The Abduction of Modernity Part 3b:

By observing rites of Five Relationships, each individual would clearly understand his social role, and each would voluntarily behave according to proper observance of rites that meticulously define such relationships. No reasonable man would challenge the propriety of the Five Relationships (Wulun). It is the most immutable fixation of cultural correctness in Chinese consciousness.

The Five Relationships (Wulun) governed by Confucian rites are those of:
1. Sovereign to subject
2. Parent to child
3. Elder to younger brother
4. Husband to wife
5. Friend to friend

These relationships form the basic social structure of Chinese society. Each component in the relationships assumes ritual obligations and responsibility to the others at the same time he or she enjoys privileges and due consideration accorded by the other components.

Confucius would consider heretical the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1721-28), who would assert two millennia after Confucius that man is good by nature but is corrupted by civilization.

Confucius would argue that without a Code of Rites (Liji) for governing human behavior, as embedded in the ritual compendium defined by him based on the ideas of Zhougong, human beings would be no better than animals, which Confucius regarded with contempt. Love of animals, a Buddhist notion, is an alien concept to Confucians, who proudly display their species prejudice.

Confucius acknowledged man to be benign by nature but, in opposition to Rousseau, he saw man’s goodness only as an innate potential and not as an inevitable characteristic. To Confucius, man’s destiny lies in his effort to elevate himself from savagery toward civilization in order to fulfill his potential for good.

The ideal state rests on a stable society over which a virtuous and benevolent sovereign/emperor rules by moral persuasion based on a Code of Rites rather than by law. Justice would emerge from a timeless morality that governs social behavior. Man would be orderly out of self-respect for his own moral character rather than from fear of punishment prescribed by law. A competent and loyal literati-bureaucracy (shidafu) faithful to a just political order would run the government according to moral principles rather than following rigid legalistic rules devoid of moral content. The behavior of the sovereign is proscribed by the Code of Rites. Nostalgic of the idealized feudal system that purportedly had existed before the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu, 770-481 BC) in which he lived, Confucius yearned for the restoration of the ancient Zhou socio-political culture that existed two-and-a-half centuries before his time. He dismissed the objectively different contemporary social realities of his own time as merely symptoms of chaotic degeneration. Confucius abhorred social atrophy and political anarchy. He strove incessantly to fit the real and imperfect world into the straitjacket of his idealized moral image. Confucianism, by placing blind faith on a causal connection between virtue and power, would remain the main cultural obstacle to China’s periodic attempts to evolve from a society governed by men into a society governed by law. The danger of Confucianism lies not in its aim to endow the virtuous with power, but in its tendency to label the powerful as virtuous. This is a problem that cannot be solved by the rule of law, since law is generally used by the powerful to control the weak.

Mencius claimed that the Mandate of Heaven was conditioned on virtuous rule. Mencius (Meng-tzu, 371-288 BC), prolific apologist for Confucius, the equivalent embodiment of St Paul and Thomas Aquinas in Confucianism, though not venerated until the 11th century AD during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), greatly contributed to the survival and acceptance of the ideas of Confucius. But Mencius went further. He argued that a ruler’s authority is derived from the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming), that such mandate is not perpetual or automatic and that it depends on good governance worthy of a virtuous sovereign.

The concept of a Mandate of Heaven as proposed by Mencius is in fact a challenge to the concept of the divine right of absolute monarchs. The Mandate of Heaven can be lost through the immoral behavior of the ruler, or failings in his responsibility for the welfare of the people, in which case Heaven will grant another, more moral individual a new mandate to found a new dynasty. Loyalty will inspire loyalty. Betrayal will beget betrayal. A sovereign unworthy of his subjects will be rejected by them. Such is the will of Heaven (Tian).

Arthurian legend in medieval lore derived from Celtic myths a Western version of the Chinese Mandate of Heaven. Arthur, illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, having been raised incognito, was proclaimed king after successfully withdrawing Excalibur, a magic sword embedded in stone allegedly removable only by a true king. Arthur ruled a happy kingdom as a noble king and fair warrior by reigning over a round table of knights in his court at Camelot. But his kingdom lapsed into famine and calamity when he became morally wounded by his abuse of kingly powers. To cure Arthur’s festering moral wound, his knights embarked on a quest for the Holy Grail, identified by Christians as the chalice of the Last Supper brought to England by St Joseph of Arimathea.

