1983) points out that it has become commonplace to identify Daoism and anarchism in political discussions, and Andrew Vincent (1992) adds that “it is also asserted that anarchist themes are to be found within ancient Chinese texts like the Tao te Ching [Daodejing]” (p. 116). But for Feldt (2010), these claims have often been made in passing or without critical engagement. The Zhuangzi also tends to be overcited when linking Daoism to anarchism because it is one of the only pre-Qin philosophical classics that does not make normative political claims. Whereas other Daoist texts like the Daodejing (also called the Laozi) provide theories for rulership and legitimate political power, where the ideal government would exert a minimum amount of interference over individuals (Ames, 1983), the Zhuangzi is silent on political issues and suggests that people should stay away from politics and any external, dominating powers (D’Ambrosio, 2018). Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was dominated by a Bolshevik-style state-party system, anarchist activity and Daoist thought have been isolated and marginalised in the Chinese radicalism movement. Anarchism in China was also more associated with Buddhism because of the large number of Buddhist monks joining the Guangdong anarchist movement in the early 1920s (Dirlik, 2012).

            Chinese anarchist visions were largely influenced by the writings of Russian activist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin (1901), who put forward a version of ‘socialist anarchy’ that called for the abolition of individual property and the emancipation of the individual from the State, which was thought to maintain and reproduce conditions of economic slavery. Although some Maoist policies that integrated agriculture and industry were in line with the anarchist movement’s goals of setting up a more equal society, the emergence of state-based and armed groups such as the Communist Party and the Kuomintang meant that the Chinese anarchist community quickly lost its influence amongst the political elite (Dirlik, 2012). In its historical context, Anarchia, meaning the absence of government in Ancient Greek (coming from the word an-arkhíaor “not authority”), is about organizing society without government or coercion. Mainstream anarchist movements are opposed to states, armies, slavery, the wages system, prisons, all forms of capitalism, bureaucracy, patriarchy, matriarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, and intimidation by gangsters (Rooum, 1995). Anarchism is not perfect freedom in that people are not universally assumed to be altruistic or good. Rather, the movement is based on the belief that although humans are imperfect and can be unpredictable, a non-coercing and non-authoritarian way of organizing society is ethically worth striving for. In other words, anarchism seeks to offer a plausible alternative to current systems of governance where, it is argued, modern-day forms of slavery and brutality increase inequalities and reduce individual opportunity. It should be noted that when anarchism was applied to China, the anarchists did not insist on an anarchism with Chinese characteristics, but tried to apply universal anarchist principles to China’s political situation. 

            While there are some similarities between anarchist beliefs and Daoist principles, there are also fundamental differences. For example, although both Daoism and anarchism see freedom of the individual as a crucial aspect to human relations and existence, the meaning of freedom in anarchism is socio-political, where an ideal society would be free from oppression and authority, whereas the Daoist freedom is based on metaphysics. In the Daodejing (道德經), it is written that humans should have the freedom to cultivate their natural and simple character that originally comes from the dao. For instance, in chapters 8 and 9 the ideal human condition is described as natural governing “without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks. His work is of talent like the free flow of water. His movement is of right timing like water that flows smoothly. A virtuous person never forces his way and hence will not make faults.” In that case, the cultivation of the self involves action without force. An individual is free in their creativity and accessing this freedom means not holding on to things such as desire and success. While some writers appeal to the noncoercive and nonauthoritarian conception of wu-weias one of the key links between Daoism and anarchism, there are various ways of translating wu-wei. Roger Ames and David Hall (1983) use the term “noncoercion”, but Ames (1994) also generalised the meaning through the terms “noncoercive activity”, “nonaction”, “doing nothing”, and “acting naturally”. D.C. Lau (1963) uses “nonaction”, while Edward Slingerland (2003) refers to wu-wei as “effortless action”. The different translations can have different meanings when discussing political authority. For example, a government that “does nothing” or is non-active seems like an appeal to anarchism, whereas governing through “noncoercive activity” or natural action is to voluntarily govern without relying on force. But the authority would still remain. Thus, Wu-wei is not simply the lack of authority or action. In chapter 43 of the Daodejing, the Sage is advised to do nothing (with a purpose), and in chapter 48 it is stated that a person should arrive at the point of non-action where “there is nothing which he does not do.” Thus, there is still activity, intention, and spontaneity in the meaning of wu-wei as the dao can only be expressed and realised beyond actions and words.

