The Confucian Way 5: Ritual and Respect

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In the fifth episode of the broadcast, the significance of ritual is discussed. Unlike habit, which is about managing the self, ritual or Li (禮) is about others. Through ritual, people are encouraged to form and respect relationships and build trust in the community. Whereas in the West, rituals are inconsistent and are centred on the individual (where it is acceptable if individuals refuse to follow some rituals), ritual in Confucian societies emphasizes attention to detail, discipline and care. Consistency and the expectation that people will respect their roles in society is what reinforces solidarity and creates harmonious interaction.

The Confucian Way 4: The Moral Dilemma of Two Righteous Men

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In the fourth episode of the broadcast, Professor Mortley examines two moral dilemmas about sons betraying fathers in the interests of justice, one from Plato’s Euthyphro, and the other from Confucius’ Analects. Traditionally, Chinese culture emphasises filial piety or respect where there is an obligation to be reverent to one’s parents and ancestors.

Although ideally, a harmonisation of all principles should be achieved where justice, care for others, and filial respect are valued, in the Confucian dilemma, there a greater truth in obligation to family so it is preferred that the son remains loyal to his father than to his community.

Technological Developments in Pre-Colonial Africa

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Source: “Ancient African History. The science of chemistry was originated by Africans in the ancient empire of Ghana.” From BM Archives.

Although much of the world refers to Africa as a single country and talks about the people living on the continent as Africans, Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, with 54 different countries, whose borders are reflective of the continent’s division under colonialism. Today, over 1.2 billion people live in Africa’s various climates and geographic landscapes, and the continent has over 1,000 distinct languages spoken by its ethnically diverse inhabitants (Ezeh & Feyisah, 2019). Despite this complexity and diversity of the continent’s peoples and their histories, it is common for Western scholarship and media to represent Africa as a colonial outpost with no worthwhile pre-colonial history. In the 1830s, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel stated that Africa “is no historical part of the world”, a statement that has contributed to the stereotypical image of Black peoples as primitive and lacking culture. The ahistorical representation of Africa also contributes to the way that international organizations approach Africa, that is, as a place that can have immediate solutions developed and funded by external agencies. However, as Green (2020) notes, such approaches only reinforce the idea that Africa requires saving by Europeans and those that can bring science, reason, and history to the ‘Dark Continent’.

Pre-colonial studies have also been increasingly marginalized in mainstream African scholarship due to lack of funding, while ‘modern’ (or colonial) history remains at the forefront of professional research. Thus, what is called African history is no more than a footnote to colonial history, where what happened before colonization is treated as “blank, uninteresting and brutal barbarism” (Kiwanuka, 1972, p. 70). The lack of pre-colonial scholarship should be a cause for concern because it ignores the deeper patterns of change and continuity that have been present on the continent long before European arrival. This article provides a brief discussion on the significant advancements of African pre-colonial science and technology.

Science and Technology in Ancient Africa

While ancient Greece is often cited as being the birthplace of science and technology,  pre-colonial Africa was experiencing a rapid emergence and spread of classical agricultural and metal-using technologies in the second millennium B.C. According to Austen and Headrick (1983), even though agriculture and metallurgy took place in Africa about a millennium later than in the Middle East and Europe, these technologies were autonomous and revolutionary for the peoples throughout the continent. One of the reasons why technologies like domesticating food production emerged later was primarily because African populations were able to support themselves by foraging plants, hunting game, and fishing (Sutton, 1974). Ecological changes, such as the drying of the Sahara after 3,000 A.D., were major factors that contributed to the shifts towards new technologies like farming and animal husbandry, while contact with the outside world encouraged iron-making. The smelting of iron existed in West Africa among the Nok culture of Nigeria as early as the sixth century B.C., and between the years 1400-1600, iron technology is believed to have facilitated the growth of significant centralized political communities in western Sudan and along the Guinea coast of Western Africa (Ross, 2002). Many Nigerian kingdoms, including the Dahomey, Benin and Yoruba expressed spiritual beliefs about iron, where Ogun, the god of iron, is credited with introducing iron and being the first hunter, warrior, and founder of dynasties. Consequently, iron craft was strongly pursued as it was associated with civilization and led to extensive agriculture systems and more efficient hunting and warfare practices that helped build large urban centers (Ross, 2002). Austen and Headrick (1983) even note that iron-making “rapidly reached a level of sophistication which rivaled contemporary European and Middle Eastern metallurgy in at least its smelting processes” (p. 166).

