(This essay was published in Culture Wars,
the reviews publication of the Institute of Ideas, London, in Feb 2009.)
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
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 commies,
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.
person has left a deeper mark on Chinese culture than Confucius, who
lived 2500 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.
Though, like Plato, he had no success in the real world, he laid the
foundation of a great deal of subsequent Chinese reflection on the
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.
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,i.e., the Confucian canon—the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of
striking feature of the Confucian canon is its overwhelming
concern with life in this world. While 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 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
The Golden Rule - Do not impose on others what you do not wish for
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 is corrupted due to our
failings. With effort, each of us can perfect it and recover the
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.
the canon considers all men to be equal in their moral capacities and
that 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, as in 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. Right: a painting depicting normal life in a Confucian society; see the same society pre-Confucius.
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.
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.
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." 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
the empire: cultivating the personal life,
honoring the worthy, being affectionate to relatives, being
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
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
This no doubt contributed to the subsequent stasis in Chinese
civilization. The birthplace of paper, printing, gunpowder, and the
magnetic compass turned inward, uncreative, and xenophobic. The sense
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.
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.
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".With thanks to the Shunya Blog for this information. http://blog.shunya.net/shunyas_blog/2008/09/what-confucius.html