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.
This year, the Lunar New Year, the year of the dog, will be celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people on February the 16th. The celebration combines religious and secular rites based on the religious-philosophies of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. While preparations begin a week before the celebration begins, the main focus throughout the festivities is spending time with family and friends, enjoying feasts, and gift-giving.
The importance of family and social relationships, especially during the holiday period, is a key theme in Confucianism as three out of the five basic relationships for humans occurs in the family. Cultures throughout the Asian continent, especially in China, encourage individuals to expand the prosperity and vitality of their families since a healthy and harmonious family is believed to build a stable society.
The Confucian value of filiality is not only seen throughout the ancient texts (see the Analects, 2.5 and 2.6 for example), but during New Year celebrations too as rituals and acts are carried out that symbolise paying respects to the elders. These include bowing to parents and grandparents and prioritising serving elders food during large gatherings. Visiting temples is also a common practice as paying respects to one’s ancestors by reciting prayers, lighting incense sticks, and making offerings is thought to be an important part of character development and starting the new year with luck.
Throughout the world, the diaspora from China and other Confucian societies choose to either make the trip back home for the celebrations or celebrate in their host countries. The Confucius institute in Cambodia, for example, holds New Year activities such as watching CCTV’s New Year gala, holding a reunion dinner, giving red envelopes, and setting off firecrackers and fireworks. In Leeds, the Chinese Community School plan to host an orchestra from China to perform traditional Chinese music, song, and dance, while the Art Institute of Chicago is holding an exhibition titled “Mirroring China’s Past: Emperors and their Bronzes” between Feb. 25 and May 13, exhibiting Chinese bronzes of the second and first millennia BC.
However you choose to celebrate, the Confucian Weekly Bulletin wishes you good luck and happiness in the New Year.
‘The Enlightenment’ broadly refers to the intellectual and scientific progress in eighteenth century Europe that was inspired by the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, many intellectuals started to develop a worldview that was critical of religious authority. Belief in miracles and faith were no longer accepted as adequate ways of explaining how the world functioned and came to be. This undermined not only the geocentric understanding of the cosmos as Galileo proved that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but also marked a shift in the way mainstream academia thought about human evolution, from the goal-directed explanation of Lamarck to Darwin’s natural selection theory.
In his essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote that this social and spiritual development of society (Aufklärung) symbolised the rational coming of humankind and a release from self-enforced immaturity. Immaturity here refers to the inability to use independent thought without the guidance of another. There were many factors that contributed to the culture of rationality and individualism in Europe, including the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) during which people started to question religion and warfare, as well as The Age of Exploration, in which discoveries in the New World exposed Europe to other philosophies and cultures. However, one of the less discussed influences on Europe’s intellectual history is contact with 17th century China. As Franklin Perkins (2004) notes, by disregarding this aspect of the development of secularism in Europe,
We strengthen the illusion that European thought is a causa sui, growing up of itself, without interaction with the rest of the world. This illusion of an independent Europe allows for easy distinctions between “us” and “them”, “East” and “West,” at the same time that it obscures the historicity of those distinctions (p. x).
By the end of the sixteenth century, interaction between Europe and China was already underway as Jesuit missionaries engaged in cultural and scientific exchange: one of the earlier examples of public diplomacy. For Roman Catholic missionary, Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the journey to China was considered “the dream of Jerusalem” after many were unable to make the long sea journey around the Indian ocean. As a distant place that explorers considered as ‘waiting’ to be discovered, China became the ‘Jerusalem of Asia’, a place that would provide a new map of spiritual progress that would unite the world.
One of the main developments from these visits though was not so much the expansion of biblical thought, but the development of the pre-Adamism movement. In short, this was the belief that humans existed before Adam. By studying Chinese chronology, which showed that China was ruled by emperor Fu Xi (around 2950 BCE) long before the biblical flood (2349 BCE), many writers asserted alternative theories to the biblical version of world history. Dutch scholar Isaac Vossius, for instance, claimed that Chinese chronology, covering more than 4,000 years, was an accurate source for showing that the dates of the Hebrew Bible could have been wrong. Biblical events like the flood were increasingly considered local events that only happened to the Jews and no longer as universally valid or applicable.
Writers like Voltaire expressed similar thoughts. In his encyclopaedic entry on ‘history’, Voltaire pointed to Chinese historiography as a primeval and reliable source that recorded events that he thought probably did take place. Without mention of gods or miracles, China stood as a model for secular universal history, and even managed to feature notable characters like Confucius, who Voltaire described as a sage transmitting “the purest ideas that human nature unassisted by revelation can form of the supreme being” (1759, p. 23). The discovery of Chinese chronology ultimately provoked many authors to question the credibility of Biblical authority, starting a conversation on the role of the supernatural in historical inquiry, and whether there should be a division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ history.
It should be noted that in many cases the Jesuit and missionary writings that attempted to describe China in theory and practice either over-exaggerated praise for China or interpreted Chinese history and ethics from a Christian point of view. Vossius’s writings are a prime example. Demonstrating his strong interest and admination of China, he regarded China as a real life Platonic republic ruled by philosopher kings such as Confucius. For Vossius, not only was it a place free from war, the Chinese were one of the most advanced and productive people, writing in one the oldest languages and accomplishing in areas like medicine, architecture, and music long before any other nation advanced in these fields (see Vossius, 1685, p. 57-58).