As well as developing scripted mathematic textbooks in Egypt, which was found to include division, multiplication and geometric formulas to calculate the area and volume of shapes (Woods, 1988), the Yoruba people in present-day Nigeria developed their own numeration system based on units of 20 which requires subtraction to identify different numbers. According to Williams (2008), a professor of mathematics, the Yoruba numerals are “amazingly complicated” because the expression of small numbers involves considerable arithmetical manipulation and the extensive use of memory. Documentary evidence also suggests that scholars throughout the Nigerian kingdoms were highly skilled in the science of magic squares, and were consulting Coptic Solar Calendars to develop agricultural science. Williams (2008) states that books which were preserved from the 17th Century contain mathematical charts dealing with agronomic activities, including the right time to harvest; the direction of the wind; time of germination; and which insects appear during different seasons. Lynch and Robbins (1978) also report that the Namoratunga megalithic site in northwestern Kenya, which was built around 300 B.C., has 19 aligned basalt pillars that were purposely built to be oriented towards particular stars and constellations. The existence of such sites and books suggests that an accurate and complex calendar system based on astronomical and agricultural knowledge was in use throughout the continent.

Another craft that was developed in pre-colonial times was various types of boat building, which included the building of canoes, small reed-based vessels, dhows and sailing boats, and grander structures that had cabins and cooking facilities (Blatch, 2013). Some of the canoes used by the Mali and Songhai peoples were between 25 to 30 metres in length and were capable of carrying more than 100 men. Although most of these boats were built to be used in inland waters, the people who lived along the Guinea coast used canoes and dhows to fish several miles out at sea and to trade longer distances along the coastline (Smith, 1970). The importance of fishing along the lagoons for the economies of coastal communities is often stressed in contemporary European accounts of the pre-colonial period. For instance, Bosman (1967) reports that in the Kingdom of Whydah, located in what is now present day Benin, the king placed a toll on the annual number of fish caught in the rivers, which amounted to the value of one hundred slaves. Dupuis (1966) in the early nineteenth century also described the lagoons along the Slave Coast as “the most prolific inland fisheries known anywhere in Soudan [West Africa]”. Lagoon fishing technology allowed dry fish to become an important product of local trade. As Bosman (1967) observed, the people of Benin sent their slaves to Rio-Lagos (the River of Lagos), to buy fish, which they then used to make more profitable trade in-land.

While scholars such as Blatch (2013) have suggested that some African boat-building reached the size of Viking long boats or Greek galleys, these larger structures were not used to sail across large distances into the sea. Law (1989) notes that with the existence of the lagoon system, which was crucial for fishing and lateral communication along Africa’s east coast, lagoon-based navigation was not readily adaptable to harsher sea conditions. In 1717, a Dutch trader reportedly crossed the River Volta in a canoe from the Anlo people and wrote that it was unwise to attempt to explore the entrance of the Volta because the canoe was made in a different manner than the sea canoes of the Gold Coast. He stated, “It would probably not have been able to withstand the turmoil in and beyond the mouth of the river” (Van Dantzig, 1978, p. 201). Nevertheless, the European trade in this region was critically dependent on African navigational expertise and the Indigenous canoes that operated along the coastal lagoons, where without African inputs the European trade on the Slave Coast would not have operated as efficiently as it did.

Exploitation and Modern Underdevelopment

Despite these early developments, European and Arab imperialism and colonization interfered with and obstructed the social and economic relationships that indigenous technologies needed to advance. Unlike European and Asian civilisations, many local industries throughout the African continent never had a chance to mature in time as communities were dealing with the slave trade, European and Arab “legitimate” trade, colonization and now neocolonialism (Akpomuvie, 2011). Onipede (2010) discusses technological underdevelopment in his case study on Nigeria when he states:

“Because by nature imperialism is fortuitous, transferring to the metropolitan states the wealth of the underdeveloped nations, thereby undermining them through capital and human exploitation, colonialism and contemporary neocolonialism. Indeed, the historical and current technology underdevelopment of the country could not be explained without reference to imperialism and European economic domination.” (p. 86)

The imperialist domination and underdevelopment of Africa is a continuing process that affects all aspects of national life. Thus, it can be further argued that even successive governments in various African nations have either deliberately or inadvertently contributed to the decline of indigenous technologies by importing all forms of foreign technology without inputs from locals on the ground. Over time, preferences for foreign technologies have contributed to a culture of inferiority, where foreign imports are seen as superior over locally made products*. What is needed to change this culture is a re-shift in the continent’s narrative that values and promotes local technology, emphasizing the significant scientific and ecological insights of various African societies.

*For more on this note, see Kinyanjui, 1993, p. 276.

#Africa #precolonial #technology #imperialism #colonialism #development

The Confucian Way- Part Three

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In the third episode of the Confucian Way, Professor Mortley discusses the subversiveness of Confucianism, that is, the way Confucius directly critiques society and challenges the status quo. However, in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s endorsement of Confucianism in recent years, Professor Mortley asks whether Confucianism can maintain its critical thought while being embraced by the Chinese State and the Communist Party.

