Confucianism and modernity
Part 9 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Confucianism is often characterised as a one-dimensional, rigid moral philosophy that was greatly disliked by scholars such as Han Feizi, who described Confucianists as ‘vermin’ that preyed like parasites on the body politic. This section of the interview discusses misunderstanding Confucianism in the modern world.
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.
Although not many people know that Confucianism is one of the six official religions in Indonesia, the capital Jakarta was chosen as the spot where the 2017 Congress of Confucian Religion was held from the 17-18th of October. The theme for the conference was “Building Harmony and Golden Mean to Create Welfare and World” as the world continues to deal with problems such as inequality, terrorism, and nuclear threat. As the President of The Supreme Council of Confucian Religion of Indonesia, Uung Sendana, stated:
“Now, this extreme thought is developing in world. Just look at this country, many people who reproach and criticize each other…What we want to show is bringing peace throughout the world.”
The conference is thus not only timely, but also necessary in the current political climate. Previously, an inter-religious dialogue between Islam and Confucianism with the theme of prosperity and peace was held, but this year the focus was on the need to establish world peace.
Some of the countries that sent delegates to attend the conference included Australia, Britain, Italy, Germany, Egypt, China (including separate representatives for Hong Kong and Taiwan), Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States.
Here are the 8 recommendation messages that emerged from the conference:
- A Peaceful world is not an impossible strive for it if we strive for it and build both harmony and golden mean.
- Harmony should be built from family as the smallest unit of society, nation and the world.
- Golden mean can only be actualized through if every individual, family, group is able to control self-ego, have their own responsibilities and togetherness, giving first before demanding and always consciously think of greater good, realize their respective role as parents or children, husband or wife, friend or companion, and leader or member of a community.
- Equality is the key crucial factor and must be prioritized, as Confucius said, “When there is equality there is no poverty and where there is equality there is no discord.” To achieve equality, we must show appreciation for those who made an achievement or contributed and on the other hand, care for marginalized people.
- Religion should give solutions to the problems of humanity based on respecting differences on the one side and strengthen similarity on the other sides. What is same should not be differentiated, what is different should not be forced to be the same. Confucian religion, people and leaders should actively become a bridge between communities through interfaith dialogue, spreading information in local or native language with respect to local culture and diversity in order to build mutual understanding.
- Education should be fully accessible to everyone and include all of these aspects: lntellectual, emotional, spiritual, moral-ethics, complete and holistic, therefore a superior, well-educated person can realize him/herself as God’s creation and friend to fellow humans and nature, which is called “Junzi” in Confucian terminology.
- It is better for us to avoid debating whether Confucianism is a religion or philosophy or moral ethics, because every religion truly has the above dimension. It is more beneficial if Confucian people and scholars aspire to emulate the Great Prophet Confucius—respecting our elders, trusting friends, companions and fellow humans, and guiding younger generations with benevolence. In each respective household and together with other religions, to reflect on their respective wisdoms thus dedicating themselves to world peace and welfare.
- Confucians and Confucian scholars from all over the world believe that within the four seas, all people are brothers/sisters and thus have to work together and help each other for common virtue and prosperity.
The overall message is that everyone has a responsibility to break the limits and discriminative barriers made by nationalism, corruption, and corporate greed. Confucian religion should be free from exclusive association with any specific ethnicity or organisation. It is only by universally adopting the ethical teachings of Confucius and applying them to different contexts, from development to human rights, that world peace can be established.
For more information on how Confucianism is being adapted to the modern world, see the Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture.
In the last two decades, the Chinese government has been developing an international media network that reports from the Chinese perspective on stories relating to China. Although there is debate about whether promoting Chinese traditions, values, and culture can increase understanding and empathy from audiences around the world, large funds have been invested into enhancing the country’s image. However, despite these efforts, there is still a lack of reporting on Confucian-related stories. Here are three recent news items that feature Confucianism.
- Technology and Confucianism– ‘Get ready for Chinese AI with a Confucian bias’
Image: China’s Rise in Artificial Intelligence. The Atlantic.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the possession or exercise of thought by machines such as computers. The main question that many scientists and philosophers have been asking is whether a machine thinks. The concept of AI becomes an issue as the capacity to think or reason was previously thought to be unique to the human species. Extending this capacity to machines, who are unable to experience the world like a real human, means that as AI develops, this new technology will have increased moral, religious, and legal significance. It also means that as it stands now, AI is one of the most important and misunderstood sciences of modern times.