            Finally, at no point does Daoism outright reject a ruling authority or the state. This is because, as Xiao Gongquan (1979) states, “what Lao Tzu attacked was not government in and of itself, but was any kind of government which did not conform to “Taoistic” standards” (p. 299). In other words, it is believed that society should be governed by a sage-ruler that follows the standards and spontaneous workings of the dao, which involves allowing citizens to realise their individual freedoms by not applying an excess of laws. In chapter 57 of the Daodejing, Lao Tzu says “Govern the state by being straightforward; wage war by being crafty; but win the empire by not being meddlesome…Hence the sage says, I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves”. Here Lao Tzu puts forward the idea that the state should be non-intrusive with minimal or no taxation and laws so that people can live without unnecessary competition or strife. For Robert Eno (1990), Confucius himself adopted such as Daoist attitude as his political theory was a justification for staying away from government at least until a sage would become a proper ruler. The development of a rule-based, authoritarian Confucianism would later contrast Daoism’s natural spontaneity and scepticism to social control, but to equate Daoism with Western anarchism is to ignore the cultural and historical differences in how both schools of thought developed and influenced Chinese society.


[1]It should be noted that while traditional Confucianism spoke more of virtuous rulers teaching their citizens about correct conduct and moral behaviour, by the early Ming dynasty emperors began adopting an official neo-Confucian theory of foreign policy that allowed for the legitimate use of force (see Feng Zhang, “Confucian Foreign Policy Traditions in Chinese History,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics8 (2): 2015, p. 197-218.  https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pov004).



Chinese Sayings- 中文谚语

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Happy Chinese New Year: 2019 Year of the Pig- 新年快乐 : 2019年的猪年

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Chinese Lunar New Year (chunjie, 春节) is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar that starts on the new moon in the lunar cycle – between the 21st of January and the 20thof February each year. In 2019, the lunar new year starts on the 5thof February, and it marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig.  

The pig, which is named after the five elements- Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth- is the last of the twelve zodiac animals and symbolises kindness and generosity. According to zodiac legend, the Jade Emperor threw a big party and decided that the order of the animals would be defined by their arrival to his party. The pig was late because it overslept, and so it became the last of all the animals in the zodiac. 

The history of Lunar New Year started when ancient Chinese agrarian society counted the cycles of seasons from their planting experience, and the yearly celebration emerged with the creation of the calendar during the Shang Dynasty. The worshiping activities from this period form the current way the festival is celebrated, which include gifting food, clothes and harvest to the ancestors for blessings and peace at the end of each year. Other traditions are hanging red signs with the Chinese character fu, 福(“happiness”) on front doors along with red lanterns.

The Lunar New Year is one of the world’s most celebrated festivals taking place in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia. The New Year celebrations also results in the largest annual mass human migration in the world. As per the official estimate, the number of trips during chunyunin 2019 is expected to be 0.6 percent higher than 2018, with almost three billion trips to be made between January 21stand March 1st. According to Xinhua News Agency, to account for this mass travel period, China launched 10 new railways at the end of 2018 along with facial recognition software and ticket-less travel systems “to ease congestion and improve passenger movement at train stations.” (Gupta, 2019).

To all readers of the Confucian Weekly Bulletin, we wish you New Year happiness! (Xinnian kuaile, 新年快乐) for 2019.

Male Friendships from an Eastern and Western Perspective- 东西方视角下的男性友谊

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Image: ‘Soviet Friends’ Communist Propaganda. Retrieved from https://pikabu.ru/story/plakatyi_propagandyi_sovetskokitayskoy_druzhbyi_5273105

Humans are fundamentally social creatures that, for the most part, are capable of love. In Ancient Greece, philosophers distinguished between three types of love: agape, eros and philia. Whereas erosis a “love of desire” (that is, desire for what one does not have) that was most commonly associated with male homosexual desire/love, agape became popular among Christian texts and refers to the redeeming love that God has for humans and that humans have for God (Lindberg, 2007, p. 14). Philia, on the other hand, means an affectionate regard that one might have for friends, colleagues, and even towards one’s country. It is also known as ‘platonic’ or ‘brotherly love’, which are all expressions of concern for the well-being of others, and are referred to in the Greek New Testament by the word ‘philander’. Based on these classifications, it is clear that philiais most relevant to our contemporary idea of friendship, a kind of relationship that is based on a special concern that two people have for one another. For Helm (2017), while we can conceptually understand the idea of ‘unrequited love’, since eros is primarily an acquisitive desire where the object of desire might not reciprocate the feelings that the desirer projects onto them, the idea of unrequited philia or friendship is senseless as there needs to be mutual acknowledgement of this love through significant interactions between two people for philiato exist. 

            According to the writings of Aristotle, ‘perfect friendship’ is a type of relationship between two social equals that were male. He believed that friendship was not only necessary for moral growth among citizens, but also a beautiful thing: for those who love their friends are praised, and an abundance of friends seems to be a beautiful thing (2002 translation of the Nicomachean Ethics, passage 1155a22-31). In book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle went further to describe friendship as a mutual perception of the good or sunaisthesis. Friendship is therefore a form of ethical responsibility through “sharing conversation and thinking” (2002, 1170b10–12) with a close and trusted person. Sunaisthesisgoes beyond living and eating together as common animals to exchanging and sharing goods of the soul or ideas, which is what makes us distinctly human. Thus, to have friends in Ancient Greece was to have a prohairetic(coming from the word prohairesisor ‘choice’) life, which would involve moral decision-making and understanding through reflection that one would get by conversing with a friend (Von Heyking, 2017, p. 60). While book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethicsfurther distinguishes between three types of friendships, including friendships of pleasure, utility, and virtue, where the reason for loving a friend may change at different stages of a relationship, Aristotle also wrote that at its core, it is friendship/philiathat holds states together and gives lawgivers a reason to care for the state more than just through the principle of justice (1155a22). The idea that in a just society, citizens should experience friendship between each other, where they wish well for each other and do things individually and as a collective to promote others’ well-being, is a central theme to Aristotle’s idea of a good life. In passage 1161a31, philia even becomes a central criterion for distinguishing between just regimes and tyrannical governments (Schwarzenbach, 1996, p. 97).

            In the modern era of political philosophy, there is a significant de-emphasis on the importance of friendship. For example, there is no room for friendship in a Hobbesian world, where fear and self-interest were the primary motivators for why people gathered in a political community. For John Locke, the primary motivators for joining the state was securing one’s freedom and private property, while Hume claimed that commerce could establish peace among men. While Hegel (1967 trans.of The Philosophy of the Right) acknowledged the importance of love and friendship in the ancient world, he wrote that love is a feeling and “In the state, feeling disappears; there we are conscious of unity as law, there the content must be rational and known to us” (section 158A). The idea here is that love and feelings are associated with irrationality, which contrast reason and law– two essential ingredients to establishing a strong political community. 

            Indeed, with the emergence of the modern state and the beginning of the scientific revolution, the emotional aspects of binding citizenry together were often rejected. Political theorist John Rawls (1971)follows Hegel in arguing that a shared idea of justice and fairness is the primary unifying factor in a well-ordered society, and John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (2008)comment that not only has friendship almost disappeared from political writings, but the practice of forming and maintaining bonds between people has changed too. For instance, the liberal idea that society is based on social contracts has meant that people are encouraged to network and schmooze to get ahead in society and realise their ‘autonomous selves’. Putnam (2000)describes time spent visiting friends and socialising as building up social capital, where one must constantly be a social climber and self-promoter to be successful and happy in society. While there is such a thing as “authentic” relationships that are not driven by the economic contract, popular books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplepoint out that the moral and beautiful aspects of male friendship that Aristotle emphasised have largely been reduced to personal interest and benefit. Today, male friendships are often seen as instrumental and devoid of intimacy in accordance to masculine performances, which means that in many cases, men have to confront social barriers that make performing intimacy difficult or undesirable in male relationships (Migliaccio, 2014). Although women are just as likely to have instrumental relationships as men (Wright & Scanlon, 1993), the avoidance of femininity as the focal point of masculine performance in Western society has meant that men tend to idealize expressive intimacy, but fail to establish this in their friendships since being masculine is associated with suppressing emotional expressions and needs (Doyle, 1995Morman et al., 2013). 

            From a Confucian perspective, out of the five bonds that men were supposed to observe to maintain social harmony, it was the fifth bond of friendship that was the most distinctive. [Whereas the bonds between the husband and wife, father and son, older and younger male siblings, and ruler and minister, were concerned with maintaining China as a guojia国家(state organised as a family), based on a set of hierarchical, obligatory relations, the bond of friendship did not fall under these categories. Norman Kutcher (2000)explains that while every man was obliged to serve his family and a virtuous ruler, friendship was voluntary as there was no requirement that one had to make friends to be a good citizen. Furthermore, friendship is also the only bond that is non-hierarchical, which Kutcher considers as “potentially dangerous” (p. 1619) because a distracting friendship could possibly remove one from serving the family-state, which all men were supposed to follow. Kutcher argues this point by citing well-known Chinese expressions like “He who touches vermilion will be reddened, while he who touches ink will be blackened”, which represents a metaphor and message about choosing friends wisely. He also examines the Analects, where Confucius recognizes but also de-emphasises friendship. For example, when the ruler called for Confucius, he left immediately to answer his call even without waiting for his ox. But when a friend sent him a gift, he would not even bow to him in thanks (Analects, 10:14-10:16). Thus, it would seem that rulers, like fathers, deserve a particular form of respect that was essential to reproducing the hierarchy of the family-state. Friends, on the other hand, were only good if they helped the individual gain moral integrity and reflection. This mirrors the Aristotelean idea that friends were worthwhile if they helped further one’s capacity to morally reflect and understand the world.

            Kutcher’s interpretation is also seen in the writings of Hall and Ames (1998) who state that Confucian friendships are a “one-directional relationship in which one extends oneself by association with one who has attained a higher level of relation” (p. 268). Based on this explanation, it would seem that there is a type of hierarchy even in the friendship bond since a true friend is always someone better than oneself, that is, someone who is more morally cultivated and can be looked up to. Hall and Ames even describe Confucius as “peerless and, hence, friendless in this restricted Confucian sense of the term. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him” (p. 90). However, their take on Confucian friendship is unrealistic because if a friendship must always include one party who is morally superior, then two people could never be truly friends with each other since the morally superior person will only look for friends who are morally superior to himself. This morally instrumental view of friendship also omits the many examples in Confucian writings where friendship is celebrated and seen as joyous. In the Analects, the concept of xin 信(faithfulness and trustworthiness) is considered essential to friendship. When Yen Yüan and Tzu-lu visited Confucius, the Master asked them, “Why do you not each tell me what it is that you have set your hearts on?”. Tzu-lu responded, “I should like to share my carriage and horses, clothes and furs with my friends, and to have no regrets even if they become worn,” and Yen Yüan says, “I should like never to boast of my own goodness and never to impose onerous tasks upon others.” Tzu-lu said, “I should like to hear what you have set your heart on.” The Master’s reply was that, “To bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young” (5:26). In another passage, Tzu-hsia also says that even the unschooled man should be considered schooled if he “exerts himself to the utmost in the service of his parents…and who, in his dealing with his friends, is trustworthy in what he says” (1:7). Friendship here does not seem to be undesirable, dangerous, or even strictly based on moral advancement. As Xiufen Lu (2010) explains, in the Confucian tradition, all relationships have a unique place in the structure of family and society. Individuals are expected to know how to conduct themselves in such relations, and what virtues to exercise in them, on the basis of differences in rank, age, or gender.

