The Confucian texts show us that we can learn from water, especially still water because the stillness of water provides us with a mirror to reflect on the nature of reality, and in this reflection, we have the opportunity to embody stillness and calmness of mind. The importance of water and stillness highlights the importance of wu-wei, the art of doing nothing. Translated as effortless action, skilled inactivity, or action through non-action, wu-wei calls for passivity, quietude, and the absence of contentiousness in order to smoothly accommodate the other. Such action takes discipline and strength, much like how a professional swimmer effortlessly glides across the water. Thus, rather than interpreting wu-wei as a strategy to control and influence others indirectly, wu-wei can literally mean doing nothing, waiting, and reflecting as still water.
This episode deals with the meaning of water in Confucian texts. While nature is widely discussed in the Analects and The Works of Mencius, water and the flow of water is specifically used by Mencius to discuss the nature of human character and the origin story of humankind. The origin story in Chinese mythology differs from the Judeo-Christian tradition, where Genesis is presented as a story of violence and struggle against nature. In the Chinese version, humans do struggle against water, but they also learn from it and end up developing irrigation and systems of agriculture. Thus, rather than defeating nature, the management of water leads to a harmony between nature and the flourishing of human beings.
In the sixth episode, titled ‘The Absence of the Ego’, Professor Mortley examines Max Weber’s writings on Confucianism as the original critique and comparison between Chinese tradition and Western philosophy. Whereas Weber emphasizes the importance of the individual− individual will, personal responsibility, and the individual’s quest for self-realisation− in the West, the Confucian person must be well practiced in restraint and self-discipline to be considered humane and honorable. Self-cultivation in the Confucian tradition is not about pursuing a selfish desire, but about responding to other people in the greater community, and ritual is crucial in this.
In the fifth episode of the broadcast, the significance of ritual is discussed. Unlike habit, which is about managing the self, ritual or Li (禮) is about others. Through ritual, people are encouraged to form and respect relationships and build trust in the community. Whereas in the West, rituals are inconsistent and are centred on the individual (where it is acceptable if individuals refuse to follow some rituals), ritual in Confucian societies emphasizes attention to detail, discipline and care. Consistency and the expectation that people will respect their roles in society is what reinforces solidarity and creates harmonious interaction.
In the fourth episode of the broadcast, Professor Mortley examines two moral dilemmas about sons betraying fathers in the interests of justice, one from Plato’s Euthyphro, and the other from Confucius’ Analects. Traditionally, Chinese culture emphasises filial piety or respect where there is an obligation to be reverent to one’s parents and ancestors.
Although ideally, a harmonisation of all principles should be achieved where justice, care for others, and filial respect are valued, in the Confucian dilemma, there a greater truth in obligation to family so it is preferred that the son remains loyal to his father than to his community.
In the third episode of the Confucian Way, Professor Mortley discusses the subversiveness of Confucianism, that is, the way Confucius directly critiques society and challenges the status quo. However, in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s endorsement of Confucianism in recent years, Professor Mortley asks whether Confucianism can maintain its critical thought while being embraced by the Chinese State and the Communist Party.
In this episode, Professor Raoul Mortley discusses the qualities of REN or humaneness in the Analects and finds that while there is no clear definition of what a humane person is, there are certain qualities or attitudes associated with humanness. When put into practice, these qualities or attitudes are what make a person humane.
Professor Mortley then finds that the Confucian way of describing goodness can be compared to the philosophical approach of via negativa or the “negative way”, where a thing is described by the things it is not. The lack of a clear definition of goodness is considered to be useful as it allows principles such as REN to be applied in varying contexts.
The Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies (CEWCES) is launching ‘The Confucian Way’, a Bond University broadcast series hosted by Emeritus Professor Raoul Mortley with Mr Alan Chan, which will outline an introduction to Confucian philosophy in East Asian traditions. The term “Confucianism” has meant many things in Western discourse and is often equated with being Chinese. However, Confucian culture is embedded and internalized in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea, and is present in East Asian Diasporas around the world.
The Confucian Way series explores the many aspects and universal values of this philosophical tradition, even those which predate Confucius himself (述而不作, “I am a transmitter, not a creator”). Every Friday, a new episode of The Confucian Way will be posted, analyzing topics such as what is Ren, what is goodness, and what is the value of ritual in modern life.
To see the first episode of the series:
Part 13 (concluding video) of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Trust and being trustworthy plays a central role in Confucian ethics. In the Analects, for example, Confucius frequently uses the term xin 信 to discuss the importance of trust in various social and political contexts in ancient China. In this final section of the interview, trust in Western and Eastern perspectives is discussed.
Part 12 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. On the one hand, scholars have argued that human nature is inherently evil and that the state should play a key role in educating and civilising citizens. However, there are also those who argue that human nature is inherently good and that the role and influence of the state should be limited to allow for individuals to fulfil their potentials. In this section of the interview, the various perspectives on human nature in Confucian thought are discussed.