Intelligence technologies rely on a binary logic as they are based on yes/no or true/false algebraic formulations. Like the classical Chinese text, the I Ching (The Book of Changes), there is no ‘maybe’ option unless maybe is based on another probability or likelihood (“if I get a raise, then I will buy a new car”). Options can be weighed, but there is never an indefinite answer to a question. While the binary logic in all AI systems is standardized and universal, each AI technology is also created with intent, and this intent is culture-specific. So, it is expected that AI in China will operate differently to Indian AI, AI in the United States, or in Russia.
The expectation is that calculators will replace the old abacus as children around the world will come home from school, show a photograph of their maths homework to the home robot, and receive an immediate answer. But in China, AI will be “biased” towards the ancient Chinese way of reconciling binary opposites. So, answers will be pre-programmed to align with the classical texts of the Dao De Jing, the Analects, and the Great Learning. In the Chinese way of thinking, users should expect given answers to be more wholesome:
One should not be progressive or conservative; one should be both
One should not be materialistic or spiritual; one should be both
One should not be idealistic or realistic; one should be both
When asking for advice, Chinese AI will also be known to emphasise the importance of traditional values such as family honour, loyalty, harmony, and honesty. Students will be expected to ask how Confucian wisdom can be applied to solve current social problems, using AI machines as a platform to test their ideas before extending their discussions in the classroom.
With China’s 1.3 billion population expected to stay relatively stable in the next 40 years, the country will continue to generate huge amounts of data. This includes consumer preferences, to the highly personal and sensitive, such as medical records and social attitudes. The power that comes from having extensive data available on nearly a quarter of the world’s population and the world’s largest manufacturer is unprecedented. This raises questions as to how AI will be used by government agencies, what security measures will be put in place to protect civilian privacy, and in what way will intelligence robotics be programmed to respond to civilians who sympathise with ideas that the government censors, such as democracy or the Falun Gong movement.
- A Weaponised Philosophy? – ‘Confucianism and Market Reforms–Ancient Coils, Modern Reforms’
Image: Kim Jong Un and wife. Newsweek.
An issue that continues to be a cause for concern regarding global peace and security is the 2017 North Korean nuclear crisis. Since North Korea has fired missiles into the Japanese sea, world leaders have announced the need for diplomatic talks to calm the ongoing tensions in the region. What is little discussed in contemporary analyses is the role of Confucianism in Korean culture.
Confucianism has had far-reaching influence over the Korean peninsula. Whether used for its emphasis on self-sacrifice and blind obedience in the North, or as a social norm in the modern and more liberal South, Confucian ideals continue to determine how Korean societies are organised. For example, in Seoul, it is a general custom that an adult would never address an older family member on a first name basis out of respect for seniority. The high standing given to bureaucrats has also created a social tier of first-class elites made up of diplomats, trade negotiators, and industrial planners. Even globalized multinational companies like LG and Samsung are organised as conglomerate ‘chaebols’ based on hereditary ownership, employing life-long partners who become ‘family members’.
Korea’s history with Confucianism dates back to the Chôson dynasty in the 15th century. Even though Buddhism constituted an essential part of the social fabric of Chôson society and was heavily interwoven into the lives of rulers and peasants, Buddhist thought became associated with corruption and superstition as its political influence diminished. With the state’s policy to “uphold Confucianism and oppress Buddhism” (崇儒抑佛), the economic power of Buddhism declined and Buddhist institutions were driven out of the capital and into the mountains. This led to a state where Buddhism was removed from the city’s centre. To fill this social gap, the Chôson foundersestablished Confucianism as the state religion. Within a few years, Korean state rituals, philosophy, ethics, and social norms were being influenced by Chinese Confucian thought. As in China, government-sponsored examinations were compulsory to enter the state bureaucracy, and a position in the government was considered a mark of high status for an individual and their family. Chôson dynasty Korea was organized by strict social divisions according to status and occupation, where the close observance of Confucian rituals, separation of male and female interaction, and self-imposed isolation were reinforced by social expectations and standards.
These practices became part of Korea’s national character. Over the centuries, Confucianism continued to define Korean national identify as it symbolically stood against Chinese assimilation and Japanese occupation. During the post-war period, the North used Confucianism to justify its increasing isolation from the rest of the world, while the South’s martial rule under General Park Chung-hee pursued an export-led growth strategy. Even though merchants were considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy according to Confucian norms, Chaebol family heads were able to escape incarceration by donating their profits to the military regime in exchange for keeping their factories.
