Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Confucian Renaissance

In his 19th-century classic, The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber argued that Asian values were incompatible with the development of a modern economic system. He saw in the brand of Christianity practiced in northern Europe the only ethical system with the attributes needed to make capitalism work.

At the beginning of the 20th century, many Asian intellectuals might have agreed with him. Commenting on Confucianism, the Chinese leftist thinker Chen Duxiu said in 1916: “If we want to build a new society on the Western model in order to survive in the world, we must courageously throw away that which is incompatible with the new belief, the new society, the new state.”

History, of course, has proved Weber and Chen wrong. It is now plain that the most dynamic practitioners of capitalism at the dawn of the 21st century are to be found in Asia. More strikingly all of them are located within what might be called a Confucian cultural zone.

It is clear that the success of Japan and the Four Tigers owes much to such essential Confucian precepts as self-discipline, social harmony, strong families and a reverence for education. That has led to unprecedented -- and increasingly broad-based international interest in the creed. Yet the Confucian renaissance may only be in its early phases.

For most of the last century Confucius (or Kongfuzi – Master Kong) has been under a cloud in his homeland. Everyone from late Qing dynasty reformers to revolutionary Communists blamed his teaching for a host of ills, ranging from feudal oppression to economic backwardness. But recently, Beijing’s leaders have begun to characterize the sage’s philosophy as a national treasure that would benefit today’s Chinese.

This year China held the biggest official celebration of the birth of Confucius since Liberation. The state-controlled television broadcast festivities surrounding his 2,556th birthday Sept. 28 on a scale never before seen in China. More than 2,500, including many fairly high-ranking Communist Party cadres, made a pilgrimage to the philosopher’s birthplace at Qufu in Shandong province.

The latest government line is that Confucianism can serve as a moral foundation to help build a more “harmonious society” in keeping with President (and Communist Party general secretary) Hu Jintao’s efforts to address social problems such as the polarization of society and a wide spread “money first” mentality.

It is little surprise that Chinese leaders are seeking to rehabilitate their country’s most famous and influential thinker. In the moral void opened by the decline of Marxism and the abundance of material temptations, Confucianism can help provide the nation with a much-needed ethical anchor. And success in these endeavors would allow China’s leaders to strengthen their hold on another Confucian bequest – the “mandate of heaven,” or the right to rule.

What is the relevance of Confucianism in modern times? Which tenets have served East Asia well – and could help other nations and cultures? What are the pitfalls to be avoided? Of all the world’s great canons, Confucianism is the most practical. What concerned him most were people’s relationships with one another and with the state. He also focused on social justice and good government. Ren or benevolence was the pillar of the Master’s thought.

Another was learning. Whether or not East Asian countries include The Analects in their social curriculums, they all understand that education is the root of national strength and prosperity. The ingrained respect for knowledge – and for the teacher who imparts it – is the key factor in the outstanding academic performance of East Asians on a global basis.

One can see Confucianism alive in a modern way in Singapore when a secondary student is reprimanded for blogging about his teacher in a negative light. For that matter, the Pennsylvania court that upheld a school district for expelling a student who, ranting on the internet, called his teacher a range of bad names and displayed a picture with her head cut off was also, knowingly or not, upholding Confucian values.

Yet the long-time preoccupation with reciting the Nine Classics has also produced educational systems in Asia that stress memorization at the expense of creative thinking. This is a distortion of Confucian philosophy, which emphasized both knowledge and thought. Said the Master: “He who does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

To the Master, the family was fundamental to the social order. “If the family is properly regulated, the state will be too,” he reasoned. No amount of legislation, Confucius taught, could either take the family’s place or perform its function as the linchpin of a well-ordered society. In the Master’s world, children defer to parents, wives to their husbands, and subjects to rulers in a natural progression.

He tended top relegate women to the margins of public affairs, though he may merely have been reflecting the prevalent values of his time. Today a nation shortchanges itself if it does not follow a saying of another Chinese thinker: “women hold up half the sky.”

In return for the loyalty of subjects, Confucius demanded that a ruler display benevolence and unstintingly serve their interests. If he didn’t, citizens had the right to remonstrate. Mencius, the second most influential Confucian philosopher later developed the concept of a “divine right of rebellion.” If an emperor became a tyrant, he would lose the mandate of heaven and people would overthrow him. Today they might simply throw the leader out of office in an election. Confucius and democracy are hardly incompatible.

Throughout history, the rigid and unthinking application of Confucian principles repeatedly produced complacent closed societies that were unable to make progress. They paid a terrible price: foreign subjugation and internal upheaval. Modern Confucians must guard against repeating such mistakes. If they succeed in adapting their time-tested heritage to contemporary challenges, Master Kong’s teaching may blossom beyond East Asia to enrich all mankind in the next century.

This article first appeared in Asia Times Online

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