Shortly after coming to power, Chinese president Xi Jinping promised to rejuvenate his nation through the ‘Chinese Dream’. This would see China become a strong, civilised and harmonious socialist modern country by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic (Ljunggren, 2015). Although previous national concepts such as ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious world’ have been deployed, one of China’s greatest hurdles to realising its national dream has been identified by critics to be its lack of “soft power” (the ability to shape others’ preferences and interests through attraction).
In recent years, the Chinese government has aimed to spread its influence by creating Confucius Institutes around the world. These interactive spaces, however, have not significantly raised a favourable political image of China abroad (Xie & Page, 2013). Additionally, a gap in spreading cultural values to the younger generation, both domestically and internationally, has continued to widen for China making it difficult to promote a strong national image.
In many cases, when culture is not communicated from generation-to-generation, intergenerational tensions arise “from competing understandings of the rights and responsibilities of young people and the autonomy and freedom they should be entitled to” (Mansouri et al., 2015, p. 6). Further, generational gaps also make it difficult to promote and protect ‘intangible cultural heritage’, which UNESCO (2017) defines as the skills, knowledge and customs that are passed on to the rest of the community. When present in communities, passing on traditional skills and customs can encourage a sense of belonging which helps individuals feel part of society at large (Sandis, 2014).
Since the social and economic value of cultural transmission is important for developing states, whose cultural heritage comes under increasing pressure from the processes of modernisation and globalisation (Techera, 2011), a few academics have begun to examine virtual reality as a way of communicating Chinese cultural values to younger generations, while also promoting China’s influence abroad.
Confucianism, in particular, is a relevant system of thought that has been integrated into everyday practices of several Asian cultures. For the younger generations, Confucianism has been gaining popularity in books and cinema. For instance, the book written by Yu Dan about Confucius sold more than 10 million copies, indicating a high demand for Confucian knowledge in modern Chinese societies (Sun, 2009). While less successful, the 2010 biographical drama Confucius (孔子), directed by Hu Mei and starring Chow Yun-fat, also had blockbuster sales for China’s domestic audience despite missing the mark for many international film critics (Groves, 2009; Marsh, 2010).
Building on these attempts of using modern communication technology and popular culture to communicate cultural heritage, a recent study from the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia has designed a new form of cultural play, where users explore cultural values and teachings through a digital media platform called Confucius Chat – “a philosophical conversational agent which models Confucius knowledge and teachings” (Cheok et al., 2017, p. 328).
Providing interactive and personalised advice from virtual Confucius, which is not possible in passive media such as printed books or film and television, Confucius Chat provides on-the-screen responses generated from classical texts, Confucius’s disciples, and general facts about the names of ancient countries and dynasties. In that sense, as well as providing relevant Confucian knowledge content to audiences who use social networks as key sources of information and advice, interactive technology such as Confucius Chat has the potential to promote Chinese values and culture beyond formal institutions and government-led projects.
The way the technology works is by identifying sets of topics and user inputs to create appropriate responses. For example, the user input “What is your name please” maps to two templates in the system’s database, identifying both the template “PLEASE” and “WHAT IS YOUR NAME”. Since this sentence includes the word ‘please’, the response automates to “Thank you for being polite”, with the second reply “My name is Confucius”. For this example, both templates match all the worlds in the input sentence, resulting in a score of 1.0 (Cheok et al., 2017).
Image: Cheok, A.D., Edirisinghe, C. & Karunanayaka, K. (2017). iSage mobile app: an extension of Confucius Chat system [Screen Shot].
The score divides by half for more general templates on topics such a ‘love’, ‘family’, and ‘money’, which offers random output relating to passages that may discuss these topics. Importantly, if the output sentence contains any words from the forbidden word list, “which is a list of words Confucius will not discuss, for example God and Jesus, the score will be 0.0.” (p. 337), meaning that the system will not respond.
Key benefits to this type of technology include active experience as an important condition for enjoyment. As Wang et al. (2012) state in their article on using artificial intelligence to create a virtual interactive philosopher, “more freedom should be given to users to freely explore things in which they are interested” (p. 3). Using short and fast interaction to generate Confucius’s responses as well as an easy-to-use interface where no prior knowledge is required to interact with the system provides outreach to audiences who describe interactive cultural play as “just like talking with [a] read friend” (Cheok et al., 2017, p. 342).
Image: Cheok, A.D., Edirisinghe, C. & Karunanayaka, K. (2017). iSage mobile app: an extension of Confucius Chat system [Screen Shot].
Currently, the Confucius Chat system has been extended into an Android mobile application, iSage Confucius, which allows people to talk to virtual Confucius on their smart phones by typing or selecting questions. The server processes the incoming request, and returns the answer given by the system’s algorithms and recorded templates (Wang et al., 2012).
While current algorithms sometimes gives unrelated answers and lack the ability to comprehend words without semantic meaning, such as people’s names, interactive technology could become another avenue for spreading China’s cultural heritage. Targeting the younger generation in the developing world and the West plays into China’s “charm offensive”, which is slowly increasing in the global networked information space.
Image: CRIENGLISH.com (2013). Second Confucius Institute in Tanzania Opens. Retrieved April 20, 2017 from here.
‘In the colonial society, education is such that it serves the colonialist…In a regime of slavery, education was but one institution for forming slaves.’ (Mozambique Liberation Front, 1968).
For many scholars, increasing Chinese engagement in Africa has signalled a new stage of neo-colonialism. As the Tanzanian political commentator Kitila Mkumbo pointed out, “Africa is now becoming a new battlefield for the scramble for China and the United States access to Africa’s richness in natural resources and markets [sic]”. News organisation Al Jazeera and all Africa have also noted that China’s engagement with Africa symbolises a “struggle for influence among emerging and economically advanced powers jostling for a strategic opportunity to exploit resources”.
Amid the growing anxiety around China’s increasing economic and military power, the Chinese government has attempted to project a more favourable image of itself through Confucius Institutes. Naming the institutes after the sage-philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) was meant to symbolise the essence of Chinese culture through the teaching of Confucian values, including benevolence (ren, 仁), righteousness (yi, 义), and civility (li, 礼). At the core of Confucian teachings is the importance of practising proper human relations, which Chinese political figures have used when describing host countries as “brotherly bilateral friendly”.
Since its inception in 2004, the mission of promoting Chinese language and culture has spread rapidly around the world. In 2014, 440 institutes and 646 classrooms were teaching Chinese language and culture in 120 countries, where at least 30 of those countries were in Africa (Wekesa, 2013; Zaharna et al., 2014). However, despite the extent of China’s influence, the Confucius Institutes have received criticism in host countries and abroad. For example, some have stated that the institutes reflect the Chinese government’s political agenda and interfere with academic freedom, and that they are simply used by “African countries to leverage clout in international organisations” (Stambach & Kwayu, 2017, p. 419).
Whatever the case, operating as an ‘ideological battleground’, these institutes have also called into question Africa’s position in international relations and whether African countries would look East or West in their engagements with foreign countries (Olin-Ammentorp & Sun, 2014; Abdulai, 2016).
However, the problem with this view is that it fails to take into account what actually happens when these institutes are implemented into practice. As researchers Amy Stambach and Aikande Kwayu state in their latest article on Confucius Institutes in Tanzania, despite the many different narratives about China’s influence in Africa that appear as master plans on brochures and ceremonies, there are a variety of ways in which people interact with Chinese language learning and China-Tanzania relations.
Through ethnographic fieldwork in Tanzania’s classrooms and Chinese-owned shops, the scholars found that what is taught in the institutes is not exactly what is learnt. Instead of having much to do with official views or ideologies, “the biggest effects of [Confucius Institutes] seems to be bringing Chinese teachers and Tanzanian students into conversation, not necessarily delivering any master plan” (p. 418).
Moreover, by sitting in on these sessions, the researchers found that while most of the courses aim to teach Chinese language by students repeating and memorising sounds and tones, few pass the standardised language exam or travel to China; and even fewer seem interested in the videos that show aspects of nature depicted in ancient and modern Chinese characters (p. 419). More than proficiency or scholarship, most students use class time to multi-task, where many carry on with their day jobs by running errands throughout the day, while others sit in to broaden their skills and build up their resumes.
Like many students, Confucius Institute teachers are also building their work portfolios while juggling social life, making most interactions between student-teacher as an exchange within a generation, with many friendships being formed. This shows the reality of people-to-people interactions that Confucius Institute brochures do not anticipate.
In the market place, Stambach and Kwayu also note that a similar story unfolds. Away from the university, on the crowded streets of Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam, interest in the Chinese language is mixed. While business people at the high end of the economic scale seem to have practical reasons for learning Chinese, they are exceptions among the internationally connected as most international business is still conducted in English.
At the other end of the spectrum, rather than studying Chinese, Tanzanian day labourers employed by Chinese pick up expressions in Mandarin. From the authors’ field notes, one woman conveys that her Chinese employer treats her like a slave and that her employer comes and goes without any notification. She does not see the need to learn Chinese. In another shop, the Tanzanian workers state that they learned a few words by listening to their employer.
These ad hoc snapshot interviews reveal that rather than understanding this exchange as one where many Chinese teach their staff informally, some Tanzanians pick up a few words if they think they are useful from their employers (p. 422).
In that case, rather than representing a political project that symbolises Tanzania’s shift to China, beyond East and West, Chinese language and cultural exchange does not draw African students into close engagement with China, but neither does it detract from China. To say that Tanzania or other African countries are moving towards or away from anything plays into highly abstract expressions of diplomacy that overlook the fact that people “use education to define and remake power through everyday activities” (p. 423).
Without considering African agency or the agency of people who use these institutes and exchanges for a variety of purposes, scholars, researchers and journalists play into the myth that the world is divided by an East-West dichotomy with fixed constructions of power and identity.
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With the rapid development of China’s military forces throughout the 1990s and 2010s, academia has paid increasing attention to Chinese military ethics and international politics (Di Cosmo, 2009; Stalnaker, 2012; Zhang, 2012; Lo & Twiss, 2015). From a Confucian perspective, the emphasis on humanity and ethical behaviour has often meant that war has been viewed as an abnormal social phenomenon that is caused by blinded human nature: “war disappears with the guidance of humanness, love, and good deeds” (Yu, 2016, p. 265). Thus, despite the focus on just war theory in classical Chinese war strategy, many scholars have argued that Confucianism does not have much to say about war other than that war should be abolished, and the Great Unity of the world developed (Pecorino, 2001).
However, according to Yi-Ming Yu from the National Defence University in Taiwan, rereading classic Confucian texts reveals that Confucianism does discuss ethics in warfare, and has played a significant role in wars that impacted China’s development. Indeed, as Fuchuan Yao states in his article War and Confucianism, while humanism may be true in theory there were more wars and chaos when Confucianism became the recognised political thought in China. It should therefore “bear some, if not prime, responsibility for the vicious circles of war and chaos” (p. 214). On the other hand, Yao’s comments- that Chinese people suffered from the Confucian political context where a history of war, famine, and revolution killed millions of people- may not be enough to conclude that there is a direct correlation between war and Confucianism. For example, Liu (2001) states that it was corruption and despotism that led to the stagnation of Chinese society and the vicious circles of order and disorder, while Ruiping Fan (1997) highlights that Confucianism was misinterpreted and propagated to serve totalitarian rulers.
Despite this, rereading classic Confucian texts does show that Confucianism can be used as a way of understanding Chinese military strategy and ethics in warfare. As Rigel (2014) notes, examining selected Chinese resources that discuss war and ethics has a very long tradition (see, for example, Master Sun’s The Art of War).
From a top-down point of view, the Confucian text The Great Learning states that the ultimate goal of all individuals is to accomplish world order and peace. Based on different translations, this may mean that individuals should either achieve world peace or pacify the world (Cheng, 1991; Jiang & Jiang, 2012). In that case, for the ruler to be a ruler (“The Analects”, 12:11), the Son of Heaven would have a moral duty to pacify the world for the sake of world peace even if war became an imperative means to obtain or maintain that goal (Chen, 2007). So, even though violence and war would not be considered as the primary means of establishing peace, in cases where force is required to maintain stability or pacify a threat, warfare would be permissible.
Furthermore, the Confucian scholar Mencius is recorded to have said:
“Chieh and Chou lost their empires because they lost the people and they lost the people because they lost the hearts of the people. There is a way to win the empire … It is to collect for them what they like and do not do to them what they do not like, that is all” (Mencius 4A: 9).
For “if the king makes a grave mistake, an advice should be given. If the king does not listen repeatedly, he should be removed.” (Mencius 5B: 9).
Both of these passages reveal that to maintain long-term harmony, citizens should overthrow rulers who do not govern with Heaven’s Mandate. That is, rulers who do not express virtue through the humane care of their people. In that case, because “there is no ethical warrant prohibiting the overthrow of such a ruler” (Ivanhoe, 2004, p. 272), if necessary the non-ren ruler (that is, one who lacks humaneness or benevolence) should be ousted by means of force. According to Kung and Ma (2013), it is this Confucian doctrine that has always been used to justify the removal of cruel despots throughout China’s history, leading to a tradition of peasant rebellions in the last 260 years of China’s dynastic rule.
This line of thought is considered to deviate from traditional Confucianism where war only results in further violence and social turmoil (see The Analects 12:19), as even if the state wins land by war it loses the support of the people considering that people face the most harm from war when ongoing death and destruction results in trauma, hopelessness, and the loss of livelihoods (Murthy & Lakshminarayana, 2006).
