Articles on Confucianism
Source: “Dancer” by Chinese oil painter Tu Zhiwei.
As in most East Asian countries, Confucianism has had a considerable influence on the values and traditions of Taiwanese people. When it comes to sex and gender discrimination, male-centrality, dominance and superiority characterise the traditional ideals of Confucianism as well as the prevailing Han Chinese worldview and policies of Imperial and modern-day China (Du, 2011; Chang & Bairnier, 2019). The subordination of Chinese women is maintained through the family system, which operates on the patrilineal principles where family lines, corporations and all other kinds of property, are passed patrilineally, from father to son (Harrell, 2002). An important part of sustaining the patrilineal system is patrilocal residence, which prescribes that wives should move in with their husband’s parents or extended family at the time of marriage. In their discussion paper series, Landmann et al. (2017) found that in patrilocal residence, women are usually expected to take over housekeeping tasks from their in-laws and the burden of child and elder care increases.
Domesticity and restrictions on women’s role in society was also reinforced through several ancient writings that discussed the ideal ‘good women’ model. These rules maintained that women were expected to stay home, serve their husbands and parent-in-laws, and adopt behavioural restrictions so that harmony would be maintained within the family (Tamney & Chiang 2002). Although Chinese and Taiwanese society has undergone rapid and radical changes since post-Mao economic reforms, Raymo et al. (2015) state that traditional Confucian family doctrines continue to be manifested in multiple aspects of society, including men’s and women’s work and family roles.
That being said, communist and capitalist ideologies created new opportunities for Taiwanese women to challenge the dominant discourse of domesticity, especially with the emergence of new media and commercial advertisements that promoted Western lifestyle and ‘sexy’ body images. As Shaw (2012) asserts, while the ‘ideal’ woman of the past had been the strong, thrifty, family-oriented woman, in contemporary Taiwan, a double-burden has been created because, in addition to these virtues, the ideal woman now must also be slender, beautiful and eternally youthful.
As part of the emergence of the beauty industry and women’s leisure and exercise, the sport of belly dancing was introduced to Taiwan in 2002 and has been promoted as a beneficial exercise for toning muscles and enhancing women’s self-confidence (Chang & Bairner, 2019). Spreading all over the Taiwan, belly dancing is now popularly offered in dance classes and community universities, in which housewives, female office workers and retirees constitute the majority of the students. Chang and Bairner (2019) explain that a relatively low registration fee makes belly dance classes affordable and attractive to women of various social classes who use this sport as a means of women’s community, feminine solidarity, personal enjoyment, cultural exchange and artistry.
While consumerism, healthism, and globalisation have produced the rise of the new ideal Taiwanese woman, where sensuality in the feminine body is encouraged through community sports such as belly dancing, the constraints of traditional culture have not disappeared as the legacy of Confucian gender and sex discrimination remains. For instance, various studies (Hsieh 2003; Tsai 2006, 2008, 2009) show that marriage and family continue to be influential in women’s leisure participation. In Chang and Bairner’s (2019) participant observations and in-depth interviews, it was found that some people opposed their female family members from taking part in belly dance classes. As one participant noted:
“It’s actually not just opposition to belly dancing, they just don’t want you to go out. Our society still is kind of conservative…Usually the opposition of family comes from the husband or mother-in-law, the reason we usually hear from mother-in-law is something like ‘Others will gossip if my daughter in-law does this (belly dance).’ (p. 1335-1336).
A dance instructor interviewed also shared that several mothers in his class told him not to let their husbands and family members know that they were belly dancing and those that were strongly constrained did not show up to class at all. While it is far less common to see family preventing women from belly dancing in the West, opposition from husbands and elder relatives, especially mothers-in-law, continues to constrain women in Taiwan.
The reason why many women chose to hide their participation is because, for some, belly dancing continues to be associated with the image of the exotic, dancing woman in sexy shows. This ‘bad’ category of women, who make money by dancing, entertaining, and pleasing men are depicted as wearing sexy costumes, heavy perfume and makeup, and using their feminine charm to attract male customers. Therefore, to avoid being recognised as the ‘bad’ dancing woman, many belly dance interviewees emphasised the exercise component of belly dancing and avoided buying belly dance costumes.
In this case, even though foreign sports provided more opportunity for Taiwanese women to engage with their community and explore different ideals of womanhood, traditional Confucian practices and attitudes continue to restrict particularly married women’s expressions and movements even today.
