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Contemporary Attitudes Toward Confucius


YuehanHao
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I recently had a conversation with a mainland Chinese female about Confucius. She did not regard him very highly. In light of the propaganda history there and some of the teachings of the old master himself (for example, if I understood correctly, in one beautiful classic Hong Kong movie called Love Eterne, a phrase such as "Women and little people [小人] are insecure and ungrateful," was attributed to him), she saw Confucius as the essence of conservatism and patriarchy.

I couldn't totally disagree, but on the other hand, I had read other sources which made Confucius out as what must have been very progressive for his era, including having great concern for the harsh plight of the common man [老百姓], teaching students for nothing more than dried meat, and valuing human life above money (厩焚。子退朝,曰:“伤人乎?”不问马。).

I may be totally of the wrong opinion, but the mainlander's attitude made me think of what I took to be a parallel misunderstanding in Western culture, how the ancient law of justice that Jesus replaced with his teachings (an eye for an eye) that we (uh, most of us) now consider utterly barbaric, was actually intended as a call toward greater mercy. So I guess my opinion came to be that it is unfair to pluck a person (e.g., Confucius) out of his or her historical context and judge them (e.g., as a conservative) on the scale of today's moral fashions.

But I don't know very much about Confucius, actually, and while it is probably too complex a question to discuss thoroughly, I felt very curious about others' attitudes on Confucius as being either a conservative or progressive, and maybe where you are from if it is not clear already. Sincerely,

约翰好!

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But I don't know very much about Confucius, actually,

Are you sure? You seem to be quoting him from memory and probably know more about him than most. One thing is to be aware of is that there is a difference Confucius the man and Confucianism as practiced -- just as there is a big difference between Jesus and Christianity as practiced over the years.

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I've talked to quite a few Mainlanders about Confucius, and I generally came away with the impression that they didn't have very strong feelings for him either way. Most people, justifiably, I think, have a vague sense of pride in knowing that Chinese civilization produced him. But to what degree and how much he influenced Chinese culture for better or for worse, really hasn't been of much discussion in the Mainland since the Cultural Revolution, in which they have the ludicrous political campaign of "Criticizing Lin Biao Criticizing Confucius” 批林批孔子运动 And I’m sure there really wasn’t any “debate” in the CR either.

One of my professors at Fudan argued that Chinese society could be considered Confucian until the Cultural Revolution, which had the aim of destroying the Confucian structure. That prof said that you could still classify Korean society as Confucian, and to a lesser extent, Japanese society, but Chinese society had forever been changed.

Personally, I’m not sure I entirely agree with that point of view, since it seems that many remnants of Confucian values are still held, even if nobody consciously recognizes the source of their values. On the other hand, these days, I think that questions like these are mainly for people who have specialized interests in academia. In the late Qing and early Republic times, I think any moderately educated Chinese person would intensely and emotionally debate the merits of Confucianism, whereas these days it’s just not a burning issue.

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Confucius is hot in today's China. A book on Confucius by Yu Dan, a professor at Beijing Normal University (BNU), is a best-seller.

See these articles below. Generally, I think Confucius's teaching had its pluses and minuses. Among the positives are the emphasis on respect for learning and one another; the negatives, its teaching of obedience to authority and tradition. Jesus is better, IMHO. :wink:

http://www.danwei.org/scholarship_and_education/yu_dan_defender_of_traditional.php

Yu Dan: defender of traditional culture, force for harmony

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-confucius7may07,0,623550.story?coll=la-home-headlines

China turns to Confucius, with a modern twist

A professor's fresh look at the ancient sage is a bestseller in a nation where a booming economy has left some feeling spiritually bereft.

By Ching-Ching Ni, Times Staff Writer

May 7, 2007

Beijing — CONFUCIUS famously considered a good woman to be an illiterate woman. The ancient sage might want to eat his words: More than 2 1/2 millenniums after his death, he's back in vogue, thanks in no small part to a Chinese woman with a PhD.

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One of my professors at Fudan argued that Chinese society could be considered Confucian until the Cultural Revolution, which had the aim of destroying the Confucian structure. That prof said that you could still classify Korean society as Confucian, and to a lesser extent, Japanese society, but Chinese society had forever been changed.

Well, I don't think that ten years of Cultural Revolution can eradicate centuries of Confucian ideology. I'll try to "research" a little bit in my "Mao's" province about this.

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One of my professors at Fudan argued that Chinese society could be considered Confucian until the Cultural Revolution, which had the aim of destroying the Confucian structure. That prof said that you could still classify Korean society as Confucian, and to a lesser extent, Japanese society, but Chinese society had forever been changed.

