Mar. 15, 2015 by Darius
Last week, I saw journalist Michael Schuman talk about his new book Confucius and the World He Created.
Most people, both in Asia and in the West, know at least something about Confucius. But the historical figure of Confucius is quite different from many modern perceptions of him and his ideas. In his lifetime, Confucius meant well, according to Schuman, but achieved very little. He lived during a time of major warfare in China and spent most of his life traveling from one proto-state to another urging its rulers to reform and govern in a virtuous way (as Confucius saw it).
However, Confucius also attracted devoted disciples, between 70 and 3,000, depending on who you ask, and these disciples carried on Confucius’s work after his death. A few generations after Confucius died, his students’ students wrote the Analects to summarize Confucius’s work and ideas. The students also contributed to Confucian thought with doctrines of their own. Schuman felt that there is no single, monolithic Confucius. Instead, Confucius and his ideas are constantly being reinterpreted in context of contemporary events.
Turning to the present, Schuman said Confucian ideas are currently being presented by the Chinese government as an alternative to Western values of human rights and democracy. The Chinese government sees Confucianism as both legitimately indigenous to China and capable of supporting the regime.
Specifically, Schuman said the current Chinese Communist Party government is, somewhat ironically, emphasizing the same aspects of Confucianism as did the last Chinese emperors: hierarchy and obedience to authority. However, Schuman noted that while Chinese authorities are encouraging ordinary people to read Confucian classics for themselves, Confucius’s actual writings do not advocate what the government is emphasizing. Instead of promoting a dictatorial regime, Confucius advocated for virtuous government, even going so far as to claim that with a truly virtuous government, all coercion would be unnecessary because the people would follow the government willingly. Moreover, Confucius emphasized the need to “remonstrate” with unjust rulers, even if success was unlikely.
In general, Schuman said the Chinese government is using Confucius, as well as other traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism, to ease the path away from extreme economic growth. The party knows it cannot maintain public support with material benefits alone. It must offer an ideology. However, Marxism, the Chinese Communist Party’s official ideology, hasn’t been sufficient for decades. The traditional Chinese ideologies, including Confucianism, are being promoted to fill this void. For example, the party’s current anti-corruption campaign is tapping into Confucian calls for an upright government.
Finally, the Chinese government is using Confucianism as a Chinese “brand” with the outside world. Officials have said they don’t want China just to be known for making iPads. They are selling the party as the defender and successor of thousands of years of political tradition. They are also citing the wisdom and pacifism of Confucius to allay fears about a rising China.
It remains to be seen how successful the Chinese government will be, though, at getting either the Chinese people or the rest of the world to buy its re-interpretation of itself as working towards a Confucian ideal.