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.
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.
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).
The theory of human nature continues to be popularised in philosophical and biological debates. The nature of something refers to the idea that some traits are an expression of an animal’s inner essence, while other traits are developed because of the animal’s environment. For example, one may debate whether particular breeds of dogs are naturally aggressive or whether their environment necessitates that aggression is key to the dog’s survival. The phrase ‘human nature’ refers to something that all humans share universally. It assumes that there is an essential quality in human behaviour that makes humans distinctly human and not animal-like. In medieval scholarship, it was believed that thing that makes humans especially distinct is the existence of the soul– the first principle of life that is present in all of us. Although biological in that the soul makes up part of living organisms, the soul is not material or corporeal, but made of more ethereal properties (Pasnau, 2011). Descartes followed this line of thinking by making a distinction between the natural world, which simply involved bodies in motion, in comparison to the human world, where individuals were believed to possess an immortal soul.
But what is this essential soul like? Is it kind and good-natured or, as Hobbes posited, are humans naturally self-centred and power-hungry? In the text The Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville reinforced the negative view of human beings as innately selfish and unruly. Thus, it was the duty of law and education to civilise or domesticate humans and make them fit to exist in an ordered society. Discourses and systems of thought and knowledge had to be governed by rules, logic, and grammar that, if taught from an early age, would start shaping the consciousness of individuals. Such an approach could instil values of order in humans to help them control their inner urgers or bestial tendencies. While some people are more susceptible to slipping through the system and being overpowered by their nature, becoming victims of uncontrollable sexuality, insanity or criminality, throughdiscipline, punishment, and normalization techniques, bodies can be ordered and made easier to control (Foucault, 1975; Gutting & Oksala, 2018).
In Chinese history, reflections on human nature (xing性) began to enter the literary tradition around the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, during the conflict period in the Eastern Zhou dynasty that resulted in significant political, economic, and social changes throughout China. According to sinologist A. C. Graham (1967), it was the doctrines of the Individualists that first posed the problem of human nature when reflecting on the role of Heaven influencing people’s private lives. Unlike Confucius whose philosophy was aimed at creating optimal conditions for social harmony and coexistence, Individualists put emphasis on the necessity for people to take care of their health and body to maintain a good quality of life. According to the Lüshi chunqiu, the most important task is “to keep intact what Heaven has [granted]” (1.2), which includes maintaining one’s health, desires, and ambitions. To avoid disrupting Heaven and the natural flow of life. Individualists argued that humans should stick to their nature and seek to satisfy their desires and ambitions with moderation, and avoid involving themselves in any conditioning, such as political and social life, that could negatively impact the sereneness of achieving their life path. The idea here is that human nature is neither good nor bad, but the essence of humans is to achieve their goals and maintain that sense of tranquillity in life that comes from satisfying one’s desires.
In the first century, Chinese meteorologist, astronomer, and philosopher Wang Chong emphasized the goodness and badness of human beings. Human nature in his writings is described as being malleable since taking part in goodness will cultivate good human nature, while taking part in badness is what leads to evil human traits and behaviours (Lun heng, 1.13). Gaozi, who is only known from the Menciusand who Confucianists identified as a Daoist, disagreed with Wang Chong’s views. For Gaozi, the goodness and badness of people and morality itself is socially constructed and based on the culture that people exist in. For instance, some actions may be considered good and noble in culture X, whereas they are shunned and made taboo in culture Y. In this sense, human nature has nothing to do with being good or bad because we all initially have no conception of right and wrong before we are taught that goodness is what is praiseworthy and positive whereas badness is what should be punished. While Xunzi agreed with Gaozi in that he argued that morality is culture-based, Xunzi went further to state that the origins of evil come from negative feelings that are rooted in human nature. That is not to say that humans are evil, rather that they deliberately violate the rules of morality and sometimes even take pleasure in doing so. This is because people have no conception of morality. At birth, all humans are morally blind, and it is only later that we learn what we should do to exist in an ordered society. If people were inherently good, then there would be no need for people to learn rituals and social norms and keep their desires and impulses in check. Xunzi states that people desire order and goodness and since desire comes from a lack (we only desire what we do not have), then it follows that people are not inherently good. In fact, without learning the Way, feelings like fear, jealously, and greed would inevitably lead people into conflict and disorder.
