The latest Sinica Podcast, as well as reading continued posts on The Useless Tree, have gotten me thinking over the last few weeks. I have made the case often that Confucianism is not as far-flung from traditional Western philosophy as many (both in the West and in China) are fond of arguing. The philosophical discussions between Confucius, his students and their rivals on humanity, nature and morality bear a striking resemblance to ongoing discussions in modern Western philosophy. In some cases, the discussions and the resulting political orders may be taken as cautionary tales for Christian theology and the secular disciplines of philosophy and the social sciences. Confucian philosophy is in the difficult yet worthwhile position of providing for us a view which is at once radical (providing a vision of just society with vast grounds for social critique and mass action) and orthodox (holding to a set of evolving-yet-traditional disciplines which ultimately provide an ‘aim’ for human life and endeavour). What is interesting to me is that the deviations from Confucian philosophy have some very dire repercussions in the field of social policy. This topic is certainly worth a longer paper than I am about to write here, but I can at least attempt to provide a rough thumbnail sketch.
Original sin and Confucian-style statecraft
The first, most useful and most appropriate point of contact with which we ought to start should perhaps be that of original sin. Of course, the concept is closely allied with the question of human beings and their place in the world, so Confucius and his followers would naturally have been interested in it. Confucius himself has little to say on the matter, though his students Mencius and Xunzi certainly go about addressing it at length. Mencius argues:
所以謂人皆有不忍人之心者，今人乍見孺子將入於井，皆有怵惕惻隱之心。非所以內交於孺子之父母也，非所以要譽於鄉黨朋友也，非惡其聲而然也。由是觀之，無惻隱之心，非人也；無羞惡之心，非人也；無辭讓之心，非人也；無是非之心，非人也。His insistence that human beings have innate compassion, shame, patience and morality is contradicted by Xunzi, who wrote:
When I say ‘all people have a mind which doesn’t bear others’ suffering’, I mean this: if today any person was to see a child about to fall down a well, each one would feel fear and alarm. This is not because she wants to seek favour from the child’s parents, not because she wants praise from her own neighbours and friends, and not because she fears her own reputation would suffer [because she failed to be moved by the child’s situation]. From understanding this it follows: compassion is human nature; shame is human nature; patience is human nature; a sense of right and wrong is human nature.
人之性惡，其善者偽也。今人之性，生而有好利焉，順是，故爭奪生而辭讓亡焉；生而有疾惡焉，順是，故殘賊生而忠信亡焉；生而有耳目之欲，有好聲色焉，順是，故淫亂生而禮義文理亡焉。然則從人之性，順人之情，必出於爭奪，合於犯分亂理，而歸於暴。It would seem from a surface reading of these passages that Xunzi is arguing in favour of what Christian theologians term original sin, and Mencius against it, though this is not exactly the case. Sadly, in the Western world the concept has been so distorted out of its right sense both by Christian heresies seeking to make individual persons directly responsible for the sin of Adam, and by secular philosophes attempting to pillory the doctrine, that it probably bears a close and exacting definition right from the start. Original sin does not mean that human nature, as such, is evil (though this is a popular straw-man of the doctrine, conflating original sin with the heretical Gnostic conception of creation-as-evil). It merely means that human nature is handicapped, that all humans participate in the sin of Adam and its consequences. The original doctrine is much more dramatic than static, and more tragic than cynical: human nature like the rest of creation is good, and in addition to that goodness created in God’s own likeness, but that that image has been defaced by Adam’s pride and his progeny have reaped (and continue to reap) the consequences of sin and death.
People’s nature is evil, all their goodness is false. The nature of today’s person is thus: once born he will desire to benefit himself; this causes the contentious to live and the patient to perish. Once born he has envy and loathing; this causes the cruel and the greedy to live and the loyal and honest to perish. Once born he has sensual appetites and lust; this causes the lecherous and disordered to live and the proper, the righteous and the reasonable to perish. This being the case, human nature must proceed from contention, must seek out chaos, and must return to violence.
