Knowing something about the Confucian tradition is essential to understanding China. The legendary Wm. Theodore de Bary of Columbia University explains the value of Confucianism’s ideas about learning, education, and leadership.
For almost two millennia the core of Chinese education—and thus of literate discourse—consisted of Confucian texts, including the recorded conversations of great teachers like Confucius (551–479 bce) and Mencius (385?–312? bce), collections of historical documents and chronicles, ritual texts (many of them dealing with education), and poetry, later canonized as “Confucian Classics.” These dealt with a range of human issues—moral, intellectual, social, and political—but centrally with the cultivation of the responsible human person (the “Noble Person”) and a humaneness linking truly “noble” leadership to civil conduct in family, state, and human society at large.
The importance of these values to governance in a civil society was confirmed by their incorporation into official canons recognized by the great imperial dynasties of the Han (202 bce–220 ce) and Tang (618–906 ce) and their use in the civil-service examination system developed by the Tang.
As Chinese society developed and matured, however, it met new challenges from a more complex social and cultural situation occasioned by population growth, urbanization, improved technologies, and the introduction of Buddhism. These developments required a reassessment of receivedtradition, and the result was a neoclassical version of tradition that we call Neo-Confucianism, the most distinctive feature of which was a refocusing of attention on a nucleus of short texts known as the Four Books (the Great Learning, the Mean, the Analects of Confucius, and the text of Mencius), while adding other brief texts that would fill out a systematic educational process. All of this was still centered on the self-cultivation of the Noble Person and the humaneness that should pervade civil society as a whole, summed up in the phrase of the major Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi: “self-cultivation as the basis of human governance.”
One should recognize that this centering on a core did not necessarily circumscribe the intellectual horizons of the Confucians. If these had limits (including a lesser attention to science and technology), it was owing more to other economic, social, and political exigencies that commanded priority attention.
Nevertheless, as the world situation developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a radical restructuring of Chinese education took place in favor of Western learning, which dominated a new educational system. Culturally speaking, this had to be a traumatic experience for the Chinese, and it produced a violent reaction against Confucianism, which manifested itself in the so-called “New Culture” and “May Fourth” movements that sought to destroy the “old Confucian curiosity shop” and culminated in Mao Zedong’s anti-Confucian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).
The subsequent modernization movement led by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin ushered in a new phase emphasizing order, stability, and a search for a “civility” that would be authentically Chinese. Not surprisingly, this has brought renewed attention to Confucianism, now promoted through a semiofficial organ called the Confucian Association based in Confucius’s hometown of Chufu in Shandong Province, but promoted through national and international conferences.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Confucianism
In such circles and meetings, a prominent spokesman for the new movement has been Lee Kuan Yew, the former leader of Singapore, who in his early days produced the miracle of Singapore’s modernization and, ironically, of Southeast Asia’s resistance to the spread of Maoism. Now tiny Singapore’s ultrasuccessful example has become the model for massive China’s own miracle of economic modernization, and, again not surprisingly, Lee has become a kind of cultural (as well as political and economic) guru for China. As a kind of “born again” Confucian, Lee’s personal take on Confucianism is revealing.
Lee has long advocated a conservative Confucianism that recognizes the value of its family and work ethic and the virtue of “loyalty” understood in the conventional sense of personal support for the leader. Recently Lee reiterated his handy version of Confucianism in a way that few could take exception to. Allowing for adjustments to changes in modern life (like growing equality for women), he still insists that certain fundamental values must be maintained. In an article that appeared in Singapore’s Straits Times on 22 April 2004, Lee said,
The most important [of the fundamental values] are the five human relationships (wu lun) that impose obligations and rights between sovereign and subjects, father and sons, husband and wife, among brothers, and among friends.
These do not hinder the chances needed for success in a globalized world but may have to be modified as women become equal to men, and in governance as kings are replaced by ministers representing the people.
But fundamental values must be maintained: the emphasis on responsibility for the care and education of one’s children, to teach them to be filial, to be loyal to family and friends, to be thrifty and modest, to study, work hard and become a scholar, to grow up to be a gentleman (junzi); they have sustained the continuity of Chinese civilization and saved it from the oblivion that has been the fate of other old civilizations.
Lee has been equally aware of the powerful cultural influences from the modern West that tend to undermine traditional discipline, which he sees as a key element in Singapore’s social fabric and the efficiency of its labor force. According to him, much of cultural clash between traditional Asian culture and contemporary Western culture is occasioned by the difference in the status of the individual:
One fundamental difference between American and Oriental culture is the individual’s position in society. In America an individual’s interest is primary. This makes American society more aggressively competitive, with a sharper edge and higher performance … [By contrast] in Singapore the interests of society take precedence over the interests of individuals.
Lee is confident that Confucianism is not simply a vestigial remains of ancient culture but something the survival value of which is attested by history. Learning and education, always a high priority for Confucianism, can be adapted to twenty-first-century Asia’s needs:
Chinese culture will develop, evolve and adapt to successfully industrialize and globalize … The economy is driven by new knowledge, new discoveries in science and technology, innovations that are taken to the market by entrepreneurs.
So while the scholar is still the greatest factor in economic progress, he will be so only if he uses his brains not in studying the great books, classical texts and poetry, but in capturing and discovering new knowledge, applying himself to R&D, management and marketing, to banking and finance, and to the myriad new subjects that need to be mastered.
Those with good minds to be scholars should also become inventors, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere.
In acting on this advice of Lee’s, the problem “scholars” will have is not to be found in any cultural resistance in the past to the promoting of new knowledge or technology. As early as the Song, the Confucian teacher Hu Yuan (993–1059) established a school curriculum half of which was devoted to specialization in the new technologies of his time—of administrative law, military science, hydrology (water control), and mathematics—an example favorably cited by leading Neo-Confucians as applicable to the needs of Song society.
Nor is there any need for Lee to preach this new gospel to the generation of “scholars” educated in twentieth or twenty-first century East Asia. Heirs to Confucian culture in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese mainland have been heavily engaged in mastering new technologies for more than a century. Today students are already almost totally immersed in the high-tech R&D or business management Lee now promotes above all else.
The real problem East Asian educators and students are likely to face is in following Lee’s advice not to bother with studying the classics. Serious scholars and teachers are already alarmed at the neglect of humanistic learning, and those familiar with Confucianism realize how totally at odds Lee is with the Confucian tradition in this respect.
An Alternative View
In contrast to Lee’s truncated Confucianism and simplified work ethic, one could take a larger view of the Confucian tradition as contributing something more to a global education—and indeed, a global civics—in which China and indeed all of East Asia heir to the Confucian tradition would have a place. When thinking about Confucianism’s role in that global education, one should note the following:
1. Confucian education from the start was focused on the self-cultivation of those who would become leaders in society, and much of what is said in the Analects, Mencius, Xunzi, and other classic texts is still applicable to leadership in the modern world. When Alan Greenspan said that the establishing of trust in leadership was the most essential thing in a market economy, he was reaffirming in his own way something Confucius said—that trust is the most fundamental requisite of a civil society.
2. The usual complaint about the Confucian leadership ideal is that it was elitist. A key argument here is the one raised by Mencius to the effect that those who would be entrusted with the exercise of power over others should be educated, trained, and disciplined to serve that purpose, since power unguided by proper human values can easily become abusive. In this respect Mencius spoke for a leadership class distinguished—and to some extent set apart—by its pursuit of noble ideals, which equally emphasized noblesse oblige: self-sacrificial service to mankind. This was expressed in a passage in the Analects attributed to Zengzi: “The man of service (shi) must be stout-hearted and enduring because his burden is heavy and his Way is long. His burden is that of service to all humanity: Is that not heavy? His Way lasts until death: Is that not long?” (Analects 8:7)
3. The extent to which Confucians remained in touch with popular sentiments no doubt varied from age to age and from level to level of society. One assumes that local leadership was exposed to popular opinion at some base level, but how much governance was a matter of upward, vertical communication and how much state policy was influenced by such sentiments is a matter of effective infrastructure, often lacking.
