Define "Successful"

There are signs that China’s government is going to resurrect Confucianism as a source of social ethics and harmony [via Simon World]. It was, after all, the dominant social ideology for centuries, even millenia (though not exactly consecutively), and it retains a great deal of power in Chinese society (though, as the article has pointed out, hardly nobody’s been formally taught this stuff for some time) and is indeed a great system of social ethics in a fundamentally hierarchical society.

But it does beg the question: to what extent did Confucianism work better than less formal systems of social ethics? Is it something to go back to because it was effective and adaptable, or is it just “there” and available for rhetorical recycling without requiring a strong committment to the principles of reciprocality, responsibility and compassionate effectiveness that it should entail?


  1. I think it would help some to think through what Confucianism might mean for the Chinese government and ordinary Chinese. There is no real equivalent to the English word “Confucianism” in Chinese Ru jia is much more limited than the English word, which especially in popular writing tends to mean something like “Traditional China.”

    At least some bits of “Confucianism” however defined, seem to still be part of popular culture. One of my friends remembers being told (in the early 70’s!) that Confucius was a very wise man who said that children should respect and obey their parents. (Free Frog in a Well t-shirt if you can guess who told him this.) At that level (More traditional ideas about family and interpersonal relations than canonical Confucianism) Confucianism is probably making a comeback.

    What the state is up to and how much it will matter are different questions. I have not been there, but I think Qufu, Confucius’s old home, is becoming a big tourist attraction for Overseas Chinese. The Big C is a way to stress the unity of the Chinese world, which is part of current policy. It probably also fits it with Lee Guanyu, Tu Weiming and all the “Confucian Development” types. Anything that can promise capitalism without democracy would be popular in Beijing. The really interesting question is if Confucian ideas will start affecting domestic policy, which seems unlikely. I’m not even sure what that would mean.

    I would be very surprised to see them restore the state cult of sacrifices, so Confucius is still a hungry ghost.

  2. The Chinese government will make Confucius say what it wants him to.
    Expect batches of small, pocket sized editions of “The Best of
    Kung Fu T’zu,” “The Wit and Wisdom of Confucius,” that sort of thing, much like the little Red Book. Full editions will only be in libraries, possibly available only by permission. It wouldn’t do for the peasants to actually understand the implications of, for instance, responsibility (going both ways) or reciprocity.

    The Government is grasping at straws, looking for a way to appear righteous and respectable. Mao’s “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” is just too raw, even though that’s actuallyt their guiding philosophy and sole legitimacy. The Mandate of Heaven has about run it’s course, and the leaders are casting about with increasing fervor.

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