Recent Revival of Confucianism and Post-Secular World Politics

Recent Revival of Confucianism and Post-Secular World Politics

A Paper by Ni Peimin, Professor, President, Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, Grand Valley State University (USA), presented at Ninth Rhodes Forum Session, October 2011

Today, when we mention “Kong Fuzi” (Confucius), our general impression is that he was an ancient Chinese sage, a morally exemplary spiritual leader. My students half-jokingly call me “Ni Fuzi.” This is meant to be a compliment, and I take it to be an honor, very much humbled by that. But when I was young, if someone called me “Ni Fuzi” I would feel offended. Back then that would have meant being impractical, excessively conservative to the degree that is laughable.

Given the historical background, it is understandable. Even though Confucius’ teachings were the foundation of Chinese civilization for over 2000 years, in the late 19th and early 20th century when China was facing constant invasions from Western powers, Confucianism was criticized as outdated, authoritarian, and it was blamed to be responsible for China’s backwardness.

Now, along with China’s fast economic development, Confucianism is revived. It started in the scholarly circle, and gradually made its way both to the public as well as the leadership. In the recent decade or so, the Chinese government has established more than 300 Confucian Institutes all over the world. Though the institutes mainly offer Chinese language programs, the fact that they bear the name of Confucius is a clear sign that the current Chinese government recognizes Confucius to be a symbol of traditional Chinese culture and endorses its modern relevance and value. It is also obvious that the government’s call for a “harmonious society” owes to Confucianism for its origin. In 2006, a charismatic female academic offered a lecture series on CCTV on her reading of Confucius’ Analects. The lectures were later transcribed into a book, and 10 million copies of the book were sold in less than one year! Many Chinese universities have also established “national studies” departments or research institutes, which are typically centered on Confucianism. In the grand opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Confucianism was also featured prominently. More recently, a big statue of Confucius even made an appearance in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the most prominent and politically sensitive place in China. Even though it was relocated shortly after to a more obscure location, the momentary appearance of it in the square still symbolized a new level of the revival of Confucianism in China.

All these indicate that China is gradually moving from the phase of learning from the West, and is entering a stage of awakening and reclaiming its own spiritual tradition.

What will the revival of Confucianism bring to China and to the world? Though the world urgently needs to incorporate more spirituality, we also know that the process can be dangerous. Obviously one of the most acute causes of instability to the world today is the rise of radical religious movements. This concern is quite natural, especially because of China’s huge size and its rising economic power. China is now already the 2nd largest economy in the world. It is predicted that it will probably exceed the economy of the U.S. as early as 2020,[1] and double the U.S. economy by2030.[2] In a book titled When China Rules the World, British journalist Martin Jacques points out that, more than likely China’s political reform will not turn out to be an adaptation of Western democracy, but a style of political structure that bears strong Confucian characteristics. Since rising powers in time invariably use their new-found economic strength for wider political, cultural and military ends, he predicts that the overwhelming influence of China will not merely be in the realm of economy, but also in other areas, including its cultural, political, and religious orientations. In other words, the rising of Confucianism is going to have far reaching implications to world politics.

In my view, however, if the real spirit of Confucianism is revived and reappropriated, it would not only pose no threat to the global community; to the contrary it will be a blessing! Let me illustrate my point by laying out, very briefly, four major features of the Confucian spirituality.

1. Confucianism is a spirituality[3] that aims at making the secular sacred, or as some people called it, an “immanent transcendence.” We know one of the main problems of secular modernity is that in freeing politics from clerical and autocratic models of control, it makes the world utterly “disenchanted”– That is, the public domain becomes “value free” to the degree that only the freedom for self-centered insatiable “pursuit of happiness” matters.[4] To re-enchant the world with spirituality without returning to autocracy, the post-secular politics has to develop spirituality within the secular human life in such a way that poses no threat to human freedom and reason, and overcomes the rigid dichotomy between the immanent and the transcendent. In this regard, Confucianism offers a promising model. Without denying the possibility of any transcendental deity or afterlife, Confucianism is committed to the pursuit of sacredness right within the secular world through our own effort, or autonomy. According to Confucius, we are not born fully human; we become humans through self-cultivation. “It is not the Way that can make humans great; it is human who can make the Way great,” says Confucius. He finds right within human life the possibility to transcend our animalistic nature, and become civilized, noble, caring members of our communities. This is the moral autonomy that Kant was looking for after he realized that one cannot rely on any external authority to bind us to moral laws, though Kant failed because of his narrow confinement to the faculty of reason.[5]

