What is Living and What is Dead in Political Confucianism: A Question for Modern China

Written by ANTONY OU

Monday, 05 April 2010 09:45

Confucius (551-479 BCE), was the “founding father” of Confucianism. His moral and political ideas were documented in The Analects, which outlines the ancient “Heavenly Principles” of individuals, society and government. Yen Hui was the most beloved and talented disciple of Confucius, who Confucius thought that he could be the “chosen one”— the one who passed on the sacred messages of the Confucian values. Regrettably, Yen Hui died at his age of thirty-one and left no scholarly work. Yet, that does not mean that “The Heavenly Principles” eventually discontinued. The Analects subsequently became one of the most important Confucian canons and Confucianism was once a predominant scholarly and ethical tradition in Imperial China. It was regarded as a significant force in Chinese society for more than 2000 years.

However, starting from late 19th century, the philosophical and ideological import of both Liberalism and Marxism created deep-rooted and heated debates amongst Chinese scholars. The key question underpinning many of these debates was how far Confucianism should or could be modernized. Consequently, re-interpreting Confucianism became major preoccupation amongst a number of western and Chinese scholars. In my reading however it is more accurately viewed as a series of anachronistic, if erudite, intellectual games played among a wide range of Modern Confucian scholars and historians. In essence, it was a systematic “manufacturing process” of Confucian texts as expressions of a hybrid Utopia. “Confucian Optimism,” is thus a widespread phenomenon which has developed significantly in the latter half of 20th century. Despite setbacks, it has remained an influential intellectual force in Modern Chinese thinking. In fact it has, in recent years, sustained a recovery in a number of both occidental and oriental political thinkers. It is now envisaged as a powerful force enabling a continuous re-invention of Confucian doctrine as a liberal, democratic, benevolent and harmonious potentially global doctrine. In my own reading however it remains largely mythical.

Confucius lived at times where there were slaves, priests and feudal emperors; where some enjoyed more human rights than the others and where women were no feminists. Morality of wars at those times was “religious”: feudal kings and princes need the support of an abstract non-personified “Heaven” to justify their claims. The original purposes of The Analects and other Confucian canons were to renew the rite of Zhou and advice rulers to implement benevolent feudal policies for farmers and peasants. Many of the ideas from the “founding father of Confucianism” are now liberal ideas and in fact, many of the Modern Confucians are liberal and communitarian thinkers, speaking in Confucian language. As they often claim, it would be a more familiar and friendly approach for people to understand “Western” thought. For many parts of Asia including China, has already established Western thinking in general and liberal/communitarian scholarly tradition in particular for at least a century. The argument of striving for an overlapping consensus, in the aspect of just war theory, could be undermined, if not necessary, since every reasonable man and woman in China could be equally easy to understand both western thoughts and Confucianism.


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* Published in the First Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).

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