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Confucianism and a Harmonious Society

On Richard Spencer’s excellent foreign correspondent’s blog for the Telegraph comes a story about Confucianism in today’s China. (“Chaos and Confucianism in the Classroom,” thanks to ESWN for the link.)

Spencer argues:

“When I have mentioned this before, and indeed when I have read about modern Confucianism elsewhere, it’s normally been in the context of the government.

Hu Jintao’s buzzword is harmonious – harmonious society, harmonious development, and so on.

This has caused a variety of furious debates, about whether it’s just code for more Party ideology and repression (in a harmonious Confucian society, according to some, everyone knows their place, and it is the place of the rulers to rule and the subjects to let them get on with it); or whether it’s more idealistic, a “harmonious balancing” of economic growth against environmental and social protection, and so on…

Many parents are genuinely worried about bringing up their children in China‘s current dog-eat-dog world, where basic values seem to have been by-passed between the anti-society horrors of the Cultural Revolution generation and the win-at-all-costs horrors of crony capitalism.”

Spencer is quite correct to note that this recent trend has a deep, and sometimes troubling, history.

By the end of the 19th century, new ideas, both foreign and home-grown, began to erode Confucianism as a living tradition. Yan Fu (嚴復 1853-1921), who in the late 19th century was the first to translate the works of Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mills, and Thomas Huxley into Chinese, saw Confucianism as a kind of ‘moral glue’ that could hold Chinese society together as it made the transition to a modern nation. (1) Liang Qichao (梁啟超, 1873-1929), writing in 1915, lamented that, “It was disastrous for a nation to break with its past. It must act in keeping with its national characteristics, which is manifested in language, literature, religion, customs, ceremonies, and laws. For a nation dies, when its national character is obliterated.”(2) In the 1930s, the KMT put forth Confucianism as a defining essence of “Chinese” civilization and Confucian values served the state as part of Chiang Kai-shek’s New Life Movement.

But the Confucianism of Yan, Liang, and especially that of the KMT, had less and less in common with the universalist Confucianism of the past and instead became a kind of ‘culturalism’. Instead of a living tradition that spoke of a truth without regards to the particulars of people, place, or time, Confucianism came to define the particular characteristics of one people, and one place and to meet the demands of a specific point in time.

As Joseph Levenson noted, almost fifty years ago but no less true for the passage of time, that ideas change not just because some believe the idea to be outdated but also when others continue to hold on to the old ideas for new purposes:

“When Confucian traditionalism comes to be accepted not from a confidence in its universal validity but from a traditionalistic compulsion to profess that confidence, Confucianism is transformed from a primary philosophical commitment to a secondary, romantic one, and traditionalism from a philosophical principle to a psychological device.”(3)

If Levenson were alive today, he would be the first to note that when tradition (or traditionalism) is used as social glue, with the intent to harmonize an increasingly fractured and fractious society, there is as much damage done to the society as there is to the tradition.


A great take on this problem can be found at the always fascinating Useless Tree site. Highly recommended. (“How Modern can Confucius Be?” 9/10/06)

(1) See Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West (Cambridge, 1964).

(2) Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate (Berkeley, 1958). 107. See also Hao Chang, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and Intellectual Transition in China, 1890-1907 (Cambridge, 1971).

(3) Levenson, 1958. xxix.