Monthly Archives: July 2007

The Resurgence of Confucianism?

Here’s a recent article from the Washington Post on a resurgence of Confucianism in contemporary China.

I find the new interest in Confucius a positive sign for the most part, as Confucianism may be able to temper some of the newfound materialist individualism China is beginning to experience, and which my own culture has been steeped in for some time. However, I am a little skeptical that Confucianism will have the power to transform the society, steering it from greed to morality and human flourishing. My own culture, again, can serve as a historical example here. The mainline Christian churches in the United States and in Europe (especially the Roman Catholic Church) have, for many years, railed against what they see as the increasing individualism and materialism of western culture in general. This, however, has done nothing to stem the tide. As people have become wealthier and more in control of their own lives, they have simply chosen to either leave the churches, or ignore the message. This has led to the decline of the mainline churches and the rise of new churches preaching the “gospel of material success”, often megachurches whose sermons appear as seminars on how accepting Jesus can gain one a raise, a better job, and worldly success.

This is to show that public greed and individualism is not so easily tempered through moral teaching, even teaching as radical (in some sense of the word) as Confucianism or Christianity. People with control who are convinced that what they are doing is correct will simply listen to the message and take what they want from it. This is what is happening to Christianity in the west (where one often hears certain Christians make indignant speeches denouncing homosexuality and abortion, while at the same time praising the making of money, opposing social services, and supporting wars), and it is what will inevitably happen to Confucianism in China, as can already be seen though the work of Yu Dan, who herself claims that she has left certain features of Confucius’ teaching aside, as they do not fit well with Modern China.

Of course, this is not meant to be a criticism of Yu Dan–I think her work is useful for bringing large numbers of people to some understanding of Confucianism. Her interpretation is not perfect, but this is a sacrifice that must be made in any popularization. It is impossible to retain the full substance of the complicated work of a philosopher such as Confucius when one is trying to present an easy to understand overview of this work. However, there is always a great danger when one begins to stray from the historical, because there is always the temptation (even when attempting to remain historically accurate!) to interpret a tradition as lending support to those motivations one already has and as prizing those things one already wants. However, an ethical tradition interpreted thus loses all its power to transform us. Ethical theories show us the way to be better people–point out for us the path from where we are to where we ought to be. Thus to transform a tradition into a validation of whatever it is we do (unless we’re already morally perfect) is to eviscerate it. Anyone who wishes to bring Confucianism into the modern world should keep this in mind.

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Yongzheng’s Propaganda and Confucius on the "Barbarians"

Apologies are in order–things have been a bit slow here at Unpolished Jade recently. The reason for this is that I’ve been in the excruciating drive of studying for my comprehensive exams, which I take in August–so I’ve uncharacteristically been spending a great deal of time thinking about things other than Chinese philosophical history. Hopefully this will end sometime in late August However, even with the unending study, I’ve been unable to resist plumbing the historical depths. I’ve been catching up on some modern Chinese history, and reading a few things on the Ming and Qing dynasties. I’ve just finished reading Peter Perdue’s excellent monograph China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Not a great deal of philosophically interesting material covered here, though a must read for those interested in political and military strategy in the late Ming and Qing. One part of the book particularly piqued my interest, however. It had to do (of course) with the Yongzheng emperor’s (reigned 1723-1735 C.E.) reading of Confucius’s Analects, and his interpretation of Analects 3.5. This interpretation served as fuel for his attempt to assert the political supremacy of the Manchu Qing over the Mongol peoples of the central asian frontier, as well as (not focused on by Perdue) over native Han Chinese, whose assumptions of cultural superiority constantly challenged the Qing’s attempt to construct a narrative of natural supremacy. The difficult passage Perdue suggests that Yongzheng alludes to in a passage from the Dayi Juemilu is Analects 3.5:

夷狄之有君不如諸夏之亡也 。 Di di zhi you jun bu ru zhu xia xhi wang ye. “The barbarian tribes with a ruler are unlike the Xia states without a ruler.”

The translation I have given above is close to literal, and does not beg any questions about Confucius’ intention in the passage. There are two interpretations of this mentioned by Perdue, however, which conflict in an interesting and very important way. Arthur Waley’s translation of 3.5 takes it to be a statement that the barbarian tribes are in a better state than the Chinese states, and thus serves to chide his listeners for their divergence from the correct ways. The Brooks translate this in what Perdue says is the more traditional way, holding 3.5 to be a claim of Chinese supremacy–that even without a ruler, the barbarian tribes are not equal to the Chinese state. If forced to choose a side, I would side with Waley here, though I think it is far from obvious his is the correct interpretation. In my own translation, I choose to leave the statement ambiguous. This, I think, is the best translation of the passage, although it leaves much to be desired concerning interpretation. However, in translation I prefer to represent the ambiguities inherent in the original Chinese as far as possible in English, as this serves the needs of English readers far better (I think) than over interpretation.

Anyway–the main point of all of this is that Yongzheng seems to have accepted the Waley interpretation as well. He says:

“you cannot divide human from animal on the basis of ‘civilzed’ [Hua] and ‘barbarian’ [Di]. Those who are given rulers by Heaven’s mandate, but try to defy Heaven, cannot avoid being exterminated by Heaven” (Perdue translation, China Marches West, p. 474)

This perhaps was a break with traditional interpretation of this passage of the Analects, but such an interpretation served Yongzheng’s goal of establishing the political supremacy of the Qing. It was, for Yongzheng, powerful (and good?) rulership which established Manchu supremacy and the viability of the Qing. The interpretation of the Brooks would surely have been seen as bordering on subversive by the Manchus, as it implies that they could lead as viable an empire as one led by Han Chinese, such as the Ming (and perhaps this is the reason the Qing struggled with rebellions meant to either reestablish the Ming or drive out the Manchu “invaders”). So although I think Yongzheng’s interpretation gets Confucius right, it went against the grain in his time.

Why do I think Yongzheng and Waley’s interpretation of Analects 3.5 is probably the correct one? Because for Confucius, wen (“culture”) alone was not sufficient to achieve the thriving society. This is why he constantly stressed good rulership, which we can take to be one of the main themes (if not the main theme) of the Analects. Wen was certainly, for Confucius, one of the ways a person comes to learn how to be a good ruler, and it is necessary for a knowledge of the ritual action through which one connects with the community at large and focuses one’s moral intentions into social action. However, much of being ren (“humane,”) itself has to do with motivation, and this cannot be withheld from even those without access to wen. On many occasions in the Analects, however, Confucius bemoans of the lack of concern of those around him, and even his students, with ren and right action in general. In this context, Analects 3.5 can be seen as such a complaint. Even those without wen can try, Confucius might say–their hearts can be in the right place–and when they are, they are better than those within “civilization” are in Confucius’ era. It is important to keep in mind that Confucius did not have a high opinion of the society of his time. It was the Zhou that Confucius looked to as the ideal, not the “civilization” of his own time. He would not have had reason to praise the “states of the Xia”, and this would certainly not be keeping with Confucius’ tendency elsewhere in the Analects to prod and criticize where he finds faults, rather than make excuses, saying the equivalent of “well, you’re not on the right path, but no matter what you do, you’re better than those awful barbarians.”