23 November 2015

Michael Schuman on Confucian anti-capitalism

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒

This Salon article, an excerpt from Michael Schuman’s book Confucius: And the World He Created is from eight months ago, but it is brilliant all the same. Here are a couple of the good bits from early in the piece:
The tattered condition of the Confucians’ footwear reflected the limitations of Confucius’s enthusiasm for free enterprise. The great sage may have preferred a small, efficient state, but that doesn’t mean he was in favor of unfettered private commerce. Confucius had an inherent distrust of the pursuit of wealth, and this attitude became infused into later Confucians and their views of business and businessmen. Although Confucius did not preach asceticism (like his Hindu counterparts in India), he did see nobility in poverty, or at least the stoic acceptance of poverty. The true gentleman, in Confucius’s eyes, did not desire riches. “The gentleman seeks neither a full belly nor a comfortable home,” he said. Even those men who sincerely tried to act in a benevolent fashion could not be trusted if they also coveted luxury. “There is no point in seeking the views of a gentleman who, though he sets his heart on the Way, is ashamed of poor food and poor clothes,” the sage said.

For the most part, though, Confucians thought that China’s elite did not earn their riches honorably. The Confucians tended to disapprove of commerce in general, seeing finance and trading, which they considered “secondary” economic activities, as inherently corrupting and ultimately dangerous for a country’s overall well-being. Rather than actually adding to production, merchants, they believed, merely bought and sold what others made through sweat and toil, skimming off unwarranted profits in the process. Confucians preferred economic policies that favored the farmers, whom they portrayed as honest laborers engaged in the “primary” activity of producing real goods.
Oh, and it gets even better! Schuman has some very interesting things to say about Han-era Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu, the man pretty much single-handedly responsible for bringing into being the much-maligned (among liberals) ‘institutional Confucianism’ 制度儒學:
In his critical memorial to Emperor Wu, Dong Zhongshu blamed the economic ills of the day on the concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful and greedy few. “The rich bought up great connecting tracts of ground, and the poor were left without enough land to stick the point of an awl into,” he complained. “How could the common people escape oppression?” That’s why he, and many other Confucians after him, pressed for measures to improve income equality. Dong preferred a landownership system that equalized the size of plots across the populace, in that way ensuring that each farming family could sustain itself and would not be exploited by large landlords. He did not get heard on this point, and Confucians reiterated this recommendation for centuries to come.
It was a very pleasant surprise to me that Schuman got it right. Even though nothing immediately came of it, Dong Zhongshu put his career and his life on the line in speaking truth to dynastical Han power on behalf of China’s poor and oppressed agrarian class, advocating for land reform, a reduction of unpaid corvée labour, an end to the state-run iron monopoly, a robust defence of the commons (in which he was followed by He Xiu), a civil service based on virtue rather than on nepotism and an end to China’s costly and destructive wars with the Xiongnu. He was by no means an apologist for power. Neither, indeed, were a number of ‘institutional Confucians’ who came after him - men like He Xiu in the late Han and Gong Zizhen and Kang Youwei in the Qing. The ‘thin edge of the wedge’ that Chinese right-liberal intellectuals want to drive between a robust sociopolitical read of Confucianism and those among China’s populace who might possibly want to empathise with it, is based upon a wholly ahistorical, even mendacious claim: that the ‘institutional Confucians’ are thinly-veiled evil totalitarian oppressors, and that the more quietist Confucians of the Song-Ming school (whose modern representatives are Tang Junyi, Xu Fuguan and Mou Zongsan) are the only legitimate outlet for Confucian concerns. I am certainly grateful to old China hands like Michael Schuman who undertake the task of defending the historical honour of Han-era Confucianism (and those influenced by it) and demonstrating that this was not, in fact, the case.

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