2. Another major feature of Confucian spirituality is its openness. One danger of religious faith is that it is liable to the flaw of being dogmatic and exclusive. Yet Confucianism is by its nature open-minded. Confucius never claimed himself a god or is infallible. To the contrary, he was always willing to learn from others and to correct himself. "Walking along with two others, I am certain there is my teacher among them. I select their good qualities to follow, and their bad qualities to avoid" (7.22), he says. “On seeing the worthy, think of how to equal them; on seeing the unworthy, turn inwards and examine yourself” (Analects, 4.17).The never ending process of perfecting oneself is the very way of Confucian spirituality, so in the real spirit of Confucianism, a “close-minded Confucian” is an oxymoron. Though in the history, Confucianism was put into the position of being an officially sanctioned ideology by the rulers, but due to its very nature, it was able to co-exist peacefully with other schools of thought and develop itself through its encounter with them. Today, we also find its advocators actively seeking to transform it through dialogue with others, including liberal democracy, feminism, as well as other religious traditions.[6] Even the most conservative Confucians today would not say that there is nothing they can learn from others.[7] Sure, Confucians seek the prevalence of “the Way,” but the Way itself is conceived as a world of harmony rather than conformity. Harmony presupposes differences. Just like no single note can form a piece of music, only with different constituents can the world be a harmonious whole.

3. Still another defining feature of the Confucian spirituality is its vision of relatedness as fundamental to our individual existence. According to Confucius, we are not only dependent on each other in a material sense, like a meat-eater is dependent on the existence and the sacrifice of animals; we are inter-dependent also in the sense that caring for others is the vary way through which we can find meaning of life and manifest our own sacredness. This vision is based on the basic human experiences, such as a mother finding new meaning of her life through caring for her child. This vision not only allows Confucians to care for the community and the natural environment as moral obligations, but also as the way to extend their very existence beyond and become cosmic and eternal.

4. One last defining feature of Confucian spirituality I want to mention is its emphasis on developing the art of living instead of following universal rules. During the secular age, morality is largely a matter of defining universal principles or rules. Granted that some of the principles have performed vital functions in human life and in politics, they are by nature abstract (or “thin”), and cannot account for the richness of different local cultures and unique circumstances. Even the logic of “doing to others what you would like” would not work in every case because what I like or dislike may be moral or immoral.[8] Universal principles will also have to stay minimalist, because prescribed as rules, they do not foster willingness, and hence you cannot expect much beyond what is necessary.

Instead of relying on abstract universal principles, Confucianism aims at developing the art of living. In particular, it emphasizes learning and observing ritual propriety. All civilizations have developed rituals. Rituals are repositories of the ancient wisdom about what is appropriate. Even though particular forms of ritual may vary from one culture to another, they share many common features such as respecting others, deference to excellence, etc. We stand up to greet guests, walk them to the door as they leave. We say “excuse me” to call someone’s attention, and say “I apologize” when we hurt someone. These uniquely human behaviors have the magic power to transform us as well as harmonize human relationships, and yet at the same time, do not depend on conceptual agreements.

Of course Confucianism is much richer in content than I can summarize here. But I think these four features are enough to show that it can serve China well as a spiritual resource, and provide constructive inspirations for the rest of the world. Its immanent transcendence allows people to develop spirituality from within their secular life. Its openness and vision of relatedness allow it to embrace plurality as the very condition for retaining its own vitality and achieve one’s own sacredness. Finally, its emphasis on the art of living helps us to go beyond finding abstract conceptual agreement, and living with ritual dances that harmonize and transform our relationships as well as ourselves.

