Confucian in the modern world

Social Organization and Sustainability: Part One- 社会组织与可持续性

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The shape and meaning given to physical bodies constitutes the primary way that Western societies organize themselves socially. Although in Western thought, one may understand the body to be inessential compared to the importance placed on the rational, disembodied subject; physical bodies, as Nigerian feminist philosopher Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) says, “are always social bodies” (p. xii). What she means by this phrase is that society in the West tends to be organized by a hierarchy that differentiates between the kind of bodies present so that biology is thought to equal social destiny. Difference from the standard male subject is expressed as degeneration or “a deviation from the original type” (p. 1) because women/females are defined as the Other: the antithesis to men/males who represent the norm. In this self/other distinction, which is central to Western metaphysics, there is a lack of space for women to articulate themselves as subjects. Luce Irigaray (1985), for example, stated that “I am a being sexualized as feminine” (p. 148) is not able to be articulated because women are socialized to accept the subordinate positions offered to them within patriarchal discourse.

A key aspect to this system of organization is the emphasis placed on Cartesian dualism or the mind/body difference, which categorically separates material and mental substances as two separate things. Certain valuational schemas are encouraged by this difference, namely, that the body, often linked to the female/maternal/natural, is thought to be inferior to reason and the mind, a domain that has been traditionally reserved for males. One outcome from such a schema is that gender becomes an oppressive hierarchical dichotomy in which women cannot be anything other than the material negative to the rational man (Coetzee & Halsema, 2018). Another outcome is that with the body devalued and associated with death and deception, patriarchy is cut off from nature so that the universe of language and symbols “has no roots in the flesh” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 16). With humans (man) sitting at the top of the natural hierarchy, nature and the environment have long been considered to be outside of moral consideration. The result has been an unsustainable relationship with nature as environmental destruction from Western-centric development policies are accepted as inevitable for the price of progress and modernity, even if this has meant excessive exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, freshwater shortages, and damage to the ozone layer.

Examples of Alternative Value Systems

 For Confucian scholar Tu Wei-Ming (1992), the dialectic of Enlightenment that started with the celebration of rationality before moving to the Faustian drive to seek total dominion over nature and other human beings is what eventually led to our current situation, impelling us to “raise the agonizing question: Are human beings a viable species?” (p. 88). However, it should be noted that gender and body as a system based on division and hierarchy between man/reason and woman/nature is not a concept that is indigenous to many cultures and was generally imposed on societies through Western colonial rule. In Nigeria, for instance, bodily differences were not hierarchical in precolonial Yoruba culture (Oyewumi, 1997; Dogo, 2014). Instead of putting women in a single group characterized by shared interests, desires, and social positions, people were classified into social groups depending on the roles they chose and the kind of people they were. Thus, a subject in Yorubaland was not primarily thought of as a man or a woman, but rather a trader, hunter, cook, farmer, or ruler—all of which were equally accessible to every citizen. Oyewumi (2002) further describes the traditional Yoruba family as non-gendered since power within the family was diffused and not gender-specific. The main organizing principle within the family was seniority. Unlike sex, seniority as an organizing principle is context-dependent as “no one is permanently in a senior or junior position; it all depends on who is present in any given situation” (Oyewumi, 1997, p. 42). As a result, identity in Yoruba culture was understood as fluid, relational, contextual, and shifting. Seniority is only comprehensible as part of relationships and is not “rigidly fixated on the body nor dichotomized” (p. 42), whereas gender as it is featured in Western culture fixes power relations by confining certain categories of people (women) to limited roles and spaces.

Although there are many different interpretations concerning the status of women in China depending on which aspect of Chinese culture one is studying (see Ortner, 1974), the differentiation between reason and nature is not indigenous to the Chinese-world view. Without simplifying Chinese ideas of non-dualistic thinking and dynamic processes, Chinese cultural heritage has a lot to say about physical nature. For instance, self-cultivation as a form of mental and physical catering that involves exercises such as rhythmic bodily movements and breathing techniques in the form of Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese art form. Chinese medicine is also not only concerned with curing diseases and preventing sickness, but with restoring vital energy (qi) that is essential for maintaining the body in a healthy state. As Tu (1992) notes, because the level of qi required for each individual is dependent on sex, age, weight, height, occupation, time, and circumstances, the wholeness of the body is a situational and dynamic process rather than a static structure.

Values about undifferentiated wholeness and completeness are foundational to Chinese philosophy. On the surface, philosophy in China seems to be exclusively concerned with issues of correct behaviour, familial obedience, political order, and world peace, but as Wing-tsit Chan (1963) suggests, a more comprehensive characterization of Chinese philosophy and humanism is “not the humanism that denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven” (p. 3). In contrast to Western humanism, which is based on secularism and devalues things that are associated with nature, the spiritual and naturalist dimensions in Chinese thought are incorporated into a comprehensive vision of the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Even the aesthetic components of music and dance that Confucius included in his curriculum are intimately linked with the ritualised aspect of human-nature relatedness. Kim (2006) highlights that the noble person (junzi) is one that is awakened to the beauty of humanness and the universe, and “it is because of this awareness that he ‘sets his mind on the Way [dao, 到], depends on virtue [de, 德], relies on ren [人] and enjoys the arts [you yu yi]’” (p. 111; Analects, 7.6).

Moreover, the Confucian and Daoist emphasis on spontaneity and living in harmony and natural ease is highlighted by both the life story of Confucius, who at seventy followed his heart’s desire without overstepping his bounds (Analects, 2.4), and the Daoist notion of following the Way. In chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing, it states that “Human follows the way of the earth; the earth follows the way of the heaven; the heaven follows Dao; Dao follows the way of nature” (translation by Wang, 2013, p. 70). Spontaneity and following the way of nature means to seek the growth of the whole and cultivate one’s relationship with animate and inanimate things. To do so is to maintain the underlying harmony that interfuses between man and man, and between man and things (Chang, 1963). For modern Confucianism, attempts to revitalise the tradition of human-nature relatedness can be seen through the concept of ‘heart-mind compassion’ (buren ren zhixin, 不忍人之 心) and ‘unity with all things under Heaven’ (yu wanwu yiti, 與萬物一體). Just like one’s responsibility towards filial relationships and society, humans are believed to have a moral duty to recognise the independent value of nourishing the Heaven and Earth in order to maintain nature, an essential component to living in a healthy human community. Thus, rather than domination, caring for ‘all things under Heaven’ is a moral demand that humans are required to respond to.

The Problem with ‘Sustainability’

 However, applying these theories to contemporary life is difficult. The concept of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ is subject to many interpretations and takes on different meanings depending on the interest group and society involved. Traditionally, the definition provided by the United Nations, which states that sustainability is the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, is used without critically examining the meaning of ‘needs’. For instance, it is unclear if needs refer to maintaining quality harvests over time or improving human living standards in which case protecting natural resources and the environment is only part of the story. From an anthropological point of view, sustainability should concern maintaining social and cultural systems (aboriginal skills and knowledges) and applying these skills to solve real world problems.

Combining all of these under the term ‘intergenerational equity’, American lawyer Edith Brown Weiss (1989) argued that sustainability should be understood as a holistic term that involves the human species passing on the natural and cultural environment in an at least comparable condition to that in which it was received. But with short-term thinking that characterises political and development decision-making, there has been a widening gap between necessary measures to protect the natural and cultural environment and policy. International law has struggled to respond effectively as most environmental agreements either fall into non-binding declarations or preambles of multilateral environmental agreements. Governments like the United States have shown how easy it is for states to pull out of such agreements without any serious ramifications. Furthermore, the idea of passing on the current environment in ‘an at least comparable condition’ has been interpreted by some to mean that all that matters in the end is that the aggregate gains outweigh the aggregate losses. So, if a project generates more wealth than the monetary costs of environmental damage, then the project should be able to go ahead since the loss of the environmental is made up for by the wealth that is generated (Beder, 2000). For utilitarian philosopher David Pearce (1991), the equivalent of this principle in practice would be to allow the Amazon forest to be removed so long as the proceeds from removing it “are reinvested to build up some other form of capital” (p. 2).

These are not equitable solutions for local communities or the environment. Such ‘sustainable’ development policies are strongly influenced by economists of the neoclassical school and only reinforce existing inequalities. Robert Bullard (1993), professor of sociology at the University of California, claims that people of colour in the United States “are disproportionately affected by industrial toxins, dirty air and drinking water, and the location of noxious facilities” (p. 25) since polluting facilities are often placed in working class areas. Women and girls are also disproportionately impacted by climate change. By constituting two-thirds of the world’s poor, women are more reliant on natural resources which means that the scarcity of these resources makes it more difficult for women to support their families and communities. The estimation that in Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring water home puts this considerable toll into perspective (Zoloth, 2017). Despite being disproportionately affected, government programs and financing mechanisms that are aimed at environmental sustainability are often not gender-informed. A 2012 assessment of the Climate Development Mechanism found that only five of 3,864 projects had gender considerations within their programming, which shows that there is a clear inconsistency between the ethic of sustainable development put forward by intergovernmental agreements, and the way that economists and policy-makers are achieving these goals.

Western religious and cultural discourses have been pointed to as a reason for current environmental problems. Oyewumi’s writings point out that the reason over nature hierarchy and the repression of the female/maternal is neither inevitable nor universal. The fact that development policies that are directed at environmental sustainability continue to negatively impact the lower class, women, and people of colour highlights that what is needed is a cross-continental dialogue between scholars and philosophers who can put forward alternative perspectives to Western culture’s oppositional logic in order to produce enriching and original insights. There is also a need to put these principles into action through enforceable policies by both communities and states. In part two of this article series, sustainability from a Confucian perspective will be discussed as well as a critical overview of China’s recent environmental projects.