However, for Xunzi, when war becomes a necessary means to restore social order, standards for military actions should be followed to ensure that war ultimately achieves good ends. These include putting people as the primary concern, monitoring the enemy secretly and in depth so that doubtful military plans are never implemented, and promoting military leaders who displays moral qualities and various skills, such as correct rewarding, punishment, and combat (Xunzi, “Man’s Nature is Evil”, p. 219-234).
In that case, war loses legitimacy if certain rules are not followed so that military action endangers social order or people’s lives. For example, Yu (2016) states that as well as avoiding seizing cities to preclude unnecessary causalities, “when executing military missions…the safety of soldiers should be the first priority” (p. 269). The idea is that by seeking support from the people of the state, war should only ever be used to punish enemies that violate justice and humaneness. Common people, property, and crops even if belonging to the enemy state, should always be protected.
While in theory, Confucian military ethics follows traditional just war ideas where battles should be fought effectively and rightly so as to maintain the trust of the people (Snider et al., 2009), the practice of following these rules in live combat may not be so clear. For example, even though warfare that is necessary to establish peace and stability may be justified under certain conditions in Confucian thought, does the ruler have the right to wage war against rebels who use force to overthrow non-ren rulers?
Further, what does the army do if the ‘enemy’ uses cover and hides amongst the population so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the enemy and the common people?
Even though early Confucian teachings allow for various reasons for entering wars, it should be noted that these reasons must be specific and people-centered. Soldiers and generals alike are expected to cultivate virtues, and avoid practicing immoral tricks, such as deception (gui, 詭) and deceit (zha, 詐). As Confucius said, ideally people should be lead through moral force (de, 德) where order is kept through rites (li, 礼) – it is only under these conditions that “they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves” (2:3).
Increasingly, news agencies are operating in an environment where they are competing to be first with the news as the 24 hour news cycle continues to redefine the work of international reporters. Despite this obsession with the news and daily events, only a few news broadcasts have reported on Confucianism in the past three months. Here are five recent news articles that discuss issues relating to Confucian thought.
- The Buddhist roots of Confucianism (La Trobe University News, 01/03/2017)
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In China and throughout the world, Confucianism is presented as a native system of ideas that developed independent of external cultural influence for over two thousand years. Indeed, despite being vilified for much of the twentieth century, Confucianism is thought to represent true and ideal Chinese cultural values that are an integral part of China’s social and cultural identity.
However, in this article, Professor John Makeham from the Chinese Studies Research Centre at La Trobe University argues that despite being thought of as a set of traditions that can only be understood by its internal norms and premises, Confucianism was in fact shaped and influenced by Indian Buddhist philosophy.
While the short article only references the Treatise on the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, a key Buddhist text, as “pivotal…in the construction of modern forms of Confucian philosophy” without providing further information about which passages directly link to Confucian thought, the idea that Confucianism was influenced by Buddhist traditions runs counter to many interpretations of Chinese history that see Buddhism as an “anomaly that led China astray from her ‘predestined’ humanism” (Hu Shi, 1937 in Lai, 1975, p. ii).
In that sense, without dismissing Makeham’s claims, further research should be focused on finding how different legacies of thought have made up China’s rich and complex philosophical traditions.
2. Confucius blocks change in South Korea (The Japan Times, 02/03/2017)
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The 2006 corruption scandal around Chung Mong-koo, the chairman of the Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., is now an old example of the ongoing bribery and corruption scandals in many of South Korea’s “chaebols” or family-run business groups. However, as the author of the article Michael Schuman states, even with the many recent reports on chaebol-related crimes including tax evasion for Korean companies, chaebols are expected to stay.
“The much-maligned conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy may be facing investigations…and unprecedented public anger [but] unless the culture that binds management, investors and other stakeholders changes dramatically, the chaebol will almost certainly survive.”
For Schuman, the main cultural influence that has informed chaebol structure and performance is Confucianism, which stresses loyalty to authority. In other words, reverence for the emperor and obedience to one’s superiors (see The Analects 1:2, 1:7 and 1:13), has for many South Korean workers directly translated into obedience to company founders and their families, who Schuman argues, “are treated like royalty”.
While this opinion-piece does not offer many sources or examples of how Confucianism directly leads to corrupt business practice, similar arguments have been presented by Chinese writers like Jin (2011), who link guanxi connections or informal networks that are “deeply rooted in Confucianism” (p. 2), as inherent to economic corruption.
