Is Confucianism the answer?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am


In January, a large bronze statue of Confucius was erected overnight in Tiananmen Square, facing Mao Zedong's giant portrait.

It was seen as the ultimate symbol of China returning to its roots, the triumphant return of a 2,000-year-old philosophy which had dictated state politics until the last Qing dynasty; Confucianism still has a significant influence on Chinese communities across the world today. But just as abruptly, the statue was removed overnight after a few months later, without any explanation.

What happened to the statue is, some say, a symptom of China's 'to be or not to be' dilemma, in which the need to balance its economic growth conflicts with equally pressing demands to educate, modernise and build a cohesive society. Most agree the incident is symptomatic of a deeper struggle - the result of the lack of an ideology of nation-building, which needs to be in place to improve morality and fill the ideological vacuum left by the Cultural Revolution.

There is also external pressure in a world dominated by Western ideologies. China feels the pressure to produce something from within - something that is its own. So since the 1990s, there has been talk about reviving Chinese traditions. That includes not just Confucianism, but also Buddhism, Taoism and other 'Chinese' beliefs. Confucianism has come to the forefront.

As China struggles to give its people moral and ethical education fast enough to keep pace with its economic growth, Confucianism is seen as a useful philosophy.

'There is no denying the deep and encompassing influence of Confucianism in Chinese societies,' said Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai, head of the political science department at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on political Confucianism.

However, some scholars are sceptical as to whether Confucian ideals can meaningfully address modern China's ethical problems, which they say need more than just an ideology to resolve. 'People may just feel alienated if Confucianism is imposed on the people in a traditional way - by the government,' said Chan, who does not encourage state promotion of Confucian ethics.

Instances of mainlanders' lack of moral scruples are legion. They include sales of poisonous milk powder and knock-off red wines, and an incident in which a 20-year-old car driver who ran over a woman stabbed her to death to avoid 'complications'.

Thanks to China's aggressive economic development, wealth has been generated at a rapid pace, yet money alone cannot meet the people's spiritual needs.

Cheng Chung-yi, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and associate director of the Research Centre for Chinese Philosophy and Culture, said: 'We see a problematic China - corruption among local officers, violence, unethical dealings, and atrocities. The public doesn't really believe in communism any more, and because of the heavy critique in the past decades, people don't really believe in traditional values [like Confucianism] either.

'What people in China today believe in is money. But everyone knows that this does not work. We need values to commit to. All [the central government] can claim is the economic growth they've achieved, which will only temporarily appease the people under them. So much for real legitimacy.' Cheng argues that the undisputed power of the government is against the very basis of communism.

Deeply ingrained in Chinese society, Confucianism was the guiding philosophy of its rulers. Today some see it as an answer to declining moral standards. It teaches wisdom, respect, and benevolence - core values for a harmonious society - and the pursuit of and adherence to truth.

'China today is in a moral and ethical dilemma, and [its] leaders are trying to use Confucianism to reunite people and rebuild the country's sliding moral principles,' said Hu Xingdou , a political commentator and economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

In the past 20 years, we have seen the development and revival of Confucianism in the mainstream, in academia, and at state level. But while China supports academic research on Confucianism and other Chinese traditions, some academics disagree with the government's ideas and have pursued independent research and reinterpretation of Confucian classics, Cheng said.

Chan, of the University of Hong Kong, said: 'There are at least two or three schools of thought regarding Confucianism, even within the academic discourse. On a more popular level, a lot of books have been published on Confucianism, including 'day-to-day readings' like meditations. Parents even send their children to special schools for Confucian studies.'

For all that, the enemies of Confucianism are everywhere in China. And even if it wins over some of its critics, there are those who fear Confucianism alone cannot resolve China's dilemma.

'Some members in the government fear that Confucianism is innately an ideology which opposes Marxism,' says Hu, 'or that it might endanger the domination of communism, and so are against any kind of promotion or use of Confucian ideas.' As such, allowing the revival of Confucianism may send a confusing message, Hu said.

And even if the government is not against the use of Confucian ideology for moral education, Cheng said, Confucianism had 'a history of being manipulated'. For the government to use it as a political tool would be 'the death of Confucianism', he said.

Hu agrees. 'It would be a disaster [if the government promotes Confucianism]. People are scared that Confucianism is just another way to justify the party's authoritarian actions.'

Scholars say that even if Confucian ethics are taught and promoted, they will still fall short. Religion and ideology alone won't resolve China's ethical problems, they say. Merely promoting sound principles and hoping society adopts them won't do.

'With such a deterioration of social and moral conscience in the general public, to emphasise and focus on traditional philosophy won't work,' said Hu. 'If we have a good political and legal system, then perhaps the country will be ready for a moral exercise. People will see how officials 'say certain things on stage, but do something entirely different off stage', which will only disillusion people.'

Chan said: 'We all know why and how China needs to change. The problem is why it has not changed. Corruption is a serious problem in the Chinese government. It touches a lot of people from the top to the bottom. China is a big ship. Just a little change in direction will be hard and will take a long time.'

Cheng says China is dealing with institutional decay. 'Ritual and morality are in tatters. The system is defunct. We need to rebuild the system,' he said.

'The first thing is to change the heart. Even if the system is perfect, we forget the meaning of the rules, [so] it wouldn't work,' Chan said. 'We are talking about deeper issues which need to be fixed - the ethical foundation. Education and the system need to go together, work together - one cannot go without the other.'

Daniel Bell, professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University, said to make Confucianism beneficial to modern-day societies, 'it needs to be reinterpreted and contextualised'.

Cheng agrees. 'We need to deconstruct popular ideals and see what is from the politicised and manipulated form of Confucianism, and what the essence of the philosophy is,' Cheng said.

Chan said it was all about finding the open, transferrable elements in Confucianism, and reinterpreting them in the context of the 21st century.

Hu, of the Beijing Institute of Technology, believes that the country needs to formulate 'a set of contemporary and modern ethical principles which incorporates universal values such as human rights and equality with traditional ones such as respect for elders and a family-centred community'.

'Only in this way can the Chinese community grow,' he said.

Bell also sees Confucianism as a way to help Chinese societies bind together - to find identity in their cities, their localities, which will breed respect and also selflessness, thus creating communities that will care more than just about money.

Cheng says: 'The future is open. No one says that democracy is China's definite future. Someone said around 10 years ago that China cannot be run by Western-style democracy. Democracy is not a universal ideal, so countries should probably look for a political system that's suitable for their own nation. Some people think that democracy would not work well in China, the country being so vast.

'But if you think no matter how smart and how brilliant a leader can be, there is still the danger of that leader becoming corrupted and that violence will happen, and that democracy should be China's future, [it] doesn't have to be a Western-style democracy.'

He adds: 'I think most people who care about and want the best for China, would want and believe in a democratic China, because we believe that in democracy all people have the right to participate in society.'

Chan at the University of Hong Kong thinks that the state should focus on changing its system. 'Make it a righteous and just place, get rid of corruption,' he said. 'Then who says it's an either/or [choice]? We can take the best principles from different things and make it ours. We want a multifaceted society, so we must allow ideologies to mix and match, and adopt principles which are good.

'The best way is for [the government] to fold their hands and let people develop Confucianism. Let [Confucianism] compete with other ideologies, see what comes out of it. Let civic society grow and mature naturally.

'The end product - how much is Confucianism - we don't know,' Chan said. 'If we are hoping for a freer China, Confucianism should be given the space to blossom and flourish with other ideas, other philosophies and even other religions in China. Then we'll see which one our country likes most.'