What Mencius and Xunzi are truly contending over is not original sin (though that follows later), but rather over the moral nature of the universe, and the place of human beings within that universe. This is what later Scholastic philosophers and theologians would see as the distinction between voluntarist (Xunzi) and intellectualist (Mencius) metaphysics. Xunzi refuses to ascribe any moral or intellectual dimension to 天 (tian: God, nature, the cosmos), saying ‘天行有常，不為堯存，不為桀亡’ (‘Tian is fixed in its ways, not allowing Yao to live and not causing the cruel to die’). He thus severs ‘Heaven’ from having any influence on or relevance to ‘secular’ politics. For Mencius, by contrast, intellect (and therefore morality) is a central and vital characteristic of 天, imparted to human beings: ‘此天之所與我者’ (‘These [human senses and rationality] are given to us by tian’). In this respect, Mencius (rather than Xunzi) is not only in full accord with his own teacher (‘天生德於予，桓魋其如予何？’ – ‘Tian gave birth to my virtue; what can Huan Tui do to me?’), but also with St Thomas Aquinas (and, through him, with Catholic and Anglican doctrine). The respective explanations of human evil follow logically in each case: for both Mencius and Xunzi, the physical and social environment shapes the moral behaviour of persons both good and evil; but notably Mencius leaves room for divine (that is to say, of tian) grace, whereas Xunzi does not. Xunzi’s way of explaining the emergence of good from an evil (or at the very least amoral) ‘state of nature’ is likewise completely unsatisfactory.
More problematic, however, is the emergence of Legalism as a political philosophy directly from Xunzi’s philosophy, by way of his students Li Si and Han Fei. As Xunzi himself quoted, ‘不知其子視其友，不知其君視其左右’ (‘If you don’t know a man, look at his friends; if you don’t know a prince, look at his advisors’). The metaphysical voluntarism of Xunzi gave way very quickly to a semi-totalitarian ideology which ignored completely any questions about tian, and which justified rule through uniform force of law (法) and through trickery (術), and which dispensed with all forms of civic order in exchange for a purely bureaucratic order (the job description, not the moral quality of the one occupying it, was to be the only consideration). Legalism may, in this sense, be seen as an Eastern harbinger of Weber’s liberal sociology (or equally of Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Johann Fichte). It is ironic, but not necessarily surprising, that Mao’s enthusiasm for Legalist philosophy-in-practice ushered in what we are now seeing in the post-Deng era: state capitalism, integration of the Chinese economy into global markets and the growing inequality and disregard for the poor which accompanies both.
Confucianism, Christianity and citizenship
Another pressing question, at least as far as contemporary China goes, is how Confucianism is to relate to the growth of other religious traditions in what it sees as its cultural heartland. One aspect of this question is whether or not Confucianism itself can (or should) identify as a religion. Having taken a position on that question, one may then ask what its relation to other religions can or ought to be. This latter question is already being asked, by such people as Renmin University’s Dr Wen Haiming, China Evangelical Society’s Dr G Wright Doyle, Rome’s Fr Charles Pan and New Confucian scholar and blogger Yang Wanjiang. How Confucianism relates to Christianity (and how Christians globally should respond to Confucianism in its religious manifestations) will also depend – as the Sinica Podcast participants rightly noted – upon how Chinese people interpret and practice Christianity, and whether or not it bears any semblance to actual Christian doctrine.
There are some elements of Confucianism and Christian doctrine which overlap very nicely. The emphasis on obeying the Golden Rule, treating other people humanely and loving (or revering) God (or 天) goes somewhat without saying. The emphases on feeding the hungry, caring for the young and elderly, valuing human life above all else are further points of contact. The common insistence upon a greater responsibility from those with wealth and secular power, and for the exercise of that responsibility, with promises of divine judgement (revolution in Mencius’ case, the outer darkness in Jesus’) if that responsibility is shirked or abused, is perhaps the strongest point of contact. But the way that Confucianism and Christianity treat time and space (and thus related concepts such as national identity and citizenship) is the sticking point which most requires resolution. It is writ large in Wen Haiming’s ‘warning shot across the bow’, in his recounting of the protest by Confucian scholars to the construction of a Gothic-style cathedral in Confucius’ hometown of Qufu, itself home to 10,000 Christians.
It is useful to understand, in broaching the Confucian concept of citizenship, how Confucius himself regarded it, how his students regarded it, how the concept itself changed (and how Confucian thought adapted), and how New Confucianism relates to cultural nationalism. Confucius himself was no nationalist in the modern sense of the word: he believed his own virtue ethics could be as easily applied to ‘barbarians’ as to the Chinese. However, Confucius (in his admiration for and transmission of the Zhou rituals and values) lent endorsement (and thereby theoretical basis and legitimacy) to the Zhou cosmology of tianxia, whereby the Emperor of China was situated at the centre of the physical and moral universe, with his divinely-gifted influence radiating outward over his vassals, his tributaries and finally the barbarians. This wasn’t nationalism still. Being ‘Chinese’ was not a matter of speaking the same language (not all Chinese did!), or a matter of birth, but rather a matter of following the appropriate rituals and paying deference to the ‘centre’. As China faced external threats throughout her history, however, and was more or less forced to adapt to the nation-state paradigm during the Qing Dynasty, this concept had to adapt or collapse. For awhile, at the beginning of Chinese modernity, it appeared as though this construct had collapsed – Kang Youwei held onto it in a heavily-modified form through the Confucian ideal of 大同 datong, and Sun Yat-sen rejected it in favour of a more modern nationalism (as would the Republican government after it, and as would – with the caveat that Marxism formally disavowed nationalism as an abstraction from class struggle – the Communist government after that). More recently, nationalists have adopted Confucius as a symbol of all that is good in traditional Chinese ‘national’ culture. The schizophrenic struggle for New Confucians now is to articulate a message which is both authentically Confucian and responsive to the reality of the demands of the Chinese nation-state.
Christians are also somewhat schizophrenic as a result of modern nationalism. Christians have had to confront, adapt to and reconcile themselves to a nation-state which increasingly took on the traditional roles of the church, and to a populace which increasingly identified itself with the nation-state over the church. Where the Church was once the primary means of provision for the poor, the elderly, the infirm, the orphaned and the widowed, it became inadequate as people began attending and donating less and less of their time and effort. The traditional religious fraternities and guilds offered workers the ability to stand up for their rights, but those too were corroded or disbanded as a result of the expansion of the role of the state. The welfare state, tariffs and trade-union protections were all direly-needed compromises, and gave the nation-state a moral dimension to which it was hitherto alien. Though traditionally Christianity has been a religion proclaiming dual-citizenship, both to the temporal power under which one lived and to the Kingdom of Heaven to come, it soon became clear that the nation-state’s demands were infringing more and more upon the dictates of a Christian conscience. Like Confucianism, Christianity rejects the (Legalist, or liberal) notion that there can be no mediation between state and subject; between Caesar and the poor widow at the Temple. And yet, we remain with an acknowledgement of the necessity of dealing with worldly power. The Christian dilemma and the Confucian one mirror each other uncannily.
And yet, how we relate to space and time differs fundamentally. Confucianism gravitates toward a physical and cultural centre in its concept of the sacred, the zhongyuan, the birthplace of Huaxia. Temporally, it gravitates toward the reigns of 堯 Yao, 舜 Shun, 大禹 Dayu and 周公丹 the Duke of Zhou. It is not quite the same, not quite as demanding as the Abrahamic compulsion toward Jerusalem, but it is comparable. Jesus’ reformulation of the centre of worldly and spiritual power away from the Temple and away from the Herodian state into ‘where two or three gather in my name’ is a radical shift away from the notion of an immanent physical centre, and allowed for the shift of Christianity away from being a splinter sect of Second Temple Judaism and toward being another light unto the Gentiles (and the lepers, and the unclean and so forth). In these days where there is no longer an Emperor in the mould of the Emperors of Zhou (let alone the Sage-Kings) and where not the zhongyuan but the profit-driven coastal ports are the centres of Chinese cultural production, we should not be asking whether Confucianism should be reconciling its values to the dictates of pseudo-Western liberalism (in another formulation of 儒表法裡 rubiao fali – Confucian outside, Legalist inside), but rather how Confucianism can radicalise its conceptions of place and time in order to allow for a broader hearing and a more complete and encompassing understanding of its datong.
