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.
In this video, Professor Javy W. Galindo introduces the basic concepts, virtues, and teachings of Confucianism, including the meaning of the “superior person” (Junzi), the arts of peace (Wen), and the relationship between self and the community.
The ‘son-covering-father’ story in The Analects (13.18) has caused a lot of controversy. When the Duke of Sheh says that ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact’, Confucius replies that ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this [italics added].” The implication is that not disclosing a crime is morally acceptable if the criminal is a family member, raising the question as to whether filial obligation should override civil obligations or social justice. The passage mirrors a section of Plato’s Euthyphro, which examines whether prosecuting one’s father is a pious thing to do. Sophocles’s Antigone explores a similar theme by showing the struggles of Antigone and the dispute between obeying the laws of the gods, familial loyalty, and social decency.
In the last article on the Confucian Puzzle, valuing family as much as moral integrity and human worth failed to justify why the son should cover for his father’s theft. For example, if Xiao (love for the family) is understood as a convenient setting to develop love towards others (Ren), then the son is morally obliged to report the father since he would be in a position of extending family love towards others and sacrificing the means of family love towards the more important principle of loving others. On the other hand, if Xiao is of equal importance or at least as important as Ren, it is unclear how one should decide which principle to compromise. To assume that turning the father in to authorities would do more harm for the father than the sheep owner is only speculative. Imagine that the stolen sheep was the sheep owner’s only income, the last sheep in his stock, or the only meal left for his family. In such a case, surely covering for the father would do the sheep owner more harm since he would have no means of claiming compensation or recovering his stolen stock. Finally, the claim that Xiao should simply never be compromised also does not answer the puzzle. In a life-threatening situation, there is no moral reason why the son should not report the father as valuing Xiao as tradition does not adequately justify why valuing family love is more important than all other virtues.
Another approach to solving the puzzle is mentioned in Li’s (2012) article. The solution involves understanding different value systems. If family as a whole is more important than each individual and is prioritised in society, then the son should preserve his family’s flourishing by covering his father’s crime. But there are two problems with this conclusion. On the one hand, the meaning of ‘family flourishing’ is unclear. Does family flourishing refer to an increase of wealth, the closeness of the whole family, or the well-being of each family member? Likewise, individual flourishing can also mean wealth, psychological and social well-being, or even the capacity to face adversity (Faulk et al., 2012). To sacrifice individual flourishing for family flourishing is a tricky argument as there are no guidelines as to how one determines that the quality and quantity of the family’s flourishing should outweigh the quantity and quality of the individual’s or the sheep-owner’s flourishing. Such an argument essentially involves the utilitarian approach of satisfying the preferences of the majority over the minority.
When applied at large, ordering society based on familial flourishing could lead to discrimination and prejudice. Suppose that a society made of family units valued harmony within and between families. Reporting abuse in a family would risk disgracing the family, upsetting other family members, and exposing the culprit, resulting in strained family relations. So, it could be argued that keeping quiet about family abuse would be justified as it would avoid risking any damage to familial flourishing. Structuring the economy around familial wealth, where businesses and companies were all run by families, would also create an unfair advantage to in-group members (those in the families) while discriminating against qualified non-familial members. This produces a counter-intuitive moral system and goes against the Confucian ideal where humaneness is developed by setting others up and achieving access for others (The Analects, 6.30). The emphasis on Xiao, while relevant to understanding ideas of learning and devotion during the Zhou era in China, need to be taken in context. As Eno (2015) highlights, “References to filiality concern sons… it seems to tacitly assume that its readers, and the only people who matter in public society, are men. In this sense, it fails to escape the social norms of its time” (p. 6). A fundamentalist position of structuring society around familial flourishing over individual flourishing fails to take Confucian teachings and apply them to the real world.
Huang (2017) provides an alternative understanding to the case. He starts his discussion by explaining Xiao more broadly. When describing filial piety or family love, it is often assumed that to be filial involves being obedient. For instance, Confucius says that “the young should shoulder the hardest chores or that the eldest are served food and wine first at meals” (The Analects, 2.8), and that only by following and observing the father’s conduct three years after his death can the son be called filial (1.11). The act of complying with the father’s authority and dutifully carrying out his conduct shows that filiality is associated with obedience. However, as The School Sayings of Confucius (Kongzi Jiayu) states,
If a father has a remonstrating child, he will not fall into doing things without propriety; and if a scholar has a remonstrating friend, he will not do immoral things. So how can a son who merely obeys the parents be regarded as filial, and a minister who merely obeys the ruler be regarded as loyal? To be filial and loyal is to examine what to follow. (bk 9, p. 57)
Rather than understanding filial piety as blind obedience, the passage emphasises the importance of ‘remonstration’ or arguing in protest. As a result, it is only right to obey one’s parents if they ask about right things. If they ask for obedience for morally corrupt things, such as murder, then the filial child should protest against the parents’ actions. In the Xunzi, this idea is reinforced,
There are three scenarios in which filial children ought not to obey their parents: (1) if their obedience will endanger their parents, while their disobedience will make their parents safe…(2) if obedience will bring disgrace to their parents, while disobedience will bring [sic] honor to their parents…(3) if obedience will lead to the life of a beast, while disobedience will lead to a civilised life (29.2)
The passage concludes by stating that only by understanding when to obey and when not to obey can one practice reverence, respect, loyalty, and act with sincerity. Although obedience is important, since acting correctly and obediently is what creates harmony and respect, obedience without thought and reflection amounts to empty ritual.