            Thus, while the concept of friendship contrasts family-based relations in that they are not based on hierarchy (although hierarchies of social status, age, and gender are recognised), and they are not based on defined duties, obligations, and ritual ceremonies, friendships should be characterised by trust and affection. They also give people joy and personal fulfilment in a variety of ways and can help individuals become more humane or ren­-likeby learning how to trust others and being trusted. This makes friendship a particularly important type of relation as it allows men to practice giving affection to other males and have le 乐 (joy, pleasure, delight) outside of their family-state relations. Like in the West, however, such relations can be interest-based in various ways, especially through the guanxi 關係 system, where one’s relationships and social connections are based on reciprocal interests and benefits (Ji, 2016). If used inappropriately, such a system can create ‘meat and wine friends’– a Chinese metaphor for mistrustful relations where one person uses another as a means to an end. In China, guanxiis pervasive in that it plays a central role in daily social and business interactions and is usually based on personal relationships that are cultivated for long periods of time (Huang & Wang, 2011). While such an instrumental use of people is socially acceptable and expected, the key aspect of maintaining good guanxi is respecting the humanity in other people by treating them as ends in themselves. Guanxi relations are also different from real friendships as guanxi connections can be temporary and based on an informal payment system, or else extended through ‘guanxi maintenance’ in a useful professional, political or business network. Indeed, this version is more potent as it means your own worth is judged by your constantly cultivated guanxi network. Theoretically, however, a joyous and trustworthy friendship should go beyond payment systems or useful connections and be about sharing intimacy. 

By Cindy Minarova-Banjac

Pre-Confucian History and Mythology in Japan- 预儒家的历史和神话在日本

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The Japanese are an often misunderstood people. Arising from a land of paddy fields and feudal landlords about one hundred and fifty years ago, the Asia-Pacific has since come to experience Japan as an imperial aggressor in the Second World War and later an ‘economic miracle’ rising from the rubble of defeat. The cultural component of this miracle has been associated with Japan’s Confucian values of a strong work ethic and obedience to the government (Little & Reed, 1989), but other factors in Japan’s cultural history are – as we will see – also of interest. Japan became the world’s second largest economy until overtaken by China in 2010, and remains strong as the world’s third largest.

In the West, the idea of Japan has often been simplified and eroticised, with patronising and exotic nineteenth-century images of doll-like geishas, farmers with rice hats, and fearless samurai soldiers (Henshall, 2004). After the war, the images still remain strange, fantastical, and even repulsive– from sex robots and whale-culling to the widespread experience of loneliness resulting in rent-a-friend business across Japan. 

            Among Asian societies, in addition to the wartime atrocities of rape and mass murder, there is an acceptance that Japan has created a reputation for quality mass-produced goods in the global market. In many ways though, Japan is still a ‘fragile power’ as the country remains vulnerable to fluctuations in foreign policies and unpredictable natural disasters. Japan also imports 80 per cent of its energy and is dependent on value added exports for its wealth. This reality has moved the country into imperialism, war, and global trade at various times over the last century. It also calls into question who exactly are the Japanese: Are they peace-loving or war-like? Isolationist or expansionist? Open to other cultures or fearful to engage with others? To understand such a complex picture of Japanese society, it is important to examine the history, myths, and culture of Japan beyond the feudal nineteenth century where most history textbooks begin. This article will briefly examine the pre-Confucian, pre-Buddhist history and mythology to highlight how Japan’s fundamental characteristics have changed and developed over time.

