19 June 2011

Of Meng, Wang and Hu – an incomplete revolution?

A scholarly paper I would like to write sometime, which I have hinted about in previous posts, would be a Christian encounter with traditional Confucian thought. My own would likely be from an Anglican (specifically Anglo-Catholic) theological viewpoint, inspired by (through his treatment of Plato and Aristotle), though perhaps not in full accord with, Dr Milbank’s radical orthodoxy – taking some dialectical notes along the way from the Rt Rev Rowan Williams (with his noted proto-radical orthodoxy) and the ‘socio-literary criticism’ of Ched Myers regarding the ultimately tragic character of the Church and the pilgrimage which is to become the Kingdom of God. As such, meeting the disciples of Confucius intellectually must take place ‘on the way’ between kingdoms, between cultures and between times… but it must be left unmediated by a placeless, formless and levelling modernity governed by false universals; this is a modernity Dr Wang Hui attempts to escape, though ultimately (or so it appears) his attempt is left incomplete. We are left with hints, fragments, tantalising suggestions of a ‘Chinese alternative’ – suggestions which sound, ironically enough, appealingly Christian at some points, though frustratingly nihilistic at others.

Let us begin here. The useless tree puts forth the argument that Dr Wang’s argumentation places him on a parallel path with Mencius. I would agree with the basic thrust of this: Dr Wang is concerned, as a public figure, primarily with issues of justice 义 (particularly opposition to the corruption which is concealed and shielded institutionally by the ‘depoliticisation’ of the CCP), and sees these considerations as standing over-against a set of political projects which place primary emphasis on profit 利 (whether nationalism, status-based favouritism or an atomistic Western-imported neo-liberalism). But two or three things trouble me about this interpretation. First, Mr Crane doesn’t quite give poor Mencius his due by reading him on his own terms. It seems as though he wishes to recruit Mencius as an ally of modern, rights-based liberal democracy, which doesn’t appear to follow very clearly from his thought. If one thinks of ‘rights’ analogically (a modern term for which the Chinese translation is quanli 权利, connoting at once unfettered rule, domination and grasping after profit), a straight reading of Mencius would seem to place him against such an idea as ‘rights’; his programme for ending systematic abuses of power (also a problem in his own time) entailed rather instruction into an ordered social role, from which not even kings were exempt – and could be removed if they failed to fulfil that role. Second, Dr Wang cites (among others, such as Wallerstein) JS Mill as one of his formative political influences – Mill, though his thinking tended in a broadly socialist direction, was still foremost concerned with issues of profit (albeit for as broad a swathe of people as possible) rather than the character of a government and its people. Third, though Dr Wang may indeed be taking cues from Mencius, he hints in End of the revolution that he is nevertheless doing so as interpreted through revolutionary author Lu Xun. As Dr Wang himself writes:

For me, as he [Lu Xun] rebukes real people, he is also criticising the history of old China, from Confucius, Laozi, Mencius and the Buddha in ancient times, to sages and philosophers in the modern era. To discuss Lu Xun’s stubbornness, then, we must first speak of his stubbornness about Chinese history. The secret of this was revealed at the outset: ‘Neither Confucius nor Mencius was satisfied with the status quo. They both wanted reforms. But their first step was to win over their earthly masters, and the tool they used to control their masters was “Heaven”’ (‘The Evolution of Roughs’).


This reads as all the more intriguing to me, for it suggests that Lu Xun regarded the virtue-ethical tradition of Confucius and Mencius as a revolutionary exercise (even as he berated the Confucian-based Old Society 老社会 for all its various corruptions, injustices and hypocrisies). It suggests, indeed, that Confucianism itself contained a number of conceptual (and, dare I say, liturgical) tools adequate to address its own practical failings.

It is here that I must introduce my own path. I am a Christian – an Anglican Catholic – by clear-eyed conviction, with English as my native tongue and an ancestry which traces out English, Anglo-Scandinavian, Welsh, Bavarian and Jewish history. The Augustinian boldness of Dr Milbank serves me only so well here as I walk on bloodied soil; I must tread lightly, in full awareness of the tragic and sinful failings of character that members of my adoptive tradition – the Church of England, as one cultural locus of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – inflicted upon Chinese political culture. (This is where the guidance of the Archbishop of Canterbury comes in greater use than that of his student.) I too am convinced that this tradition held within itself all of the conceptual tools necessary to critique and correct itself in regard to its past sins, with constant reference to the person of Jesus Christ, to the moral directives of St Paul, and to Patristic theological thought. Just as St Paul did when he travelled in foreign lands, however, I must listen and learn before I begin to weigh, to test, to debate.

Looking at Confucius and Mencius on their own terms, I can detect in them the same revolutionary tendencies that Lu Xun did. Both of them lived in a time when various small warlords ruled postage-stamp kingdoms and more often than not oppressed and despoiled their own people. The point of reference and political legitimacy, for them, was the founding of the Zhou and the rites and songs suggested by Zhou Gong Dan (周公旦, or Duke Dan of Zhou) – and this was not incidental, though it was Mencius rather than Confucius who drew the line most directly. The thinking of Zhou Gong Dan was that virtuous leadership, rather than descent, was the primary condition for divinely-sanctioned rule. The revolutionary twist to Duke Dan of Zhou’s thought, added first by Confucius, and then later clarified by Mencius, was that the single defining mark of this virtuous leadership was benevolence (or ren 仁).

I say ‘revolutionary’ because, in comparison with their axial-period Western analogues – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – Confucius and Mencius, at least conceptually, extend the capacity for virtue, education and self-cultivation to everyone, including women, servants and ‘barbarians’ (as I have remarked before). Though they themselves were not particularly good on the question of gender, often not having much to say beyond advocating that wives were to be subservient to their husbands, it is a point of note that women such as Ban Zhao could advocate greater education for women using the tools provided to her, particularly by Mencius. Instead of insisting on a concept of personhood-as-dominion over oneself and one’s property (as in Plato and Aristotle, a position which led them to the conclusion that women, slaves and ‘barbarians’ could not be fully people), Confucius and Mencius appear to have radicalised personhood by locating it within proper relationships characterised by the same set of virtues.

This helps to turn Confucianism away, at least in part, from the contradictions Milbank saw in Western pagan virtue (between ‘the city’ and ‘the household’, and between ‘the city’ and ‘the individual’); unlike for Plato and particularly Aristotle, for the Confucians (particularly in writings like The great learning 《大学》), the same relationships which govern 国 (‘kingdom’) also govern 家 (‘household’) and also govern 身 (‘person’). For the students of Confucius, the household is not necessarily the site of anarchic desire to be brought under the reign of pure dominion by force (which was the contradiction Milbank noted in Aristotle), but rather the site of all order that is to bring peace to the anarchy of the outside (on the level of states!). What this means in practice is that Mencius begins to demand more of political leaders than did the ancient Greeks: instead of merely advocating that Sage-King Shun (舜帝) order his justice minister to prosecute and arrest his father on a suspicion of murder (which would be the humane and just thing to do as a king), he also believed Shun should abdicate and accompany his father into exile (which would be his obligation as a son). One starts to see in Mencius a proto-Augustinian ‘succession’ of moral edification predicated on familial relationships (notably the ‘Four Beginnings’ 四端).

The difficulty is that, though there is an ethical revolution in progress among the Confucians, it is continually delayed. Confucius spoke of bringing his teachings to the Nine Yi – though this was indeed a revolutionary, even Pauline sentiment (as well as being a rather trenchant critique of China at the time), the fact that he mentioned it highlights a key point of Chinese thinking that has not gone away, in which they do share a similarity with the ancient Greeks: the distinction between 夏 (‘Chinese’, or ‘civilised’) and 夷 (‘barbarian’). For Plato and Aristotle, the City was erected as a defence against the barbarism both from within (the household) and from without (the nomadic warriors represented at various times by the Cyclops, the Centaurs and the Amazons). Though Confucius and Mencius have almost completed a revolution with regard to harmonising the household and the self to the kingdom, male dominance in the family and rule by force are nevertheless necessitated and secured by orienting the ‘kingdom’ defensively to the outside, and even at its peak Confucianism could never completely dismantle this orientation – so to this day one still sees temples to (male) tutelary deities in Chinese cities, one of whose roles is defence against the outside. Instead, Confucius (and Mencius after him) merely relocated the orientation against barbarism to the cultivation of proper virtuous relationships and appropriate use of rites and music.

We do actually see Dr Wang Hui taking some steps toward rectifying this dichotomy by criticising the East-West model common nowadays among social scientists on both sides of the pond in almost Daoist terms. At the same time, it is possible that he is hindered more than helped by his reliance on the postmodernists, for whom the end goal of the revolution (if there ever was one) was always in flux. We also see General Secretary Hu Jintao making some rhetorical progress toward these goals, particularly in the ideal (with currently just enough content to be tantalising) of a multicultural 和谐社会 (the harmonious society) and in the reintroduction of a new form of Confucian ethics through the 八荣八耻 (‘eight honours and eight shames’). But allow me to suggest a possible third way: perhaps the ideal of the harmonious society will be brought about more… well, harmoniously, by a new, radical synthesis of Confucian and Daoist thought, perhaps aided and inspired by the Gospels, the Epistles and the Patristic writings.

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