What does he mean the 'Confucian structure'? I wonder how he would interpret the ancestor worship and relatively tighter family structure which are still very common in China.

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What does he mean the 'Confucian structure'? I wonder how he would interpret the ancestor worship and relatively tighter family structure which are still very common in China.

Well, I agree. Actually, I think some of the Confucian family values that China has maintained are very beneficial. I also agree with madizi that a whole tradition can’t be snuffed out in just a decade. But, like I said, I disagreed with my professor on the view that China wasn't really a Confucian country. Perhaps he would argue, if he were here now, that China had overtly stopped teaching everything Confucian, and had replaced it with Maoism/Stalinism, which means complete obedience to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In any case, my prof gave me the impression, and one of my Korean friends gave me the impression, that Korean intellectuals expressly view their culture as Confucian, and they will even brag that they are more Confucian than China. I am not exactly sure what that entails, since I’ve never been to Korea, but I’ve also heard Westerners echo similar things.

Anyway, the only point I really wanted to make was that Confucius really isn’t that big of a deal. Yes, as Gato said, the Yu Dan book (which I bought and read 30 pages of) was a big a best seller. But many critics said, and I would agree, that the book seemed like no more than an Oprah-style “Chicken Soup for the Soul” version of a book that happened to connected itself with Confucius. I really don’t think the book was meant to provide a serious analysis of Confucius. On the other hand, the fact that the book sold so well perhaps indicates that there is a grassroots hunger for more understanding of Chinese history and traditional culture, which is obviously a great phenomenon.

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Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, like China, can all be considered to be Confucian societies, just as almost all of Europe can be considered be Christian. These countries all used to use the Confucian classics (in their original Chinese) as the basis of their education system until fairly recently. It's already part of their culture whether or not they think about it.

It should be noted Confucianism does not condemn lying and takes a more practical approach to truth, whereas Christianity is quite obsessive about the honesty and truth. This could explain why there's more cheating and fraud in Confucian societies.

See this thread below for Koreans.

http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?p=110606#post110606

Re: korean students

They need to know how old you are because they need to know if you are older or younger than they are. Apparently in Korean culture, even more than in Chinese, you respect and obey older people and are in turn respected and obeyed by younger people, and this includes friends of about the same age. Koreans usually don't even call each other by name, it seems, always elder/younger brother/sister. (So my roommate called her boyfriend 'oppa', older brother, which I thought was a bit weird for of addressing a boyfriend.)

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It should be noted Confucianism does not condemn lying and takes a more practical approach to truth, whereas Christianity is quite obsessive about the honesty and truth. This could explain why there's more cheating and fraud in Confucian societies.

The explanation for fraud and cheat is quite unconvincing. Christianity has been adopted in Western world, but fraud and cheat was still a problem for thousand years until more practical institutional instruments (stiff punishment, accounting system, strong practice code, and perhaps POS) was implemented. If Christianity was a solution to freud and cheat, the power of the God just took too long time to befall.

In China, lying isn't anything not to be condemed, but Confucius made different priorities on virtues. In short, virtues that maintain social order come first. Put the phrase "子為父隱 父為子隱" in google, and there'll be a lot discussion on this. 智 (wisdom, defined as an ability to uncover truth) is listed as an important virtue. Brushed away these dilemma, 智 (wisdom, defined as an ability to uncover truth ) is one of the virtue listed in confucius' bible.

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The explanation for fraud and cheat is quite unconvincing. Christianity has been adopted in Western world, but fraud and cheat was still a problem for thousand years until more practical institutional instruments (stiff punishment, accounting system, strong practice code, and perhaps POS) was implemented.

In China, lying isn't anything not to be condemed, but Confucius made different priorities on virtues. In short, virtues that maintain social order come first.

What's unconvincing about it? You yourself agree that Confucianism gives a pretty low priority to the truth compared with Christianity. Certainly, in practice, fraud is a problem in Christian countries, as well. But relatively speaking, because Christian culture places a high priority on honesty, there's perhaps more shame associated with lying than in Confucian culture, and helps to reduce to fraud to a certain extent. Laws and institutions that punishes fraud, of course, helps enormously, too.

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You could show us how Christian has made a notable difference on honesty between the east and west in most time of history before recent century, that would be more useful to illustrate your arguments, though I don't expect much difference could be seen before the emergerance of many modern instititutional instructments.

The question why honesty is adored in many western (you mean developed?) society is not that it is a virtue in Christian, but it's an efficient virtue to lower transaction costs, keep commerce running smooth, to make government more transparent and responsive to social unrest.

