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 not to be treat­ed unjust­ly.

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?

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion