Stephen Chan: In the Western world Confucius seems to be known in two main guises. The first is for a series of what seem like fortune cookie nuggets of wisdom, “Confucius say…” And usually Confucius says something that he actually never did say. But he’s come down as some kind of cheap impresario of cheap bits of wisdom.
In the Far East he’s also particularly associated with a sense of stricture. A sense of regularity. Almost a ritualized regularity that puts everybody in their place—in a subservient place—underneath hierarchies of power. The whole idea of Confucius as a modern, progressive example of ethical and governmental thinking seems far removed from everybody’s consciousness of him.
And yet at the time when he lived in 500 BC, he was the epitome of good governance. He was the epitome of progressive ways towards a peaceful and just order. And he pioneered many things that we would regard today still as extremely important. The idea of stability. The idea not only of stability but stability leading to peacefulness was a key example of the kind of statecraft he wished to advocate and to practice.
And he was the inventor of a form of the Golden Rule. It was expressed in a negative, “Do not do to others what you do not wish to have done to you.” But the idea of reciprocity embedded in even this negative expression of what we regard as the Golden Rule was something revolutionary at that point in time. It meant the treatment of people justly, because we ourselves would expect to be treated justly—or certainly we would expect
So these are things he strove to put forward both has an adviser to governments, but also as a member of governments. Because unlike many other philosophers, Confucius was an aristocrat. He was a government minister. He was a person of considerable power. He was a person who commanded the attention of dukes and princes of many states in the fractured realm of China in his day. And he was someone who was regarded during his lifetime as a philosopher, a man of wisdom, someone with very very great virtuous teachings to impart. So that his absorption into a more modern conception of someone who is reactionary is a latter day imprint of Confucius at his very very worst. He was used after his death very very much to justify why things should be solid, in place, immutable, and unmoving within a hierarchy.
Now, in modern days, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century, it was actually Sun Yat-sen, the nationalist leader of China trying to establish his republic, who proposed a radical view of Confucius that was all the same true to the essential philosophical foundations of Confucian thought as manifest in his most popular collection of writings, The Analects. And that is yes, Confucius taught a hierarchy. He taught ritual adherence to the various stages of the hierarchy. He could make life very very complicated by the ritualized ways that he propounded for evidence of obedience and evidence of ethical, structured behavior.
But at the same time within his hierarchy there were systems of reciprocity. If in giving obeisance and respect to the level above you, if that level did not reciprocate by sending benefits downwards, then that relationship was one of injustice. And this certainly applied in terms of the relationship of the ordinary person to the ruling class. If the emperor did not bring benefits to his subjects, then he risked losing the mandate of Heaven. Respect flowed up, benevolence had to flow down. Take away the benevolence, the government became unjust and was prone therefore to failure, and also susceptible to uprising. Sun Yat-sen said, “Uprise now because the government has failed.”
What we have today in the People’s Republic of China, however, is a return to that kind of ironclad sense of Confucian hierarchy, underneath the pretense of conferring benefits but at the same time removing all kinds of key ingredients such as the implicit respect that reciprocity is meant to entail. So that the respect of the government for the citizen is often lacking, even if some degree of material reciprocity, material benefit, might flow down.
An example I want to look at is the government’s treatment of the Falun Gong. The Falun Gong, like many Chinese belief systems, is one of these great acts of syncretic amalgamation of different religious and spiritual views. You have Taoism in it, you have Buddhism in it, everything is mixed together. The adherents of the Falun Gong practice all kinds of kung fu-like exercises, qigong for instance, the mobilization of energy. The kinds of energies that are meant to be cultivated in advanced forms of tai chi and other internal Chinese martial arts. They establish for themselves in their practice of qigong a direct line to the cosmic energy and its sources. In terms of their religious expression, it’s a direct relationship with the Buddha.
Now, this would be fine. It would just be another harmless sect. It would just be an equivalent of what began as a country-based attempt of people trying to have a spiritual life. Except of course in their direct line to Heaven, as it were, what is bypassed is the state. What is bypassed is the Party. The affiliation is to something cosmic, higher above. The affiliation misses out an obeisance, a respect for, an obedience to, the state and its party. Or in China perhaps the Party and its state.
So it’s not rebellion that drives the Chinese state and Party to persecute the Falun Gong. What drives the persecution is the lack of recognition from the Falun Gong for the Party and the state. In other words they are accused of missing out key, important steps in the hierarchies of reciprocation, the hierarchy which very much should feature the Communist Party, which should feature the Chinese state, and which should not be bypassed for the sake of a direct line to Heaven.
This lack of recognition of the state is not unlike that of many Christian millennial sects in different parts of the world. If you look at a millennial sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, they’ve been persecuted all over the world, recently in Africa during Hastings Banda’s tenure as president of Malawi in the 1960s. More recently underneath the dictatorial rule of Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea. And though persecuted in Malawi they will almost wiped out by pogroms because they refused to salute the flag as an emblem of the state. They wished to give their affiliation, their respect, their worship, directly to the kingdom of Heaven. Which is all very well and good until it bypasses the kingdom of man.
And it’s this insistence that the material entity of the state, the apparatus of the state, and all of the accoutrements of the state, this demand that these things should be recognized and respected as a sign, almost as a ritualized requirement of citizenship and the reception of rights as a citizen, which drives the persecution of the Falun Gong. In a way, perhaps the Chinese state has gone far too far in persecuting an ostensibly quiet, ostensibly harmless religious sect. But it’s very much part and parcel of a Chinese requirement to have all religions subordinate to the Party, whether it’s the Catholic Church or any other kind of church. It is in some ways reminiscent of the drive to contain Islamic minorities among the Uighur population, for instance. It is reminiscent to a certain extent of the grave suspicion against organized politicized Buddhism, in terms of the supporters of a free Tibet.
So the material foundation of a communist ideology marries with the hierarchical formulation of a Confucian ethos and becomes finally something reactionary. This kind of use of Confucianism as a reactionary control device was present in a slightly more benevolent form in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. There there were greater freedoms, but the ironclad commander (if one can borrow a term from North Korea) applied just as much to the Western-educated Lee Kuan Yew as it does to any princeling called Kim in North Korea today.
Does Confucianism have something to answer for in terms of its ready usage by people who are authoritarian and dictatorial? Well, yes it does. But the essential message that it demands reciprocity, that the state must provide for those below, that does remain a clarion call that can be utilized by citizens to demand their rights. For after all, if benefits flow down from the state, should not rights also come down from the state?
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