Confucius can speak to us still – and not just about China
There is a simplistic way to read this renaissance of an ancient tradition. The truth is very much more interesting
oTimothy Garton Ash in Beijing
oThursday 9 April 2009
When I was a young child, China was, for me, a vaguely comical Chinaman with a wispy moustache, dressed in an embroidered silk robe and conical hat, exclaiming in a funny accent: “Confucius, he say …” Later, it was black-and-white photos of a Mao-period sculpture of a pre-revolutionary rent-collection courtyard, shown me by an enthusiastic English schoolmaster. Then it was the naively misinterpreted madness of the cultural revolution and the Red Guards. (I still have my student copy of the Little Red Book.) And now it is an American-educated Chinese academic, in a dark suit, telling me in excellent English, “so what Confucius says is …”
In China, Confucianism is back. A popularisation of Confucius by a media-friendly Chinese academic, Yu Dan, has sold more than 10m copies, about 6m of them apparently in pirate editions. Her book has been called Chinese Chicken Soup for the Soul. On the campus of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University there used to be a statue of Chairman Mao. Now there’s Confucius. A Confucius film is to be made with funding from a state film company. Chow Yun-Fat, better known as a tough guy in Hong Kong gangster movies, will play the master. And there are explicitly Confucian private schools.
This revival is both a private and a public, a social and a party-state affair. “Confucius said, ‘Harmony is something to be cherished’,” observed President Hu Jintao in February 2005, promoting the Communist party’s proclaimed goals of a harmonious society and world. “From Confucius to Sun Yat-sen,” averred premier Wen Jiabao a couple of years later, “the traditional culture of the Chinese nation has numerous precious elements”, among which he mentioned “community, harmony among different viewpoints, and sharing the world in common”. In a book called China’s New Confucianism, the political theorist Daniel Bell quips that the Chinese Communist party might one day be renamed the Chinese Confucian party.
At an exhibition in the largest Confucian temple in Beijing, pinpoint electric lights on a wall map plot the spread across the globe of the country’s Confucius institutes, China’s counterparts of Germany’s Goethe institutes and our British Council offices. While these Confucius institutes are at present mainly devoted to teaching the Chinese language, the exhibition clearly implies that the world could benefit from a better understanding of Confucian thought.
There’s a simplistic way to read this renaissance of Confucianism, and a more interesting one. The simplistic way is to seek in Confucianism the key to understanding contemporary Chinese society, politics and even foreign policy. This is an instance of what I call Vulgar Huntingtonism, a dumbed-down version of the cultural determinism that you find in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations: “Chinese are Confucians, so they’ll behave like this …”
Well, for a start, there are many contrasting versions of Confucianism. Bell distinguishes liberal Confucianism, official or conservative Confucianism, left Confucianism, and depoliticised pop Confucianism (the Yu Dan chicken soup). More important, Confucianism is just one ingredient in the eclectic mix characteristic of China today. Many features of its society and political system can be described without any reference to Confucianism, and some would have the master writhing in his tomb. Beside Confucianism, you can discern elements of Leninism, capitalism, Taoism, western consumer society, socialism, the Chinese imperial tradition of legalism – and more.
It’s precisely the mix that defines the Chinese model, which is anyway not yet fully formed. For China is still a developing country, in every sense of the word. Only when it is more developed will we know exactly what the Chinese model is. Meanwhile, if we must seek a single label for China today, then a better candidate than Confucianism would be Confectionism. The secret is in the confection.
It follows that it’s a great mistake to conceive of a political and intellectual conversation with China as a “dialogue between civilisations”. In this conception, we westerners put on the table what we call “western values”, the Chinese put on the table what they call “Chinese values”, and then we see which pieces match and which don’t.
Stuff and nonsense. There is no such thing as a pure, unadulterated, separate western civilisation or Chinese civilisation. We have all been mixing up for centuries, especially over the last two. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. Yes, Confucianism is more important than Catholicism in China, and Catholicism is more important than Confucianism in California; but there’s more of the west in the east and more of the east in the west than most people imagine. Moreover, even 2,500 years ago, when China and Europe really were worlds apart, Confucius was addressing some of the same issues as Plato and Sophocles, because these issues are universal.
So the interesting way for westerners to engage with Confucianism – in a conversation that China’s official Confucius institutes would do well to support – is quite different. This way starts from a simple proposition: here was a great thinker, who still has things to teach us today. Rich schools of scholastic interpretation over more than two millennia not only reinterpreted Confucius for different times; they also added thoughts of their own. We should read him, and them, as we read Plato, Jesus, Buddha or Darwin, and all their interpreters. This is not a dialogue between civilisations but a dialogue inside civilisation. Human civilisation, that is, the thing that makes us better than beasts.
For this conversation, most of us must depend on translators. Here in Beijing, I have been re-reading Simon Leys’ translation of the Annalects of Confucius, with its notes full of vigorous cross-reference to western writers. With Leys’s help, I find the Annalects infinitely more accessible, enjoyable and rewarding than the central text of another cultural tradition with which we Europeans must engage: the Qur’an. Of course, some passages are obscure or anachronistic, while others – stressing the rule of men rather than the rule of law, for example – are in stark contrast to contemporary liberalism. But many of the sayings attributed to Confucius breathe a remarkably fresh secular humanism.
I prefer his cautious formulation of the golden rule of reciprocity – “what you do not wish for yourself, do not impose upon others” – to the Christian one. What should government do? “Make the local people happy and attract migrants from afar.” How should we best serve our political leader? “Tell him the truth, even if it offends him.” Best of all: “One may rob an army of its commander-in-chief; one cannot deprive the humblest man of his free will.”
If these are familiar thoughts in an unfamiliar place, there are also very distinctive emphases, such as that on a kind of extended family responsibility to generations both past and to come. Not such a bad idea, at a time when we are ravaging the planet that our grandparents left us. Earlier this year, one of Britain’s education ministers reaped some mild satire for suggesting that English schoolchildren could benefit from studying Confucius. But why not? Couldn’t we all? We would not merely learn something about the Chinese. We might even learn something about ourselves.