Friday 6 February 2009

What Confucius said

An exploration of Confucianism as a humanist discourse on civil conduct and personal liberty, and its changing relationship with the Chinese state.

During the Cultural Revolution, millions of Red Guards rampaged at the behest of Chairman Mao to rid China of its ‘Four Olds’: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. They defaced ancient monuments, destroyed historical artifacts, burnt monasteries, persecuted traditional arts, and tortured minorities and ‘bourgeois thinkers’, leaving half-a-million dead in their wake. Special venom was directed at things Confucian. Encouraged to question their parents and teachers (who were traditionally revered), youngsters were soon marching with slogans like: ‘Parents may love me, but not as much as Chairman Mao’.

Regarded later as an unmitigated disaster even by diehard communists, this wasn’t the first time a Chinese leader had turned against Confucianism. The very first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who also commissioned the Terracotta Army, had launched his own great Confucian purge in the third century BCE. But such events are anomalies for Confucianism, which would revive, adapt, and thrive again (the longest slump was during the Tang dynasty), giving China a distinctive cultural continuity for almost 2500 years.

No person has left a deeper mark on Chinese culture than Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago in an age of social turmoil. He was a member of the scholar or professional class who managed to become a mid-level bureaucrat and sought to define and practice the art of ruling (1). Though, like Plato, he had no success in the real world, he laid the foundation of a great deal of subsequent Chinese reflection on education and comportment of the ideal man, how he should live and interact with others, and the forms of society and government in which he should participate (2).

Like the Buddha, Jesus, and Socrates, Confucius too never wrote a word. Even the Analects of Confucius, considered closest to his thought, was compiled after his death by many generations of disciples. To understand what he inspired in China, a better approach is to read the Analects along with three exegetical works that form the animating core of Confucianism, ie. the Confucian canon - the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean.


A striking feature of the Confucian canon is its overwhelming concern with life in this world. Whilst there is an abstract Heaven and the obligation to respect one’s ancestors, God is conspicuously absent. Nor is there much metaphysical wonder or concern with the origin of the universe, the nature of mind and matter (as in Buddhism), or death and beyond. Humans, according to Confucius, should waste no time in trying to understand the forces of heaven and the realm of the spirits; and should concentrate instead on the problems of this world, best tackled through education and character development.

Confucianism, in this sense, is less religion or speculative thought, more a humanistic discourse on personal and social conduct.

The Golden Rule (‘Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself’) finds a prominent mention in the canon. Many propositions are based on moral reciprocity. The dominant view is that human nature is innately good, but corrupted due to our failings. With effort, each of us can perfect it and recover our original goodness. This, in fact, is the goal of all learning - to discover our universal human nature and live a worldly life in accord with it - the Way of the Heaven, or simply, The Way. A clear implication is that recovering our innate nature will lead to inner peace and social harmony.

Furthermore, the canon considers all men to be equal in their moral capacities:  any person can become a sage, or at least a superior man. That men may not pursue the path of self-improvement did trouble Confucius, evidenced by his pithy but despairing remark that he had ‘never seen a man who loved virtue as much as sex’. Yet, he never lost his faith in the transforming and sustaining power of education (3).

Confucius believed that cultivation of the self lies at the root of social order, which in turn is the basis for peace and political stability. (4)

A progressive and radical thinker in his time, he approved his society’s move away from a slave-owning to a feudal age (taking this out of context, modern commies and capitalists have called him reactionary). Worthy men, he said, were under no obligation to serve unworthy rulers, and must be prepared to sacrifice their lives in defense of principle (5). Analects 9:26 says: ‘One may rob an army of its commander-in-chief; one cannot deprive the humblest man of his free will’. A good government rules humanely, ‘by virtue and moral example rather than by punishment of force’ (6).  The canon enumerates the qualities of the exemplary ruler. For instance, he must possess five virtues: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness. He must use nine standards to administer the empire:

cultivating the personal life, honouring the worthy, being affectionate to relatives, being respectful toward the great ministers, identifying oneself with the whole body of officers, treating the common people as one’s own children, attracting the various artisans, showing tenderness to strangers from far countries, and extending kindly and awesome influence on the feudal lords.[6]