 

Video series: Marxism and Confucianism Today- 马克思主义与儒学今天

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In 2010, a UC Berkley event on Confucianism and Marxism was cosponsored by the Institute of East Asian Studies, the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Institute of European Studies. Speakers from Tsinghua University discussed Marxism and Confucianism as understood in China, historically and within the contemporary context. Marxism, which has been considered a central organizing philosophy by much of Eurasia until the late 20th century, was ­addressed by Berkeley respondents in a wide-ranging conversation on comparative theory and practice.

Confucianism and Homosexuality in Vietnam- 儒学与同性恋在越南

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Vietnam LGBT

Vietnam represents a mixed picture for many outsiders. Its communist policies and imperial background have been combined with quasi-capitalist elements like the open market, and these differences can be seen throughout Vietnamese society. For example, it is not uncommon to find a marketer selling goods under a communist propaganda poster behind which a French-inspired café serves European coffee. Much of this variety was inspired by years of colonization as well as Đổi Mới (pronounced “doy moy”), the major economic transformation that took place in 1985-86 and officially marked the end of the ban on private commerce after the reunification of northern and southern Vietnam in 1975. Removing barriers on exports and imports and allowing foreign businesses to come in and invest in the country meant that the country was able to reach an average growth rate of 7.5 percent in the 1990s (IMF, 1999). Changes in agricultural policy also helped Vietnam become the world’s third largest rice exporter by 1992, a dramatic change from its status as a rice importer in the 1980s.

These policy changes that continued in the 1990s had a significant social impact on the younger generation. With rising living standards, poverty alleviation, and a general move towards political inclusion, Vietnam’s economic development led to a cultural shift towards individuality and mobility. As Elisabeth Pond (2014) describes in her article ‘Vietnam’s Second Revolution’, the under-30s during this period were:

“…the first in their families to have chosen their own marriage partners rather than accepting a union arranged by parents. They are the first generation to adopt the custom of bringing the toilet from the outhouse into the middle of the home…the first to play a set of tennis before reporting for work in the morning; and the first to eat meals sitting on chairs at raised tables…they are the first generation in five millennia to have known only peace in their lifetime.”

In the long-term, these changes have given Vietnam a reputation of being one of the most organized societies in Southeast Asia (see Pecotich & Shultz, 2016) and one of the most progressive on social issues, such as gay rights. A United Nations Development and USAID report in 2014 highlighted that from 2012, there had been positive media exposure, support from public and governmental organisations, and increasing activism and community events around LGBTQ issues. This approach has been quite different to Vietnam’s neighbours such as Singapore, where the legal system is upholding the law prohibiting same-sex activities, as well as Brunei whose penal code punishes same-sex couples with whipping and long prison sentences (Clayfield, 2015).

However, although the Communist Party of Vietnam has been putting LGBT issues on the agenda for public consultation by legalising same-sex marriage in 2015, many Vietnamese consider homosexuals and members of the gay community as deviants, sinners, and moral transgressors (HIWC, 2018). The discrimination and bullying experienced by those from the gay community reveal that homosexuality is still taboo in a society that remains influenced by Buddhist and Confucian traditions. In their study on ‘homonegativity’ (the adoption and acceptance of homophobic attitudes, beliefs, or actions) and Confucianism, Nguyen and Angelique (2017) found that the patriarchal and collectivist aspects of Confucian tradition, which gives the concept of family loyalty and obedience a central role in defining one’s self-worth and community acceptance (see Analects 1.2, 7.36, and 11.5), has meant that people from the gay community often internalise homonegativity. Rejection by family and friends, failure to take part in education and job programs because of harassment, and exclusion from being seen as a deviant or mentally ill often results in self-esteem issues, feelings of shame, and unhealthy coping habits, including alcohol and drug abuse.

When discussing a power-relationship that involves a dominant and subordinate party, Frantz Fanon spoke about how the colonizer is able to internalise colonialism, which makes colonised peoples internalise the idea of their inferiority as they ultimately come to emulate their oppressors (Fanon, 1967; Mayblin, 2016). The process involves the coloniser inscribing the colonised subject with ideas of backwardness and lack of empathy, dehumanising the other to such an extent that “it turns him into an animal” (Fanon, 1963, p. 42). In her chapter on perceiving the body as inhuman, Dr. Sophie Oliver (2011) writes that symbolic humiliation, such as head shaving or verbal abuse, and loss of personal and public autonomy when one is viewed as an ‘other’, often leads victims to feel as if they no longer belonged to the human community.

While Fanon and Oliver’s theory was directed towards racism, torture, and physical suffering, Nguyen and Angelique’s study reveal that internalised feelings of otherness also occur in minority groups and individuals who do not conform to conventional social expectations. To conduct their research to determine whether a high level of exposure to Confucianism in early life is related to one’s level of internalised homonegativity, 351 people who met the age criteria (18-28) were asked to complete surveys that measured homophobia/transphobia, self-esteem, and Confucian values. Overall, their study found that the strong influence of Confucianism in Vietnamese society, as measured by values of filial piety, strict gender roles, and communalism, was positively related to internalised homonegativity for young people. The authors note that “placing one’s family honor above one’s own authenticity, prioritising parents’ wishes, and granting parents power in decision-making around marriage…provide a fertile background for internalised homonegativity to thrive, despite an otherwise changing culture associated with Đổi Mới” (p. 1626). The pressure to maintain a positive reputation and family image along with the fear of disappointing their parents means that LGBT individuals often operate underground and remain invisible in the public sphere.

Although this study was limited to younger LGBT people and did not account for other influences on internalized homonegativity, including education, class, and location, the results are supported by previous studies on internalized homonegativity and Confucian/collectivist values. For example, Feng et al. (2012) showed that in Vietnam a high endorsement of traditional family structures and gender roles were predictors of negative perceptions of homosexuality. Likewise, Nguyen and Blum (2014) revealed that sexual conservatism was a likely contributor to homosexual intolerance. In a more extensive, qualitative study, Horton and Rydstrom (2011) noted that there were high expectations associated with the role of the son in a typical Vietnamese family that are communicated and reinforced in daily interaction, starting with referring to newborn sons as thang cu (“penis boy”). Such names run counter to ideas of non-heterosexuality, which could threaten the family’s status and the son’s power and success.

In that case, despite making progress on gay rights, Vietnamese society continues to grapple with expectation and reality, between the old and the new. While most of Vietnam remains organised on strong family values and principles of hierarchy and obedience, non-religious, inclusive, and urban aspects are emerging as sexual and gender minorities become more socially visible with the help of organisations and events that support and advocate for LGBT rights. It remains to be seen how conservative traditions such as Confucianism can evolve to deal with these issues in order to remain socially relevant for generations to come.

The (In)Compatibility of Confucianism and Feminist Ethics- 儒家思想与女性主义伦理的(无)兼容性

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Confucian feminism

Yin-yang is an ancient Chinese philosophical construct of two polar complements. The yin-yang binary are neither forces nor material entities and are not intended to represent human relations. Rather, they are labels used to explain how phenomena function and change in relation to each other and the universe (Kaptchuck, 2014). As a way of thinking, yin-yang indicates that no entities can exist in isolation from each other: every entity is connected through its relationships with other entities where it transforms and stands in a contrary yet interdependent state.

In Chinese traditions, this is used to explain how time is divided into day and night; place (and function) into heaven and earth; and species into female and male categories. For associate professor Sung Hyun Yun (2012) however, the application of Yin to female and Yang to male was only later added in the second century BCE under the influence of Confucianism, which led to the institutionalisation of hierarchical gender relations in Chinese society. As Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, author of the book ‘Confucianism and Women’ (2006), states, the yang and yin are explicitly correlated within Confucianism’s hierarchical schema “where tian (heaven)/yang/nan (man) are privileged over di (earth)/yin/nu (woman)” (p. 55). The problem with this is that if men are assigned priority and privilege in society because they are associated with the positive yang in the yin-yang dualism, they are granted access to a kind of power denied to women. This not only gives men unearned entitlements, which refers to things that all people should have such as feeling safe in public spaces, but also grants men the ability to dominate groups that belong to the opposing yin category.

The assignment of power and privilege is seen throughout many classical Chinese texts. For instance, in The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu) it states:

“All things end and begin by following yang. The rectitude of the Three Kings rose to its utmost in following yang. In this way it can be seen that they esteemed yang and demeaned yin…Men, however mean, are in all cases yang; women, however hobble, are all yin…Categories of evil all are yin, whereas categories of good all are yang; yang is matter of virtue, yin is a matter of punishment” (Italics added, cited in Raphals, 1998, p. 163).

The categorisation listed here is quite similar to the problematic way gender is theorised about in the West, where women are associated with devalued terms in the hierarchy between mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion. The association of women to bodily features, nature, and irrationality has been used to marginalise and exclude women from the public sphere, restricting their access to positions of power, decision-making, and economic autonomy.

In China these distinctions were also used to keep women in the domestic sphere, limiting their abilities to contribute to society. Because a family’s prosperity and survival was dependent on men, infant boys were given value over girls. The Book of Odes (Shijing) notes that when a son is born, he is cradled on the bed, properly clothed and it is announced that “he shall be the lord of a hereditary house”. In contrast, a daughter is only cradled on the floor, wears no badges of honour, and it is hoped that she “shall only take care of food and drink, and not cause trouble to her parents” (no. 189). As a valued text, such passages reaffirm male power and agency and maintain unequal power relations by prescribing women to remain obedient and subordinate.

The classic Confucian text Nusishu (Four Books of Women) is considered a standard text that was compiled during the mid-Qing dynasty. The teachings in the book were used to educate how men and women should behave in feudal society. Chapter titles that discuss women, such as ‘Humble Yielding’, ‘Bending in Submission’, ‘Serving the Husband’, and ‘Being faithful to the Dead’ highlight that women in a male-centred ideology are encouraged to keep in line by restraining themselves. By restricting thought and action and maintaining the status quo, a woman gains greater status and becomes humble, devoted, and faithful in the eyes of her community. To keep such a system functioning, women who refuse the role of dutiful daughter or subordinate wife are threatened to be cast out of the family home. As Chan (1970) notes:

During the Sung Dynasty, “Chinese intellectuals preached extreme chastity, confining all women to their homes. Remarriage for a widow was tantamount to public disgrace. Hence, the States ordered tight binding for all women to hamper their movements and prevent possibility of unchaste wandering.” (p. 231)

It should be noted that Confucian philosophy was created by ministers and noblemen. While advocating for harmonious relations, righteousness, and altruism, these virtues were meant to guide ministers to conduct fair governance. When it came to women, Confucianism was responsible for reinforcing gender oppression by punishing disobedient women through social ostracism and keeping women in their place by binding their feet (though foot-binding was a practice introduced after the time of Confucius).

Although practices such as foot-binding have discontinued, Confucian norms such as respect for authority, hierarchy, family dependence, and the historical preference for sons have maintained many traditions in place. Due to the cultural stigma of having female children, for example, the former one-child policy in China led to millions of female infants being aborted, abandoned, or killed (Wall, 2013). In her research on Asian immigrant and refugee families, Yun (2012) shows that social problems remain prevalent. Surveys conducted on Asian immigrant families reveal that many male respondents from countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and China still believe that women have no right to a divorce and should be shamed if they leave their families; that the husband is the ruler of the household and has the right to discipline his wife; and that if experiencing marital problems, women should ‘talk softly’ and/or ‘do nothing’ (D’Avanzo et al., 1994; Yoshioka et al., 2009).

Despite the history of oppression behind Confucianism and the patriarchal norms that continue to exist in Confucian societies, some scholars have suggested that a ‘Confucian feminism’ is possible. For example, professor of philosophy Chenyang Li (1994) argues that the humanistic concept of Confucianism, namely the concept of ren as benevolence, altruism, kindness, and compassion can be separated from its historical context and compared to feminist ethicist Carol Gilligan’s ‘care ethics’. In care ethics, care and justice intersect with the development of a language that is focused on relationships and responsibilities. The ethics of care is about considering different types of relationships and roles in order to care in an appropriate and effective way. For Li, Confucianism is comparable with care ethics as it is based on non-contractual (non-legally binding) relationships and love for others according to their social roles and positions. Like care ethics, Confucianism seeks to create harmony in relationships; to preserve the obligation of care if one’s ability to provide care for others is not strained or exhausted; and to maintain networks of care that start from the family and build outward to form reciprocal contracts in the community.

However, this interpretation can be considered problematic. Associate professor of philosophy Daniel Star (2002) claims that Confucian ethics are role-based ethics that are in the concept of li or the rules of propriety. Although one may argue that new roles for women can be made that are not based on hierarchical male-centred relationships, roles can only ever be understood within a certain context that is inherited from the past. Confucianism cannot simply be stripped from its familial and hierarchical norms as this would mean doing away with the fundamental social relationships of father and son, lord and retainer, and husband and wife. A Confucianism without the values of chastity, filial piety, and loyalty is difficult to imagine since ren without filial piety or an organised family structure would be reduced to simple affection for significant others.

Confucianism is an ethics based on role relationships that are focused on men: a man of ren (junzi or exemplary person) has a greater ability to care for others than a petty man (xiaoren). Just as a father cares for his wife and children, a ruler is expected to care for his subjects. Although women are expected to take on caring roles also, women’s caring has never extended outside of family and marital relations: “firstly to their fathers, secondly their husbands, and thirdly their sons” (Kim, 2017, p. 6). The difference with care ethics is that Gilligan wrote about individual needs and not about normative principles of the past that define correct social roles. Whereas Confucianism is an ethics of men where righteous men take on care roles, feminist ethics of care requires that women are considered as moral subjects that are recognised for their perceived ability to care. Women in this respect do not care because they must care according to their social roles, but because they want to care with their rights and needs taken into account.

What this means is that for Confucianism to be compatible with feminist ethics, the philosophy must extend itself to incorporate notions such as equality, fairness, and individuality. Undoing the hierarchies that keep women deprived from the opportunity of becoming moral agents in their own right, where women can exist and be valued outside the family, is crucial to liberate women from particular forms of oppression. A return to the original conception of yin-yang is one where women and men belong to both sides of the binary to make up a dynamic duality that is based on dialectic and recognition. The question is, how far can such reform go without doing away with key components of Confucian philosophy?

Confucianism and Critical Rationalism- 儒学与理性主义

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Critical

Source: Foreign Policy (2014).

Although Confucius describes himself as a preserver of culture and places significant emphasis on the importance of learning, since learning and devotion for sons are considered key aspects to maintaining the dao (道 – a teaching or skill formula that is key to achieving self-perfection and world transformation), there is no discussion on rationality or logical reasoning in any of the Confucian texts. Commentator A. C. Graham has noted that along with the absence of a theory of reasoning, Confucius generally puts a low premium on thinking when compared to learning. In the modern world, the relationship between thinking and learning are often associated with one another: to learn any new theory or concept, one has to be able to think. That is, to acquire knowledge by discussing, comparing, and contrasting to test how and whether the new information fits in line with already established theories and concepts. The difference between thinking and learning, Graham argues, occurs when we define learning as that involving acquiring knowledge by committing something to memory and being able to recite it when needed, whereas thinking is the act of questioning, testing, and criticising information before accepting it as acquired knowledge.

For Chi-Ming (2017), the Confucian emphasis on hierarchy and harmony in contrast to critical thinking and rationalism has promoted submission and conformity in Chinese society. A review of recent psychological research indicates that people in China are dominated by authority-minded ways of thinking, which means that they are more willing to accept people at a senior level as arbiters of truth or morality and are likely to adopt non-confrontational approaches to conflict resolution (Shi & Feng, 2010; Ng, 2010). As Hall and Ames (1995) put it, one would not expect to read in the works of a classical Chinese [Confucian] scholar anything like Aristotle’s statement, “I love my teacher, Plato, but I love truth more”, for such a declaration would be seen as a form of self-assertiveness which has the potential to threaten social harmony. This raises questions as to whether Confucianism is inherently opposed to critical rationalism or, as some scholars put forward, it entails it.

What is critical rationalism?

 Austrian-British philosopher and professor Karl Popper (1966) put forward a formula for defining critical rationalism as listening to critical arguments and learning from one’s mistakes. This involves admitting that you may be wrong, and that the other person may be right, and with effort to investigate, taking part in inquiry to get nearer to the truth by distinguishing between falsity and reality. Popper considers criticism, or the act of refuting evidence by testing information for contradictions and discrepancies, to be an important part of learning from one’s mistakes and getting nearer to the truth. Without it, one can fall into the trap of defending a mistaken belief and appealing to unsound arguments.

For example, accepting an argument simply because it is advanced by those in authority is erroneous as these arguments may not be related to the truth, or may be advanced by people who claim that they are authorities when they are not. By this standard, it is unacceptable if a teacher is mistaken in making the claim that Australia is part of Africa and the students unquestionably accept the teacher’s claim because he is in a position of authority. Likewise, pro athletes pushing for home loans are likely false authorities as consumers do not know if the athletes have used or use home loans at all, and it can be assumed that the athlete was successful without using the product in the first place. The importance of criticism here comes from the fact that power is inextricably linked to knowledge. Michel Foucault (1977) pointed out that throughout history, knowledge was intertwined with forms of power and domination. Those in power have the resources and influence to determine what is accepted knowledge to justify their positions of authority. In many cases, statements can be dismissed and not even considered not because they are thought to be false, but because it is not clear for those in power what it would mean for those statements to be considered true or false. One only has to look at the example of Galileo discovering that the earth revolves around the sun, and the Vatican’s response that saw him sentenced to indefinite imprisonment until his death in 1642, to see how power and knowledge interacted to restrict scientific discovery.

Although people in positions of authority can help make sense of vast and complex theories and evidence, as courtrooms continue to rely on psychologists and forensic authorities in trials, the perspectives put forward by these professionals should be taken as resources for understanding information, rather than as a final say on debated issues. Criticism, in this sense, can also be used to defend against the fallacy of democracy, which claims that popular ideas are necessarily right, and dogmatism, where one may be unwilling to consider an opponent’s argument because of the assumption that those who disagree with you are biased, while your beliefs remain objective and correct.

Critical rationalism has significant implications for politics and education. Politically, it is a rejection of authoritarianism and any form of governance that rejects freedom of thought and critical inquiry. The key concepts here are rational and reflective, since both suggest going beyond mere acceptance of what others say one should believe. It necessarily requires opposition and alternative viewpoints and is supportive of citizen engagement. In education, critical thinking is about developing intellectual and moral virtues, including epistemic humility (recognition that one’s views may be incorrect), sincerity in the formation of belief, open-mindedness, fairness, and autonomy in reasoning (see Kim, 2003). Without these aspects, reasoning can be easily distorted to support unwarranted conclusions.

How critical rationalism differs from Confucianism

 If Confucianism values learning and not thinking (and if the two can be implicitly contrasted as suggested), then it follows that Confucius’ philosophy is at odds with contemporary education and critical rationalism. Learning without thinking is likely to involve processes of blind accumulation of information and the memorization and retention of ideas. Without inquiry, this is likely to lead to the acceptance of false ideas, prejudice, and ideology that serves those in power. In chapter 1, book VII of the Analects, Confucius states that he is only a transmitter rather than an innovator, looking to antiquity to solve the problems of his day. The idea is that knowledge is accumulated from watching, listening to, and reading from past ideas that are believed to hold ancient wisdom that can be adapted and applied. Though Confucianism highlights specific virtues that should be transmitted, without thorough knowledge of past information and its contexts, the past can be simply accepted because it comes from unquestionable authority, making criticism impossible.