Study of Confucianism led many to believe that Chinese philosophy also represented a universal morality. While failing to mention God as the supreme origin of moral law, Confucianism was still considered a superior way of being that could align with many Christian beliefs. Jesuit Alvarez Semedo (1585-1658) considered Confucian virtues such as ren to be equal to the Christian virtues of piety (piedad) and humanity (humanidad). Unlike the pagans, Semedo (1642) argued that Confucianists still worshiped some supreme force (Tao – the Way; also Tian – Heaven as the moral universe) without comparing it with other beings. Translations of major works such as the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) and the Analects (Lunyu) were interpreted in ways where the authors highlighted similarities between Christianity and Confucianism. The common phrase ‘who offends against Heaven’ in Chinese texts was changed to ‘who sins against Heaven’, as ‘sin’ was more appropriate to Christian understandings of transgression and lawlessness.
It could be said that this encounter with Chinese philosophy and history by the early Jesuits and later writers who would publish books about their experiences in China partly contributed to ideas of progress, rationalism, and history in the West. Very much like the Confucian revivalist movement today, Confucian morality was considered to be the equivalent to Christianity in its emphasis on virtues, order, and harmony. Although these understandings of China would have been a consideration in the development of Enlightenment theories, the exchange had little to do with dialogue. The one-sided explanations of China show how authors are in positions of power to communicate ideas, many of which are based on interests that align with the dominant ideology and political climate. For centuries, writings about China from these encounters would have shaped popular imaginations about the Far East as both ‘exciting’, ‘advanced’, ‘entertaining’, but also as ‘frightening’ and ‘uncivilised’. The paradoxical views of the Chinese and China’s rise continue to impact perceptions of what China is and how it is influencing the world, and so it is important to be aware that these views and depictions never exist in isolation. Theories about the world not only develop within a society, but from contact with the outside world and the perspectives of individuals who write about these engagements.
Although mainstream news outlets continue to focus on America’s Trump administration, tensions around North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and the Israel-Palestinian and Syrian conflicts, over the holidays there were also developments in the spread and practice of Confucian philosophy. In particular, the way fundamentalists have tried to resist Western cultural traditions. From the mid-1990s, the middle class in China viewed Christmas as a trendy commercial holiday without any religious connotations. But, as professor of Chinese history and philosophy, Yang Chunmei, writes, in the past decade, the celebration of Christmas has become a source of social conflict.
In 2006, for example, a group of doctoral students jointly published an article titled ‘Our View of the Christmas Issue’ (我们对“耶诞节”问题的看法 (十博士生) calling for Chinese people to respect and keep Chinese culture pure by not celebrating Christmas. Since this article was released, online discussions over whether Chinese people should celebrate Christmas circulate the internet every December. While many Chinese celebrate Christmas without practicing Christianity, where many schools and kindergartens around the country allow students to hand out presents, far right lobbyists have argued that Christmas celebrations are ways of brainwashing young people to forget about their Chinese roots. Last year, Shenyang Pharmaceutical University in the province of Liaoning even banned Christmas festivals on campus as a way of building “cultural confidence” in order to “resist the corrosion of Western religious culture”.
Many lobbyists who see non-Chinese celebrations as the acceptance of ‘spiritual and cultural pollution’ identify as Confucianists or cultural revivalists. Increasingly, these sectors of society have become more influential as the government has invested in reviving traditional philosophies in an attempt to build national character, ensure social stability, and promote its foreign policy. Cultural revivalists have taken advantage of these efforts by becoming more vocal on the public stage to denounce Westernisation. In 2013, an interview with Mu Duosheng, an active anti-Christmas lobbyist and advocate of Confucian revivalism, was popularised on the internet when Mu made the comments that allowing foreign cultures to grow too rampant in China will severely damage the country’s “traditional cultural ecosystem and lead to the ‘Westernization’ of China.”
The fear that Western culture will turn Chinese people into ‘bananas’, that is, people whose skin looks “yellow” on the outside, but as “white” as the Anglo-Saxons who they seek to assimilate with, on the inside, can be traced back to the historical memory of the late Qing Dynasty. During this period, China was politically controlled and culturally penetrated by Western colonialists, and only managed to return to a stable position of power during its last 40 years of rejuvenation. The possibility that such events could happen again through the spread and consumption of Western culture means that even seemingly ‘harmless’ celebrations like Christmas represent a potential threat to Chinese culture and society.
However, these views have also been very difficult to promote in the current age of globalisation. The interconnection of societies and peoples around the world has led to a general acceptance of mainstream Western culture, especially in China. When the country opened itself to global trade during the 1970s, foreign and modern influences became common amongst young people. Furthermore, the promotion of atheistic education and modernisation has meant that religion and cultural traditions no longer form part of most Chinese people’s lives. Many demolished temples are no longer being restored, and idol processions are also in decline. As the old gatekeepers of traditional rituals die, many young people are leaving rural areas in search of work and education opportunities.
So, even though Confucianism and cultural revivalism is on the rise again in China, there are difficulties in promoting systems of thought that maintain outdated cultural values. Confucianism is often criticised for its strictly hierarchical and patriarchal ways of ordering society, especially for a younger generation who are growing up with foreign and modern influences in China’s increasingly global cities. Traditional customs will have to either adapt to these changing lifestyles, or the tension between past and present will continue to persist.
*Image retrieved from The Confucian Institute, The University of Western Australia.