Many christian states in south american and SE asian, that fail to build up honest system, share common political and historical backgrounds with the so-called "confucian society" who face the issue of dishonesty. They can be poor enforcement on law and order, poor living standard, unprotected property right, social instablity, non free market. Compared to these, christian as an explanation on honesty seems to be minimal and indistinctive and only make a loose and tautological cause and effect picture. Think of some asian developed countries that share similar society conditions in Europe and America, we'll see how the bible or confucius plays a little role.

You seem to conclude Confucius' low priority to honesty, compared to other greater virtues, is a cause to dishonesty. That's quite a misunderstanding. When confucius said filial piety is more important than honesty, he didnt mean the later one is unimportant. Being criticised 言之無信 出爾反爾 was regarded as heavy insult even in ancient china, but if that is for a bigger virtue (忠孝)it could be tolerant. Christian did have piority in different virtues too. Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac suggested the faith in the God is more important than caring a child, it would be ...odd to take this example to explain child abuse in the west.

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Confucianism was a state philosophy as far back as the Han Dynasty, so it's historical role in chinese society is hard to diminish, even today. That the communist party ideology seeks to distroy traditional values and confucianism is also hard to overlook.. I'll let this article talk about it:

http://en.epochtimes.com/news/4-12-19/25087.html

But, however much one thinks confucianism is not alive and well misses the point of eastern philosophy; not that people sit around discussing it (like in the west) but people embody it and live it. I might agree that the average person you approach in china is not able to articulate confucianism, but if you step back and watch how they operate within society you would never even have to ask if they "know" confucianism.

The issue of "truth and lying" is always a problematic one for westerns who are at times zealous about moralistic ethics. The concept of truth is historically very different and not one based upon a supreme god from above, but rather truth lies in the [past] experience on a certain level. If you study the early philosopher's or ancient ways, you see an appeal to the past as proof of what to do for situations since somehow the past is able to speak truthfully about what is the best course. I think this leads to what what one chineese writer called "a discovered truth" approach for the chinese.

But getting back to confucius, of course there is the very well known story of the son who refused to appear as witness in court against his father who stole a sheep; the question often arises whether filial piety is getting in the way of honesty; one ethic trumping another. As difficult as it is to sort through competing ethics, one useful way that is used to explain the situation is that based upon one's role in society which ethics are primary. For father and son, this has always been filial piety. If the situation was a minister or government worker then an appeal to justice would be primary.

Filial piety should not be seen though as some sort of trump card for any wrong doing; I think the point would be that this is [historically] the starting point of ethics, not just the end. That this leads to a kind of "flexible ethic" is very true, and I think this is something that truly still exists today in china.

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But getting back to confucius, of course there is the very well known story of the son who refused to appear as witness in court against his father who stole a sheep; the question often arises whether filial piety is getting in the way of honesty; one ethic trumping another. As difficult as it is to sort through competing ethics, one useful way that is used to explain the situation is that based upon one's role in society which ethics are primary. For father and son, this has always been filial piety. If the situation was a minister or government worker then an appeal to justice would be primary.

It would be interesting to see a systematic presentation of the Chinese system of ethics. It seems at times as if "filial piety" is the only virtue that's still consistently practice, today. Aside from occasional lip service, the other virtues, including justice, seem to have been more or less been put on hold due to an ill fit with the current national circumstances (国情).

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Confucian ethics can be thought of as principles of the human’s relationship to mankind and the universe, although the latter was considered the moral source (or mandate) and the former the objective and beneficiary; in this sense, he was humanistic in most every way. Thus, the human has a moral duty and responsibility much more than he has an individual right. In the western world, the latter has become a more dominant theme and thus been used against China (ie: human right’s violations). Without trying to downplay this sensitive issue, I think this is a common example of how the west just does not understand the way of the east and will impose on them their own [western] moralism.

In historical context, I would say that Confucius was trying to restore a declining culture. His utopian goal was, if one takes this passage in the doctrine of the mean: “When equilibrium and harmony are realized… heaven and earth will attain their proper order and all things will flourish”.

Some Confucian Ethics:

Education

Humanheartedness, love – the central idea

Ritual propriety, etiquette

Proper conduct within the five relationships (including filal piety as the base foundation)

Righteousness

Honesty, trusthworthiniess

Self-cultivation

Loyalty to state

Social and political harmony

Stated in the Analects, the one thread running through all this is “conscientiousness and altruism” or “loyalty and forgiveness” as shown here: http://www.confucius.org/lunyu/ed0415.htm

Most are more familiar with (reciprocity) the Chinese Golden Rule: “What you would not have others do to you, don’t do to them.”

The difficulty with identifying ethics today is partly due to the Chinese propensity to synthesize; and neo-Confucian which is really the dominant philosophy of the last 1000 years or so is really the syntheses of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, which can be seen even today in its varying forms. It’s necessary to know theses separate philosophies to then identify them in their co-existing.

