A Ku Indeed!

So How Exactly is the PRC Confucian, Again?

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on January 16, 2008

It’s hard to believe, when you read stories like this, that the Hu Jintao-led government in the PRC can, with a straight face, consider itself “Confucian.” How exactly can this show of mob-oriented murder be considered in any way an expression of benevolence? Firstly, it hardly seems Confucian for a government to dump trash in front of the homes of the less fortunate. In what way does this express shu or the rule of reciprocity? Since when do Confucians in high positions of power take advantage of that power to mistreat those beneath them?

Remember: harmony (he) requires two things in a relationship with unequally empowered parties: trust and loyalty, and care. On the part of the powerful: they must care for the needs of those beneath them. For those on the bottom, they must trust and be loyal to those above them. It’s hard to imagine how dumping city trash on the poor is ‘caring’. Moreover, it’s even harder to believe that beating the villagers of those towns when they protest is caring. The sad story continues with the murder of the bystander who dared to take pictures of this ridiculous event.

If anything, this is nothing more than a show of unbridled power on the part of the local government. A true Confucian government would immediately take steps to publicly acknowledge the blame — and shame — of the city inspectors. Without such a display, “trust” is eroded and the very basis for a Confucian society collapses. As Confucius is asked, in Analects 8.28, which is most important, “food, guns, or trust” he says: that it is trust, because we can “give up food. Death has been with us since the beginning, but when there is no trust, the common people have nothing to stand on.” So who exactly, when reading and hearing about these episodes, would trust the local government?

Update: Time’s Simon Elegant is also discussing this story.

Update II: More details.

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15 Responses

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  1. eyeingtenure said, on January 16, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    There is not, and there has never been, any logic in Maoist China except that of self-preservation.

    As a westerner living outside China, I don’t believe it’s possible to take anything the PRC says seriously, or at face value.

    The PRC doesn’t need trust from the people — it rules by fear. All it needs is for key opponents to disappear every so often, and the bulk of the people accept a little despotism.

    Most people are willing to live on their knees than die on their feet, are willing to sacrifice their liberty for temporary safety. It takes insurgents to overthrow a government, and the PRC does very well in silencing these insurgent leaders, ensuring its continued existence.

  2. Million said, on January 17, 2008 at 12:02 am

    This isn’t the first instance where I’ve heard a story of a particular event (or set of them) in China and had to just shake my head. I’m willing to say Confucianism still has a great degree of social and political influence, but I can’t grant the PRC the label it wants; Confucian. Unfortunately, I feel like this has a lot to do [inadvertently] with the West.

    Remember the Great Leap Forward? Remember how, since being humiliated by the Western influenced Japanese in WW2 and England before China has sought to become a major international player? [Hell, one of the biggest criticisms of the Three Gorges Dam – made mostly by WESTERNERS – was that it would destroy 3000+ years of history. That’s something unheard of in a nation as traditional as China.] Well, the constant attempts by the PRC to “modernize” itself have been largely to blaim. The problem is, however that for the past 60 or so years traditional Confucian notions in government have been shunned. Shunned for Marxism. Shunned for free market capitalism. Shunned for concepts of what a standard of living should be.

    My real interest is to see what happens in China after it develops. I’m really hoping that they turn back to their roots.

  3. eyeingtenure said, on January 17, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Historically, what countries, after testing free-market capitalism or Marxism, have turned back to their roots?

    Not many, if any at all. When politicians talk about returning to the principles upon which their country was founded it is more often a ploy to get votes.


  4. Million said, on January 17, 2008 at 1:01 am

    I know…

    It really, really, really depresses me. I mean, I don’t expect things to revert exactly to what they were before, but there are components of traditional Chinese culture that I would like to stay. Confucianism isn’t incomputable with free-market capitalism any more than limited forms of socialism are. They existed side by side for hundreds of years.

    CP always talks about being a “moderate” type of guy and that’s what appealed to me in Chinese culture. It basically established a conservative (by this I mean mainstream) culture of moderation, humanistic intellectualism, and tradition promoted social harmony.

    I see these virtues as important on a global scale with sustainable development, global warming, and human rights looming on the horizon.

    Hopefully the 2500 years of Confucian tradition won’t prove to be *too* mailable.

  5. Adam said, on January 17, 2008 at 5:07 am

    I don’t see Christ as being in favor of Anarcho-Market Capitalism, but nevertheless we have the Republican party. It is an awful story, showing that the PRC has used Communism as a substitute for Confucianism (and for that matter, the politics of naked power and fascism as a poor substitute for Communism).

    Nevertheless, some people take as Confucianism’s interpretative center the notions of virtue and shu and jen, some take the privilege of class, some the mysterian nature of the Analects. Much as with Christianity, I think it ends up meaning that expressing oneself precisely can’t but be a good thing (that and a standard of precision that can stand the test of time, if such a thing exists).

