At the end of the last ‘son-covering-father’ article, it was stated that it seemed like Confucius was not advocating actively obstructing justice to conceal the father’s crime. Instead, the son should conceal the misconduct of the father by not reporting his father until the father corrects his actions. In other words, the son has a duty to allow his father to correct his actions in a private setting, giving him the time and opportunity to apologies and repay his dues. For many readers, this conclusion was not satisfying as protecting the father, even by passive concealment, is another way of obstructing justice and not doing what is morally right.
However, in Confucian thought, yi (义) or justice and righteousness is the very principle that is followed by the son when passively concealing the father’s crimes. It is wrong to transgress against one’s superiors, especially when it comes to respecting people of higher authority, such as rulers and parents. In contrast to the classic interpretation of Confucianism as blind obedience, yi here represents an “ideal of totality as a decision-generating ability to apply a virtue properly and appropriately in a situation” (Cheng, 1972: 271). Yi is about evaluating one’s circumstances and deciding what to do in those circumstances accordingly. The father’s intentions were not discussed in any detail to give clues about his motives. All that is known about the crime is that it involved the father stealing sheep. As long as no one is in direct harm or danger (where the farmer will starve because of the stolen sheep), it is up to the son to give his father the chance to evaluate the meaning of truth and goodness in unity and totality. In this way, the father can act in accordance with justice by returning the sheep or reporting himself to authorities, realizing the right course of action by himself. Likewise, the son is able to protect his family’s reputation, minimising potential damage caused by misunderstanding and thoughtless action. To add to this understanding of Confucianism as a doctrine that emphasizes harmony and collaboration and not blind conformity, this article will investigate the idea of justice in Confucian thought.
There is little knowledge about Confucian justice in the West. As Amartya Sen observes in his book The Idea of Justice (2009), most books on political philosophy are confined exclusively to Graeco-Christian thought, where non-Western authors are overlooked and marginalised in Western discourse. While Sen does discuss justice in India’s intellectual history, his brief references to China leave out any discussion on Confucianism. As professor in philosophy Xenwu Chen (1997) stated, Confucianism either receives embarrassing lip-service, is rejected by discourses on justice in the West, or is reduced to the two catchphrases of ren and yi that are often not properly translated in the West.
In general, the concept of justice is still unclear. The origin of the word comes from the Latin iustus and iustitia meaning upright, righteous, and equity. By the mid-12th century, justice took a more legal form in the French system as it came to mean “the exercise of authority in vindication of right by assigning reward or punishment”, but also “the quality of being fair and just; moral soundness and conformity to truth.” Justice relates to right action or following orders and correcting those who fail to do so. These orders and punishments should be carried out in a manner that takes into account what is fair and good. However, there is no question as to who defines what is fair and good, and how these definitions came to be standards for organising society.
In the contemporary legal sense, justice is sometimes defined in terms of equality. That is, everyone should get or have the same as everybody else regardless of how much work they do or ‘what they put in’. On the other hand, justice can also mean equity where people get benefits in proportion to the work that they contribute. The harder and better one works, the more they get rewarded for their work. The equality versus equity debate is simple and maintains the status quo by ignoring structural discrimination and assuming that everyone can escape their circumstances through hard work and effort. Despite this, the debate over proper conceptions of justice shows that justice is really about who is entitled what, and the question of which cases are equal and which are unequal (Aristotle, Politics: 1282b 22). As philosopher John Rawls (1971) notes, the foundational idea of justice must be seen in terms so fairness. Like goodness, determining what and why something is fair can be tricky business. For example, a feminist analysis into the ethics of care shows that men’s emphasis on separation and autonomy leads them to stress ideas such as justice, fairness, and rights. These male norms do not take into account women’s experience and emphasis on connections and relationships, which leads to a different style of moral reasoning that emphasises wants, needs, and interests of particular people (i.e: those most in need). Care-focused feminists like Gilligan (1982) provide much needed analysis on why women as a group disproportionately carry the burden of care in all societies, and why men as a group do not routinely engage in caring practices. Her ideas suggest that theoretically care-based ethics can become a complement of, or even substitute for, traditional ethics of justice.
