In this public lecture held in 2014, Professors Daniel A. Bell, Joseph Chan, Tongdong Bai discuss the role of Confucianism in the modern world.
With the difficulty of cooperating over issues such as nuclear warfare, terrorism, and environmental protection, has the time come for a globalised, cosmopolitan adoption of Confucianism? In this series, the three guest speakers develop Confucianism in rather different ways, and the purpose of this panel is to explore how they do that, and how they think Confucianism can save the world. The panel is moderated by Mathias Risse from Harvard University.
Image: Friends Playing, 1600. Retrieved from here.
During the third century, the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus placed a placard with the Golden Rule on his palace wall. The placard read, “Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris” (What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others). In the West, the oldest reference to the Rule can be found in the writings of Isocrates, an ancient Greek rhetorician and critic of Plato. Isocrates points out that the self and the other are comparable. As he writes in Speeches (19.49), “give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves.” To put it simply, one should use power moderately and reasonably, aiming to achieve a fair and balanced exchange with others. It is only by treating others as one would want to be treated that a system can be created that does not result in favouritism or discrimination. As some theorists argue, humans are self-interested beings that only do tasks because of the benefits that they expect to obtain, either directly or indirectly. By treating others fairly, one should expect to receive the same kind of treatment. Thus, if fair treatment is not provided, one should also expect an unfair repayment of some sort, whether this occurs in the long-term or short-term. Different religious systems have different ways of explaining how this return takes place. For Buddhism and Hinduism, cosmic justice or karma results in good or bad future consequences depending on one’s intent and behaviour. Islamic thought explains this through the ‘right of God’, who determines whether one will be punished for treating others’ unfairly. In Confucianism, proper behaviour is what leads to social harmony and effective governance, while unfairness results in moral chaos and political struggle.
The Confucian version of the Gold Rule is found in many passages in the Analects. For example, in 5.12 it is stated that when Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do to me, I do not wish to do to others”, the Master replied that Zigong had not yet reached this level of moral development. In other words, it takes time and effort to learn reciprocity: “that which you do not desire, do not do to others.” (15.24). Others have translated the word ‘reciprocity’ in the Analects as ‘consideration’, which means to care or keep in mind someone or something over a period of time. The Latin term considerationem comes from the past participle of considerare, which from the mid-15th century referred to taking something into account (Harper, 2017). However, consideration alone does not cover the Golden Rule. While you might take something or someone into account, it does not necessarily follow that you will act on that consideration. For instance, while I might consider the neighbour’s interests in my decision to plant a tree near the neighbour’s gate, I might go through with my decision for planting the tree near the gate as this spot is ultimately better than the spot near the door, even if the neighbour may not like my decision. In that case, an element of reciprocity is important as without considering the mutual exchange of benefits or returning something the same way as it was given, the Golden Rule would not work. It involves reversibility, exchange, and consistency as we consider how to treat others as we would like to be treated. Because the Confucian idea of this exchange involves an aspect of care: treating others as honoured guests, and acting towards subordinates as though conducting a ritual (Analects, 12.2), the Golden Rule in the Confucian sense can be understood as ‘reciprocal consideration’.
There are many aspects to reciprocal consideration. For one, there are two formulations to the rule. The first describes reciprocity positively as you “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the Bible, Luke 6:13 and Matthew 7:12 both express the rule this way and describe it as the ‘Law and the Prophets’. To know and act towards others as you would want others to act towards you is what leads to moral righteousness and mutual consideration. However, as Zecha (2011) points out, a standard objection to this version of the Rule is that many people have strange desires that others may not want to reciprocate. For example, someone who enjoys experiencing pain might wish to harm others so that others will harm them in return. To escape this problem, the negative version of “not doing to others as you would not want done to you” supposedly discourages harmful behaviour and includes an element of restraint or ‘action within appropriate limits’ when considering how to interact with others. In practice, this requires a person to become empathetic by imagining oneself as the other, or as Confucians put it, ‘compassionate’: to feel with or together with someone. Mengzi 4A9 indicates the political relevance of this exchange as it notes that “there is a way to get the people: get their hearts, and the people are got. There is a way to get their hearts: it is simple to collect for them what they like, and not to lay on them what they dislike” (Legge, 1991, p. 300). So, according to the rule, political leaders or those in authority have a duty to appeal to and feel with subordinates. Although on an individual basis, reciprocal consideration is based on the protection of the self, when applied to a larger scale, those in less powerful positions should feel that the powerful have an ultimate allegiance to the human community, rather than an interest to preserve their power. When the stakes are higher and more lives are affected by how society is organised, ruler attempts to engage in reciprocal consideration needs to be done with right intention and integrity, otherwise subordinates may question the ruler’s legitimacy. Examples of this can be seen in American or Chinese foreign politics. When actions are interpreted as one-sided, deceptive, and unfair, fear and suspicion ensue. Any attempts to explain or justify these actions by rhetoric are dismissed as empty speech, where words no longer have substance or value. As the Book of Poetry states, when “Tian (or in this case, trust and reciprocity) is poised to topple, No more of this babble!” (ode 254).
