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

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In the last two decades, the Chinese government has been developing an international media network that reports from the Chinese perspective on stories relating to China. Although there is debate about whether promoting Chinese traditions, values, and culture can increase understanding and empathy from audiences around the world, large funds have been invested into enhancing the country’s image. However, despite these efforts, there is still a lack of reporting on Confucian-related stories. Here are three recent news items that feature Confucianism.


Image: China’s Rise in Artificial Intelligence. The Atlantic.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the possession or exercise of thought by machines such as computers. The main question that many scientists and philosophers have been asking is whether a machine thinks. The concept of AI becomes an issue as the capacity to think or reason was previously thought to be unique to the human species. Extending this capacity to machines, who are unable to experience the world like a real human, means that as AI develops, this new technology will have increased moral, religious, and legal significance. It also means that as it stands now, AI is one of the most important and misunderstood sciences of modern times.

Intelligence technologies rely on a binary logic as they are based on yes/no or true/false algebraic formulations. Like the classical Chinese text, the I Ching (The Book of Changes), there is no ‘maybe’ option unless maybe is based on another probability or likelihood (“if I get a raise, then I will buy a new car”). Options can be weighed, but there is never an indefinite answer to a question. While the binary logic in all AI systems is standardized and universal, each AI technology is also created with intent, and this intent is culture-specific. So, it is expected that AI in China will operate differently to Indian AI, AI in the United States, or in Russia.

The expectation is that calculators will replace the old abacus as children around the world will come home from school, show a photograph of their maths homework to the home robot, and receive an immediate answer. But in China, AI will be “biased” towards the ancient Chinese way of reconciling binary opposites. So, answers will be pre-programmed to align with the classical texts of the Dao De Jing, the Analects, and the Great Learning. In the Chinese way of thinking, users should expect given answers to be more wholesome:

One should not be progressive or conservative; one should be both

One should not be materialistic or spiritual; one should be both

One should not be idealistic or realistic; one should be both

When asking for advice, Chinese AI will also be known to emphasise the importance of traditional values such as family honour, loyalty, harmony, and honesty. Students will be expected to ask how Confucian wisdom can be applied to solve current social problems, using AI machines as a platform to test their ideas before extending their discussions in the classroom.

With China’s 1.3 billion population expected to stay relatively stable in the next 40 years, the country will continue to generate huge amounts of data. This includes consumer preferences, to the highly personal and sensitive, such as medical records and social attitudes. The power that comes from having extensive data available on nearly a quarter of the world’s population and the world’s largest manufacturer is unprecedented. This raises questions as to how AI will be used by government agencies, what security measures will be put in place to protect civilian privacy, and in what way will intelligence robotics be programmed to respond to civilians who sympathise with ideas that the government censors, such as democracy or the Falun Gong movement.

North Korea

Image: Kim Jong Un and wife. Newsweek.

An issue that continues to be a cause for concern regarding global peace and security is the 2017 North Korean nuclear crisis. Since North Korea has fired missiles into the Japanese sea, world leaders have announced the need for diplomatic talks to calm the ongoing tensions in the region. What is little discussed in contemporary analyses is the role of Confucianism in Korean culture.

Confucianism has had far-reaching influence over the Korean peninsula. Whether used for its emphasis on self-sacrifice and blind obedience in the North, or as a social norm in the modern and more liberal South, Confucian ideals continue to determine how Korean societies are organised. For example, in Seoul, it is a general custom that an adult would never address an older family member on a first name basis out of respect for seniority. The high standing given to bureaucrats has also created a social tier of first-class elites made up of diplomats, trade negotiators, and industrial planners. Even globalized multinational companies like LG and Samsung are organised as conglomerate ‘chaebols’ based on hereditary ownership, employing life-long partners who become ‘family members’.