This does not mean that there is no need for Confucianism to have a modern transformation. It first and foremost needs to shake off its historical limitations. But ironically most of the limitations can be overcome by returning to the basic teachings of Confucius. For example Confucianism has been blamed for being elitist, sexist, and authoritarian. But they are mainly the result of distorting Confucius’ teachings about reciprocal responsibilities and turning them into one-directional obedience. In Confucius’ own teachings we find constant emphasis on how the socially privileged and economically affluent people have more responsibilities, that rulers must be morally exemplary, and they are accountable to heaven. The will of heaven is shown through the will of the people, and that people have the right to revolt against unjust authorities. In the Chinese history, Confucian scholar-officials always played the role of limiting the power of the sovereigns and promoting a more just and equitable society.

Certainly there are modern ideas such as democracy and human rights that need to be incorporated into Confucianism. But the basic spirit of these ideas is quite consistent with core Confucian values. The Confucian model of politics is basically an extension of a well-regulated family. Confucius would be delighted to have a social and political structure that allows the voice of every member of the extended family to be heard, their interests represented, and their rights protected. But Confucius would remind us that democracy should be based on its members’ level of maturity. The ideal political structure is one in which not only will everyone’s voice be heard and their rights protected, but also that exemplary persons will lead, and people will live harmoniously together with no need to constantly invoke the language of rights. In other words, democracy should be supplemented by meritocracy, and the merits should first and foremost be moral integrity.

The real danger of China is not that it becomes a super power; it is that it becomes a super power without the revival of Confucianism, or with misuses of it. If the country continues to see the revival of Confucianism, it can become an influential and yet responsible member of the global community, like an exemplary person with the ability to help others and coordinate global efforts to overcome our common difficulties.

I believe that the statue of Confucius will re-appear in Tiananmen Square. By that time, we should have reason to celebrate together.

[1] See Arvind Subramanian’s new book, Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China's Economic Dominance.

[2]According to the prediction by the Center for China Studies of Qinghua University, in a book titled China 2030 – Toward Common Wealth, China’s economy will be equal to the total of the economies of U.S and Europe, which is 2 to 2.2 times of the U.S. economy.

[3] Confucianism is certainly spiritual, though not religious if one defines “religion” narrowly. The word “spirituality” originally means something that gives and sustains life. This is true whether in its Latin origin of spiritus, or Hebruruach, or Greek pneuma, or Sanskrit prana, or Chinese jingshen.

[4] The political structure of minimal liberal democracy turns the bottom line into the ceiling – it tries to make itself value free, and consequently it allows un-cultivated, fluctuating whims of public opinions under the impact of politicians, businessmen, news media, and even the entertainment industry to direct our society. When interference of freedom is minimized, the freedom for self-centered insatiable conduct is maximized, and the maximization of that freedom comes with the cost of diminishing vital interests of the society.

[5]Indeed, early European enlightenment thinkers such as Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and Voltaire were excited to find that Confucius was able to discover moral principles or even natural religion without revealed theology. Unfortunately, the religious communities in Europe back then were too close-minded to even tolerate this inspiring model of combining the secular and the sacred, and other enlightenment thinkers were too short-sighted to take it seriously.

[6] For instance Robert Neville and John Berthrone, both are Christians, and yet they are among the world’s most active advocators of Confucianism.  

[7]Jiang Qing, for instance.

[8]To further generalize the rule to make it valid would eventually lead us to a principle that is too thin to be practically useful (think about a formulation that is almost like a tautology: “do to others what is right to do on yourself in like circumstance”), and yet to put qualifications on the rule would make it so complicated that it would have to be infinitely long and never complete (think about keep adding clauses “do to others … except in circumstances where …”). Confucius also taught the so-called “Golden Rule.” However, the Confucian statement “do not do to others what you don’t like others do to you” should be taken as a gongfu instruction rather than a moral imperative. Taken as a moral imperative, the “golden rule” becomes absolute, allowing no exceptions, and will hence subject to the rejection of the counter-examples, but taken as a gongfu instruction, it becomes an effective way (gongfa) of reaching a stage where one can “give one’s heart-mind free rein without overstepping the boundaries” (Analects, 2.4). Counter-examples will not apply, because an instruction is instrumental for getting a skill or ability, not a universal rule.