It is interesting to note the meaning of ‘empty speech’. In Confucianism, the concept of empty ritual is often discussed. Rituals are learnt ways of proper behaviour. They are actions that necessitate social harmony. While the purpose of these actions are to perform for and with others, rituals should not be morally empty. Singerland’s (2003) translation of the Analects notes that sparse ritual is better than empty excess ritual (p. 18). In other words, the point of performing public actions is that they should express inward morality. By practising ritual, one is taught to cultivate internal ethical attitudes and channel one’s emotions, improving social harmony. On the other side of this spectrum is empty speech. That is, what Moncayo (2016) calls “parrot’s empty or idle speech” (p. 23). Usually when we hear someone talk, the content of their words has meaning. The words are full and convey expression and imagery to the listener. Often, words can have double-meanings and these meanings are understood in the context of the conversation. So, to have empty speech means to speak without meaning. No information is being signified, or what is said has little substance. It becomes a case of either uttering words without saying anything, or saying something while meaning or doing something else. Talk becomes disjointed rather than connected to listeners, which ultimately leads to empty noise.
Thus, when we think of ‘reciprocal consideration’, it is not just about putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Reciprocity is about joining speech with action, with the expectation that others will do the same. Without this expectation, mutual trust and empathy become difficult to maintain and one would struggle to exist in a social community. As Confucius says, whether through human-to-human gift giving or sacrificial rites for the ancestors, it is important to be present, as it is important “for the spirits to be present” (3.17). Relationships begin to form when there is a balanced reciprocity between the ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ of any exchange.
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.”
Despite all the theories on economic development that put forward Eurocentric ideas about historical progress and the nature of mankind, the driving force behind the world’s largest economics is the average person. In theory, a country seeks to develop and build its economy to better the life of people, which allows the state to function. The success of a state’s economic policy is based on effective production, access to resources, and fair distribution. Without people supporting this process, the government would be unable to defend its territory, develop its resources, or care for its citizens. At least, this is what Confucius argued. Trust, reciprocity, and loyalty should form the basis for both business and social life, where transaction and exchange must follow certain principles to work properly.
The successful post-war industrialisation and economic development of Confucian nations made this idea a popular belief. According to Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, Confucian (Asian) values include “attachment to the family as an institution, deference to societal interests, thrift, conservatism in social mores, respect for authority”, and it is these values that has helped economic growth in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. The question of whether Confucian values influences economics dates back to the 18th Century, when Voltaire praised China’s Confucian political model of ‘benevolent despotism’ and considered it an example for the West (Yi et al., 2006). Others, like Max Weber, said the exact opposite, and claimed that Confucianism was one of the reasons why modern capitalism failed to develop in China in the late nineteenth century.
Dr. Chen Huan-Chang, author of The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School, was an important voice in this debate as he tried to show that Confucian writings revealed a more systematic approach to organising the economy than was originally thought. His discussions on institutions such as marriage, the family, and private property show that Confucius was an economist as well as a moral philosopher. The following is an extract from the eighth chapter of Chen’s book, titled ‘Economics and Ethics’. Views and Opinions expressed in this extract are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin.