Mencius’ political outlook of imperative heavenly mandate profoundly influences Chinese historiography, the art of official historical recording. It tends to equate ephemeral reigns with immorality. And it associates protracted reigns with good government. It is a hypothesis that, in reality, is neither true nor inevitable.

It is necessary to point out that Mencius did not condone revolutions, however justified by immorality of the ruling political authority or injustice in the contemporary social system. He merely used threat of replacement of one ruler with another more enlightened to curb behavioral excesses of despotism. To Mencius, political immorality was always incidental but never structural. As such, he was a reformist rather than a revolutionary.

Nicolo Machiavelli, in 1512, 18 centuries after Mencius, wrote The Prince, which pioneered modern Western political thought by making medieval disputes of legitimacy irrelevant. He detached politics from all pretensions of theology and morality, firmly establishing it as a purely secular activity and opening the door for modern Western political science. Religious thinkers and moral philosophers would charge that Macchiavelli glorified evil and legitimized despotism. Legalists of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), who preceded publication of The Prince by 17 centuries, would have celebrated Machiavelli as a champion of truth.

Mencius, an apologist for Confucian ethics, was Machiavellian in his political strategy in that he deduced a virtuous reign as the most effective form of power politics. He advocated a utilitarian theory of morality in politics. A similar view to that of Mencius was advocated by Thomas Hobbes almost two millennia later. Hobbes set down the logic of modern absolutism in his book Leviathan (1651). It was published two years after the execution of Charles I, who had been found royally guilty of the high crime of treason by Oliver Cromwell’s regicidal Rump Parliament in commonwealth England. Hobbes, while denying all subjects any moral right to resist the sovereign, subscribed to the fall of a sovereign as the utilitarian result of the sovereign’s own failure in his prescribed royal obligations.

Revolts are immoral and illegal, unless they are successful revolutions, in which case the legitimacy of the new regime becomes unquestionable. In application to theology, God is the successful devil; or conversely the devil is a fallen god. It is pure Confucian-Mencian logic. As Taoists have pointed out, there are many Confucians who evade the debate on the existence of God, but it is hard to find one who does not find the devil everywhere, particularly in politics.

Confucius, during his lifetime, was ambivalent about the religious needs of the populace. "Respect the spirits and gods to keep them distant," he advised. He also declined a request to elucidate on the supernatural after-life by saying: "Not even knowing yet all there is to know about life, how can one have any knowledge of death?" It was classic evasion.

Confucianism is in fact a secular, anti-religious force, at least in its philosophical constitution. It downgrades other-worldly metaphysics while it cherishes secular utility. It equates holiness with human virtue rather than with godly divinity. According to Confucius, man’s salvation lies in his morality rather than his piety. Confucian precepts assert that man’s incentive for moral behavior is rooted in his quest for respect from his peers rather than for love from God. This morality abstraction finds its behavioral manifestation through a Code of Rites that defines proper roles and obligations of each individual within a rigidly hierarchical social structure. Confucians are guided by a spiritual satisfaction derived from winning immortal respect from posterity rather than by the promise of everlasting paradise after God’s judgment. They put their faith in meticulous observance of secular rites, as opposed to Buddhists, who worship through divine rituals of faith. Confucians tolerate God only if belief in his existence would strengthen man’s morality.

Without denying the existence of the supernatural, Confucians assert its irrelevance in this secular world. Since existence of God is predicated on its belief by man, Confucianism, in advocating man’s reliance of his own morality, indirectly denies the existence of God by denying its necessity. To preserve social order, Confucianism instead places emphasis on prescribed human behavior within the context of rigid social relationships through the observance of rituals.

As righteousness precludes tolerance and morality permits no mercy, therein lie the oppressive roots of Confucianism. Most religions instill in their adherents fear of a God who is nevertheless forgiving. Confucianism, more a socio-political philosophy than a religion, distinguishes itself by preaching required observation of an inviolable Code of Rites, the secular ritual compendium as defined by Confucius, in which tolerance is considered as decadence and mercy as weakness. Whereas Legalism advocates equality under the law without mercy, Confucianism, though equally merciless, allows varying standards of social behavior in accordance with varying ritual stations. However, such ritual allowances are not to be construed as tolerance for human frailty, for which Confucianism has little use.

St Augustine (354-430), who was born 905 years after Confucius, in systematizing Christian thought defended the doctrines of original sin and the fall of man. He thus reaffirmed the necessity of God’s grace for man’s salvation, and further formulated the Church’s authority as the sole guarantor of Christian faith. The importance of Augustine’s contribution to cognition by Europeans of their need for Christianity and to their acceptance of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church can be appreciated by contrasting his affirmative theological ideas to the anti-religious precepts of Confucius.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was born 2,275 years after Confucius, developed the theme of "Transcendental Dialectic" in his Critic of Pure Reason (1781). Kant asserted that all theoretical attempts to know things inherently, which he called "nounena", beyond observable "phenomena", are bound to fail. Kant showed that the three great problems of metaphysics – God, free will and immortality – are insoluble by speculative thought, and their existence can neither be confirmed nor denied on theoretical grounds, nor can it be rationally demonstrated.

In this respect, Kantian rationalism lies parallel to Confucian spiritual utilitarianism, though each proceeds from opposite premises. Confucius allowed belief in God only as a morality tool. Rationally, Kant declared that the limits of reason only render proof elusive, they do not necessarily negate belief in the existence of God.

Kant went on to claim in his moral philosophy of categorical imperative that existence of morality requires belief in existence of God, free will and immortality, in contrast to the agnostic claims of Confucius.

Buddhism, in its emphasis on a next life through rebirth after God’s judgment, resurrected the necessity of God to the Chinese people. Mercy is all in Buddhist doctrine. Buddhist influence put a human face on an otherwise austere Confucian culture. At the same time, Buddhist mercy tended to invite lawlessness in secular society, while Buddhist insistence on God’s judgment on a person’s secular behavior encroached on the sovereign/emperor’s claim of totalitarian authority.

Similar to Confucian-Mencian logic that revolts are immoral and illegal, unless they are successful revolutions in which case the legitimacy of the new regime becomes unquestionable, John Locke in 1680 wrote Two Treaties of Government, which was not published until 10 years later, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, as a justification of a triumphant revolution. According to Locke, men contract to form political regimes to better protect individual rights of life, liberty and estate. Civil power to make laws and police power to execute such laws adequately are granted to government by the governed for the public good. Only when government betrays society’s trust may the governed legitimately refuse obedience to government, namely when government invades the inviolable rights of individuals and their civil institutions and degenerates from a government of law to despotism. An unjust king provides the justification for his own overthrow.

Locke, like Mencius two millennia before him, identified passive consent of the governed as a prerequisite of legitimacy for the sovereign. Confucius would insist that consent of the governed is inherent in the Mandate of Heaven for a virtuous sovereign, a divine right conditioned by virtue. In that respect, it differs from unconditional divine right claimed by Louis XIV of France. However, the concept of a Mandate of Heaven has one similarity with the concept of divine right. According to Confucius, just rule is required as a ritual requisite for a moral ruler, rather than a calculated requirement for political survival. Similarly, the Sun King would view good kingship as a character of greatness rather than as a compromise for winning popular support.

Both Hobbes and Locke based their empiricist notions of political legitimacy not on theological or historical arguments, but on inductive theories of human nature and rational rules of social contract. Confucius based his moralist notion of political legitimacy on historical idealism derived from an idealized view of a perfect, hierarchical human society governed by rites.