Japanese Anthropology: A Mixture of Influences

            According to archaeological accounts, there is evidence that humans existed around modern-day Japan at least 30,000 years ago, but it is unclear who these people were and how they survived (DeFelice, 2010). For Sergey Lapteff (2006), a specialist in the history of cultural exchange, there can be no doubt that the Japanese Palaeolithic period (kyūsekki jidai, 旧石器時代) derived from the larger Asian continent. It is known that around 10,000 years ago, there were gradual changes from the Palaeolithic to the “Jomon” cultural period (Jōmon, 縄文,translated as “rope pattern”), where the last clearly Palaeolithic phases are distinguished by the use of knife-shaped stone tools and stone points, while the first Jomon cultural phases started using punctuate-marked and nail-impressed pottery (Keally, 2009). Although migration from the larger continent never stopped during this period according to Hanihara Kazurō’s 1927 anthropological studies, the Japanese archipelago was already separated from the continent by the sea during the Jomon cultural period. This geographic factor would have had a significant influence on Jomon culture and as Lapteff (2006) notes, many of the pottery found in the sites that are believed to have belonged to the Jomon show features and distinct markings that have not been found anywhere else in north and south-east Asia. 

            However, in terms of Japanese ethnicity, there is no biological validity to the idea that the Japanese consist of one Jomon-type ethnicity since by the fourth century BCE, a new cultural period emerged (弥生時代, Yayoi jidai) when the Yayoi people, who are named after the neighbourhood in Tokyo where their homes were first found, began to grow rice and use metals like copper, which the earlier inhabitants did not use (Roberts, 2010). According to researchers like Curtis Andressen (2010) and Jim DeFelice (2010), the introduction of new technologies made of iron and bronze as well as artefacts such as mirrors, weapons, and coins suggest that the Yayoi would have come from China and Korea, or at least traded and interacted with people who did. While the exact nature of this migration pattern is still being investigated, Lapteff (2006) points out that during this period the highly developed and organised cultures of the Hemudu河姆渡and Liangzhu 良渚, located in the Yangtze River Delta of China, already had an established rice farming society and the same storage pits that they used were spreading into what is now the Korea peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and southwards into Indochina. 

The presence of wet rice agriculture in uncultivated areas of Japan had a significant impact on Japanese society. For one, rice provided the locals with a high level of food production, which led to an increase in population and expansion of the Yayoi to eastern parts of Japan. Although the Yayoi had no written records, the presence of agriculture would have resulted in high levels of cooperation to build large rice paddies and irrigation systems. This would have influenced Japan’s communal culture and possibly led to specialisation in labour and social stratification with the introduction of social classes and land ownership (Kanaseki & Sahara, 1976). Some of the earliest descriptions of Japan appear in Chinese historical records called “The History of the Kingdom of Wei”, produced around 300 CE, with an extended account of Japanese society (called “Wa” peoples) in a section that chronicles the various “barbarian” peoples on China’s borders. What is known from these accounts is that Japanese society experienced years of warfare under a shaman queen named Pimiko (or Himiko, 卑弥呼, 170–248 CE) over the Yamato people in today’s Nara prefecture. The presence of large burial mounds (called kofun, 古墳) from the extended battles during this period were a key sign that the Yamato clan was gaining power and influence over western and central Japan (Henshall, 2004). 

Between the Yayoi peoples and the emergence of the Yamato clan, Japanese society had established a dependency on rice and fish, which forms the basic diet of Japan even today. While there are clear links between Chinese continental cultures and Japan, not all elements of the continental culture were adopted. For instance, Kanaseki and Sahara (1976) state that while there was an extension of the Jomon pottery techniques by the Yayoi, continental developments such as animal domestication, walled cities, and writing was not introduced right away or at all. A key factor to explain this phenomenon could be the different geographic realities of the Yayoi peoples compared to continental cultures. For example, the Yayoi people settled in areas along the coast, where villages were built on hilltops and mountainsides more than 100 metres above sea level. This would make building walled city structures and domestic farms difficult to maintain. Survival priorities during this time would have also limited the creation of a writing system since food production techniques were still being developed. 