Gaozi and Xunzi were heavily criticized by Mencius, who outlined various positive values that he believed were innate to human beings. Using an agricultural metaphor, Mencius stated that all humans have good tendencies or “sprouts” (2A6). If these sprouts are taught and cultivated, they would inevitably grow and give life to virtues and morality in society. However, if the sprouts failed to develop, then evil would manifest in human relations. In Mencius’s theory, one could take the example of benevolence as being a sprout. All humans, at least on some occasions, feel compassion when humans and animals suffer, and this compassion always has the potential to turn into benevolent action. All humans also have the capacity to feel shame, and these feelings are expressions of righteousness. But as with any seed or sprout, these good tendencies are not fully formed. Our innate virtues are inconsistent and context-dependent. For instance, a father who is kind to a pig and spares its life from slaughter may ignore the suffering of his own hungry family. To allow good human nature to flourish, people should extend their virtuous inclinations in appropriate situations (Van Norden, 2014). The father has a higher duty in Confucian philosophy to protect his family and ensure their survival and so benevolence for family would override benevolence for pig in this starvation scenario. Thus, though we are inclined towards goodness and humaneness, benevolence is not static and involves understanding the long-term implications of certain actions and the number of lives that could be impacted by these actions. Although a difficult calculation to make, Confucianists posit that it is essential to make these calculations and live in a harmonious social order. Therefore, whether humans are innately good or evil is beside the point. All of these perspectives put forward the idea that humans have the capacity for good and that this capacity should be acted upon since it is necessary for the survival of a polity or community to have rules and standards on right behaviour and social conduct.
In Buddhist philosophy, although the Buddha never directly addressed the question of human nature, it was stated that humans have the capacity to do good and, in the right circumstances, will lean towards goodness. This is because the development of goodness conduces people to have a better and more happier life. In the Milinda Panha, a King was said to ask the Venerable sage Nagasena whether good or evil is greater. Nagasena replied that good is dominant and evil less so because doing evil leads to remorse, while doing good does not lead to remorse and when one is free from remorse, a person becomes glad, and from gladness joyful, and from joyful tranquil, and with a tranquil mind and body one can see things as they really are (passage 84). The clarity of this passage can be disputed. For example, what if one does not feel remorseful from doing something evil? Not all ‘bad’ actions cause people to feel remorse, especially if the person believes that what they are doing is a lesser evil or that such an evil is done with principled intentions (like avenging another person’s grievous wrongdoings, for instance). Likewise, some ‘good’ actions may not cause people to feel joy. Often, what one defines as good actions is dependent on the culture and context and may be conducted out of necessity and not out of good-willed intentions.
Finally, one should also ask whether all human natures are the same. A 2006 psychological study by Harris and Fiske found that a small sample size of American university students exhibited less neural activity when they were shown pictures of homeless people or drug addicts compared to when they were shown higher-status individuals. Kteiley et al.’s study also highlighted that people who opposed Muslim immigration saw Muslims as less evolved. Perhaps then the debate on human nature should start with the proposition, what are humans’ naturesconsidering that there are many types of humans and contexts where good and bad inclinations can develop. Are all people whose sprouts fail to develop bad? What about those who are not aware (or even incapable of being aware) of the consequences of their actions? Also, how should we treat people with bad tendencies? Are we obliged to put them in correctional facilities or hide them from society? It seems that human nature is both socially constructed yet constructing, universal yet historically and culturally specific, and so there should be care when making overarching claims about human goodness or badness and what people should do when someone does not fit into the narrative of an ordered, good, and socially acceptable human.
China’s strategy of setting up institutions in partner countries to teach Chinese language and culture is increasingly being seen with suspicion and contempt. Swinburne University professor John Fitzgerald, who lived and studied in China, argues that with more than 500 Confucian Institutes in 140 countries, it should be widely recognised that the institutes have been directly instructed to promote particular aspects of Chinese governance that would make Chinese rule seem appealing. For example, some aspects of Confucianism that promote obedience and hierarchy are being pushed to make the Chinese Communist Party’s centralised and unified leadership acceptable to foreign publics.
