From the Glass Archive: Rethinking China – Glass looks at the country’s love of philosophy

Rethinking China – “Study the past if you would define the future” – Confucius (551 – 479 BC)

MODERN China adores education. Learning for Chinese students constitutes an immemorial praxis of the highest cultural value. For a foreign teacher to be asked then their chosen subject at university, an answer needn’t be apprehensive. Yet the word “philosophy” inspires a certain look wherever it goes. Simultaneous wonder and derision are the yin and yang that inevitably result in the query: “What exactly is philosophy?“ It is the copywriters in advertising today who have an easier time gaining trust in the word than most philosophy graduates trying to relate a comprehensive definition.

The ancient Greeks believed all learning emanated from philosophy as the taproot of human intellect. Even in the West today however, popular conception often suggests philosophy entered the world at the turn of the millennium, hours before the painless birth of general studies. Then again, some parts of the world demand bracing for in the 21st century.

In China’s current education system it isn’t difficult to imagine philosophy as having relatively little significance to most educated Chinese. Universities in China are anything but camps of young adults abandoned to metaphysical ideals. More accurately they are the franchises of China’s industrial workforce specialised in areas such as administration, engineering and methods of mineral cultivation.

Confucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi. Qing DynastyConfucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi. Qing Dynasty

Peking University in Beijing is one of China’s few renowned institutes for the teaching of philosophy as a specialist subject. Study of philosophy in China is not thus pig-headedly accused of mincing “common sense”‚ so much as grimly reminding many of China’s National Entrance Examination, known as Gao Kao. The exams require years of preparation in which pupils aged between fourteen and fifteen still encounter the name Karl Marx as part of compulsory education.

Daniel A Bell, professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University, confirms philosophy in China today as essentially “An institutional phenomenon”, adding, “The question really is whether ancient Chinese philosophy is to be counted as philosophy. I don’t think we should reject any of it based on an Anglo-Saxon definition of what constitutes it.” As for the lingering influence of Marxism since the Mao era, Bell concedes, “It is said half-jokingly in Chinese academia that philosophy in China is like a tree. The trunk is Marxism, and branching off from this you get Western philosophy taught along with Chinese philosophy.”

It bears asking then how, and to what extent, Marxism features in China’s middle school education system. “Marxism takes quite a mainstream, official and ideal form in the Chinese schooling system,” explains Bell, “but it more closely resembles the language of Leninism or Maoism than Marx’s actually theory. Kids studying for the Gao Kao don’t learn Marxist theory in any great depth or detail; only the basic terminology creeps in.”

It is widely acknowledged that China has all but thrown off what discretion might term its “recent ancient history”. The Chinese education system evidently stills favours paying maudlin homage to European thinkers who bore hope in communism. One mind that does demand evoking here however is that of Confucius. The name spans over 2,500 years and is known only as the disembodied voice of Chinese wisdom.

2,008 fou performers produce the sound of rolling spring thunder to greet friends from around the world to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. The fou is the most ancient Chinese percussion instrument. Image by Tim HippsA total of 2,008 fou performers produce the sound of rolling spring thunder
to greet friends from around the world to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing.
The fou is the most ancient Chinese percussion instrument.

Confucianism is thus little acknowledged in the West, though for centuries it has taken various subsistent forms across the developed Asian world in countries such Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Confucius the individual, meanwhile, remains confined to that which is recorded to have been said by him. He was born in Shandong province in 551 BC during what is referred to historically as China’s Warring States Period. This marked China’s single most influential period of disunity that would reshape the foundations of Chinese civilisation for ever.

Confucius’s greatest ambition as a young man to serve as a political adviser ultimately failed, a future cosmic irony. As a private teacher, Confucius attracted a considerable following of 3,000 students by the year of his death in 479 BC. Thus spread his teachings that man’s essential likeness urged unity, harmony and devotion to one’s ascribed roles within society. After Confucius, Lao Tzu developed Daoism, the doctrine that holds indifference to change and innovation to accord with nature’s own one essential sameness, thus attaining the eternal ‘Dao’ or ‘Way’.

Like Socrates, Confucius never formally wrote philosophy. It was Confucius’s pupils who committed his words to the books that today see translations for age groups as young as seven with an increasingly scholastic readership worldwide. But what does it mean to adhere to Confucian philosophy? “There are a number of different interpretations that suggest different ideas,” Bell outlines, speaking on what we are to take as the central theme of Confucian philosophy.

Disciples holding bamboo slips chant the much-quoted lines of Lunyu (The Analects): "All those within the four seas can be considered his brothers" during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games. Image by Tim HippsDisciples holding bamboo slips chant the much-quoted lines of Lunyu (The Analects),
“All those within the four seas can be considered his brothers” during the opening
ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games. Image by Tim Hipps

“Some say Confucian thinking is about the idea of harmony (he). That means a harmonious approach to family as well as to society, but also the harmonious nature between man and his environment, man and nature.” A modern prescription of this order appears noticeably recurrent throughout the rhetoric of China’s current state of change. Chinese Communist Party leaders Chairman Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao presently preside over party administration, which since 2005 has famously issued a series of benign slogans (Better city, Better life among the most inane) as a way of giving lick of the spoon to the middle classes by extolling what it terms China’s future Harmonious Society.

“Humanity or ‘ren’,” Bell continues, “represents benevolence. There’s also ‘li’, which means principle or ritual. Reciprocity (shu) too is important, this idea of mutuality and civility towards others above all.” In albeit rather a vague similitude, the ‘harmonious society’ advocates man-nature equilibrium, hard work, good health and even aspirations towards ‘civilisation’. Bell adds, “There isn’t just one single idea holding it all together after all. It is still debated which of these is the most central idea to Confucian philosophy.”