Korea’s history with Confucianism dates back to the Chôson dynasty in the 15th century. Even though Buddhism constituted an essential part of the social fabric of Chôson society and was heavily interwoven into the lives of rulers and peasants, Buddhist thought became associated with corruption and superstition as its political influence diminished. With the state’s policy to “uphold Confucianism and oppress Buddhism” (崇儒抑佛), the economic power of Buddhism declined and Buddhist institutions were driven out of the capital and into the mountains. This led to a state where Buddhism was removed from the city’s centre. To fill this social gap, the Chôson foundersestablished Confucianism as the state religion. Within a few years, Korean state rituals, philosophy, ethics, and social norms were being influenced by Chinese Confucian thought. As in China, government-sponsored examinations were compulsory to enter the state bureaucracy, and a position in the government was considered a mark of high status for an individual and their family. Chôson dynasty Korea was organized by strict social divisions according to status and occupation, where the close observance of Confucian rituals, separation of male and female interaction, and self-imposed isolation were reinforced by social expectations and standards.

These practices became part of Korea’s national character. Over the centuries, Confucianism continued to define Korean national identify as it symbolically stood against Chinese assimilation and Japanese occupation. During the post-war period, the North used Confucianism to justify its increasing isolation from the rest of the world, while the South’s martial rule under General Park Chung-hee pursued an export-led growth strategy. Even though merchants were considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy according to Confucian norms, Chaebol family heads were able to escape incarceration by donating their profits to the military regime in exchange for keeping their factories.

Even as the South’s martial rule was replaced by free trade and democracy, it is no surprise that Confucian attitudes continued to persist. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, for example, many Koreans gave in to government pleas to donate their gold to central banks. Citizens ended up melting family heirlooms and wedding rings, donating over US$2 billion worth of gold to meet IMF payments on the due date.

When a philosophy is ‘weaponised’ or interpreted to justify policy objectives, it is all the more important to understand and study the classical texts to see how political elites are using the philosophy for the country’s (or their own) ends. Leaders on the Korean peninsula have shown how Confucianism can be used in a variety of ways: from training workers to be obedient to increase trade surpluses, to perfecting nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles that show the strength of the ruling family. So what will Confucianism be used to justify next?


Image: The Japanese state cavalry led by Saigo Takamori. National Geographic.

Samurais were a caste of warriors in Japanese society from the 12th to the 19th century. Respected for their military strategy, swordsmanship, and discipline, they were known to value courage, loyalty, and honour. While political change led to their decline, the samurais, led by Saigo Takamori (西郷 隆盛), both embraced and fought against modernisation.

The restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868 was much more than just a change in the system of government. The nation was militarily weak and had little technological development. As a result, the leaders saw modernisation and reform as the answer to strengthening Japanese security. “Enrich the country, strengthen the army” was the slogan of the Meiji restorationists. The new regime began dismantling the old feudal system and building a modern fighting force. But not all Japanese welcomed these changes. The reforms deeply split the samurai. Although some supported a modern vision of Japan, to others, modernity threatened their way of life. Saigo Takamori, a samurai hero who helped lead the Meiji revolt, represented the conflict between old and the new.

Born in 1828, Saigo came from Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima), a fiefdom in southwestern Japan. Saigo was not only a skilled warrior but also dedicated student to the ideas of neo-Confucianism and Zen Buddhism. As well as admiring dedication and piety, taking his own life after his master passed away, Saigo was convinced that Confucianism was universal rather than culturally-specific. He stated that Confucian principles of good governance, loyalty, benevolence, and filial piety could be found even in the West, and that Japan could learn Confucian values by critically evaluating Western institutions. Studying the Confucian classics, Saigo argued that Confucianism was a common human heritage that could allow Japan to maintain its traditions and emerge as a stable power.

Saigo played a leading role in the political and military struggles of the mid-19th century. By 1868, Saigo’s troops occupied Edo and defeated the shogunate forces. As part of the package of reforms later introduced by Meiji, Japan’s ancient feudal system of military government was abolished. However, once he returned to Tokyo as the head of the Imperial Guard, Saigo was disillusioned. Corruption and the desire for Western products symbolised greed and everything that he feared about the West. Abolishing the Han system also affected the samurai way of life. The stipends paid to them had disappeared and the creation of the Japanese Imperial Army and military conscription removed the need for their military service. With no income or status, the samurais became common peasants.