The Confucian Way- Part Two

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In this episode, Professor Raoul Mortley discusses the qualities of REN or humaneness in the Analects and finds that while there is no clear definition of what a humane person is, there are certain qualities or attitudes associated with humanness. When put into practice, these qualities or attitudes are what make a person humane.

Professor Mortley then finds that the Confucian way of describing goodness can be compared to the philosophical approach of via negativa or the “negative way”, where a thing is described by the things it is not. The lack of a clear definition of goodness is considered to be useful as it allows principles such as REN to be applied in varying contexts.

The Revival of Shamanism in East Asia

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Wearing a feathered headpiece with horns sticking out of its side, a shaman dressed in a long, decorative coat hums himself into a meditative trance.  He then stands up and starts beating a drum as he circles a fire. The beat intensifies and the shaman, coated with sweat, starts to scream. At the height of the ceremony, it is believed that the shaman is able to access the spirit world by receiving messages and lending his body to different spirits for reincarnation.

Although a popular practice throughout Central and East Asia, shamanistic healing and divination was ridiculed and harshly repressed throughout the twentieth century, particularly in communist countries. The anti-religious repression throughout Soviet regimes, which resulted in the destruction of nearly 600 Russian Orthodox monasteries and convents in the Soviet Union (Smith, 2019), resulted in the complete disappearance of shamanism in some parts of Russia today. For example, Dr. Sundstrom notes that when it comes to shamanism among the Altaic people of Southern Siberia, “what remains are legends and reminiscences, but these can no longer be told by people with personal experiences of Altaic ‘shamans’ and their rituals” (Sundstrom, 2014). Yet, despite 70 years of atheist repression, missionary work and the transformation of society under the Soviet system, shamanism is in revival, not only in modern-day Russia but also throughout Eastern Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea. To understand why shamanism is resurging, it is important to examine the history of shamanic practices, and its influence on religion and culture across the globe.

               The word ‘shaman’ originated from the language of the Evenkis, an ethnolinguistic group who come from north-east Russia, and it refers to a holy person who can communicate with spirits (‘saman’). The term can be applied to practitioners who live outside of Siberia and greater Russia, for instance, the bomoh in Malaysia and dukun in Indonesia, as the main function of these healers and holy people remains the same: (1) to heal, sometimes with the help of a spirit guide; (2) to perform divination, which includes revealing events that were unknown in the past, helping find lost objects, and predicting/changing the future; (3) to escort souls to the their new life; (4) to charm and communicate with animals and their spirits; and (5) to perform sacrificial rites, but only in exceptional cases (Hultkrantz, 2004, p. 148-49). Walter and Fridman (2004) add to this definition by noting that shamanism itself is an experience, which includes dismemberment and regeneration of the soul and body, and spirit flight (out-of-body experience) through trance. Indeed, a prevailing opinion in the literature on shamanism is that a key component of shaman practice is ecstasy, which refers to a specific mental and physical trance state that is achieved through a combination of techniques and the timing of cosmic events that allows the soul of the shaman to leave his or her body and go to another world or far away into space (Lifshitz et al., 2019). For the shaman, the practice of ecstasy is integral to their human condition and is experienced just like any other mental state, for example, a dream or imagination.

               While shamanic practices are often seen as disjointed, mysterious, and based in superstition, shamanism exists in a larger cultural framework that puts forward a very specific worldview. As Kalweit (1984) states, in shamanism all beings and objects have meaning and share the same essence or animus. Thus, there is no difference between nature and culture as there is in Western philosophy. Instead, there is continuity and unity between different worlds, including the unseen world of the spirits. By accessing these other worlds and breaching the borders between the seen and unseen, the known and unknown, shamans, acting on behalf of humanity, create a system of exchange between the human and natural-spiritual worlds which can relieve psychological and social tensions for both the shaman and the group of people he or she talks represents.

Bowing to the Spirits in Ancient East Asia

               One of the first recorded mentions of shamans exist in Chinese historiography. Michael (2015) points out that the title of WU 巫 was first used to describe very unusual people in the Shang Dynasty (1554-1046 BCE) oracle bone inscriptions and then later in various ancient texts dating back to the Warring States period (480-221 BCE). Thus, although Confucian classics such as the Zhouli and Liji tend to put forward an image of a monolithic early Chinese state religion based on Confucian thought, historical texts and archeological findings show that there were divergent forms of religious traditions and most of these were based on wuistic/shamanistic practice. Chinese poet and archeologist Chen Mengjia even goes so far as to state that “the ancient kings were wu” (Chen, 1936, p. 535), which implies that the wu were religious figures that often took on the roles of priest-rulers throughout ancient China. While Michael (2015) critics Chen’s claims by arguing that Chen fails to recognize the tension between shamanic authority and centralized authority by identifying ancient shamans with early kings, wuism would have certainly influenced the cultures of both the authorities and the masses. For instance, Sarah Milledge Nelson’s (2011) study on feminist theory and archeological interpretations in early East Asia highlights that archeological sites from Neolithic China show a number of traits consistent with shamanist practice. For one, music, which is used for entertainment and for calling spirits in shamanist rituals, is evident by the presence of flutes, chime stones, drums and bells in various ancient dig sites. By the Late Eastern Zhou period, the literature states that shamanism was widespread. In that state of Chu, for example, shamans were practicing out in the open as superstitious rulers often turned to female religious figures and astrologers to tell them the future.