4. Prominent Chinese thinkers in the modern period have believed that citizenship or popular participation in governance was handicapped in traditional China because people’s loyalties were mostly limited to family and village and did not extend to the state. Although leading Neo-Confucian thinkers like Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming in China and Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok in Korea did take a strong interest in local community organization, emphasizing self-help and cooperation among villagers, they had little to say about the need for structures and processes intermediate between village and state.
5. During the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties (eleventh to seventeenth centuries) what served something of a bridging function between local organizations and the state—or to put it another way, an amphibian function between the teeming sea of local populations and the comparatively sparse corps of officials administering them—were regional centers of learning and discussion, local academies where philosophical discussion (jiang xue) and at times something like public discussion (gong lun) took place. The fact that this same phenomenon appeared among Neo-Confucians in Korean academies during the Choson dynasty (1392–1910) and in somewhat different circumstances in educational institutions in Japan during the Tokugawa period (1600/1603–1868) suggests that schools were the natural habitat for public discussion in Neo-Confucian cultures.
The indigenous character and widespread prevalence of these educational centers as venues for the scholarly discussion of public issues help to explain why Huang Xongxi, a major reformist thinker of seventeenth-century China, turned to schools to provide a mechanism for curbing autocratic power. (He did so by designating the Imperial College and provincial schools as official centers of public discussion.) And today, what institution or agency might be capable of asserting and sustaining the “traditional values” that Lee Kuan Yew would have maintained in the midst of the wholesale technological, social, and cultural changes that twenty-first-century life entails? It must be the schools.
Valuing the Classics
Today, however, Confucian teaching is nowhere a part of a general curricular requirement, and there is no significant movement to include the study of the Chinese classics as part of a core curriculum. Except for a few excerpts found in high school courses, the classics are studied only by a few majors in the field, as part of a specialized departmental program, not as part of everyone’s general education. In other words study of the classics has been reduced to a form of postmodernist technology, yet still not one competitive with other technologies economically more useful.
Lee’s proposal to pursue hi-tech training instead of “studying the great books and classics,” coincided with a question prominently raised by Andrew Solomon in the op-ed columns of the New York Times on 10 July 2004. Solomon lamented the dramatic decline in book reading in contemporary culture and the atrophying of the mind—”The Closing of the American Book,” as he headlines it. Reading books, he says, “requires effort, concentration, attention. In exchange, it offers the stimulus and the fruit of thought and feeling.” On the other hand, he says,
The electronic media . . . tend to be torpid. Despite the existence of good television, fine writing on the Internet, and video games that test logic, the electronic media by and large invite inert reception. One selects channels, but then the information comes out preprocessed. Most people use television as a means of turning their minds off, not on. Many readers watch television without peril; but for those for whom television replaces reading, the consequences are far-reaching …
Without books, we cannot succeed in our current struggle against absolutism and terrorism. The retreat from civic to virtual life is a retreat from engaged democracy, from the principles that we say we want to share with the rest of the world. You are what you read. If you read nothing, then your mind withers, and your ideals lose their vitality and sway.
So the crisis in reading is a crisis in national politics.
In response to the more generalized danger of failing actively to engage the mind, the classics of the Chinese tradition (along with those of other major traditions) could make a contribution to the democracy of the future, with the following provisos:
First, in the modern world Confucian education has to be seen in an East Asian context and cannot be viewed as simply a Chinese matter. Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, as well as Singapore and Taiwan, are parts of an East and Southeast Asian community, culturally speaking, and this has implications too for an East Asian political community. Second, since East Asia is now part of the larger world community and deeply enmeshed in the global economy and technology, Confucian education will have to be seen first as based in local tradition, next as connected to East Asia, and then adapted to the larger world.
Teaching the Confucian classics could do justice to the legitimate concern for Asian contributions to civil, democratic discourse. It would show too that Asia has something to contribute to the conduct of Andrew Solomon’s war of ideas. If “we are what we read,” and this active repossession of the classics is part of civilized discourse, then the Asian classics are not something to be sloughed off (as Lee Kuan Yew would have us do), but are part of what we, meaning both Asians and Westerners, should read together.
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Straits Times, April 22, 2004, 2.
Analects 8:7, Quoted in William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, comps. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 1:183–89.
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Source: de Bary, William Theodore. (2006). China’s Contribution to Global Education. Guanxi: The China Letter, 2, 1.