Centuries later, in early 2nd millennium CE, the impact of Buddhism, Taoism, and other social transformations led to what we now call Neo-Confucianism. Whilst it mainstreamed the Taoist concepts of chi, yin and yang, and tai-chi, Neo-Confucianism also took a turn for the worse, taking a more hierarchical view of society. For instance, it expounded on five social relationships and the conduct appropriate for each: ruler and ruled, son and father, younger brother and older, wife and husband, friend and friend. It advocated submission to authority, loyalty and obedience, orthodox family values, filial piety, thrift and hard work. Confucius, almost certainly, would have disapproved.

Like Chinese food in India, Buddhism altered its flavour in China. Despite their shared agnosticism and focus on this world, the primacy of the individual spiritual quest, detachment, and monasticism in Buddhism posed a threat to Confucianism. What therefore arose in China was a ‘Confucianised’ Buddhism. And just as Hinduism borrowed from and then marginalised Buddhism in India, Neo-Confucianism marginalised Buddhism in China, not the least because it was a ‘foreign faith’ (though it would not disappear as completely as in India).

The Confucian canon, notably, was a vital part of the curriculum of China’s civil services exams for 1300 years (until 1905). This China-wide administrative system (which likely shaped the British model in India) helped forge cultural homogeneity and common social values, reduce political regionalism, and build a common identity that made possible the Chinese nationalism of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, this came at a price. According to Jonathan Spence,

By the 12th century AD, something approximating a state Confucianism was in place and over time this came to encapsulate certain general truths that had not figured prominently in the original Analects. For example, now included under this broad definition of Confucian thought were hostility to or the demeaning of women, a rigid and inflexible system of family hierarchies, contempt for trade and capital accumulation, support of extraordinarily harsh punishments, a slavish dedication to outmoded rituals of obedience and deference, and a pattern of sycophantic response to the demands of central imperial power. (1)

This no doubt contributed to the subsequent stasis in Chinese civilisation. The birthplace of paper, printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass turned inward, uncreative, and xenophobic. The sense of humiliation that colonial encounters left behind, the experience of Maoism, and the worldly Confucian ethos of its people under post-Mao regimes go a long way in explaining the tenor of modern China.

It is notable that today, unlike the Buddha and even various Hindu gurus and yogis, Confucius has almost no following outside the Chinese cultural sphere in East Asia.

This may be because the ideal Confucian path is a ‘society of cultivated individuals’ - the emphasis is on both ‘society’ and ‘cultivated individuals’. The two go hand in hand and reinforce each other. One is incoherent without the other.

It requires people to cultivate themselves to establish a critical mass of ‘social harmony’, which then leads to wider cultivation of individuals and greater harmony. But can one speak of a Confucian individual in the West, which has no equivalent goal of social harmony? This is perhaps why Confucius has few followers in the West. The Buddha’s enlightenment is of course a very individual path and so it resonates more strongly; likewise the idea of saving oneself through the ‘wisdom’ of a Hindu sage.

A new form of Confucianism is ascendant again. The Chinese government now aggressively promotes it and has even established 120 Confucius Institutes in 50 countries. Shrines to Confucius now abound in China. ‘Harmony’ was a notable theme at the Beijing Olympics. The sage has been co-opted by the market-friendly authoritarian regimes of East Asia to help drive voluntary obedience, law and order, and nationalism. These regimes also withhold a host of human rights from their citizens under the pretext that ‘Asian Values’ are different from ‘Western values’. That’s not what Confucius would have said. The Analects makes clear that ‘he stood for something far closer to personal liberty than to unswerving obedience to the state’ (3).

[1] Jonathan Spence in Confucian Ways, Reith Lectures, 2008.
[2] Confucius, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[3] What Confucius Said, Jonathan Spence reviews Simon Leys’s translation of the Analects, New York Review of Books, 1997.
[4] Confucianism, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008.
[5] The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence.
[6] A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-Tsit Chan.

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical