Confucian in the modern world
In 2014, the Hong Kong School of Creative Media created an interactive application and a linear three-screen video re-enactment of the “Capping Ceremony of a Minor Official’s Son,” from the ancient “Book of Li”. The Book of Li (Etiquette and Ceremonial) is a classical text about social behaviour and ceremonial ritual during the Zhou dynasty.
The video shows that in Confucian philosophy, li as ‘ritual’ is a system of awareness and practice that was created for followers to reflect on Confucian traditions in light of the rapid modernisation that was occurring during the Zhou era. Li as a concept is concerned with aesthetics, ethics and ideology and it is shown to be a technique of the body and mind that is learned and inscribed.
The approach that the actors have taken to re-enact these rites is one historical accuracy in the scripting, movements, clothing, props and environment. The analytical approach to the documentation provides a detailed examination using advanced digital techniques, such as motion capture and augmented-reality annotation of movement, to maximise viewer experience.
Click on the following link to see the full video:
Remaking the Confucian Rites (2014) from Jeffrey Shaw on Vimeo.
In a recent article written by Michael Schuman, a Beijing-based journalised and author of books on Confucianism, it is argued that China needs to adopt a Confucian oriented foreign policy approach. In the article, Schuman states that:
For centuries, Chinese dynasties held a role in world affairs that looked very much like what Xi appears to want today. They sat at the center of an East Asian diplomatic and economic order that was stable, peaceful and prosperous over long periods.
Here Schuman is referring to China’s East (and South East) Asian tributary system in which China as the “central heart” (zhongxin) of the region maintained stability by keeping threats under control. It did this by legitimising the Emperor’s ‘All Under Heaven’ mantra, strengthening its military capabilities and guaranteeing the exchange of military resources, and offering states a trading channel through which they could peacefully pursue their economic policies. The flexibility of the system allowed China to adjust its foreign relations through several theatres of action, including traditional diplomacy by gift exchanges.
This system was based on Confucianism, which was the main political ideology that informed the rules, customs, and values of the courts and provided guidance as to how rulers and ministers were expected to behave. In Confucianism, to keep order and stability, relations were expected to be hierarchical. However, the superior person/country had a duty to treat their subordinates fairly and with kindness for the most part. For example, Mencius is noted to have said that “When one by force subdues men, they do not submit to him in their hearts…[but] when one subdues men by virtue, in their hearts’ core they are pleased, and sincerely submit”.
For the most part, the tributary system worked. Apart from the ongoing Sino-Japanese rivalry, most surrounding states received trade and diplomatic support from their allegiance to China as well as military security. Occasionally, as Schuman notes, China even made concessions that were not in their interests like allowing Vietnam’s Tây Sơn regime (1789–1802) in the 1800s to reclaim its lost lands and move part of its border into Chinese territory to access copper mines. Apart from taxing the regime, the Chinese authorities allowed for territorial transgressions to keep the tributary system running.
In the present, China has expanded its influence in the Asia-Pacific region by putting forward another “peaceful rising” vision of Asian regionalism and community-building. The link between internal and external stability is crucial for China’s development with the search for energy resources and logistic routes being one of the key factors in Beijing’s domestic and international policies. For Schuman, although the tributary system is unlikely to return in the twenty-first century, to reinvigorate a Confucianist approach and avoid setbacks and tensions in the region, China needs to avoid further militarizing areas of the South China Sea, and instead find a compromise with other claimants to maintain foreign policy support in others areas that will assure China’s development, including the geostrategic Belt and Road project. Further, to resolve the trade war with America, Schuman argues that China could use the Confucian principle of reciprocity and be willing to treat foreign companies in its borders the way its companies are treated overseas.
But it is questionable as to how likely these responses will be since militarisation of South China Sea is China’s reaction to wide-scale American military activity in both the East and South China seas. From China’s perspective, the country has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and defensive deployments are necessary for its national security needs and are not being aimed at any country. In fact, no American property is endangered by Chinese encroachment and as it currently stands, China can deploy capabilities that threaten American and regional forces at a considerably lower cost than the US can deploy counter-measures. The Belt and Road project will further complement the developments in the South China Sea rather than be considered a separate issue that needs resolving before the Belt and Road project becomes a reality.
Finally, Beijing cannot simply accept America’s decision to impose new tariffs on Chinese goods. The plan to impose counter tariffs on agricultural and energy products from the US is one of the more fair responses to America’s protectionist policies. Once implemented, American producers will have to pay higher costs to sell their goods to China, while losing existing revenue as Chinese buyers seek cheaper imports from other countries. To avoid future humiliation, China is already finding alternative sources for trade products like soybeans, which was generating US$14 billion in sales annually for American suppliers.
In the policy world of tit-for-tat, Confucianism continues to play an important role in China’s diplomatic rhetoric. However, as to how much it can inform China’s actions is a whole other issue.
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.
The Serpentine Pavilion Beijing in China is the galley’s first feature outside of the UK. Serpentine Galleries partnered with Chinese architecture company WF Central to co-commission the structure that is located 600 metres from the Forbidden City at the WF Central site. Comprising of 38 steel rods that curve like an archer’s bow, the building is held by cables stretched between steel plates.
According to the Serpentine Pavilion Beijing announcement, the building was built to have a focus on “society, community and a respect for local context and vernacular craftsmenship.” Furthermore, it “aims to address contemporary architectural issues with a sense of realism, an approach inspired by folk wisdom.” In that sense, the design “takes inspiration from Confucianism with an architecture that is a physical representation of the traditional pursuit of Junzi,” loosely defined as a moral exemplar. The “pavilion’s integral structure aims – like a Tai Chi master – to conquer the harshness of [the external forces of fierce winds and unpredictable earthquakes] with softness.” The archer figure, in the form of a curved cantilever beam that incorporates the forces of elasticity through cables stretched between steel plates, has long been related to military skill, and good political governance in Chinese philosophy while bow metaphors are used in The Analects to highlight practices of morality.
For chief architect at Jiakun Architects, Liu Jiakun, what the project “ultimately wanted to present is a spatial installation that goes beyond mere function to push the boundaries of contemporary architectural practice.”
The Serpentine Pavilion Beijing is now a featured public space for cultural activities, events and social encounters, with a programme of cultural activities programmed across five Pavilion Weekends over the summer.