“In the Confucian system, there are two great principles. One is called love, or humanity; the other, justice, or righteousness. It may be interesting to notice that, according to the Chinese etymology, the world love is formed from denoting the word man, or others, and the word justice from the word denoting self. Thus the primary meaning of the world love is a relation between persons; and that of justice is an aspect of the self. We love others, but we justify ourselves. Hence we should strictly control ourselves, according to the highest standard of morality, and treat others liberally, according to the ordinary level of human nature. Confucius says: “The superior man reasons about theoretical principles from the standpoint of himself, but lays down practical laws from the capabilities of the people.” Therefore, regarding ourselves, Confucius puts ethical teaching above economic life, in some cases, life itself should be sacrificed for the sake of virtue; but regarding society as a whole, he puts economic life before ethical teaching.
The best illustration of this principle is given in the Analects. When Confucius went to Wei, Jan Yu acted as a driver in his carriage. Confucius observed, “How numerous are the people!” Jan said, “Since they are thus numerous, what more shall be done for them?” “Enrich them,” was the reply. “And when they have been enriched, what more shall be done?” Confucius said, “Instruct them”
Before we can instruct the people, we must enrich them, no matter how few or many there are. This is a universal principle. The Canon of Poetry repeats three times the following two sentences: “Give them drink and give them food. Instruct them and teach them.”
If we understand in the beginning that Confucius gives two principles for the two classes of men, one for the officials and students, the other for the mass of common people at large, we shall avoid confusion. For the higher class, ethical life is first, but for the lower class, economic life is first. Confucius says: “The mind of great men is conversant with justice; the mind of small men is conversant with profit.” In speaking of great men and small men, he refers to their social standing. This theory is very clearly stated by Tung Chung-shu when he says: “Busily seeking for wealth and profit, and fearing only the condition of want, this is the mind of common people; busily seeking for love and justice, and fearing always that they could not influence the people, this is the mind of ministers and great officials.” Such a statement, of course, is only a theory, not fact. Yet we must understand that Confucius has these two classes in his mind, and sets forth two different principles for them. On the one hand, he forbids the higher class, from emperor to student, to seek private gain. They should confine themselves to the ethical life. On the other hand, he allows the lower class to make profit, and thinks that they ought to do so. Hence, for the governing of society, Confucius takes up the economic life of the people for the first consideration. The “Great Learning” describes the effects of a good government as follows: “The common people find pleasure in what they call their pleasure, and find profit in what they call their profit.” We are sure that Confucius, in the program of his reformation, feels that economic betterment is the first item.
Unfortunately, since the Confucians of the Sung dynasty did not wholly understand the principles of Confucius and thought that he did not approve even talking about profits, the teachings of Confucius failed to be considered of great importance in the practical world, and the Chinese suffered a great deal through need of economic reforms. They made such a great mistake because they misunderstood the statements of Mencius and Tung Chung-shu. Mencius tell the King Hui of Lian: “Why must your Majesty use that word profit? What I am provided with are counsels concerning the principles of love and justice, and these are my only topics.” Tung Chung-shu tells the Prince of Kiangtu: “The man of perfect virtue is thus: following strictly justice, not for the sake of profit; discussing thoroughly principle, not with the expectation of success.” This simply means virtue for virtue’s sake. These two statements given by Mencius and Tung Chung-shu are quite good in themselves, but they do not mean that the economic problems should be left entirely out. They have their own writings, and we can find their economic principles even from the quotation of this treatise. They are talking to the king and the prince, and such men, of course, are forbidden by Confucius to talk about profits. We never expect to use the same prescription for everybody; why should we apply those statements to everyone? Neither Confucius, nor Mencius, nor Tung Chung-shu, nor any great Confucian before the Sung dynasty, has ever said that the common people should not talk about profits. Moreover, the Confucians of the Sung dynasty did not distinguish the public profits from private profits, and left them both out of consideration. This has been a great obstacle to the economic development of China.”
To have your say on Chen’s analysis, comment in the box below.
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.
- Technology and Confucianism– ‘Get ready for Chinese AI with a Confucian bias’
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.
- A Weaponised Philosophy? – ‘Confucianism and Market Reforms–Ancient Coils, Modern Reforms’
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?
- A Battle over Ideas– ‘Who Was Saigo Takamori, The Last Samurai?’
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.
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.