  6. Miscel said, on January 17, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    The Chinese government is “Confucius” in some aspects. The most important teaching of Confucius school is observance of ones role. Obeying your betters is a must, and central theme of Confucius teaching. Observing proper protocol (rule of behaviour) depending on your position and relationship with your counter part is of utmost importance. For example, children obeying their parents, and elder sibling. Underlings obeying their superior. Officials obeying the Emperor. The ruled obeying the ruler, etc. And the obedience is unconditional. “If the Emporer orders you to die, and you didn’t, that is disloyalty.” Similarly, if you are a citizen, you should, and must, obey any official. Period. No question asked.

    And when Hu talks, you listen, and listen well. You follow his orders to the letter. More importantly, you must guess what he really meant, not just what’s he said explicitly. “ShanYi” is such an important part of bureaucracy in China.

    Of course, whether the superior, the ruler, the emperor, the parents, the betters, will show any consideration to the ruled, the underling, the servant, is totally optional. As the superior is always right, at all times, in all occasion.

  7. Million said, on January 17, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    I’m not authoritative in my knowledge of Chinese society, but what strikes me as interesting is how the conception of a Mandate from heaven exists to justify legitimate rule. Imprecise as it may be in targeting WHY a group no longer deserves to rule it still provides a traditional justification for change.

    If leadership isn’t just then the mandate is lost and the people are no longer bound to them. And I can’t see how the PRC can lay claim to being just when stuff like this happens. I suppose it makes unfortunate sense why the photographer was killed.

    Then again, as far as I know the concept may be outmoded and rustic by this point.

  8. Chris said, on January 17, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    It seems to be difficult to believe — when you read the Analects closely — that all Confucius is concerned with is laying the groundwork for a hard-nosed authoritarianism.

    Is there hierarchical structuring of relationships in the work? You bet. But again, reciprocal shu requires benevolent authority, not mindless or unjust authority. It is not just the subordinate who has a role within a harmonious relationship, it is the leader as well. The leader must care for that particular other. Hard to imagine how that would be the case in this instance.

    Now one might argue that perhaps Hu is caring for the “society at large” by doing this, and that these villagers simply have to “take one for the team.” But I think it will require a serious stretch to turn Confucius into some kind of consequentialist- minded thinker. The villagers are not “ku” — they are not tools.

    How remarkably un-Confucian.

  9. eyeingtenure said, on January 17, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Communism as it has been used in the real world has taken, without exception, the peasant-as-cog mentality.

    Stalin’s purges are in the same idiom as these modern Chinese killings, and because they’re essentially of the same political ideology.

    Maybe — and this is a real maybe — it has to do with the essential idealistic assumption of communism. The workers, the proles, are a class of people who should work as a single unit. Individuality is suppressed.

    From the sounds of things, individuality is at the core of Confucianism.


  10. Miscel said, on January 18, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    According to Confucius, “benevolent authority” is optional, nice to have, it will make you feel better, but not necessary, mandatory. Lacking such quality in your reign only make it more “difficult”, and your people will suffer more, but there is not mention of loosing “mandate from heaven”.

  11. Miscel said, on January 18, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    “From the sounds of things, individuality is at the core of Confucianism.”

    I can only find “conformity”, “toting the line”, “obedience” in Confucius, never “individuality”. Confucius defines civilization as conforming with established protocol. He wanted to revert back to the protocols of Zhou, a few hundred years before his time.

  12. eyeingtenure said, on January 18, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    In that case, Confucius and the People’s Republic — misnomer if ever there was one — have quite a lot in common, and are philosophically distinct by a sort of Social Contract that expect a ruler to have respect for the ruled.

  13. Chris said, on January 18, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    I certainly don’t see individualism at the core of Confucianism. What’s at the bottom are relationships, and group identity, and not isolated individual identity.

    But group identity doesn’t entail mindless conformity, not as far as I read the Analects. Ritual for Confucius is not stale; it performs a function — harmony. And harmony doesn’t mean “blind submission to authority” just as much as it doesn’t mean that rulers can do whatever they want just because “they are rulers” (as Mencius makes more than crystal clear, I think). If that’s all it was, Confucianism would have little to offer anyone.

    Moreover, on my reading benevolence is not an option for a “jen” person (or a junzi). Benevolence is the essence of the junzi. If it were optional, we’d be left with the interesting question: when exactly will this alternative junzi be benevolent? At whim?

  14. eyeingtenure said, on January 19, 2008 at 1:22 am

    Would a benevolent communism fit in Confucianism, then? That is, Marx’s actual communistic ideal government, not the stale totalitarianism that usually passes for it?

    Then again, the fully realized worker state has no real hierarchy, does it? The only part that would apply, from what I read here, is the relationship bit.

  15. bob said, on November 28, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    You don’t seem to understand Confucianism. What you are saying is western democracy, not confucianism. There is nothing difficult to believe here, in fact the PRC fits quite nicely in the Confucian paraigm. You on the other hand, has too much of a western centric democratic governmental model that seems to distort what Confucianism actually is. Confucianism is NOT democracy. And as you said your self it revolves around RECIPROCITY. Which means that while the government has a duty to be benevolent, the people also have the duty to be LOYAL, this means rebellions are NOT part of Confucianism and the central authority has the right to suppress any revolts or things it considers bad like the way an adult treats his children because in Confucianism, the common mass, lacking education are not fit to run the country.

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