Early Mythology and Moral Attitudes

The origins of the Japanese writing system can be traced back to Chinese continental culture which codified largely pictographic glyphs into a unified writing style. These were further transformed over many centuries, and by the time the writing system was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea, Japanese scholars started experimenting and adapting the kanji(漢字) into their own language (Heisig, 1977). It was during the period of the Yamato rulers that a dominant Japanese culture was being established and with the emergence of the writing system came various written mythologies and creation stories. Mythology plays an important role in constructing civilisations and cultural movements and from a historical-ethnographic perspective, allows groups to face problems and adapt to changing situations marked by temporality and human fragility against the natural elements (Morales, 2013). In other words, myths allow humans, both individually and as a collective, to transition“from chaos to cosmos” (Duch, 2002, p. 37). As the Yamato rulers gradually extended their rule over the archipelago through warfare and diplomacy, they justified their control by associating their clan with a story about the beginning of the world, linking the ruling family to creator gods. Eventually, such stories became central to the Shinto (Shintō, 神道, translated as ‘the way of the gods’), a belief system that involves worshipping kami, which can be understood as sacred spirits that take the form of things important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, and fertility (Hammer, 2018). Once writing was introduced to Japan, the Yamato oral traditions were recorded in the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon Shoki(日本書紀, “Chronicles of Japan”), compiled in the eighth century.

One of the myths describes the beginning of the universe as a ‘chaotic mass like an egg’, where there was no division between heaven and earth. Once the purer part separated into heaven and the heavier, impure part of the mass became earth, a number of deities came into existence and they stood on the floating bridge of heaven, thrusting a jewelled spear (a phallic symbol) down into the ocean. As they raised the spear, some water dripped from it and two of the deities, Izanagi (‘He Who Invites’) and Izanami (‘She Who Invites’), turned this liquid into land. The two deities descended and began to populate earth. Numerous divine offspring were produced, not only by vaginal birth but from other bodily parts and even from bodily waste. The God of Fire is one deity born vaginally, and Izanami was burned to death during his birth. Distraught, Izanagi travelled to Yomi (the Land of the Dead), to try to bring Izanami back to the Land of the Living. However, Izanami became ashamed and angered when he saw her maggot-riddled body, and she chased him out of Yomi. As Izanagi bathed himself in a river to wash away the stench of death, deities emerged from his body parts, including the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (‘Light of Heaven’) and the Sea God Susano-o (‘Wild Male’). Izanagi sends Amaterasu to Takamagahara to rule over the heavens, while Susano-o is given the sea to rule. Susano-o, however, disobeys Izanagi, and ends up being banished. Before heading into exile, Susano-o visits Amaterasu in Takamagahara and at his suggestion they produce a number of children. Susano-o then torments Amaterasu by destroying her rice-paddies and smearing excrement on the walls of her palace. Amaterasu retreats into a cave, plunging the universe into darkness. The other deities try to lure her back out with a mirror and jewels. One goddess begins performing a lewd dance, exposing herself and making all the other deities laugh. Intrigued by the laughter, Amaterasu comes out from the cave and the other deities seize her and block the entrance to the cave with a boulder. In another tale, Susano-o finds a sword, which he later presents to his sister Amaterasu as a token of remorse. The sword, mirror, and jewels still form the imperial regalia of Japan in modern times. Susano-o’s son, Okuninushi, is credited with calming the wild land. A hero, he becomes the victim of numerous treacherous acts by his jealous father. Susano-o murders Okuninushi several times, but he is restored to life each time. Okuninushi’s sons eventually agree to let Amaterasu’s descendants rule the land. Her great-great grandson, Jimmu, becomes the first ruler of Japan.” (see Henshall, 2004, chapter 1). 