Furthermore, whereas critical rationalism seeks to establish democracy and rule of law, Confucianism does not necessarily uphold either a democratic society nor protect the freedom of people. The Confucian idea about the effectiveness of teaching and learning, as revealed in The Documents (Shang shu 尚書), which states that everyone can become a Yao, Shun or Yu (all are legendary model rulers in ancient China), reflects a preference towards the power of education over rationalism, and the development of an undemocratic government that is based on filiality, benevolence, and the ruling class. While critical rationalism argues that criticism is the best means of establishing truth, for Confucianism, criticism is at best seen as an effective way of realizing benevolence, which is considered the ultimate goal of learning and achieving harmony. The outcome of critical discussion here is not aimed towards truth, but stimulating conversation that leads to moral effectiveness, which requires one to always be loyal and trustworthy in discourse (Knoblock & Zhang, 1999).

 The view that Confucianism entails critical thinking

For many Confucian scholars, the discovery of things as a form of thinking and learning can be compatible with Confucius’ admiration of antiquity and does not necessarily involve uncritically accepting and holding on to past knowledge. Despite the many differences between the two schools of thought, Confucianism and critical rationalism do share some significant similarities in theory. For instance, in line with critical rationalist values, Confucianism values epistemic modesty, courtesy to opponents, and respect for critical inquiry, although forbidden subjects and tabooed names are not to be discussed (Knoblock & Zhang, 1999). The Xunzi states that problems should be solved by rational and impartial inquiry rather than with emotions since desires and aversions are considered to be flaws of the mind’s operation.

It should be noted that while the Confucian tendency to draw from the past is often criticised as being conservative, it can also be an effective way of establishing critical thought. An emphasis on the past reflects a concern for continuity that can be used to shape the future instead of seeking to retain the past unchanged. In Book III, Chapter 14 of the Analects, Confucius says that the Zhou dynasty was built on the successes of two previous ruling dynasties: “How splendid was its pattern! And we follow the Zhou.” The past is seen as a useful resource for teaching moral lessons, and any change should be enacted by reflecting on previous practices and traditions. Rather than attack all forms of old thought, as was done under Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, critical thinking can align with examining past approaches.

Finally, a key aspect of Confucian living that resembles critical rationalism is the importance of communication in rational discussion. The concept of wisdom (zhi, 智) in Confucianism is associated with thinking and is linked to inquiry. The character 智 indicates not only the ‘mouth’ (kou, 口) and ‘saying’ (yue 曰), which highlights the importance of communication in accumulating knowledge, but also that of the ‘arrow’ (shi 矢), which is made up of the characters for ‘people’ (ren 人), suggesting that wisdom entails a community of inquirers instead of knowing on one’s own (Ames, 2011). The idea is that learning and thinking is a social process and while thinking can take place on one’s own, self-reflection is only one aspect of learning from one’s mistakes and getting nearer to the truth. In the Analects Book VI, chapter 27, Confucius notes that once a cultivated person studies broadly in patterns in line with li, “he will never turn his back on them”, which demonstrates that practising li involves promoting social communication and order to achieve truth, rationalism, and harmony.

Although Confucianism does not align perfectly with Popper’s modern conception of critical rationalism, the two schools of thought are not completely in opposition. Without dismissing the claims put forward by Hall and Ames (1987), which state that Confucianism prioritizes aesthetic over logical ordering, and the emphasis on harmony reinforces affirmative versus critical thinking, the importance of wisdom in Confucianism, which involves conversing in an open-minded and logical manner, along with communicative critical discussion can be seen as aspects of the philosophy that promote a non-quarrelsome, studiousness, and impartial approach to inquiry. Taking Confucius’ lesson of learning from the past, Confucian ideology itself can be used in the present by negotiating what aspects of the philosophy align with modern values over those that do not. For some, such an approach is the only way to apply Confucian philosophy to solve contemporary problems, while for others using Confucian texts in different contexts to support arguments that may have not been relevant during Confucius’ time reveals the plurality and imprecision of meaning in interpreting ancient philosophy. Whether Confucian philosophy promotes or runs counter to critical rationalism is therefore dependent on how the reader chooses to interpret Confucian texts.

 

Video series: ‘Confucianism and Liberal Education’ (儒学与自由教育) with Tu Weiming

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Scholar and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, Tu Weiming, discusses the development of liberal education in the West, and how Confucianism embodies a critical thinking philosophy that addresses many similar themes. The question then becomes: how can the Confucian tradition enrich the conversation about the future of liberal education in the United States and around the world?

Professor Tu’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Georgetown University’s Global Liberal Education Initiative.

A conversation on ideology in contemporary China- 当代中国的意识形态对话

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Confucian ideology

Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to ban its citizens from writing about controversial topics that criticize the authorities, in recent years a number of intellectuals have adopted a liberal perspective in their work and have been actively reporting and theorizing about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Even in the online world, where social media users have to use hashtags and emojis to avoid censorship bans, more Chinese people are being influenced by global trends and are becoming vocal about their experiences of social inequality and environmental pollution. Much to the dislike of the government, even the #MeToo campaign that started in America spread to China after a Weibo user documented about her experiences of sexual harassment at Beihang University in Beijing. However, even after the authorities responded to the scandal by blocking the hashtag #MeTooInChina, online users created nicknames like #RiceBunnyInChina to continue the campaign and highlight the harassment. Critics have noted that attempts to block such conversations from occurring disables intellectual debate, isolates Chinese people from the global community, and generally silences groups from having their voices heard.