I would say a general theme could be: Proper actions in accordance with human activity (as opposed to spirituality). To me, the overall Chinese ethic is really a “do” ethic, as is said, “To know and not do is not [ultimately] to know”… Actions have always been more important than words and what one bases their trust, and possibly the basis of truth.

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Thus, the human has a moral duty and responsibility much more than he has an individual right. In the western world, the latter has become a more dominant theme and thus been used against China (ie: human right’s violations). Without trying to downplay this sensitive issue, I think this is a common example of how the west just does not understand the way of the east and will impose on them their own [western] moralism.

I don't think there's any misunderstanding. There's discussion all the time in the West about "social responsibility" (in fact, the phrase was invented in the West and has now been imported into China). But one's responsibilities to the society (and to one's family) has to be balanced against one's own rights. Most Chinese people would agree with this, too. It's just that those in power sometimes like to stress the "responsibilities" and deemphasize the "rights."

The difficulty with identifying ethics today is partly due to the Chinese propensity to synthesize; and neo-Confucian which is really the dominant philosophy of the last 1000 years or so is really the syntheses of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, which can be seen even today in its varying forms. It’s necessary to know theses separate philosophies to then identify them in their co-existing.

I think you have to be careful about asserting that Chinese are somehow unique in being such and such (i.e. there is some kind of a Chinese/Asian exceptionalism). Western philosophy evolved via synthesis, as well. Christianity itself was built on top of Judaism and Greek philosophy.

I would say a general theme could be: Proper actions in accordance with human activity (as opposed to spirituality). To me, the overall Chinese ethic is really a “do” ethic, as is said, “To know and not do is not [ultimately] to know”… Actions have always been more important than words and what one bases their trust, and possibly the basis of truth.

People in the West believe that "action is more important than words," too. That's not a distinct feature of Chinese morality. What's different about Confucian/Chinese morality is its relativism, i.e. rules change depending on the relationship between people.

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I don't think I claimed chinese as unique... The topic is concerning confucius and I spoke of the difficulty of attempting to see [today] just that piece of the synthetic pie, as not as easy as meets the eye.

Certainly most sinologist I've read speaks about the tendency of this syntheses and how it has moved into their character; I'm not so convinced that this is as true in the west, once one gets off the purely philosophical levels and onto the psychological ones. But certainly many are aware of their ability to embrace both buddhism and christianity at the same time; this is not as equally shared an idea in the western religious thinking, IMO. Again, this goes much deeper than just philosophy but I believe that is the basis.

As for actions more important.. again, I'm not claiming a uniqueness. But I would argue it is historically much more important to the Chinese that one must "do" rather than just speak. And I tried to tie that back to the issue raised of "lying" and "truth". It's all interconnected IMO.. and I already mentioned relativism, so I"ve moved on to another issue by commenting about this aspect.

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Sorry I was away for a week, but I appreciate everyone's responses to my question.

One passing comment on the subject of human rights. I take the discussion of "Eastern" and "Western" attitudes toward human rights as an intentional simplification to reasonably discuss a very complex set of interactions between individuals and groups of individuals. But it occurs to me for instance, some of those easterners whose rights were violated by some definition (and their families) -- no small number from my limited readings of recent Chinese history -- may not agree with the "Eastern" viewpoint on human rights. (As a similar point from the other side, I have also read of a remarkable survey of American people, of which a non-negligible minority felt that Americans have too many rights!) Further, I think there could be substantial difficulties in gauging Chinese citizens' honest attitudes toward human rights, given the strong disincentive for expressing disagreement with government policies. While differences in ideology cannot be altogether neglected, it will be interesting to see to what extent the gradual building of a middle class tradition in China will have a similar effect as it had in Western societies (and as it is having now in some Confucian societies with recently generated middle classes), which, before the rise of their middle classes, were much more heinous violators of human rights (by today's [Western] standard) than present-day China!

As far as "imposing values," my thought is that individuals and organizations (e.g., governments, corporations, etc.) are constantly emitting their values and ideas (in order to derive advantage therefrom), and there is a competition in people's minds as to which will have the greatest influence. It is never a level playing field, and maybe the word "impose" emphasizes that (by hook or by crook) Western values seem to have a higher podium than any other at this particular moment; but certainly influence goes both ways and the innate appeal of an idea or value is one factor in its likelihood of transmission.

Gee, one more minor point in reference to the Korean girl referring to her boyfriend as "older brother." While I have been told it is not very much in fashion now, in Chinese songs from past times (even as near as the Educated Youth era), I have heard lovers referring to their "小妹“ and “哥哥” as well.

约翰好!

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