Even at the recent annual conference for Confucian Institute directors, the Beijing-based Office of Chinese Language Council International made it clear that directors were expected to promote the strategic and foreign policy objectives of the government, especially with the recent Belt and Road Initiative announced as a major geo-political project that could transform global trade. The implication is that Confucius Institutes are going to be essential to China’s strategic planning for the government to maintain strong business and people-to-people links. Thus, while the US cuts its budget to African countries and makes inappropriate comments, with President Donald Trump describing African nations as “s***hole countries”, China and its consistent engagement is considered to be a stable alternative.
However, the nature of how Confucius Institutes are being used around the world has made some American and Australian authorities concerned whether Chinese professors and students could exploit access to universities to gather intelligence and sensitive research. Singapore has also been vocal over China’s covert “influence operations”, with former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan stating that as with the presence of any foreign power, Singaporeans should be aware of Beijing’s manipulations. By using a range of tactics, from official diplomacy to covert deployment of agents and influence operations, to sway decision-makers and public opinion leaders, the question remains: where does this leave Confucianism, and can the philosophy be separated from state propaganda?
In China’s long history, Confucian teachers performed priestly roles and justified the existence of the state as a legitimate form of rule, while the state, in turn, promoted Confucianism as the official ideology. The state apparatus functioned to institutionalise Confucian teachings like respect for authority through education courses, and by making Confucian texts the only content of imperial civil service examinations since the Sui dynasty (581–618). However, Confucianism was never a religion with an organized and exclusive membership, and there was no Confucian place of worship. Instead, Confucianism functioned as a belief system and ethical code throughout East Asia, where “to study religion and politics is to study the relationship between Confucianism and political practice” (Fetzer & Soper, 2010, p. 499). Even though few people identified themselves as Confucian followers, Confucian ethics and behavioural norms were part of how ordinary Chinese people saw the world.
Recently, the aim to modernise Confucianism has been a premise of many attempts to make Confucianism a compelling and relevant philosophy. Sometimes, this reconstruction takes the form of translating classical Confucian ideas in terms of extracting modern concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘social welfare’ from early texts (see for example Bai, 2008 and Fan, 2010). It may also involve the identification of timeless ‘core values’ of Confucianism that are recited in contemporary analysis, even as others that support practices that are now considered to be problematic, including gender discrimination or class hierarchy, are simply dismissed without any compelling explanation (Bell, 2006).
Moreover, it is not only about what is being interpreted in Confucianism, but who is doing the interpreting and application. The association of Confucianism with historically non-democratic states has led many to defend a kind of ‘authoritarian Confucianism’, which the government of China has used to its advantage. Confucian values are being used to construct a national identity to replace what is now seen as the ineffective ‘foreign’ ideologies of Marxism–Leninism in an attempt to secure the party-state’s leadership (Bell, 2015).
At the same time, others have approached interpreting a modern Confucianism through a commitment to liberal doctrines like human rights. Yet, it is important to ask whether these reconstructions of a ‘progressive Confucianism’ are only a reflection of the individual author’s philosophical commitments. The assumption is that Confucianism can only be relevant if it is adapted to liberal ideas of modernity, which are typically linked to democracy. But in doing so, a line is drawn between a past in which Confucian thought was relevant to analysing social and political life in China, and a present in which historical Confucianism is abandoned for a version that is conducive to Western standards of living.
Therefore, far from broadening Confucian thought to foreign audiences in a meaningful way, the philosophy ends up becoming interpreted to the extent where it is no longer recognisable as a Chinese political philosophy, or it simply becomes a narrow source of scholarly knowledge. As Jenco (2017) states, the problem is not that recent reconstructions are somehow ‘inauthentic’, but that they fail to consider the historical aspect of Confucianism that explains how Confucian philosophy was constructed in the first place. This approach involves reading the many versions of canonical texts and how they were interpreted by influential commentaries and key thinkers in different East Asian contexts. For example, Nylan argues that while current scholarship sees Confucius as the originator of Confucian philosophy, reading the texts in context will reveal “the marked propensity of the early compilers to borrow ideas and switch personae, which renders modern sectarian talk about ‘schools’ wildly anachronistic” (p. 425). Even by examining how Confucius is portrayed in the Zhuangzi reveals that Daoism and Confucianism are not diametrically opposed schools of Chinese thought, but two strands of single tradition.
Consequently, rather than placing one’s own modern spin to Confucian thought to pursue some political agenda, to understand Confucianism in modern times requires a recognition and appreciation of the philosophy in its original context, and how it interacted with other philosophies that comprised the many intellectual traditions of ancient China.
One of the more arresting claims Aristotle makes in his famous exploration of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is that you can’t be friends with god. His reasoning is that friendship requires equality, and the gods are vastly superior to us. The argument is a plausible one: it seems difficult or impossible to be friends with a boss, mentor, or teacher in quite the way that one is friends with one’s peers and equals. Indeed we might say that friendship is distinctive precisely in being non-hierarchical. If I am truly your friend, what I am to you is exactly what you are to me.
This thought has been supposed to cause trouble for the followers of Confucius. Confucianism was China’s most influential philosophical tradition for well over two millennia. Its ethical teaching has at its center several hierarchical relationships that were intrinsically bound up with forms of propriety, including rituals. The second most famous Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) identifies five ‘cardinal relations’, four of which are clearly hierarchical: ruler and subject, father and son, old and young, and husband and wife (Aristotle too sees the latter as an unequal relationship). The odd relationship out is friendship. Friendship seems to fit badly with the Confucian idea of modeling human relationships on family bonds. One possible comparison, which sees friends as having a bond like that between older and younger brother, would not secure the symmetry we’re looking for. Friendship is also anomalous among the cardinal relations in lacking ritual prescriptions, and in being voluntary. You don’t choose your father or (at least in ancient China) your ruler, but you do choose your friends.
Confucius (551-479 BC) would also have had some reason to think that friendships should be unequal. For him the purpose of friendship is the cultivation of virtue. It seems a natural thought that we should therefore befriend those more excellent than us, so as to learn from them. Yet like Aristotle, Confucius insists on symmetry in true friendship, advising, “do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are.”
It’s been argued that in light of this latter rule, Confucius himself could never have made friends at all. His disciples were certainly dear to him, as we see from a passage in his Analects, when he openly grieves for one of them who has died. But does that mean he was this disciple’s friend? David Hall and Roger Ames would say not. In their book Thinking Through Confucius, they asserted, “Confucius is peerless and hence, friendless. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him.” His relation with his students was arguably more akin to a hierarchical, familial one, as shown by the fact that he referred to them as his xiaozi, meaning ‘little masters’, or ‘sons’.
In keeping with the equality of friendship, Confucius identifies trust (xin) as its distinctive attitude, whereas a familial relationship would be characterized by an asymmetrical virtue such as filial piety (xiao). Confucius would thus discourage parents from trying to befriend their children, a common trend in modern-day family life. Just as a father cannot be the teacher of his son because their relation is too intimate, so being overly familiar is no way to be familial.
But how exactly do I cultivate excellence by befriending someone who is equal to me? After all it would seem that I have nothing to learn from my moral peer, at least not in the way Confucius describes in this passage from the Analects: “in strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.” Instead, it must somehow be that sharing with equal others in the excellent moral life, or at least in the pursuit of virtue, is itself a spur to the good life, or even a constitutive part of it.
Confucius seems to have been convinced that this is so. For one thing, no less than other relationships, friendship gives us an opportunity to exercise virtue. Confucius himself aimed “to bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young,” and in advising us on examining our own character he speaks of reflecting on whether we have always kept our word with our friends. Friendship is also a source of delight, as is made clear in this line from the opening passage of the Analects: “to have friends [peng] come from distant quarters: is this not a source of enjoyment?” Yanguo He informs us that the word peng has a strong implication of ‘like-mindedness’, and may especially indicate the bonds between the students gathered around one master.
This is a hint towards a deeper importance of friends, namely that they are embarked with us upon a joint project of self-cultivation. We do not improve morally by looking to friends as a model for imitation, as we might with a superior. Rather, our affection for them is based on a recognition that they share with us our greatest pursuit. To illustrate this idea, the scholar Xiufen Lu gave the example of the tale of Bo Ya, a musician whose mastery was fully appreciated only by his friend Zhong Ziqi. When Zhong died, Bo Ya smashed his instrument, on the grounds that playing without being understood is pointless.
Likewise, Confucius occasionally complained about being unappreciated by the morally inept. This may come as a surprise, but is simply the counterpart of the joy he took in associating with those who shared his values. Birds of a feather really do flock together, ideally by taking wing towards the heights of virtue.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
*This original article can be found here.