Open doors and grand traditions

Yongnian Zheng on the role of China's ancient ethical system in an age of growth and reform

June 26, 2008

In December 2007, I spoke with Kang Xiaoguang of the People's University of China when we were at Japan's Waseda University. During a panel discussion, Kang argued that instead of learning from the West, China should return to its Confucian tradition. Earlier, Kang had been quoted as saying that democratisation in China would spell disaster for the country. Sitting on the same panel was a scholar from China's Central Party School.

So, I asked Kang, "Do you think that China will solve its problems if all (Chinese Communist) party schools are turned into Confucian institutes?" Kang answered: "Yes. This is exactly what I mean."

Kang is one of the scholars mentioned in Daniel Bell's China's New Confucianism. As a professor of political philosophy, Bell has devoted his time to thinking about China and other East Asian societies. He is among the scholars who were born and educated in the West and are currently teaching at major Chinese universities. Having worked in different Chinese societies, including those of Singapore, Hong Kong and China, Bell has always managed to provide the reader with insights and provocative comments on these societies.

In his new book, Bell paints a vivid portrait of Confucianism in today's China, a society undergoing drastic socioeconomic transformation. In his writing, Confucianism is no longer a quasi-religious body of dogma but a living, developing and constantly renewable stream of ideas.

Confucianism is reviving in China, after coming under severe attacks between the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and the end of the Maoist era in 1978, except for a few moments of respite, including a period in the 1930s during which the Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Madam Chiang Soong Mei-ling led the New Life Movement. However, since China began its reform and "open-door policy" in the 1980s, the Chinese Government has not only reintroduced Confucianism, it has also put tremendous efforts into reviving it. This is especially true in recent decades with the decline of traditional communist ideologies such as Marxism and Maoism, which are no longer able to regulate people's behaviour. Confucianism has thus become a major source of moral legitimacy for China's Communist leadership. In recent years, the Chinese Government has also put in place an ambitious plan to promote Confucianism overseas by establishing hundreds of Confucian institutes in different parts of the world.

Meanwhile, an intellectual transformation has also been taking place in China. In the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals believed that the goals of reform were economic liberalisation and political democratisation. Many, however, have since become suspicious of both the free market and liberal democracy. Chinese scholars are increasingly attempting to turn to China's "grand tradition" - namely Confucianism - as an answer to the country's future. It was in this context that Bell penned his observations on Confucianism in China.

Bell notes some key phenomena related to Confucianism. First, Confucianism continues to exist in China despite the country's radical cultural movements. In many areas, it has been revived. Once again, China is becoming a society inspired by Confucianism, and the Confucian spirit can be found in different corners of society ranging from politics and international relations to sex, karaoke and sport. Secondly, many political and social phenomena can be explained by Confucianism. Indeed, Confucianism is helpful in answering a wide range of questions: Why do senior Communist officials dye their hair black? Why is paid sex often preceded by singing duets? Why do domestic helpers want to be treated like family members? Thirdly, Confucianism has been depoliticised. In traditional China, Confucianism was the official ideology, as well as the popular religion adopted by ordinary people, especially the middle classes, in order to regulate their daily life. For the same reason, Confucianism has returned today, which could explain the so-called Yu Dan phenomenon in recent years. Yu, a professor at Beijing's Normal University, wrote a book about the Analects of Confucius, describing how people can benefit from reading Confucius in their daily life. This book has sold more copies in China than any other since Mao's Little Red Book.

Fourthly, Bell tries to show how both the Chinese Government and scholars have made efforts to revive Confucianism as the official ideology. Scholars such as Kang, Gan Yang and Jiang Qing (a Hong Kong academic) have tried to pit Confucianism against Western liberalism. They have attempted to establish Confucian socialism, which combines traditional Confucianism and socialism, as the main political discourse for China's future. Bell appears to have been inspired by this discourse.

While I agree with Bell's observations about the role of Confucianism in daily life in China, I seriously doubt whether Confucianism can play a guiding role in China's political future. It has played an important role in the societies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but the political systems in these East Asian societies are based on democracy, into which Confucianism has been integrated.

Years ago, Chinese philosopher Li Zehou argued that China's political future will be illuminated when "Western learning for ti (substance, essence) and Chinese learning for yong (function, utility)" are combined. I cannot but agree with him. Bell gives us a clear picture of Confucianism in China today, but whether Confucianism is the answer to the country's political future is far from clear.

China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society

By Daniel A. Bell

Princeton University Press 258pp, £15.95

ISBN 9780691136905

Published 1 May 2008

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