               Beyond ancient China, historical records indicate that shamans were also important figures in Korea and Japan. According to Nelson (1991, 2003), a number of queens from Korea’s Silla Kingdom were buried with a crown and belt made of gold that was inscribed with shamanistic symbols. Such findings suggest that leadership and shamanism was intertwined in Korean culture. Kim (1997) also states that female shamans appear regularly in Korean dynasty records up to the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), when Confucianism became the dominant state religion and women began to lose authority and status in public life. In Japan, shamanistic rituals were evident as early as 13,000 BCE and women shamans were noted to have influence over authorities during the Yayoi period (Fairchild, 1962). Women priests, soothsayers, magicians, and prophets all played shamanistic roles in Japan’s history and were first called “himikos”. As Fairchild (1962) writes, these women “interpreted the will of the gods and knew the art of dealing with the spirits. [They] divined and used ecstacy” (p. 57). He also notes that female shamans would perform divinations by shooting arrows and burning deer bones and turtle shells which would allow them to communicate with the gods and spirits and ask for help during difficult times. Because of these widespread practices, the word “miko” was later used to symbolize heaven and earth and a connecting link between them. The connecting link was often depicted as two hands and two dancing figures since shamans would regularly perform ‘violent’ sacred dances to entice the gods to come out of hiding and brighten the world again. Even Japanese Buddhism was significantly influenced by the popular shamanist beliefs in evil spirits or goryō. As a result, it was common practice for monks of the Buddhist sects Shingon and Tendai to practice exorcism of goryō spirits. By medieval times, almost all Buddhist monks worked with women shamans who acted as mediums during the exorcist rituals that spoke and sent messages to vengeful spirits (Parac, 2015).

“Black Magic and Superstition”: Shamanism in the Modern Age

Shamanist cultures continue to exist around the world with varying degrees of visibility. For example, the shamans or mudang in Korea are considered a pariah that live in poverty yet actively perform healing and spirit guidance to those who seek them. While shamans were demonized by Christian missionaries and banished from villages by Japanese colonial rulers and later Korea’s military governments, today mudang costume, music, and dance is promoted as “intangible cultural assets” by the Korean government. The resurgence is significant. According to the Korea Worshipers Association, there is an estimated 300,000 shamans, or one for every 160 South Koreans (Choe, 2007). In West Africa, shamanism is present through the griot (also called jeli/jail) figure- a highly respected male member of society that is often the object of personality cults (Arik, 1999). Their extended role includes acting as a spirit mediator, divine healer, story teller, and performer of poetry and music.

Today, while Japan and China are one of most technologically developed countries in the world, the shaman and belief in prophecy and sorcery, which are often attributed to societies in under-developed countries, is still popular. Japanese and Chinese shamans are practiced in mastering the channeling life force (ki or chi), and by understanding the bio-energetic anatomy of the human body, they are renowned for identifying blockages in the patient’s body that are brought on by stressors such as “karmic” disturbances (Arik, 1999). In Turkey, such healing occurs by mastering words and sounds, where the shaman is able to calm the energy of a person through songs, poems, and music (Ekinci, 2016).

The resurgence of shamanism today shows that even though globalization and modernization is associated with rationality, science and modern medicine, there is a resistance in popular culture that embraces what was once considered “false science” or “feudal superstition”. Indeed, in the current age of alienation and isolation, the need for connectivity and physical contact with others worlds makes the shaman play a crucial role in human survival.

The Confucian Way- Part One

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The Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies (CEWCES) is launching ‘The Confucian Way’, a Bond University broadcast series hosted by Emeritus Professor Raoul Mortley with Mr Alan Chan, which will outline an introduction to Confucian philosophy in East Asian traditions. The term “Confucianism” has meant many things in Western discourse and is often equated with being Chinese. However, Confucian culture is embedded and internalized in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea, and is present in East Asian Diasporas around the world.

The Confucian Way series explores the many aspects and universal values of this philosophical tradition, even those which predate Confucius himself (述而不作, “I am a transmitter, not a creator”). Every Friday, a new episode of The Confucian Way will be posted, analyzing topics such as what is Ren, what is goodness, and what is the value of ritual in modern life.

To see the first episode of the series: