The Confucian Conundrum: Harmony or Hierarchy?

Essays

This is the fourth of a series of five articles on understanding China today. The articles cover politics, economics, culture and religion, since all of these are important for making some sense of what is happening. Each topic is approached from the Marxist tradition, for this is a key that is too often ignored. The articles provide a framework for how one might approach political theology in relation to the Chinese situation. The author teaches for a semester each year at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing. Note: In this case I have republished a slightly revised version of a piece published almost three years ago in Political Theology Today.

For the last two decades, the star of Confucius has been rising once again in China. Specialists, conferences, books, journals, republications, Confucius institutes, research centres and even whole colleges have cropped up all over the country, if not the world. I study Chinese language at my local Confucius Institute, where a statue of the sage stands, festooned with well-meaning sayings. I have been a delegate at massive conferences in China in 2012 and 2014, called the Nishan Forum of World Civilisations. With a huge budget, they make sure we are wined, dined, pampered and even granted a police escort with road closures whenever we had to travel somewhere for an event. It all took place in the province of Shandong, where Confucius was born.

But as I have listened to papers and spoken with many at these events, it has become clear that the Confucius of today is a rather truncated sage. I have heard of harmony with diversity, of welcoming friends of like minds from all over the world, of peace over the four seas (there seemed to have been fewer of those 2500 years ago). Why then was Confucius so out of favour not that long ago? Why was his legacy criticised and attacked, especially during the Cultural Revolution?

He was also a proponent of a hierarchical ordering of social life, of clear demarcations between rulers and ruled, between emperor, sages and scholars and ordinary people, between parents and children, between older brother and younger siblings. Indeed, the thought of Confucius was regarded as the bulwark of a system that the communists sought to dismantle. Thus, the purpose of harmony with diversity was actually harmony within the diversity of the hierarchy, an approach to ensure social peace between the layers.

This issue has become a keen topic of discussion at the various events and conferences I have attended, at least among those talking passionately and long over meals and drinks and smokes. Is it possible to extract part of Confucius’ thought from its overall structure? Can his thought be reappropriated without its more pernicious social assumptions, much like Aristotle’s ethics? Or will this reengagement with Confucius eventually lead to valorising a new hierarchy?

The dangers of this negative direction are real. But I began thinking about the way a retelling of the past is at times an effort to open up alternative paths to the future. This is precisely what seems to be happening in China. The return to the classics, among which Confucius finds an important place, is really an effort to retell the story of how China has come to be in its present position. More importantly, it takes place in an immensely creative period in Chinese thought. The momentous changes over the past two decades have produced such a situation, a situation that is marked by some tell-tale juxtapositions. A key example is a curious tension: in a recent survey, most Chinese said that the country as a whole lacks meaning, a core on which to rely as it negotiates the way forward. Yet, when asked whether they themselves have such a core set of values, the vast majority said, yes, they do.

Rather than seeing this situation as a negative, I would suggest that it offers a moment that occurs rarely for most of us, a moment that can be immensely constructive. What is the way forward? A minority feel that the path offered by the West is the only way. A vast majority feel that China’s own rich tradition provides the resources for a very different way. Hence the classics; hence Confucius.

Nonetheless, the process of retelling that story is not yet complete, for the narrative must still pass through the whole experience of the communist revolution. Or rather, the beginnings of that passage are already evident. It was precisely the revolution and especially the Cultural Revolution that offered a wholesale critique of the Confucian heritage, a radical egalitarianism that came with some tough and brutal consequences. Here the debate is not simply divided into those who are for or against the Cultural Revolution, for it is multiple and complex. While many see that time as a dreadful period, more and more ask what benefits have been pushed aside and forgotten for a while from that revolution; what factors from it speak to today’s situation.

In this process of re-narration, the key is that one should not seek a return to the past, for that is a conservative approach – whether in terms of Confucius or even the communist Revolution. I would qualify that by pointing out that it is always a return to an idealised past that never existed. Instead, the story should be retold with the aim of opening up a different future. More and more straws in the wind point to a thorough reengagement with China’s communist revolutionary heritage, that the fascination with Confucius is but a phase in the longer process of re-narration. That means the Confucius who survives will be one that has been put through a reinterpreted Cultural Revolution, hopefully a revolution in which the gains will not come at the cost of its losses.

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