However, to go beyond the simple binary of ‘Confucianism as corrupt’ versus ‘Confucianism as not corrupt’, these writers should examine the many different interpretations of Confucianism and how the importance of relationships (renqing) can be used, but is not in itself necessary, for corrupt business practices.
3. Hard times for feminists in China (Sup China, 08/03/2017)
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In January this year, more than half a million people showed up for the Women’s March in Washington D.C. to protest against American President Donald Trump’s remarks about women and abortion rights. While similar protests were seen around the world, women’s voices in China were notably silent.
With nearly one-sixth of the world’s female population, women in China struggle to have their voices heard as mass rallies and street protests are rarely allowed in public spaces. Online, Chinese feminists also note that one needs to be careful about writing certain words or phrases. As Asian Studies Ph.D. student Cecilia Xu states in Feng’s article, “we couldn’t even include words like march (游行 yóuxíng) or protest (抗议 kàngyì) in our group’s name.”
Indeed, any discussion on women’s rights is at the risk of being blocked by censors. Despite this, public attention through online discussion boards has remained the main tool that women use to talk about women’s issues at a time when the ‘one child’ policy has been abandoned in an effort by government to boost birth rates and curb the demographic decline.
According to Feng, it is clear that much of the government’s rhetoric about women’s roles finds its roots in Confucian ideology, which enhances its legitimacy. For example, “the Confucian family value that the government aims to instil in women’s minds is nothing other than stay-at-home motherhood”. Obedient wives and the ‘right’ way of conduct for women is thought to be not only at the core of a stable family, but a building block of a harmonious society.
While some academics (see Li, 1994 as an example) do state that the Confucian ethics of ren (benevolence, humaneness) directly relates to the feminist ethics of care, Feng highlights that there is little hope on the horizon for Chinese women. With increasing counter rhetoric against women online, the ongoing arrest and detention of women’s groups like the Feminist Five, and a general decrease in women’s rights even in liberal societies such as the United States, suggests that the future for Chinese women remains stuck in a period of uncertainty.
4. Foot-binding and Ruism (Confucianism) (The Huffington Post, 17/03/2017)
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Even though it is difficult to find statements in classic Confucian texts that promote the practice of foot-binding, Confucian philosopher and practitioner Bin Song argues that “the sociological and philosophical foundation of Ruism (Confucianism) did provide a rich soil that allowed foot-binding to flourish.”
In particular, the aim of creating harmony and stability in society meant that Confucianism was used to justify a hierarchy of social class and familial relations, which included relations between husband and wife. As a result, the basic form of Confucian ethics allowed the increasing popular practice of foot-binding as it was seen as a means of cultivating womanly virtues such as chastity and female propriety.
Despite this, Bin also notes that opposition from Confucian scholars did exist through the development of the foot-binding custom. Most notably, the well-known Ruist Che Ruoshui (1210-1275 C.E) is known for his comment on Mencius’ thought about accumulating rightful deeds when he argues:
“If people cannot help having a feeling of alarm and commiseration when they see a baby falling into a well, can we not help having exactly the same feeling when we see our young daughters have to bind their feet?”
In other words, as well as going against the practice of humaneness, which is about the flourishing of human life in dynamic and harmonious relationships, as well as filiality, which includes “not injuring one’s body”, the article concludes that contemporary Confucian scholars have a responsibility to be aware of harmful social norms that can be justified through particular interpretations of Confucian texts.
5. The Indian Communist (Millennium Post, 24/03/2017)
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In this article, Dr. Arniban Ganguly, director of the Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation which focuses on issues that are of importance to India’s national interest, argues that unlike Indian communists who call to break up the motherland and overthrow the very idea of India, Vietnam has a “unique capacity of blending Marxism with Confucianism and Nationalism…[striking] deeper roots in their civilizational identity and wisdom, while also working to evolve themselves in a modern nation state”.
In that sense, what can be learned from Vietnam’s and possibly China’s ability to retain their civilizational rootedness while driving their countries forward is the ability to use past knowledge and tradition to adapt to evolving times and “be remarkably open to the wider world”.
For India, Prime Minister Modi’s new foreign policy that is inspired by India’s “civilizational ethos” has sought to blend ideas like realism, co-existence, cooperation, and partnership, which have developed from classical Hindu texts and writers including Kautilya and Gandhiji.
However, as the author notes, India’s ability to move ahead is restrained by many groups such as the communists who reject Bharat (India) and refuse “to acknowledge her civilisational dimension”. While the author’s conclusion that the promotion of India’s many nationalities may be its undoing, the article does provide an interesting discussion point on the use of tradition in modern politics, and whether in the long-run arguing for a particular interpretation of the classics may do more harm than good.