Even as the South’s martial rule was replaced by free trade and democracy, it is no surprise that Confucian attitudes continued to persist. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, for example, many Koreans gave in to government pleas to donate their gold to central banks. Citizens ended up melting family heirlooms and wedding rings, donating over US$2 billion worth of gold to meet IMF payments on the due date.
When a philosophy is ‘weaponised’ or interpreted to justify policy objectives, it is all the more important to understand and study the classical texts to see how political elites are using the philosophy for the country’s (or their own) ends. Leaders on the Korean peninsula have shown how Confucianism can be used in a variety of ways: from training workers to be obedient to increase trade surpluses, to perfecting nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles that show the strength of the ruling family. So what will Confucianism be used to justify next?
- A Battle over Ideas– ‘Who Was Saigo Takamori, The Last Samurai?’
Image: The Japanese state cavalry led by Saigo Takamori. National Geographic.
Samurais were a caste of warriors in Japanese society from the 12th to the 19th century. Respected for their military strategy, swordsmanship, and discipline, they were known to value courage, loyalty, and honour. While political change led to their decline, the samurais, led by Saigo Takamori (西郷 隆盛), both embraced and fought against modernisation.
The restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868 was much more than just a change in the system of government. The nation was militarily weak and had little technological development. As a result, the leaders saw modernisation and reform as the answer to strengthening Japanese security. “Enrich the country, strengthen the army” was the slogan of the Meiji restorationists. The new regime began dismantling the old feudal system and building a modern fighting force. But not all Japanese welcomed these changes. The reforms deeply split the samurai. Although some supported a modern vision of Japan, to others, modernity threatened their way of life. Saigo Takamori, a samurai hero who helped lead the Meiji revolt, represented the conflict between old and the new.
Born in 1828, Saigo came from Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima), a fiefdom in southwestern Japan. Saigo was not only a skilled warrior but also dedicated student to the ideas of neo-Confucianism and Zen Buddhism. As well as admiring dedication and piety, taking his own life after his master passed away, Saigo was convinced that Confucianism was universal rather than culturally-specific. He stated that Confucian principles of good governance, loyalty, benevolence, and filial piety could be found even in the West, and that Japan could learn Confucian values by critically evaluating Western institutions. Studying the Confucian classics, Saigo argued that Confucianism was a common human heritage that could allow Japan to maintain its traditions and emerge as a stable power.
Saigo played a leading role in the political and military struggles of the mid-19th century. By 1868, Saigo’s troops occupied Edo and defeated the shogunate forces. As part of the package of reforms later introduced by Meiji, Japan’s ancient feudal system of military government was abolished. However, once he returned to Tokyo as the head of the Imperial Guard, Saigo was disillusioned. Corruption and the desire for Western products symbolised greed and everything that he feared about the West. Abolishing the Han system also affected the samurai way of life. The stipends paid to them had disappeared and the creation of the Japanese Imperial Army and military conscription removed the need for their military service. With no income or status, the samurais became common peasants.
The extent of the defeat suffered by the samurais was total. But Saigo’s dignity and courage in following his duty and defeating the Shogunate while facing the reality of modernisation made him a national hero. His work on Confucianism also provides a new perspective on how Confucianism can be translated into a global code of ethics that extends beyond China’s political system.
Image: China Daily (2011). Confucius’ birthday celebrated in Taiwan. Retrieved June 12, 2017 from http://english.sina.com/life/p/2011/0927/400733.html
Over the past decade, academic circles have been increasingly interested in exploring the relationship between Confucianism and modernization in East Asia. The term “East Asian Confucianism” means Confucian traditions in East Asian countries that have had cultural and economic links with China, including Korea, Japan, Vietnam as well as other political units that developed later, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (Little & Reed, 1989).
Although Confucian traditions have varied across the region according to the ideological positions of different governments, most East Asian countries have faced common problems in the pursuit of modernization where traditional systems have either collapsed or weakened. The most significant example of this was the decline of Confucian ideology where East Asian scholars condemned Confucianism to the “dustbin” of history as it was thought to oppose progress and modernity in both Capitalist and Communist economies.
But with the restoration of Confucian traditions in the 1980s, Confucianism again reappeared as an influential philosophy. As David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames note in Thinking Through Confucius (1987), the renewed interest in Confucianism has been so profound that many scholars identified the revival as a ‘Confucian renaissance’ in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea. However, what was commonly ignored in most of these studies was the various versions of Confucianism across East Asia, with “relatively little written about Confucianism in Taiwan” (Huang, 2009, p. 71).
