How can Confucianism modernize and shape future cultural discourse? Can it help solve global problems in the twenty-first century? China Daily host talks to Stephen C. Angle, a philosopher and professor specializing in Chinese Philosophy at Wesleyan University.
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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.
In the West, science and religion are often understood as conceptual systems that developed from Greek science through the Middle Ages to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Russell, 1945; Jardine, 2009). Throughout this period, natural phenomena were described in statements and propositions, creating a system of logic where proof and scientific knowledge was established through the proper, immediate, or true cause for a fact or effect. In Aristotelian terms (yà lǐ shì duō dé zhéxué, 亚里士多德哲学), true knowledge came from principles, definitions, or hypotheses that could explain phenomena, prove conclusions and predict events.
By the second century, as Christianity was spreading over the Roman Empire, religious organisations were trying to find ways to explain the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Even though the search to prove that a God created the physical universe, living beings and Adam within six days continues to be a “scene of historical, literary, theological and scientific battles” (Hummel, 1986, 175b), early theologians chose to borrow from pagan or Aristotelian natural philosophies. As a result, once Christianity became dominant in Western culture, Aristotelian logic and cosmology had been integrated to create a Christianized Aristotelian worldview (jīdū jiàoyì huà xià yà lǐsī duō dé shìjièguān, 基督教义化下亚里斯多德世界观 (Hsu, 2005).
Image: The Christian Aristotelian Cosmos: An Earth-Centred Universe. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from here. The diagram shows how the Earth sits motionless at the centre of the universe, while the outer sphere, the Primum Mobile, is assumed to revolve over a 24-hour period.
For Freya Matthews (2016) however, Western ideas about science and religion that are thought to be the hallmark of civilisation, modernity and progress are actually more problematic that they seem (see also Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature). Unlike hunter gatherer societies that followed context-dependent and relational modes of existence, the principles of logic in Western thought separated life-worlds from nature. The replacement of nature with fixed, built and human-designed environments reinforced a view deeply rooted in some Judeo-Christian teachings*. That is, that humans possess far greater worth and rights than other creatures, and are entitled to consume and exploit nature at the expense of other species (Lundmark, 1998; Kremmerer, 1999; Lo, 2016).
This mind set, which continues to justify the subjugation of nature by civilisation usually for immediate or short-term gain, has become a serious issue for many Chinese writers that have commented on consumerism, overpopulation and environmental degradation in China (see for example Wong, 2006 and Zhang et al., 2010). In his recent paper on science and Confucianism, Professor Hsu Kuang-Tai from the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan states that the potential to look for alternative mind sets that are available in Chinese thought could lead to research agendas that examine how Taoism and Confucianism could be used to replace unsustainable cultures that are contributing to global climate instability.
Image: Confucianism & Environment. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from here. For some scholars such as Li (2003), it would be mistaken to regard Confucian tradition as purely humanistic. Through various interpretations, it could be argued that Confucianism promotes environmental ethics through its inclusiveness of Heaven, Earth and Humanity in the traditional Chinese trinity. Maintaining good relations between the natural world and society is therefore crucial to promoting ultimate harmony.
With a history of inventing paper, gunpowder, the compass, and technologies like iron and steel smelting, some proponents note that Chinese science could offer a solution to global problems. Hsu highlights that this might mean looking to the natural philosophy of qi (氮), where everything, including heaven, earth and all beings are composed of a fundamental substance that constantly moves and constitutes everything that we see. Part of this universal dynamic is ren qi (人氮) or qi issued from human beings. However, whereas “bad qi” (li qi, 诊氝) produced by humans, was thought to bring disasters into the world, there also exist positive relations between politics, ethics and nature.
“Good politics must follow the natural order of the seasons and provide benefits for the people. This is the positive Confucian belief in the intimate relation between politics, ethics, and nature” (Hsu, 2016, 92).
In that case, disputing Levenson’s (1965) claim that modern science cannot develop from a traditional Confucian society, further research needs to determine the extent to which Confucianism could be one of the many frameworks that has the potential to restore the relationship between ecology and society.
*While some Christian institutions contest this claim (see the Vatican’s 2015 Encyclical letter here), the idea that humans are made “in the image of God” and are blessed to “rule over” other species is found in Genesis 1:27-28, according to the New American Standard Bible.
Multi-tiered roofs, beautifully designed archways and magnificent temples and residences; these are prominent characteristics of traditional Confucian architecture. These elements were carefully depicted through the application of Confucian values. Confucian values and their architectural representations can help strengthen the correlation between Confucianism and architecture.
The Confucian Temple as an Educational Institution
In order to commemorate Confucius, Chinese people built Confucian temples to honour his contribution to Chinese culture. (4) Confucian temples were built in county schools throughout the empire, either to the front of or on one side of the school. Still to this day, Confucian temples represent knowledge and education, rather than worship alone. Confucian temples are often referred to without “Confucius” in the title. For example, the Confucian temple located in Beijing is named the Ancient University and the Confucian temple in Hanoi, Vietnam, is known as the Temple of Literature. These alternative names of Confucian temples represent the educational values that Confucius stood for. Furthermore, these temples would contain stone inscriptions on carved turtles displaying the names of successful students from the days of imperial China.
Unlike Daoist or Buddhist temples, Confucian temples do not normally contain images. (5) This absence emphasised the teaching of Confucius and not the worshiping of the teacher himself. Statues have appeared because it satisfies people’s needs to identify with Confucius. Often times, people will pay respect to Confucius by leaving items such as a basket of flowers, as seen in the photo below.
Harmonious Social System Maintained through Architectural Design
Confucian thought was the core of China’s hierarchical social system. (1) The hierarchical Confucian code of conduct influenced the residential design of courtyards. The sections and walls within courtyards were distinctly separated in order to represent the hierarchical social system as well as the Confucian influenced value of superior/subordinate relationships, for example the relationship of parent/child.
In courtyard residences, the centre of the courtyard was thought to be superior and most significant while the sides were less so. The north end of the courtyard was highly desirable as it faced south and received the most sunlight. This choice location was therefore used by the head of the household, or by family elders. (2) Additionally, the emperor of China sat on his throne and faced south. This was a traditional form of conduct and these values were reflected in the placing of important figures within residential courtyards and palaces.
According to Confucian family order, the east and west ends were occupied by the younger generation. The courtyard was a self-enclosed world that represented safety and harmony. Within it, relationships were defined by Confucian values and space was allocated accordingly (1)
Today, a sense of the courtyard has been preserved through the use of hutongs, not only for family, but community usage as well.
Individuals Commemorated through Memorial Arches
Highly honourable individuals exhibiting a certain Confucian virtue were often commemorated through memorial arches. These arches served as a way to honour the deeds of people and offered insight into the social values of the time. The names of those who were honourable were scripted on the arch and a formal application process was in place if the public deemed the person no longer worthy of commendation. (3)
5. Sommer, Deborah (2002). “Destroying Confucius: Iconoclasm in the Confucian Temple”. On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius: 95–133.