In that, perhaps, a Christian church in Qufu is among the least of the New Confucians’ concerns.
Truth, beauty, justice and harmony?
The Platonic Transcendentals made their way early into Christianity, perhaps first explicitly through Saint Augustine, though one could well argue that they had always already been there. They certainly do resonate with the eschatological promise of God’s Kingdom come near, in which the face of God will be revealed to the world and all will bend their knees to him. But does Confucianism involve an acknowledgement of transcendental truth, or beauty, or justice? Certainly Confucius emphasised all three at length – the pursuit of knowledge about things (格物), the stress on the proper use of terms (正名), the insistence on human-kindness-justice-and-propriety (仁義禮). But he emphatically did not speak of transcendental ends or beginnings. If you could not understand life, how could you hope to understand death? If you could not serve your parents and grandparents, how could you hope to serve the spirits and gods?
And yet, even given the ‘敬鬼神而遠之’ (‘respect ghosts and gods but keep your distance’) attitude of Confucius, the transcendental is always lurking in the background. There is no creedal statement about the will of Heaven in the Analects, nor is there much at all by way of statement of belief. (But then, neither was there much of that in Plato.) Confucius was not concerned with a Kingdom of Heaven come near. But Heaven (at least in the Confucian-Mencian-neo-Confucian lineage) was always regarded as the eternal source of the Good, in what may as well have served as a Platonic sense. The ideals of Confucianism found their expression through myth-building, often around the historical figures of the Sage-Kings and the early kings of the Zhou Dynasty. The ideal ruler was apparently one of Mencius’ favourite topics, particularly when critiquing a ruler. Though the least important member of the country he governed, Mencius’ prince held the highest moral responsibilities to his subjects, and could be removed by force if he did not live up to those responsibilities.
In spite of these revolutionary remedies, the Confucian ideology was concerned much more with keeping society running smoothly and harmoniously. Avoiding conflict. Maintaining dense, vertical hierarchies with a clear proper use of terms. Curbing the profit motive and advancing the public-service one through education. Drawing upon wise and humane people to be leaders. Though the current Chinese government (for obvious reasons) shares the end goals of Confucianism, it doesn’t really bother with the means. Conflict is downplayed, but apparently only ever from one side. Corruption is rampant along a hierarchy which is neither dense nor particularly well-articulated. Material growth is emphasised (there, as here), often at any cost, and often public service ends up being self-service. Education’s moral component is downplayed in the service of ‘getting ahead’ (there, as here). As a result, the people who end up becoming political leaders are the most ruthless, the most cunning and the least trustworthy (there, as here). If Confucianism wants to maintain the stability of this government, it needs to find some way of quietly changing the official culture rather than becoming a tool for propagating it.
After all, suppressing facts and silencing critique from those who mean well (and I don’t mean NED funding recipients) do not make for a harmonious society. Profit motive, ‘free’ markets and the drive for infinite, unbalanced growth do not make for a harmonious society. Education for advancement’s sake rather than for its own does not make for a harmonious society. Encouraging local officials to be greedy and to take as their brazen rule ‘Thou Shalt Not Get Caught’ does not make for a harmonious society. Confucianism, if it is to survive, must be ready and willing to become a bit more radical in its conservatism, and take as their first priority the criticism of intellectuals, public officials and businessmen. It would be wise for the proponents of New Confucianism to reach across the aisle to the postmodernist elements of the Chinese New Left in so doing.