I like sex better than bear paws

Over at A Ku Indeed people, including myself, have been discussing Daniel Bell’s East Meets West which looks at the importation of foreign concepts of human rights into East Asia. So far I have not been that impressed with the book and one of the reasons became clearer to me when I found a review of Bell’s more recent book “China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.” via CDT

One thing that bothered me is that he seems to be using the word “Confucianism” to mean “traditional Chinese culture”, which I find to be sloppy. More importantly, I find his reading of Confucianism to be…odd. Apparently  part of the book is about Karaoke bars as part of the modern Confucian culture, since Confucians saw music as having a vital role in creating a proper society. From the review.

It is within the karaoke bar that the bonding properties of music – so beloved of Confucians – become manifest. If the hostesses offer sex as well as harmonious conversation, that too is as the Sage Master might wish. “I never met anyone,” he told his 5th-century BC students approvingly, “who values virtue more than physical beauty.”

Wow. Chinese Text Project translates it (9.18) differently 子曰:“吾未見好德如好色者也. The Master said, “I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty.” Almost all the translators I have looked at either read this as Confucius criticizing people for liking sex over virtue, or as recomending you to pursue virtue with the same eagerness you pursue sex (Brooks). Where is Bell’s reading coming from? I suppose if you totally ignored the Confucian dislike of sexual licentiousness you might be able to come up with this. You would also have to ignore all the Confucian stuff about how music is not -good- but –powerful– and that music can both inspire virute and inspire bad behavior. (Such as sex and excessive drinking). There are lots of ways of explaining the sex culture of China, but I would not think of Confucius as being one of them. Has anyone read this book? Is it really as bad as the review makes it look?


  1. Alan, could you elaborate what you mean by the “sex culture of China.” I wanted to respond here but then realized
    that I wasn’t aware that China has a “sex culture”… what does that mean? And how is this different from other
    countries? Most countries I have found myself in do have a sex culture– which is not necessarily a bad thing,
    tho I suppose that really depends what exactly you mean by that? (if you don’t feel comfortable explaining offline
    you can email me a link or something just so I know what you mean– in the name of dialogue and interesting

  2. Alan,

    Something seems wrong here. I’m rushing at the moment, so this has to quick (airport run, hordes of arriving family). If that is how Bell translates 9.18, as an _approving_ comment by the master, then he’s dead wrong. The translation of the passage itself is not problematic, I don’t think. It’s the addition of “…he told his 5th century BC students approvingly…”. Clearly Confucius is bemoaning this, not celebrating it. To value physical beauty more than virtue is xiao ren, not junzi.

    Are you sure this is Bell? I did a books.google search on the book, and inserted that sentence, and I can’t find it in the book. I wonder if the reviewer is adding this.

    When I get more time, I’ll dig deeper. If anyone else has the time, though, feel free!

    Side note: I think the disagreements we are having at my place are separate from this issue, though, regardless of how this admittedly odd point is resolved.

  3. Chris.
    I have not read the book, so I can’t be sure. I assume the quote from Confucius must be in there, but the approvingly may (or may not) be from the reviewer.

    I would define sex culture as the set of beliefs and practices that center around sex in any given culture. Most of what I know about that in China comes from.

    Farrer, James. Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai. 1st ed. University Of Chicago Press, 2002.

  4. i have no dog in this fight, but for what it’s worth:

    1. Bell himself appears *not* to have said:

    t is within the karaoke bar that the bonding properties of music – so beloved of Confucians – become manifest. If the hostesses offer sex as well as harmonious conversation, that too is as the Sage Master might wish. “I never met anyone,” he told his 5th-century BC students approvingly, “who values virtue more than physical beauty.”

    this statement was made by a reviewer of his here.

    i think that this is probably not as clear to the reader’s of Alan’s post above as he intended it to be.

    2. as Chris just noted, “The translation of the passage itself is not problematic,” though it’s less than perfect. rather, the suggestion that Confucius would approve that anyone value physical beauty above virtue is misleading.

    3. Bell’s thoughts re. Confucian karaoke appear around p. 63 of his book.

  5. Slowboat,

    Do you have a copy of the book? p.63 does not come up on Google books for me. I would not be at all surprised to find that the reviewer is distorting what Bell said, but what I could see of the chapter did not impress me much.

  6. i have no copy of the book, Alan. sorry.

    sorry also for the typos and the lack of substance in my response above.

    ’tis the season to be busy to death!

    my throw-away comment: Bell backs himself out of the idea of a universal conception of human rights by focusing on the processes and procedures by which China and the West respectively seek to safeguard public well-being in times of crisis. In so doing, Bell makes two errors:

    1. He unjustifiably concludes that because these policies and procedures are different, so too must the end result–that is, that each society’s conception of “human rights” must also be different. And,

    2. He establishes crisis and conflict as the normative basis against which “human rights” are measured.

  7. Hi Alan, I hope you are enjoying the holidays. I have been going forward in Bell’s book looking forward to Chris’
    next post (a Ku Indeed)… and I wanted to respond to 2 points.

    1) First, I cannot really agree with you that Bell equates Chinese traditional culture with Confucianism alone. He
    never states this anywhere so I am wondering on what grounds you are basing your opinion (not to fight by any means,
    but rather I am curious). Because Bell never states this I think it has to be assumed that– like most people– while
    Bell sees Confucianism as one significant philosophy informing what you call traditional Chinese culture– that of
    course he knows that there are also Daoist, Legalist, Buddhist, Christian, and other influences.

    2) Slowboat: Your remarks on “in times of crisis” puzzled me.
    At first I wasn’t going to say anything because I figured you were referring to maybe something which I have not read
    but curiosity is getting the better of me (and yes I know what happened to the cat!)

    Does Bell anywhere explicitely state that crisis and conflict are the (only) normative basis against which rights
    are measured?? Or does he in fact suggest that crises *may* justify the curtailment of rights if it’s shown that
    that curtailment is necessary to overcome the crisis.

    Hey Konrad, if you see this: Merry Christmas! (and what about putting a “recent comments” section up on the left?)

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