Crucial to understanding Confucianism in China today, however, is a question of historical continuity between China then and China now. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and sparked ten years of systematic erasure of human volition in communist China, freezing and condemning China’s intellectual history. What first of all were the reasons for attacking Confucian thought initially? “Well, ever since 1919,” Bell explains, “Confucianism was condemned for being a backward, feudal system of thinking that Mao strongly disliked. It led to a period whereby many old traditions were eliminated.”

The bigger, if not biggest question of late seems then to be how Confucianism finally acquired the rationale to re-enter Chinese society and Chinese culture. In 1978, economic and social reforms meant new generations began to reacquaint Chinese culture with itself through a process of mass reintegration with formerly axed traditions. “The major reasons were about looking at the past ideologies that had influenced China and seeing that, you know, Marxism was no longer desirable, nor a Western-style model of liberal democracy and that, really, Confucianism was perhaps more rich and diverse than people had previously believed up to that point.

“I mean, in many ways it gave China the opportunity to look to other developed Asian societies with a Confucian heritage, like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, and say, ‘Maybe we’ve something here to be proud of, something that has existed for years which is beneficial.’ I think then China was becoming more prosperous, and with that came greater pride in a Confucian heritage. Moral transformation is often said to be the cause of social change. Still, I think there is some continuity between Confucian thought and Maoism that made the transition possible.”

Analects vol.2 Hachi-itsu. Founded 2 century B.C - early 3 century A.DAnalects vol.2 Hachi-itsu. Founded 2nd century B.C – early 3rd century A.D

This certainly strikes sound when one considers the overlap between a collective harmony and extreme ideological unity of a people. Bell hastens to add, “I wouldn’t say, though, that Maoism and Confucianism have a lot in common. These are, of course, essentially totally different systems of ideas and beliefs.”

Asked exactly when Confucianism re-entered Chinese culture, Bell asserts that not until ten years after the succession of Mao Zedong by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 did Confucian values begin to re-emerge. “After 1989,” he explains, “many conferences were held by the government that tried to address the need for a new system of social reform. This was after a Western-style democracy became heavily questioned as a viable means of social stability and integration. It wasn’t until after 1989 that Confucianism became academically widespread.”

Among speculation of China’s future is the persistent likelihood that it will always be a country guided by collectivism. It is collectivism that explains how China has both executed, and coped so resolutely, with the transition from communism to capitalism. Collectivism too provides the crux as to the heroic speed with which China transformed mass impoverishment into the world’s second largest economy in just 30 years.

Is there a future for individualism in Chinese society after all? “Of course there is more individualism that accompanies capitalist-style modernisation,” concedes Bell, “but Confucianism is being revived partly as a way of promoting more social responsibility that is lacking in society. It seems to me this is all to do with how particularly the new generation learn to deal with strangers, people in the workplace and their obligations towards the government.”

Confucianism may have succeeded in reviving the principle of unity in China. The government’s current recipe for shiny happy people however resists binding easily. Hu Jintao’s publicly advertised Eight Shames and Eight Glories deals yet another example of the popularised guide-to-life in China as an insipid derivative of truisms. This dictum can be summed up as a dual list containing eight invertible honours to one’s country, distinguished solely by the word “Don’t”.

Asked if the Hu-Wen administration can be said to acknowledge a distinct philosophical tradition as a set of socio-economic policies, Bell replies doubtfully, “It’s all pretty ad hoc now, especially with recent events across China. They construct a lot of it from odd slogans that enter the public domain, but I don’t think the idea of ‘Harmonious Society’ has much legitimacy at all really.”

Many Chinese feel this to be the case, moreover, particularly those of a generation who currently attend higher education or have graduated knowing the cost of getting by in China exceeds boundlessly what any good intentions towards society grant. “The slogans are simply too easy to make fun of and ignore for most Chinese, generally speaking. They just seem to fade away pretty quickly,” Bell concludes.

Hu’s ‘Theory of the Three Harmonies’ makes two further conjectures; that of China’s peaceful development in the world, as well as its reconciliation with Taiwan, long regarded the country’s enfant terrible. Will China’s political philosophy ever acknowledge a more globalised, educated population? “I think there are two kinds of changes that will have to happen,” Bell asserts.

“The first is constitutional, the second concerns traditional values. As for constitutional change, there will be more democracy, but also more towards political meritocracy. The hope is that members of the party will be chosen for their ethical education rather than purely for their technical expertise.”

Professor Daniel Bell, in true step with the Dao, ends where he begins on the subject of what currently constitutes the West’s misconception of Confucianism as eludes Anglo-Saxon definitions of philosophical doctrine. “Ultimately the biggest misconception of Confucianism is that it’s a philosophy which teaches blind worship of authority and conformity. There’s actually a critical spirit at its core. Confucius advocates criticism of one’s parents in appropriate circumstances. If a parent does not fulfil their role as a good parent, they ought to undergo criticism according to Confucian principles.

“Another thing people seem to think is that it’s patriarchal at its core. Of course Confucianism was patriarchal in history, but it can and should be reinterpreted to make it more compatible with modern ideas of gender equality, again, similar to other traditions. Today, scholars such as Chan Sin Yee and Li Chenyang are doing excellent work along those lines.”

As philosophy in China moves towards refinement through conceptual re-evaluation as well as greater recognition in the West, Confucius’s words remain those in essence of any great thinker whose vital brilliance is a capacity for apprehending the immutable, here signifying the zeitgeist in Confucius’s warning to us that “Though the people may be made to follow a path of action, they may not be made to understand it.”

by Jack Aldane

From the Glass Archive – Issue 8 – Faith


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Glass Magazine financial correspondent

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