China’s censorship laws also have implications for its relations overseas. As a recent article in the Times Higher Education has stated, the new era of increased Chinese economic power poses a threat to academic freedom across the world and could have many universities blocking content to ensure their ongoing partnerships with China. Last year, Cambridge University Press removed hundreds of pages and book reviews on politically sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibet, and Taiwan, from their online journal after a Chinese government agency warned that it would block access to Cambridge’s website. Although Cambridge reinstated these articles after claiming that it had received a “justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community”, it has also been reported that Springer Nature had censored some of its content in response to demands made by Chinese export agencies. William Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, states that as civil society has been shrinking in China since President Xi took office in 2012, the country’s increasing influence has meant that Westerners should be “concerned about how China is censoring what we’re doing all around the world” as the country tries to increase its power by exporting censorship.

As some states respond to the issue of Chinese foreign interference- for example, in 2017 Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke Mandarin and declared that Australia will “stand up” against any power meddling in its national affairs- writers within China have also been trying to revive liberal ideas by publishing their papers through foreign publishers. In their research on liberalism in China, Tang and McConaghy (2018) note that based on what they have come across in foreign and less-known Chinese journals, the major areas that are being discussed in this field include the meaning of China’s 20th-century history, especially the Cultural Revolution; the social inequality created by market reforms; statism and the rejection of Euro-American political models; and cultural pluralism in twenty-first century China.

It should be noted that Chinese liberals are not the same as the ‘New Left’ school in China or the ‘New Confucians’. While the New Left are critical of the class antagonisms that have been created by marketization and decentralizing the economy, the New Confucians seek to reinvigorate Confucian practices as a way of strengthening national solidarity and cultural identity as a way of maintaining political stability. In contrast, the liberalists are most opposed to the party-state. In the journal Southern Weekly (南方周末), Zhu Xueqin stated that following the principle that people are born noble and free from restraint in action or speech, economically, the liberalists believe in the market economy and not state planning. Politically, the school advocates for representative democracy, constitutionalism, and legality against dictatorship of the majority. Finally, in terms of ethics, liberalism advocates protection of the individual who, it is argued, should never be used as a means for any abstract purpose as was the case between 1966 and 1976 when more than one million people died under the policies implemented by Mao and other Party leaders.

Historically, the One-Hundred Day reforms in 1898 was the first time when liberal ideas emerged to challenge the Qing autocracy in China. From the 1920s to the 1940s, liberal intellectuals tried to theorise about the relevance of liberalism compared to all other ideological alternatives that were often more attractive to people who sought an immediate political solution for the country’s nation-building project. However, under the Chinese communists, who interpreted liberalism as meaning that an individual could do what they wanted regardless of the circumstances and interests of others, liberalism almost entirely disappeared from public discussion as it became associated with bourgeois ideology and the West.

In that case, it was significant that editor of the pro-democracy journal Beijing Spring, Hu Ping, wrote the book On Freedom of Speech (1979), which advocated for liberal principles in post-Maoist China. After Deng Xiaoping helped direct the country towards economic reforms and the country began to integrate into the world economy, the political atmosphere in China created opportunities for the return of the liberal discourse. Especially from the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of books by English and American authors were published as the demand for democracy and representation created traction in extending the liberal perspective throughout society.

 At the same time, many intellectuals also reacted to globalisation and China’s increasing global standing by turning to ‘Chinese-made’ solutions to address the country’s social problems. Rejecting the idea that Western political models are adequate paradigms for development and modernisation, the majority of Chinese writers have resisted discussions on democracy and liberalism and have instead focused more on ideas of social democracy underpinned by Marxist–Leninist principles. The authorities have allowed groups such as the New Confucians more political space as they attempt to create a new universalism that is superior to Western liberalism and not historically associated with slavery, colonialism, and racial exclusion. This school of thought aligns with the government’s aims of establishing China as a civilizational force that can become a dominant cultural model in the twenty-first century.

Although proponents of liberalism such as Xu Youyu argue that the country’s Confucian-nationalist project uses a deeply distorted version of the past that ignores the country’s history of linguistic, economic, and demographic heterogeneity, antagonism to Western political thought has meant that Chinese liberalism remains on the margins. The Party has continued to tighten its control over the media, religious groups, and civil society associations as the government introduces cybersecurity and foreign NGO laws and increased internet surveillance. A renewed push for ideological conformity has undermined earlier rule of law reforms and uses nationalism as a pillar for government legitimacy. This raises questions about the future of China’s ideological plurality, the implications and meaning of using Confucianism as a political project, and whether liberalist thought can once again gain traction during Xi Jinping’s rule.