The extent of the defeat suffered by the samurais was total. But Saigo’s dignity and courage in following his duty and defeating the Shogunate while facing the reality of modernisation made him a national hero. His work on Confucianism also provides a new perspective on how Confucianism can be translated into a global code of ethics that extends beyond China’s political system.

Zen, Confucianism, and Modern Japan 禅宗,儒家,现代日本

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Japanese Confucianism
Image: Paramore, K. (2016). Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History (Front Cover). Retrieved June 22, 2017, from here.

The Development of Japanese Confucianism through Zen

Confucianism continues to be a significant philosophical tradition in East Asia, along with Daoism and Buddhism. Collectively, these three schools of thought are known as the “three teachings” of Chinese tradition. The adoption of the three teachings across East Asia was partly due to travel and trade on the Silk Road. As the Asia Society (2017) notes in their series on East Asian communication, for over two thousand years the Silk Road acted as a transmitter of people, goods, ideas, beliefs, and inventions, where networks of travel spread intersecting religious beliefs and traditions across China, Japan, and Korea. What is unknown to many is that Zen Buddhist monks played a key role in bringing Chinese culture into Japan which contributed to the development of ‘Japanese Confucianism’.

With the territorial and cultural expansion of the Han dynasty throughout the Korean peninsula, the ruler of the Korean kingdom of Paekche (18 B.C.- 660 A.D.), Keun Ch’ogo, sent instructors named Wang-In and A-Chikki, along with a copy of The Analects and the Thousand Character Classic, to the ruler of Yamato (in Japan’s Nara Prefecture) around 404-405 AD. Literate Chinese and Korean migrants were highly valued in early Japan and many of them taught Confucianism as a way of strengthening the imperial institutions and centralising the Japanese state. An example of how Confucianism influenced Japanese politics can be seen in Prince Shōtoku’s Seventeen-Article Constitution, where in the late 6th century Japan’s clan chieftains developed into monarch-type rulers following the Chinese model of rule. In the constitution, an emphasis is placed on harmony and proper behaviour in human relations as well as the Han Confucian three-tiered cosmology in which human obedience is a requisite for Heaven to provide its blessings on Earth:

Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys the superior acts. (Article 3)

For Tsukahira (1966) however, there is little evidence that Japan consciously sought to model their system on ancient Chinese feudalism. Instead, even during the later Tokugawa shogunate, scholars and statesmen wanted to enhance the dignity and prestige of state institutions by identifying the regime as a Confucian, not Chinese, state.

However, as Confucianism developed in Japan’s political structure, Japanese monks who went over to China brought back both Zen and Confucian thought to the masses. In the book Zen and Japanese Culture (1959), D.T. Suzuki highlights that not only did Zen monks edit and print Confucian textbooks, “instilling fresh blood into Confucianism” (p. 42) through Zen idealism, the monks also compiled these books for popular education in their monasteries. In academia, it was Zen monks like Keian (1427-1508) and Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728) who emphasised the connection between Buddhist teachings and Confucian philosophy by studying the foundational texts, including the Book of Changes (I-Ching), the Book of Odes (Shih Ching), the Book of Annals (Shu Ching), the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch’un Ch’iu), and the Record of Rites (Li Chi). By following a long line of Confucian thinkers who shaved their head like Buddhist priests, these monks made a combined effort to propagate orthodox Confucianism as it suited the political and intellectual situation in Japan after the country suffered many years of conflict. By promising to “yield practical solutions to the problems of government” (Tsukahira, 1966, p. 109), Confucianism stood against corruption and the growing influence of money in society.

