In a recent article written by Michael Schuman, a Beijing-based journalised and author of books on Confucianism, it is argued that China needs to adopt a Confucian oriented foreign policy approach. In the article, Schuman states that:
For centuries, Chinese dynasties held a role in world affairs that looked very much like what Xi appears to want today. They sat at the center of an East Asian diplomatic and economic order that was stable, peaceful and prosperous over long periods.
Here Schuman is referring to China’s East (and South East) Asian tributary system in which China as the “central heart” (zhongxin) of the region maintained stability by keeping threats under control. It did this by legitimising the Emperor’s ‘All Under Heaven’ mantra, strengthening its military capabilities and guaranteeing the exchange of military resources, and offering states a trading channel through which they could peacefully pursue their economic policies. The flexibility of the system allowed China to adjust its foreign relations through several theatres of action, including traditional diplomacy by gift exchanges.
This system was based on Confucianism, which was the main political ideology that informed the rules, customs, and values of the courts and provided guidance as to how rulers and ministers were expected to behave. In Confucianism, to keep order and stability, relations were expected to be hierarchical. However, the superior person/country had a duty to treat their subordinates fairly and with kindness for the most part. For example, Mencius is noted to have said that “When one by force subdues men, they do not submit to him in their hearts…[but] when one subdues men by virtue, in their hearts’ core they are pleased, and sincerely submit”.
For the most part, the tributary system worked. Apart from the ongoing Sino-Japanese rivalry, most surrounding states received trade and diplomatic support from their allegiance to China as well as military security. Occasionally, as Schuman notes, China even made concessions that were not in their interests like allowing Vietnam’s Tây Sơn regime (1789–1802) in the 1800s to reclaim its lost lands and move part of its border into Chinese territory to access copper mines. Apart from taxing the regime, the Chinese authorities allowed for territorial transgressions to keep the tributary system running.
In the present, China has expanded its influence in the Asia-Pacific region by putting forward another “peaceful rising” vision of Asian regionalism and community-building. The link between internal and external stability is crucial for China’s development with the search for energy resources and logistic routes being one of the key factors in Beijing’s domestic and international policies. For Schuman, although the tributary system is unlikely to return in the twenty-first century, to reinvigorate a Confucianist approach and avoid setbacks and tensions in the region, China needs to avoid further militarizing areas of the South China Sea, and instead find a compromise with other claimants to maintain foreign policy support in others areas that will assure China’s development, including the geostrategic Belt and Road project. Further, to resolve the trade war with America, Schuman argues that China could use the Confucian principle of reciprocity and be willing to treat foreign companies in its borders the way its companies are treated overseas.
But it is questionable as to how likely these responses will be since militarisation of South China Sea is China’s reaction to wide-scale American military activity in both the East and South China seas. From China’s perspective, the country has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and defensive deployments are necessary for its national security needs and are not being aimed at any country. In fact, no American property is endangered by Chinese encroachment and as it currently stands, China can deploy capabilities that threaten American and regional forces at a considerably lower cost than the US can deploy counter-measures. The Belt and Road project will further complement the developments in the South China Sea rather than be considered a separate issue that needs resolving before the Belt and Road project becomes a reality.
Finally, Beijing cannot simply accept America’s decision to impose new tariffs on Chinese goods. The plan to impose counter tariffs on agricultural and energy products from the US is one of the more fair responses to America’s protectionist policies. Once implemented, American producers will have to pay higher costs to sell their goods to China, while losing existing revenue as Chinese buyers seek cheaper imports from other countries. To avoid future humiliation, China is already finding alternative sources for trade products like soybeans, which was generating US$14 billion in sales annually for American suppliers.
In the policy world of tit-for-tat, Confucianism continues to play an important role in China’s diplomatic rhetoric. However, as to how much it can inform China’s actions is a whole other issue.
While most of the literature on Confucianism focuses on the application of Confucian philosophy in China, little attention has been paid to the development of Confucianism in Korea and Japan. One Religion, Two Countries: Classical and Neo-Confucianism in Korea and Japan with Dr. John Goulde explores the different adaptions of Confucianism to Japan and Korea’s bureaucratic, government and educational institutions.