Before explaining why this gap in the literature exists, some context should be given. Taiwan has had an independent identity apart from mainland China for more than a century. To quote Professor June Teufel Dreyer (2003) from the University of Miami, “the Polynesian cultures of the aboriginal tribes, occupations of varying lengths and degrees of intensity by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, 50 years of colonization by an assimilationist Japan, and a period of strong American influence after World War II” (p. 1) have all shaped the development of a distinct Taiwanese culture.
Despite this, Taiwan became increasingly sinicized under Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party during the founding years of the People’s Republic. For example, streets were re-named with place-names from the Mainland, while Mandarin was learnt as the official language in Taiwan. Those who disobeyed and spoke Taiwanese, Hakka or aboriginal dialects were “fined, slapped, or subjected to other disciplinary actions” (Dreyer, 2003, p. 2). As history textbooks were rewritten and memorials re-created to fit into a national Chinese past, popular culture was also influenced by China. As well as restricting non-Mandarin shows and films, performers who spoke non-Mandarin parts tended to be portrayed as criminals or those with low-status jobs, giving the impression that not speaking Mandarin was associated with being from the lower class (Schmitt, 2011).
Because of this process, Confucianism in Taiwan was commonly understood in one of two ways. The first was where Confucianism as a tradition originating in China was merely planted in Taiwan with its universal elements not being localised. In that sense, “Taiwanese Confucianism” could be understood as just another representation of ‘cultural China’, relating to Tu’s (1991) idea of China as existing in three symbolic universes. The first consists of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, whose members are predominantly ethnic Chinese; the second of Chinese communities in predominantly non-Chinese societies; and the third of non-Chinese individuals who study and bring Chinese culture into their own communities. Confucianism in Taiwan belongs to the first universe of cultural China.
The other characterisation of Confucianism in Taiwan is that of a localised version of Confucianism without universal significance. As Chen (2009) notes, “historically speaking, ‘Taiwanese Confucianism’ during the Ming and Qing dynasties was nothing more than the ‘Taiwan branch’ of the Fujian School” (p. 11). What this means is that as the first Confucius Temple was built in Taiwan in 1665, and Confucianism became a key part of Taiwanese architecture, education, and national rites, this localised branch of Confucianism has only ever been significant in Taiwan.
However, the reality of how Confucianism developed in Taiwan is much more complex. On the one hand, Confucianism was applied to serve political ends as certain ideological values of Confucian thought, such as loyalty, patriotism, and filial piety, were promoted by the government in standardized textbooks (Huang, 2009). Specifically in the postwar period, certain facets were also selected by political elites to create an “official Confucianism”, whose goal was to support the state ideology by creating a highly selective interpretation of Confucian ideology. This sort of misinterpretation and misapplication of Taiwanese Confucianism was not an exceptional occurrence in history. Even in China, at the start of Emperor Wu’s reign during the Han dynasty (140–86 BCE), all non-Confucian schools were banned as Confucianism was utilized and distorted by the officialdom (Huang, 2009).
At the same time, in contrast to official Taiwanese Confucianism, Confucianism was also interpreted by intellectuals such as Xu Fuguan (1902–1982), as it became a key school of thought to resisting foreign influence. In Development of Confucianism in Taiwan, Chen Chao-ying (2014) pointed out that Confucianism in Taiwan led the territory to oppose the Qing and support reinstatement of the Ming, criticize Japanese occupation, and resist wholesale Westernization during the period after Second World War. In that case, clashes between the Taiwanese and Japanese and the incoming Mainlanders after 1945 shows that the cultural and intellectual tradition in Taiwan was diverse, complex, and multifaceted.
As the revival of Confucianism continues throughout East Asia, the history of Confucian development is not as clear-cut as is usually imagined. Rather than simply being part of China’s cultural sphere of influence or as an indigenised ideology in Taiwan, Confucianism has been influenced by a number of cultural, political, and economic factors that were both local and global, allowing the tradition to develop “in the unique context of the interaction between Taiwan and China, tradition and modernity, and indigenous and foreign culture” (Huang, 2009, p. 8). For future research, the question remains as to what are the prospects for Confucian tradition in Taiwan with the challenges of air, water, and industrial pollution that accompany industrialisation in addition to the other challenges of modernisation. More work needs to be done to investigate these processes.
How can Confucianism modernize and shape future cultural discourse? Can it help solve global problems in the twenty-first century? China Daily host talks to Stephen C. Angle, a philosopher and professor specializing in Chinese Philosophy at Wesleyan University.