In that sense, there are many ways to think about justice that do not necessarily have to align with Western concepts of what is good and fair. For example, the term ren, which is often translated as humaneness, empathy, or the good feeling of encouraging and helping others, may be connected to the idea of justice as ‘harmony’ rather than fairness as it is defined in Western justice theory (Murphy & Weber, 2016). So, some aspects that would traditionally be thought of as unfair would be considered just in a Confucian justice system. Standing and encouraging the rank of others by capitalising on connections (guanxi, 关系) implies giving preferential treatment to someone in exchange for resources like access to controlled information, credit grants, and protection from external competitors (Hinze, 2012). Reciprocal obligation and indebtedness means that these exchanges are ongoing and occur in every aspect of society, including politics and everyday business. Rather than basing society on equality or even equity, social organisation through guanxi is about the needs and wants of particular individuals who have a lot of currency in terms of favours and resources. Though not perfect in practice, guanxi is about creating value in relationships and looking at the wider network in which individuals exist in.
Protecting family, saving face (mianzi, 留面子), and giving someone a chance to regain lost honour is also another concept that may seem foreign to the West. ‘Face’ or reputation is a multifaceted concept that can be lost, gained, or given. It is not only concerned with perceived success (how other’s see your earnings and social standing), but also with the relationship of one’s actions and character to the confidence of society in one’s integrity and moral character (Hu, 1944). Especially when it comes to family members (as was the case with the father), mianzi is important to maintain out of respect for both family ties and to minimise social harm. Considering how individual and group interests are perceived as mutually dependent, Confucian justice cannot recognize rights that are based on the idea that individual interests should be defended against group interests. However, as Wong (2013) notes, rather than eliminating the individual, the way that Confucianism values living according to moral standards and preserving relationships provides a basis for the idea that individuals should receive protection when they express their convictions about certain matters. The son should have an opportunity to express how his father or leader’s misconduct was inappropriate, but only in the right manner and way: through private communication and formal procedure.
Finally, the emphasis on internal feelings means that even the methods of governance should be based on virtue and not coercion and punishment. According to Confucian justice, forcing someone against their will to do the right thing works against cultivating an autonomous sense of shame. In other words, punishment should always be seen as a last resort. A better way of ruling is winning the people’s hearts. This involves developing a consciousness so that social coordination, even amongst strangers, should be family-like and less remote (Tiwald, 2017). The idea is that virtuous members in the community are motivated to act out of care for one another and not by fear of punishment. In the latter, doing good will only be based on self-interest. Sometimes a person may comply when compelled to, but when they are able to do bad things without being punished, then there is no motivation to remain law-abiding. For Confucius, if people practice ritual and develop a sense of shame, it is more likely that they will rectify themselves and do good more consistently. As ‘The Sayings of the School of Kongzi’ (Kongzi Jiayu, 孔子家語) notes, the ideal is to have well-crafted and finely-tuned laws and then make sure that they are never used.
The emphasis on social connections, mutual obligations, and care shows that Confucian justice involves de-emphasising legal coercion and guiding people by moral consideration. Instilling a sense of shame and concern for others is of utmost importance in developing a social system that is people-centred. While a Confucian might believe that there are certain correct ways for dealing with others, a significant degree of latitude is meant to encourage people to learn from their own mistakes and by way of example from others (Chan, 1999). Without necessarily competing with Western justice theory, there is a history and breadth of thought in Confucian justice that has not been adequately explored.
On Confucius’ birthday (September 28), The Grand Ceremony Dedicated to Confucius (祭孔大典) is held annually as a way of paying respects to Confucius, China’s ‘First Teacher’. The event is mainly celebrated at Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, and in the Confucius Temple in Taipei, Taiwan.
Through a choreographed ceremony, the 60-minute long presentation starts with three drum rolls before a procession of musicians, dancers, and participants stop every five steps and pause before continuing to their designated spot. The gates then open at the temple, welcoming the spirit of Confucius. After three bows, food and drink are offered as sacrifice, and “The Song of Peace” is played with traditional Chinese instruments. Dancers perform the Ba Yi dance (八佾舞), a dance that started in the Zhou Dynasty as a way of paying respects to people of different social positions. Yi means ‘row’ and the number of dancers depends on who is being honoured. For example, eight rows of dancers participate when paying respect to an emperor, six rows for a duke, four rows for high-ranking government officials, and two rows for lower ranking officials. Eight rows are used for the Confucius Ceremony. Each dancer holds a short bamboo flute in the left hand, which symbolizes balance, and a long pheasant tail feather in the right hand as a sign of integrity.
After incense is offered and chanting takes place, another three bows are given. The sacrificial feast is removed to symbolize it has been eaten by Confucius’ spirit. The participants move from their appointed places to watch the pile of money and prayers burn. Finally, the gates of the temple are closed and the ceremony concludes with participants and observers feasting on a ‘wisdom cake’.
Take this opportunity to reflect on Confucian teachings. These include the importance of filial piety, dutifulness, honesty, sincerity, rightness, wisdom, and courage, and try to understand how all of these concepts come together in the attitude of humanity. As Confucius says in the Analects (8.13), “Be devoted to faithfulness and love learning; defend the good dao until death.”
Painting: Chinese girl (1952) by Vladimir Tretchikoff. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The hijab, a headdress traditionally worn by Muslim women outside the home, became less popular during the 1930s as education and advancements in the Arab world encouraged women to adopt Western fashion and life-style. In his study on the vanishing veil, historian Albert Hourani (1955) notes how gradual changes to the status of women was an essential step to the advancement of Muslim societies, and was not contrary to Islamic principles. But, by the 1980s, predictions that the veiling custom would end were challenged. Religious conservatism became more prevalent after the 1979 Iranian revolution and Muslim women in both Arab countries and the West disputed the idea that the veil was a symbol of oppression. Freedom of choice and tradition were some of the reasons why many women chose to continue the veiling practice.
All the while, during this same period, Korean women got rid of the traditional headdress (nae-oe seugae) that women had to wear whenever they stepped out of the house. Although institutionalised and made compulsory for modesty and propriety, the headdress completely vanished in historical and cultural memory as it is not even found in Korean historical dramas set in the Chosŏn era (Cho, 2017). This particular style of clothing was unique to Korea and could not be found in other Asian countries that were also influenced by Confucianism. However, Korea’s understanding of Confucian values was significant as to why the headdresses were worn. For example, the name of the headdress, nae-oe seugae, where ‘nae’ (inner) and ‘oe’ (outer), are Confucian terms that mean there should be a clear distinction between the inner, domestic sphere of women and the outer, public sphere of men (Deuchler, 1992). ‘Seugae’ is a Korean word meaning veil.
The headdress was worn in accordance with Confucian teachings. The Confucian emphasis on proper relationships and social order meant that men and women were expected to act in their correct roles in society, where women should be proper and obedient to their fathers, husbands, and sons throughout their lives. Because of the hierarchical relationship between men and women, a woman’s major life decisions, such as choosing a partner, was made by the father or family patriarch. As a result, a woman’s value was not based on her skills, knowledge, or creativity, but on the extent that she was seen to take care of her family and follow her husband/father/son’s instructions.
Cho (2017) notes that during the Chosŏn dynasty, justifying social practices through Confucianism occurred as legislators saw Confucianism as ethically superior to the previous philosophical tradition of Buddhism. Proper father-son, ruler-peasant, and husband-wife relationships were of utmost importance in promoting this new value system. Restrictive dress codes were part of the practice of limiting women’s opportunities to engage in the public sphere, leading to an ideal Confucian society of harmony through order. While the argument that Confucianism is inherently sexist is difficult to put forward as these practices of limiting opportunities and rights to women can also be found in non-Confucian societies and many different historical time periods, before Confucianism became the official religion in Korea, women’s social and economic status were not that different from men’s. Women could inherit property and were part of ancestor worship rituals. Women were allowed to pursue their desired crafts and be part of civil service. The adoption of the Confucian hierarchy and separation of men and women changed all this and helped establish male political and institutional power.
The influence of Confucianism in other societies also restricted women’s rights. During the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties, foot-binding was a socio-cultural practice that has links to the Confucian doctrine. This is disputed by some scholars who argue that foot-binding violates Confucius’ teaching of filial piety and ‘not injuring the hair and skin of the body received from one’s parents’ (de Bary & Cohen, 1999). However, many women were encouraged and willing to engage in this practice to be able to participate and be valued in a neo-Confucianist society (Blake, 1994). The crippling of women’s feet is carried out by Mothers who, by a girl’s fifth birthday, bends her daughter’s toes under the sole of the foot before the foot is broken and bound by bandages that stop circulation. The operation lasts at least 10 years and once the foot stabilises in this bound position, a woman’s deformed feet are ‘eroticized’ (Kristeva, 1986). This means that women gain value, respect, and recognition as a bound foot symbolises capacity to suffer and obey. Here, crippled feet allow women to enter the ‘phallic order’ (see Grosz, 1989) as those from the upper classes can gain access to political and social expression.
Patriarchal and sexist customs were otherwise seen in Chinese society. In fact, Mou (2016) points out that without gaining an understanding of Chinese patriarchy, it would be difficult to grasp Chinese culture and spirit. At the core of Chinese patriarchal practices (as well as Confucianism) was the worship of deities and ancestors. By holding the family name, the father gains authority as he represents and carries forward the lineage which his children call the family ancestors. The son-father relationship is of great value as the son sees the father as a potential ancestor, and knows that he will one day be the potential authority figure in the family by taking over his father’s position.
The ‘rite of bonding’, where father and son take part in daily rituals, is important in this respect. French philosopher Julie Kristeva (1986) notes in the book chapter ‘Confucius— an eater of women’, the rite and rituals of father-son bonding occur once the baby is thought to acquire a soul (hun, 魂). This is not believed to come from the mother, but three months after birth, becomes apparent when the baby laughs. Like an initiation rite, for the first time when the hun is noticed, the son is presented to the father in a ritual ceremony. Later in life, once the son becomes an educated and married man who manages the family affairs,the father extends his respect to the son before the cycle starts all over again. Despite the distance and lack of intimacy or care between father and son, obedience and respect are continually due to the father even when the son takes over his role. The Analects reinforces this when it says that only the son who mourns and follows his father’s conduct for three years after the father’s death may be called filial (see passages 1.11 and 4.20, for example). The father’s symbolic authority is continually recognised before it is completely passed onto the son after these three years pass. A well-known Chinese proverb emphasises this last stage of the rite of bonding when it says that whereas animals know their mother and not their father, and peasants say mother and father are the same, it is the noblemen in the city that honour their dead fathers. The civilised man must know his role.
While daughters in the family are not required to take on difficult tasks and are excluded from these ritual practices, their exclusion symbolises complete disregard in a system that is based around revering potential (male) ancestors. Confucius considered women to be the in the same category as slaves and xiaoren (morally inferior people). As the Analects passage 17.25 notes, “The Master said, Women and xiaoren are difficult to nurture. If you get too close to them, they become uncompliant, and if you stay too distant, they become resentful.” Women are made to be child-like, in need of nurturing, and irrational. The passage provides insight into the oppression of women during Confucius’s time; it also forms and reinforces the patriarchal and sexist system that continues to influence Chinese social custom even to this day. Women are at best thought of as ‘humans for the inside’, destined to housework and reproduction. Unlike reading and writing, it is these bodily and maternal functions that give women status and function to create harmony and peace in society. Yang Chen, a Confucian from the Han Dynasty, is quoted to have said:
If women are given work that requires contact with the outside, they will sow disorder and confusion throughout the Empire. Shame and injury will come to the Imperial court, and the Sun and Moon will wither away. The Book of Documents warns us against the hen who announces the dawn in place of the rooster; the Book of Odes denounces a clever woman who overthrows a State…Women must not be allowed to participate in the affairs of the government. (cited in Kristeva, 1986, p. 76).
Similar to many other patriarchal cultures, women are seen as potential spoilers of man’s orderly world. Confucian values like filial piety, obedience, roles, and rites are all means of control that prevent women from challenging or breaking away from this restrictive system. Confucianism necessarily keeps a woman in her place. An outcome of Confucian thought that should also be mentioned is the worsening of women-women relations. Because women who conform and participate in the system have greater power and more access to privilege, there is an inherent tension between mothers, wives, and daughters. Women who bear sons are valued more than those who only bear daughters and have more power and voice through their sons. The daughter-in-law fears above all else the authority and discipline of her mother-in-law as both women are in constant battle for the affection of the husband and education of the children (Kristeva, 1986). Anthropologist Ilsa Glazer (1992) further points out that there is an ongoing conflict between mothers and adopted daughters. Because it was in the mother’s interest to get the maximum work out of her adopted daughter, beatings were common. In fact, “slaves were safe targets for women who vented on them the aggression they dared not express in other relationships” (p. 168). As a result of Confucian and earlier Chinese patriarchal value systems, women became potential oppressors to other women. Punishment and slander became a means of survival in a world where the father and son occupied central positions of power and choice.
Confucianism fails to escape the social norms of its time. It internalised and propagated these social values and became known for its strict separation of women and men in public and private spheres. While some scholars seek to provide a feminist perspective of Confucian thought – for instance, the book Confucianism and Women argues that Confucianism can provide an ethic of gender parity if it is taken out of its historical context – Confucianism cannot easily be taken out of its historical context. No system of thought is value free and exists outside of time and space. Though Confucian passages and texts can be reinterpreted to suit current times and needs, changing and adding new meaning to a text to serve the current period, there is a danger that such a practice can be adopted by those with vested interests or extremist ideologies do to justify their own end goals. Confucian thought can be taken as it is – that is, in the form it has come down to the present time – and its historical views and perspectives can be challenged and discussed. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism (around AD 1000) emerged through such a process, and in response to the more female-friendly spiritual philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism. By the 20th Century, New Confucianism emerged through its engagement with Western philosophy. These, however, are distinguished from the Confucian thought – based on the Analects – that is associated with Confucius’ own historical time.
In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.
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Book Extract- The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能
Since its founding in 1949, China has developed from an extremely poor country into a global power. After developing its industrial system under Chairman Mao, China opened up to the global economy and became the world’s second largest economy, maintaining a double-digit growth rate for over 30 years. To do this without engaging in war and maintaining stable domestic conditions has been unprecedented in modern history. For other countries, China represents an alternative path to development that involves applying development models that match different histories, cultures, and national and regional conditions.
In 2012, President Xi promoted the ‘Chinese Dream’ as a vision for China’s development over the next decades. Through a top-down political campaign, the Dream has been a main theme in the majority of Xi’s public speeches and in Chinese media and scholarly publications. In 2014, for example, 8,249 articles with “China dream” (zhongguo meng, 中国梦) in the title had been published within China according to the CNKI China academic journals database (Callahan, 2014). By 2017, this number has increased to 53,679 articles.
The concept of the Dream is based on China’s historical experience and the desire for rejuvenation following the Century of Humiliation (bainian guochi, 百年国耻) and colonialization by Western powers. Chinese people have been presented with many ideas describing collective aspirations for national independence, common prosperity, and the recovery of the Chinese nation from feudal backwardness. The Dream combines all of these past slogans, including ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious society’, by emphasising sustainable development, common prosperity, and independence from foreign domination through a system of socialism with Chinese characteristics guided by the Communist Party of China.
The following is an extract from Maya X. Guo’s book The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能. In it, Guo interviews a number of Chinese academics on topics around China’s development, including the prospect for democracy, the future of socialism in Chinese modernisation, and Chinese maritime strategy. In the section titled Century-old Quest for Renewal: The CPC’s Evolving Narrative and Historical Mission, Guo interviews Professor Cao Jinqing from East China University of Science and Technology. The following views and opinions expressed in this extract are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin.
Maya: In his first speech after being elected China’s president on March 17, 2013, Xi Jinping gave a detailed account of the Chinese Dream, a dream of the great renewal of the nation. How do you understand this concept in the context of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) narrative?
Cao Jinqing: By proposing this concept, the CPC has revisited the narrative of the century-old pursuit of national independence and modernisation. The Chinese Dream means the completion of a modernately prosperous society in all respects when the CPC celebrates its centenary, and turning China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary. The Two Centenary goals are based on a historical narrative different from the CPC’s conventional narrative. The new narrative appeals to all those who remain committed to the quest for national renewal, including Chinese people on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as overseas Chinese.
Maya: How is it different from the previous narrative? How did the previous narrative justify the CPC’s ruling status?
Cao Jinqing: The previous narrative was a Marxist-Leninist narrative. It was also a conventional narrative of the CPC. The CPC’s vision of Chinese history provides an important ideological perspective from which to explain the legitimacy of its political power. The publication of Chairman Mao Zedong’s article “On New Democracy” in 1940 marked the establishment of the Party’s conventional vision. The article answered questions about China’s past, present and future in Marxist terms: China had evolved through the stages of a primitive society, a slave society and a feudal society like other countries. Had it not been for the invasion of imperialist powers, China would have gone on to evolve into a capitalist society. The Opium War (1840-42) interrupted its routine course of development and reduced the country to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The exploitation of imperialism and feudalism was the root cause of China’s poverty and decline. Under those circumstances, fighting against imperialism and feudalism was the top priority of the Chinese nation. Going forward, China would experience in turn a new-democratic society, a socialist society and finally a communist society.
The theory redefined the history of the Chinese nation, giving rise to a comprehensive new vision of history. This vision, which applied the philosophy of Marxist materialist history to China, was one of the most important reasons for the success of the CPC. As it satisfied their spiritual needs, it attracted numerous disillusioned and hopeless intellectuals to Yan’an, the onetime headquarters of the CPC, making the small town along the Yellow River a gathering place of China’s top talents. One of the prime reasons why the CPC defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in the civil war was that the former seized the ideological high ground. It did so precisely by establishing a new vision of history. In keeping with this vision, Mao led the Chinese nation in advancing socialism. He exercised political power confidently because he believed he was on the side of truth.
Maya: Why is a vision of history so important? How could it make such a big impact on Chinese intellectuals?
Cao Jinqing: That’s because China is a nation imbued with a strong historical awareness. China does not have a Western-style religion or philosophy. The role of history in China is equivalent to those of history, philosophy and religious beliefs combined in the West. History maintains the cultural identity of the Chinese nation. Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801) made a good point when he said, “All the six classics come down to history.”
History lays the foundation of the Chinese culture. When China was a traditional agrarian society, the Chinese lived in clans. Each clan had its history, which helped it evolve by building upon past achievements. While ordinary people were attached to their clans, officials cared about their fiefdoms and the entire kingdom, which also had a history. The Chinese have long been aware of the value of visions of history. The classic works Spring and Autumn Annals and Records of the Grand Historian enabled us to identity with out common ancestor Huangdi and our common history. Visions of history are the center of the Chinese culture. At a minimum, they represent the shared cultural identity of the Han ethnic group.
After the Opium War, which marked the beginning of the modern era in China, Chinese intellectuals focused on reshaping China’s vision of history as they learned from the West to promote the country’s economic, political and cultural transition. Creating a new vision of history was considered a pivotal task for those who aspired to state power. The trailblazer in this field was Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a political thinker and reformer who accepted the Western evolutionist philosophy of history. After the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal political movement from 1919, a group of radical intellectuals turned to Marxist-Leninism. I think the most powerful past of this theory is its vision of history, with which the CPC reconstructed China’s history based on the historical stages of the West.
Regressive history and cyclical history are two traditional Chinese visions of history. The theory of cyclical history, coupled with the Mandate of Heaven, justifies the replacement of an old dynasty by a new one and the rule of a new emperor. The CPC modified this traditional narrative and repackaged it in Marxist language. But the underlying idea remained the same: Those who gain popular support will gain state power; those who lose popular support will lose state power. The CPC’s revolutionary narrative is consistent with the Confucian view of revolution: The Party, which represented the will of the people, overthrew a regime that had lost the Mandate of Heaven…In the CPC’s narrative the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was replaced by “rules of historical development.”
The Chinese Dream has returned to the narrative of the 100-year pursuit of national independence and modernisation, a process in which the Chinese strived to save China from being conquered, bring prosperity to the nation, and catch up with Western powers.
For the latest updates on the Chinese Dream, see Xinhua’s (2016) Chinese Dream webpage.
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.
Image: Classical Chinese Poetry. Retrieved July 2, 2017, from here.
In this article, Paul Carus provides a translated account of three poems recorded in the stone engraved inscriptions of the temple of Confucius at Qufu. Each poem expresses Confucius’s disappointment in life. After becoming a minister in the state of Lu, Confucius found that the duke and others in government did not possess the seriousness and responsibility necessary for their positions, and so he resigned. The following verses from the inscriptions have been published and edited by Confucian scholars.
THE SONG ON TAI SAN*
After Confucius moved to Wei, an unjust governor sent his compliments and invited him to come back to Lu. Confucius refused the offer, convinced that if he did accept the invitation it would only end in disappointment. To express his feelings, Confucius wrote ‘The Song on the Mountain’:
“Would rise to the lofty peak,
Where cliffs and ravines debar.
So Dao though ever near
Is to the seeker far.
How wearisome to me
Those mazes which allow no exit.
I sigh and look around,
The summit in full view;
With woodlands it is crowned
And sandy patches too,
And there stretch all around
The highlands of Lian Fu.
Thickets of thorns prevent
No axe is here
A path to clear;
The higher we are going,
The worse the briars are growing.
I chant and cry,
And while I sigh,
The tears are flowing and the nose is running.”
*Tai San is the name of the mountain situated between Lu and Wei.
THE ORCHID IN THE GRASS
On his way back to Lu from Wei, Confucius stopped in a valley and saw orchids growing on the wayside. He stopped and said, “Orchids should be royalty’s fragrance, but here they are mixed up with common herbs.” He then took his lute and composed a song for the orchids:
“So gently blow the valley breezes
With drizzling mist and rain,
And homeward bound a stranger tarries
With friends in a desert domain.
Blue heaven above! For all his worth,
Is there no place for him on earth?
Though all the countries did he roam
Yet he found no enduring home.
Worldlings are stupid and low,
They naught of sages know.
So swiftly years and days pass by,
And soon old age is drawing nigh.”
Confucius then went back to Lu.
THE SWAN SONG
When Confucius fell sick, the governor visited him. Dragging himself with a walking stick, he sang:
“Huge mountains wear away
The strongest beams decay.
And the sage like grass withers.
Confucius died seven days later.
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