The specific nature of this mythology provides an interesting commentary on life in ancient Japan, a world which was characterised by violence and death, where it was not uncommon for parents to kill or abandon their children.While cruelty and violence are seen in myths and early histories throughout various culture, what is distinctive about Japanese myths is the lack of moral judgement or education. For example, Susano-o, who plays the role of the deceiving, power-hungry trickster, is simply exiled by his father rather than condemned as evil. In that case, behaviour is accepted or rejected depending on the situation, not according to a set of universal principles that should guide all human interaction. For commentators like Yamamoto (1990), such an approach to morality is still present in contemporary Japan where there is extreme context dependency of judging moral actions. This context dependency is believed to be “governed by a morality based on mutual trust…[existing] in its most secure form, among intimates, among those who share a familiarity with one another’s concerns” (p. 451). 

The use of these myths for political purposes shows up periodically in Japanese history, especially during the Meiji period in the nineteenth century. In the last century before the Pacific War, it was used to bind the Japanese together by appealing to ultranationalism. The current emperor, Akihito, is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Amaterasu (Jordan, 1996), and the worship of the sun by ultranationalists comes from associating the name ‘Japan’ with the corrupted forms of the Chinese word Jih-pen, which means ‘the place where the sun comes from’ or ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’. Such associations are linked with myths that explain the divine origins of the islands, and the geographic separation of the archipelago from the continent has led to the self-perception that the Japanese are very different from other nationalities, an attitude that still partly endures today, although younger people are increasingly much more internationalised.

Conclusion

            The revival of Confucianism, spread of education, emergence of nationalism, and promotion of conformism and obedience, are all important factors in the formation of modern Japan. However, it is clear that from early times, Japan has always had unique cultural developments, often because of its diverse population origins and the racial mixture of its indigenous populations. The process of adapting outsider cultural elements is also what led to the development and success of today’s Japan, with the adoption of technologies such as agricultural techniques to writing systems. From its early stages, Japan was strongly influenced by China as were other countries in the regions further south, and while the idea of ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian cultures’ was later developed by outside influences like Jesuit missionaries during the sixteenth century, Japan interacted with the continent for most of its trade, communication, and cultural contact, meaning that many Asian cultures and societies developed similar basic characteristics. It was this cultural similarity that led a number of intellectuals and politicians to argue for “Asian” solidarity– a theme that is still prominent, particularly in China’s “common destiny” slogans.

            Japan’s isolated and rugged geographic reality had a direct influence on the current social values of mutual respect and cooperation, especially since survival is relatively difficult in places with few natural resources and frequent natural disasters. The avoidance of social conflict is matched with the historical struggle of power between clans, and while Japan is a democracy today, the centralised hierarchical ruling is still a factor in Japanese political culture and decision-making. As American anthropologist Ruth Benedict noted, the dichotomy between the chrysanthemum and the sword and the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects of Japanese culture are part of the nation’s historical development, and without these mutually complementary sides of its culture, Japanese society would have not been able to survive to this day.


By Cindy Minarova-Banjac

Conference Announcement- 会议公告

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The Nordic Association for China Studies will hold their 14th Biennial Conference on the 13-14th of June 2019, at the University of Bergen. The Conference theme is When China Faces the World: Engagement or Disengagement?

The Nordic Association for China Studies (NACS, 北歐中華研究會) was established in 1991. NACS is an academic network for Nordic scholars, teachers and students specialising in Chinese Studies with a focus on humanities and social sciences. The Conference will be held in Bergen, the scenic ‘Norwegian Capital of Fjords’ (see https://www.uib.no/fremmedsprak/118656/nordic-association-china-studies-conference-2019 and https://nacsorg.wordpress.com/).