For Taoists, followers of Laozi, man-made order is arbitrary by definition, and therefore it is always oppressive. Self-governing anarchy would be the preferred ideal society. The only effective way to fight the inevitably oppressive establishment would be to refuse to participate on its terms, thus depriving the establishment of its strategic advantage.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976), towering giant in modern Chinese history, with apt insights on Taoist doctrines, advocated a strategy for defeating a corrupt enemy of superior military strength through guerrilla warfare. The strategy is summed up by the following pronouncement: "You fight yours [ni-da ni-de]; I fight mine [wo-da wo-de]."

The strategy ordains that, to be effective, guerrilla forces should avoid frontal engagement with stronger and better equipped government regular army. Instead, they should employ unconventional strategies that would exploit advantages inherent in smaller, weaker irregular guerrilla forces, such as ease of movement, invisibility and flexible logistics. Such strategies would include ambushes and harassment raids that would challenge the prestige and undermine the morale of regular forces of the corrupt government. Such actions would expose to popular perception the helplessness of the immoral establishment, despite its superficial massive power, the paper tiger, as Mao would call it. Thus such strategies would weaken the materially-stronger but morally weaker enemy for an eventual coup de grace by popular forces of good.

Depriving an immoral enemy’s regular army of offensive targets is the first step in a strategy of wearing down a corrupt enemy of superior force. It is classic Taoist roushu (flexible methods). Informed of conceptual differences of key schools of Chinese philosophy, one can understand why historiographers in China have always been Confucian. Despite repeat, periodic draconian measures undertaken by Legalist reformers, ranging from the unifying Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), during whose reign Confucian scholars were persecuted by being buried alive and their books burned publicly, and up to the Legalist period of the so-called Gang of Four in modern times, when Confucian ideas were vilified and suppressed, Confucianism survives and flourishes, often resurrected by its former attackers from both the left and the right, for the victor’s own purposes, once power has been secured.

Feudalism in China takes the form of a centralized federalism of autonomous local lords in which the authority of the sovereign is symbiotically bound to, but clearly separated from, the authority of the local lords. Unless the local lords abuse their local authority, the emperor’s authority over them, while all-inclusive in theory, would not extend beyond federal matters in practice, particularly if the emperor’s rule is to remain moral within its ritual bounds. In that sense, the Chinese empire was fundamentally different than the predatory empires of Western imperialism.

Confucianism, through the Code of Rites, seeks to govern the behavior and obligation of each person, each social class and each socio-political unit in society. Its purpose is to facilitate the smooth functioning and the perpetuation of the feudal system. Therefore, the power of the sovereign/emperor, though politically absolute, is not free from the constraints of behavior deemed proper by Confucian values for a moral sovereign, just as the authority of the local lords is similarly constrained. Issues of constitutionality in the US political milieu become issues of proper rites and befitting morality in Chinese dynastic or even contemporary politics.

Confucian values, because they have been designed to preserve the existing feudal system, unavoidably would run into conflict with contemporary ideas reflective of new emerging social conditions. It is in the context of its inherent hostility toward progress and its penchant for obsolete nostalgia that Confucian values, rather than feudalism itself, become culturally oppressive and socially damaging. When Chinese revolutionaries throughout history, and particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century, would rebel against the cultural oppression of reactionary Confucianism, they would simplistically and conveniently link it synonymously with political feudalism. These revolutionaries would succeed in dismantling the formal governmental structure of political feudalism because it is the more visible target. Their success is due also to the terminal decadence of the decrepit governmental machinery of dying dynasties, such as the ruling house of the three-century-old, dying Qing Dynasty (1583-1911). Unfortunately, these triumphant revolutionaries in politics remained largely ineffective in remolding Confucian dominance in feudal culture, even among the progressive intelligentsia.

Almost a century after the fall of the feudal Qing Dynasty house in 1911, after countless movements of reform and revolution, ranging from Western moderate democratic liberalism to extremist Bolshevik radicalism, China would have yet to find an workable alternative to the feudal political culture that would be intrinsically sympathetic to its social traditions. Chinese revolutions, including the modern revolution that began in 1911, through its various metamorphoses over the span of almost four millennia, in overthrowing successive political regimes of transplanted feudalism, repeatedly killed successive infected patients in the form of virulent governments. But they failed repeatedly to sterilize the infectious virus of Confucianism in its feudal political culture.