One of the more arresting claims Aristotle makes in his famous exploration of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is that you can’t be friends with god. His reasoning is that friendship requires equality, and the gods are vastly superior to us. The argument is a plausible one: it seems difficult or impossible to be friends with a boss, mentor, or teacher in quite the way that one is friends with one’s peers and equals. Indeed we might say that friendship is distinctive precisely in being non-hierarchical. If I am truly your friend, what I am to you is exactly what you are to me.
This thought has been supposed to cause trouble for the followers of Confucius. Confucianism was China’s most influential philosophical tradition for well over two millennia. Its ethical teaching has at its center several hierarchical relationships that were intrinsically bound up with forms of propriety, including rituals. The second most famous Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) identifies five ‘cardinal relations’, four of which are clearly hierarchical: ruler and subject, father and son, old and young, and husband and wife (Aristotle too sees the latter as an unequal relationship). The odd relationship out is friendship. Friendship seems to fit badly with the Confucian idea of modeling human relationships on family bonds. One possible comparison, which sees friends as having a bond like that between older and younger brother, would not secure the symmetry we’re looking for. Friendship is also anomalous among the cardinal relations in lacking ritual prescriptions, and in being voluntary. You don’t choose your father or (at least in ancient China) your ruler, but you do choose your friends.
Confucius (551-479 BC) would also have had some reason to think that friendships should be unequal. For him the purpose of friendship is the cultivation of virtue. It seems a natural thought that we should therefore befriend those more excellent than us, so as to learn from them. Yet like Aristotle, Confucius insists on symmetry in true friendship, advising, “do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are.”
It’s been argued that in light of this latter rule, Confucius himself could never have made friends at all. His disciples were certainly dear to him, as we see from a passage in his Analects, when he openly grieves for one of them who has died. But does that mean he was this disciple’s friend? David Hall and Roger Ames would say not. In their book Thinking Through Confucius, they asserted, “Confucius is peerless and hence, friendless. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him.” His relation with his students was arguably more akin to a hierarchical, familial one, as shown by the fact that he referred to them as his xiaozi, meaning ‘little masters’, or ‘sons’.
In keeping with the equality of friendship, Confucius identifies trust (xin) as its distinctive attitude, whereas a familial relationship would be characterized by an asymmetrical virtue such as filial piety (xiao). Confucius would thus discourage parents from trying to befriend their children, a common trend in modern-day family life. Just as a father cannot be the teacher of his son because their relation is too intimate, so being overly familiar is no way to be familial.
But how exactly do I cultivate excellence by befriending someone who is equal to me? After all it would seem that I have nothing to learn from my moral peer, at least not in the way Confucius describes in this passage from the Analects: “in strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.” Instead, it must somehow be that sharing with equal others in the excellent moral life, or at least in the pursuit of virtue, is itself a spur to the good life, or even a constitutive part of it.
Confucius seems to have been convinced that this is so. For one thing, no less than other relationships, friendship gives us an opportunity to exercise virtue. Confucius himself aimed “to bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young,” and in advising us on examining our own character he speaks of reflecting on whether we have always kept our word with our friends. Friendship is also a source of delight, as is made clear in this line from the opening passage of the Analects: “to have friends [peng] come from distant quarters: is this not a source of enjoyment?” Yanguo He informs us that the word peng has a strong implication of ‘like-mindedness’, and may especially indicate the bonds between the students gathered around one master.
This is a hint towards a deeper importance of friends, namely that they are embarked with us upon a joint project of self-cultivation. We do not improve morally by looking to friends as a model for imitation, as we might with a superior. Rather, our affection for them is based on a recognition that they share with us our greatest pursuit. To illustrate this idea, the scholar Xiufen Lu gave the example of the tale of Bo Ya, a musician whose mastery was fully appreciated only by his friend Zhong Ziqi. When Zhong died, Bo Ya smashed his instrument, on the grounds that playing without being understood is pointless.
Likewise, Confucius occasionally complained about being unappreciated by the morally inept. This may come as a surprise, but is simply the counterpart of the joy he took in associating with those who shared his values. Birds of a feather really do flock together, ideally by taking wing towards the heights of virtue.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
*This original article can be found here.
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.
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.