Confucianism and modernity
Image: China Daily (2011). Confucius’ birthday celebrated in Taiwan. Retrieved June 12, 2017 from http://english.sina.com/life/p/2011/0927/400733.html
Over the past decade, academic circles have been increasingly interested in exploring the relationship between Confucianism and modernization in East Asia. The term “East Asian Confucianism” means Confucian traditions in East Asian countries that have had cultural and economic links with China, including Korea, Japan, Vietnam as well as other political units that developed later, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (Little & Reed, 1989).
Although Confucian traditions have varied across the region according to the ideological positions of different governments, most East Asian countries have faced common problems in the pursuit of modernization where traditional systems have either collapsed or weakened. The most significant example of this was the decline of Confucian ideology where East Asian scholars condemned Confucianism to the “dustbin” of history as it was thought to oppose progress and modernity in both Capitalist and Communist economies.
But with the restoration of Confucian traditions in the 1980s, Confucianism again reappeared as an influential philosophy. As David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames note in Thinking Through Confucius (1987), the renewed interest in Confucianism has been so profound that many scholars identified the revival as a ‘Confucian renaissance’ in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea. However, what was commonly ignored in most of these studies was the various versions of Confucianism across East Asia, with “relatively little written about Confucianism in Taiwan” (Huang, 2009, p. 71).
Before explaining why this gap in the literature exists, some context should be given. Taiwan has had an independent identity apart from mainland China for more than a century. To quote Professor June Teufel Dreyer (2003) from the University of Miami, “the Polynesian cultures of the aboriginal tribes, occupations of varying lengths and degrees of intensity by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, 50 years of colonization by an assimilationist Japan, and a period of strong American influence after World War II” (p. 1) have all shaped the development of a distinct Taiwanese culture.
Despite this, Taiwan became increasingly sinicized under Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party during the founding years of the People’s Republic. For example, streets were re-named with place-names from the Mainland, while Mandarin was learnt as the official language in Taiwan. Those who disobeyed and spoke Taiwanese, Hakka or aboriginal dialects were “fined, slapped, or subjected to other disciplinary actions” (Dreyer, 2003, p. 2). As history textbooks were rewritten and memorials re-created to fit into a national Chinese past, popular culture was also influenced by China. As well as restricting non-Mandarin shows and films, performers who spoke non-Mandarin parts tended to be portrayed as criminals or those with low-status jobs, giving the impression that not speaking Mandarin was associated with being from the lower class (Schmitt, 2011).
Because of this process, Confucianism in Taiwan was commonly understood in one of two ways. The first was where Confucianism as a tradition originating in China was merely planted in Taiwan with its universal elements not being localised. In that sense, “Taiwanese Confucianism” could be understood as just another representation of ‘cultural China’, relating to Tu’s (1991) idea of China as existing in three symbolic universes. The first consists of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, whose members are predominantly ethnic Chinese; the second of Chinese communities in predominantly non-Chinese societies; and the third of non-Chinese individuals who study and bring Chinese culture into their own communities. Confucianism in Taiwan belongs to the first universe of cultural China.
The other characterisation of Confucianism in Taiwan is that of a localised version of Confucianism without universal significance. As Chen (2009) notes, “historically speaking, ‘Taiwanese Confucianism’ during the Ming and Qing dynasties was nothing more than the ‘Taiwan branch’ of the Fujian School” (p. 11). What this means is that as the first Confucius Temple was built in Taiwan in 1665, and Confucianism became a key part of Taiwanese architecture, education, and national rites, this localised branch of Confucianism has only ever been significant in Taiwan.
However, the reality of how Confucianism developed in Taiwan is much more complex. On the one hand, Confucianism was applied to serve political ends as certain ideological values of Confucian thought, such as loyalty, patriotism, and filial piety, were promoted by the government in standardized textbooks (Huang, 2009). Specifically in the postwar period, certain facets were also selected by political elites to create an “official Confucianism”, whose goal was to support the state ideology by creating a highly selective interpretation of Confucian ideology. This sort of misinterpretation and misapplication of Taiwanese Confucianism was not an exceptional occurrence in history. Even in China, at the start of Emperor Wu’s reign during the Han dynasty (140–86 BCE), all non-Confucian schools were banned as Confucianism was utilized and distorted by the officialdom (Huang, 2009).
At the same time, in contrast to official Taiwanese Confucianism, Confucianism was also interpreted by intellectuals such as Xu Fuguan (1902–1982), as it became a key school of thought to resisting foreign influence. In Development of Confucianism in Taiwan, Chen Chao-ying (2014) pointed out that Confucianism in Taiwan led the territory to oppose the Qing and support reinstatement of the Ming, criticize Japanese occupation, and resist wholesale Westernization during the period after Second World War. In that case, clashes between the Taiwanese and Japanese and the incoming Mainlanders after 1945 shows that the cultural and intellectual tradition in Taiwan was diverse, complex, and multifaceted.
As the revival of Confucianism continues throughout East Asia, the history of Confucian development is not as clear-cut as is usually imagined. Rather than simply being part of China’s cultural sphere of influence or as an indigenised ideology in Taiwan, Confucianism has been influenced by a number of cultural, political, and economic factors that were both local and global, allowing the tradition to develop “in the unique context of the interaction between Taiwan and China, tradition and modernity, and indigenous and foreign culture” (Huang, 2009, p. 8). For future research, the question remains as to what are the prospects for Confucian tradition in Taiwan with the challenges of air, water, and industrial pollution that accompany industrialisation in addition to the other challenges of modernisation. More work needs to be done to investigate these processes.
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.
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.