The modern destruction of political feudalism produce administrative chaos and social instability in China until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. But Confucianism still appeared alive and well as cultural feudalism, even under Communist rule. It continued to instill its victims with an instinctive hostility toward new ideas, especially if they were of foreign origin. Confucianism adhered to an ideological rigidity that amounted to blindness to objective problem-solving. Almost a century of recurring cycles of modernization movements, either Nationalist or Marxist, did not manage even a slight dent in the all-controlling precepts of Confucianism in the Chinese mind. Worse, these movements often mistook Westernization as modernization, moving toward militant barbarism as the new civilization.

In fact, in 1928, when the Chinese Communist Party attempted to introduce a soviet system of government by elected councils in areas of northern China under its control, many of the peasants earnestly thought a new "Soviet" dynasty was being founded by a new emperor by the name of So Viet.

During the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1966, the debate between Confucianism and Legalism was resurrected as allegorical dialogue for contemporary political struggle. At the dawn of the 21st century, Confucianism remained alive and well under both governments on Chinese soil on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, regardless of political ideology. Modern China was still a society in search of an emperor figure and a country governed by feudal relationships, but devoid of a compatible political vehicle that could turn these tenacious, traditional social instincts toward constructive purposes, instead of allowing them to manifest themselves as practices of corruption. The Western notion of rule of law has little to contribute to that search.

General Douglas MacArthur presented post-World War II Japan, which has been seminally influenced by Chinese culture for 14 centuries, with the greatest gift a victor in war has ever presented the vanquished: the retention of its secularized emperor, despite the Japanese emperor’s less-than-benign role in planning the war and in condoning war crimes. Thus MacArthur, in preserving a traditional cultural milieu in which democratic political processes could be adopted without the danger of a socio-cultural vacuum, laid the socio-political foundation for Japan as a postwar economic power. There is logic in observing that the aggressive expansion of Japan would not have occurred had the Meiji Restoration not adopted Western modernization as a path to power. It was Japan’s aping of British imperialism that launched it toward its militarism that led to its role in World War II. Of the three great revolutions in modern history – the French, the Chinese and the Russian – each overthrew feudal monarchial systems to introduce idealized Western democratic alternatives that would have difficulty holding the country together without periods of terror. The French and Russian Revolutions both made the fundamental and tragic error of revolutionary regicide and suffered decades of social and political dislocation as a result, with little if any socio-political benefit in return. In France, it would not even prevent eventual restoration imposed externally by foreign victors. The Chinese revolution in 1911 was not plagued by regicide, but it prematurely dismantled political feudalism before it had a chance to develop a workable alternative, plunging the country into decades of warlord rule.

Worse still, it left largely undisturbed a Confucian culture while it demolished its political vehicle. The result was that eight decades after the fall the last dynastic house, the culture-bound nation would still be groping for an appropriate and workable political system, regardless of ideology. Mao Zedong understood this problem and tried to combat it by launching the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution in 1966. But even after a decade of enormous social upheaval, tragic personal sufferings, fundamental economic dislocation and unparalleled diplomatic isolation, the Cultural Revolution would achieve little except serious damage to the nation’s physical and socio-economic infrastructure, to the prestige of the Chinese Communist Party, not to mention the loss of popular support, and total bankruptcy ofFont style revolutionary zeal among even loyal party cadres.

It would be unrealistic to expect the revival of imperial monarchy in modern China. Once a political institution is overthrown, all the king’s men cannot put it together again. Yet the modern political system in China, despite its revolutionary clothing and radical rhetoric, is still fundamentally feudal, both in the manner in which power is distributed and in its administrative structure. When it comes to succession politics, a process more orderly than the hereditary feudal tradition of primogeniture will have to be developed in China.

History has shown that the West can offer little to the non-Western world beyond rationalization of oppression and technologies of exploitation. If after four centuries of Western modernity the world is still beset with violence, hunger, exploitation and weapons of mass destruction on an unprecedented scale, it follows that its Mandate of Heaven is in jeopardy.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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