Three Recent Confucian News Stories: 近期儒家新闻三篇

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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.


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.

North Korea

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?


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.