The way in which remonstration is carried out is also important. Referencing the Book of Rites, Huang (2012) shows that filial children should not shout or assault their parents. Instead, one ought to “remonstrate with low tone, nice facial expression, and soft voice” (Liji 12.15). The important point is that the manner in which remonstration is carried out needs to be gentle and considerate so as to continue being respectful and righteous. Shouting or assaulting, even with good intention, could make the situation worse by upsetting one’s parents and resulting in disharmony. So, while it is wrong to stop remonstrating, it is also wrong to remonstrate incorrectly, that is, in a way that makes the situation worse and one’s parents even more angry. The extent to which remonstration should be carried out is also highlighted in the Book of Rites. As passage 12.15 points out, one ought to remain filial,
If they [one’s parents] are happy, you ought to resume gentle remonstration; if they are not happy, however, instead of letting your parents cause harm to your neighbors, you ought to use an extreme form of remonstration. If at this extreme form of remonstration your parents get angry and unhappy, hitting you with hard whips, you still ought not to complain about them; instead you ought to remain reverent and filial to them.
Rather than letting one’s parents commit a bad deed, efforts at remonstration should not be given up. Even when physically and mentally exhausted, the child has a duty to remonstrate repeatedly until the parents stop committing their wrongdoings.
When applying the understanding of Xiao as obedience and remonstration to the son-covering-father story, then it is clear that the actions of the child must be conducive to ensuring the parents’ well-being. That is the first concern for the child. The reason why Confucius emphasised non-disclosure or concealing the father’s wrongdoings relates to remonstration. Remonstrating works best if protesting against the parents’ actions is conducted in an intimate setting and carried out in a gentle manner, creating “an atmosphere favourable to such remedies” (Huang, 2012, p. 32). While there is no guarantee that giving parents space will create a favourable situation for correcting their wrongdoings, the son’s non-disclosure becomes a morally correct action as it aims to rectify not only the wrong carried out by the father but also giving the son a chance to confront and rectify the wrong-doer.
It should be noted that Confucius does not say that a filial child obstructs justice when authorities are investigating or that authorities should not investigate the case. Concealing, in this sense, does not refer to active concealment or taking part in the father’s crime. Rather, Confucius emphasises the importance of passive concealment (not reporting the father) as the correct action to remonstrate until the father corrects his actions. The passage in which the ‘son-covering-father’ story takes place does not state what correcting the father’s actions looks like. The idea of justice in Confucianism needs to be further explored.
Authenticity can mean many different things. According to Ballentine (2011), authentic is that which is genuine or real. An item from the store can be considered authentic if that item is made from the material the seller claims it is. So, a real watch or a genuine purse contrasts with a watch or purse made from less valuable material. While the less-valuable watch would still be a ‘watch’ that measures time, the fact that it is made from material other than what the seller claims it was made from makes the watch cheap, worthless, and in-authentic.
Rodriguez (2015) extends the definition of authenticity to people when he claims that authenticity means trustworthy and reliable. In other words, a person is considered authentic if they are what they claim to be. If person A states that she is honest and tells the truth to her friend, it follows that person A is an authentic person. She has proven to be reliable by doing what she said she would do, i.e: tell the truth. While person A would still be a physical person whether or not she told the truth, following through with being honest is what gives her the attribute of authenticity. Thus, authenticity is a social value that does not exist in the natural world: “what is taken as authentic is a social construction rather than an objective fact” (Carroll, 2009, p. 4).
Understanding authentic personhood (what it means to be a ‘real’ person) goes beyond being honest when one claims to be honest, and raises questions about how to live in the world and what it means to genuinely experience life. In Western philosophy, this question has been extensively explored where ‘being in the world’ means to think (Descartes), to be conscious (Kant), or to imagine (Hume). For Descartes, for example, to be an authentic being with an identity means to doubt and inquire. “I know that I exist and that nothing else belongs to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing” (Meditations VI, p. 29). In Confucianism however, the idea of individuality or self is not adequately explored. As Chen (2015) states, the idea that Confucian ethics is antipathy to individuality is a mistake as there are plenty of references to the self in both The Great Learning and The Analects. While emphasised by most Confucian texts, the value of authenticity is also often ignored and dismissed by scholars in the West. To address this gap, this article discusses both authenticity and the self in Confucian philosophy.
