Confucianism Today

Taisu Zhang has an interesting piece on China File analyzing the recent Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu paper on ideology in China. Zhang is trying to figure out why Chinese leftists are embracing Confucius. By leftists in a Chinese context he is referring, as Pan and Xu do, to those Chinese who are in favor of

National unity
Socialist state/statism
National security
Chinese characteristics
State sovereignty
Welfare state*
More intervention
Public interest
Legitimacy of labor gains

The cultural set of ideas that go along with this are

Traditional values
Traditional wisdom

Their opponents, the Liberals, are more likely to favor things like Western Values, Constitutional Democracy, and Free Markets.

Zhang finds the Leftist interest in Confucianism to be curious. Zhang points out that the Late Imperial Confucians who are the most obvious antecedents for the modern “Leftist” traditionalists were in favor of a strongly decentralized economic and political system, which does not seem to go along with their preferences. This is of course true, and he is quite correct in pointing out the weakness of the “old argument that Confucianism is inherently “pro-government” or “pro-authority,” and therefore naturally inclined to lean “left,” rather than “right,” on the current Chinese political spectrum.” This is true enough in a general sense.  Late Imperial Confucians favored a decentralized system, but unlike modern internationalist neo-liberals / libertarians in China or elsewhere they certainly did not do so because they saw market relations as morally superior to everything else (or anything else.) I could be wrong about that of course, since it is not really my field, but I think the whole idea of trying to link Chinese poll respondents to a historically accurate and unitary idea of “Confucianism” is not the right way to go.

As an example, I can imagine a Western country with a political grouping that calls itself “Christian” on the grounds that they favor

-Massive public spending to improve the lot of the poor.
-National disarmament and pacifism.
-Strict regulation of the sexual behavior of citizens.
-Purging those of deviant beliefs from society.

Needless to say these don’t go together very well, but they can all call themselves “Christian.”

So what does “Confucianism” mean in China today, if we assume it is not always because of a strong attachment to the actual structures of historic Confucian states? What sort of Confucianism is Ah Q. Public, poll respondent, getting out of historical dramas on TV and that boxed set of the works of Zeng Guofan? I have no idea of course, but I do have at least one data point. I have been reviewing Jing Liu’s Understanding China Through Comics on this site, and having read that and seen every single historical drama ever aired in China (well, one or two of them anyway) I can tell you what type of person a Confucian is. They are the ones who speak truth to power. In Jing Liu’s books the heroes are usually “scholar-officials.” Hai Rui. Wang Anshi. Zeng Guofan. When China is controlled by the corrupt and the self-serving (which seems to be pretty often) they are the ones who stand up for the common people. Jing Liu is not a scholar, of course, but he is trying to write a series of books that explain the lessons of Chinese history to his kids and everyone else.  That type of history is best done through heroes and villains (or praise and blame) and I suspect that if you were to do a thorough and open survey of every person in China about what “Confucianism” meant to them you would get more stories about heroic rebels, virtuous remonstrators and brave patriots than you would detailed analysis of Late Qing ideas about decentralized power. In other words, Confucianism may be more of a cultural term than a political one.

Sadly, we can’t do any follow up questions and find out what Chinese  might mean by agreeing that “The Eight Diagrams in the Book of Changes explain many things well” since the Political Compass site that generated the data was blocked by the Great Firewall in March of 2015

1 Comment

  1. Very relevant post, I think. I have heard from several Chinese people that the education system in the mainland is teaching children about the benefits of following the Doctrine of the Mean 中庸 in daily life, claiming that it is a central aspect of the Chinese psyche and the greatest lesson of ancient Chinese thought. I think this is because the government tries to make it sound similar to Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society” idea, which is a total repudiation of Marxist dialectics and some of the most basic ideas of Maoism.

    I mentioned to a Chinese student I was talking to the other day that Confucius also criticized merchants about as much as Mao attacked capitalists, and that if Chinese people are going to reopen the book on Confucius, they need to also look at this aspect of his thought. She said she knew that, but that things are different now, so it’s okay to embrace the Doctrine of the Mean while ignoring Confucius’ hatred of capitalism. On the one hand I think it’s good to try to find some middle ground between modernity and tradition, but on the other hand, I also think it does a sort of injustice to whoever wrote the Analects and to the founders of the CCP alike to white-wash their ideas just to fit what is politically and economically expedient.

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