Anti-Buddhism and Neo-Confucian Scholars

Although Confucianism came to Japan in the sixth century, it had largely been confined to Buddhist monasteries. By the late sixteenth century, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, as he began to build the bureaucracy which would eventually establish over 250 years of domestic peace (Hooker, 1997). As a result, anti-Buddhist perspectives in many Neo-Confucian texts became influential throughout the seventeenth century. For instance, a well-known critique of Zen Buddhism was articulated by the Confucian scholar Itô Jinsai (1627-1705). In the text The Meaning of Words in the Analects and Mencius (Gomô jigi), Jinsai states that the Buddha believed that emptiness was “the way” (dao), and that mountains, rivers, and land masses were all unreal. However, given that for all ages heaven and earth have sustained life, the sun and moon have illuminated the world, and beings such as birds, fish, insects, and trees live as they do now, it makes no sense to say that all is emptiness or nothingness. Instead, this emphasis on emptiness derives from the Buddhist practice of retiring in the mountains and sitting silently while emptying the mind. Emptiness or nothingness exists neither in this world nor outside it, only in the minds of the Buddhists.

Jinsai argues that in real life the principles of harmony, love, and order are found in every aspect of life: from human relations to even the grains of sand (Tucker, 2013). In this sense, the ‘Confucian way’ refers to how people should conduct themselves in their daily lives. As a universal and natural truth, the Confucian way can simply be called dao. By contrast, the teachings of Buddhism exist only because a small group of people follow them. According to Jinsai, with no practical benefits or ways of contributing to social reality, Buddhism becomes completely irrelevant.

Following on from Jinsai’s comments, Confucian scholars also criticised aspects of Zen that were renowned for their anti-intellectualism. Affirming the uselessness of texts and words on the path to realising one’s Buddha-nature, Zen Buddhism puts forward the idea that the universe is a constantly changing state and that the core of being and non-being cannot be captured by fixed meanings of conventional language (Lieberman, 2006). Japanese Neo-Confucianism, on the other hand, was defined in opposition to assertions of semantic emptiness by reasserting the integrity of language, meaning, and discursive truth. As Tucker (2014) notes, “without the crucial role of language, most especially the words of sages, Confucius and Mencius, humanity would hardly be different from beasts” (p. 33). As a result, words and their correct usage were essential to self-cultivation, governance, and bringing peace to the world.

For all the criticisms on Buddhist thought, it should be noted that the role of ancient history cannot be omitted or underestimated. While the Chu Hsi school throughout the Korean peninsula rejected Zen Buddhism “decked out in Confucian grab” (Kalton, 1988), Confucianism became very strong in Japan because it was originally influenced by and combined with Zen as well as Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. For Hiroyuki (2006), philosophical theorizing in Japan usually took the position that Confucianism, Shinto, and Zen were three versions of the same ultimate truth (shinjubutsu sankyō-itchi), especially since Confucian scholars actively promoted ‘Confucian Shinto’ (Juka Shintō).

Confucianism in Modern Japan

Because of the assertion that these three philosophies did not contradict absolutely and could coexist, the legacy of Japanese Confucianism continues to influence Japan today. As Professor Reischauer states in his book The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (1977), “almost no one considers himself a Confucianist today, but in a sense almost all Japanese are” (p. 214). Many studies have noted the influence of Confucian ethics in education, the workplace, and the role of the government bureaucracy (Ornatowski, 1996), where harmony and right conduct coincides with hierarchical leadership as major characteristics of Japanese organizational culture. However, Confucianism is also understood as being a ‘feudal’ ideology of the past. For example, the work by Japanese sinologist Hattori Unokichi is often criticised for defending Confucian teachings by relying on “Emperor-centered nationalism”, when linking filial piety with Japanese self-sacrifice (Nakajima, 2004). In this way, the relationship between the emperor and the people as compared to that of father and son is criticised as forming right-wing nationalism. With most philosophical departments in Japanese universities also preferring to focus on western philosophy rather than Confucian thought, it would seem that Confucianism currently suffers from a setback in Japan.

An exception to this is the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy (UTCP). Since its founding in 2002, the UTCP has sponsored discussions addressing issues relating to the status of Confucianism in Japanese philosophy. Some academics and journals have also published papers on Confucianism, including Sakamoto Hiroko’s (2009) feminist critique of Confucianism and Azuma Jūji’s (2008) translation of new Confucian documents. For now though, it is unclear whether Japan will relive a Confucian renaissance as China currently has.