While there is no direct reference to what the self is in Confucian teachings, the doctrine highlights that humans are different from other beings. The Analects states, “an authentic person is not a vessel” (2.12). Personhood consists in zhixiang or having a sense of meaning in life. This means that experiencing the self and the world is about committing to some purpose: “the way of humanity consists in learning broadly, acting firmly on one’s zhixiang, inquiring seriously, and reflecting critically” (The Analects, 9.6). To have purpose and to act on that purpose is therefore what distinguishes humans from other beings. Since Confucianism is concerned with establishing harmony with others, the idea of purpose or zhixiang usually refers to ethical aspirations and concern for the common good (Chen, 2004). This relates to Heidegger’s (1962) definition of authenticity. According to Heidegger, to be oneself in the world (what he calls Dasdein or ‘being-there’) is to be in relation. Relation here refers to what one is at any moment and what one can be as life unfolds in endless possibilities. Over the course of one’s life, identity and being are always in question: “we are always projections into the future, incessantly taking a stand on who we are” (Varga, 2014). Being authentic or representing one’s self truly comes down to ownership or ‘being one’s own’, implying that to exist fully in the world means to own up to what one is and what one does. Zhixiang in Confucianism says the same thing. With a purpose, a person is able to own up to their existence by having a firm vision of how their existence should be. Without it, people “are like ships without helms…wandering around and losing in direction” (Wang, 1986, p. 26). Consistent thoughts, actions, beliefs, and choices in accordance with zhixiang allows one to focus on existence and become an authentic being.
In addition to purpose, creativity also develops the individual. Whereas zhixiang provides the self with a vision and meaning, creativity is what drives or energizes the self. In The Great Learning, it is written that “If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day” (Tu, 1978, p. 37). Renovating, constructing, and producing are all ways of accessing the authentic self. Creativity, in this sense, is related to ownership and originality. To be creative is to truly exist on one’s own terms as creatively gives the self energy to construct and pursue zhixiang. The Doctrine of the Mean states, “only those with the greatest sincerity under heaven can fulfil their nature” (ch. 22). Making use of one’s potentials enables the self to strive for an ethical life in which ritual, kindness, and justice can be established wherever one is.
The third attribute that makes up personhood and authentic existence is critical thinking. Like the Socratic dictum, the unexamined life is not worth living, Confucianism emphasises self-examination as a way of establishing truth, value, and meaning to existence. For instance, in The Analects Master Zeng is recorded to have said, “each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?” (1.4). Critical thinking means reflecting upon one’s action and inquiring about what one is learning in addition to reflecting and inquiring about other people’s actions and learning. As Chen (2004) notes, “without thinking things over, we cannot understand the truth of Being and be free of self-deception” (p. 19). Critical inquiry provides the setting or means to which one can be creative and pursue a sense of purpose. With it, authentic life can be experienced to a greater degree.
Finally, the most important aspect to living an authentic life is sincerity. Sincerity resembles loyalty and trustworthiness in that it means to ‘be true to oneself’. To be sincere is to not veer from the position one holds or strive to appear otherwise than one ought to (Varga, 2014). It is, as Trilling (1972) states, “the sense of being sound, or pure, or whole; or consistent in its virtuousness” (p. 12-13). In Islam, sincerity is one of the most important aspects of religious duty. For instance, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq notes that “sincerity of action lies in this that you should not desire anyone to praise you for it except God Almighty, and intention supersedes action. Lo, verily, intention is action itself.” Al-Sadiq’s statement highlights that sincerity involves having the right intentions as whether or not one carries out a religious duty correctly, the merit of that action will be based on the truthful feelings, beliefs, and thoughts of the believer. Or as the Qur’an (17:84) states, “in accordance with his character (shakilatihi)”, which refers to the believer’s way or manner. One of the oldest elaborations of sincerity is found in chapter 20 of The Doctrine of the Mean: “To be sincere is the way of heaven. To become sincere is the way of mankind. If you are sincere you will reach the center without force”. Thus, developing sincerity is the way to establishing personhood. Since sincerity is an essential component to practicing the moral way, being sincere relates to sincerity to self and others. Only by cultivating ‘right’ emotions can a person genuinely be benevolent, righteous, and wise. Without it, ritual would be empty, kindness would be false, and practice would have no meaning. Insincerity would not only involve deceiving and diminishing others, but putting on a mask and becoming disconnected from the world.
Although individualism does not exist in Confucian thought – all individuals are relational beings that exist through and are defined by other people – it is incorrect to state that “we ought to make it a point to avoid speaking of ‘the self’ in Confucius” (Fingarette, 1991, p. 199, cited in Ames, 2011, p. 125). There is no denying that the self exists. Being an ethical person is predicated on the assumption that a subjective, metaphysical self is required to carry out one’s ethical duties and develop harmonious relationships with others. Building authentic personhood by finding purpose, being creative, inquiring critically, and carrying out sincerely is what gives one the means of relating to and being with others. It is what gives one humanity.