Confucian in the modern world
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.
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.
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.
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.