The Confucian World


Professor Wu wrote this article more than 9 years ago. It is just as relevant, if not , more so, given the Marxism is lost cause and Confucianism is on ascendency in China. IMHO this article basically sums up what Modern Confucianism is about.


Delivered at Colorado College on February 5, 1999 at 11:00 AM


by Professor Tu Wei-ming



My response to Sam Huntington’s coming clash of civilizations [concerns] the desirability and necessity of a dialogue of civilizations. Hegel, Marx, and Max Weber shared an ethos that, despite all its shortcomings, the modern West informed by the Enlightenment mentality was the only arena where the true difference for the rest of the world would be made. Confucian East Asia, Islamic Middle East, Hindu India, or Buddhist Southeast Asia were on the receiving end of this process. Eventually, modernization with homogenization or convergence will make cultural diversity inoperative if not totally meaningless. It was inconceivable that Confucianism, or, for that matter, any other non-Western spiritual tradition, could exert a shaping influence on the modernizing process. The development from tradition to modernity was irreversible and inevitable. In the global context, some of the most brilliant minds in the modern West assumed this to be self evidently true, but nowadays it has turned out to be only part of the big picture. In the rest of the world, and arguably in Western Europe and North America, the anticipated clear transition from tradition to modernity never occurred. As a norm, traditions continue to make their presence in modernity, and indeed the modernizing process itself is constantly shaped by a variety of cultural forms rooted in distinct traditions. The eighteenth century recognition of the relevance of radical otherness to one’s own self-understanding seems more applicable to the current situation in the global community than the attention to any challenges to the modern Western mindset of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.


For example, the outstanding Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and, of course, Diderot and the encyclopedists, took China as their major reference society and Confucianism as their major reference culture. If the coming clash of civilizations is likely, if not inevitable, then the need for civilizational dialogues and for exploring a global ethic is more compelling. I think Sam Huntington basically agrees with this position.


Among the enlightenment values advocated by the French Revolution, fraternity, the functional equivalent of community, has received scant attention among modern political theorists. The preoccupation, since Locke’s Treatise on Government, with fixing the relationship between the individual and the state is not, of course, the full picture of modern political thought in the West, but it is undeniable that communities, notably the family, have not been sufficiently emphasized in the mainstream of Western political discourse. If we can imagine the possibility of something called East Asian modernity, especially the form of modernity under the influence of Confucian traditions, it suggests the possibility of an alternative model. Mind you, it is a highly idealized way of looking at it, but it helps us to make some of the points that Roger Ames and Professor Li have made—to add some footnotes to the ideas. In this form of the modern world, there are a number of assumptions; again, it is highly idealized.


First, government leadership in a market economy is not only necessary but also desirable. The doctrine that government is an unnecessary evil and the market, in itself, can provide an invisible hand for ordering society is antithetical to modern experience, East or West. A government that is responsive to public needs, responsible for the welfare of the people, and accountable to society at large is vitally important for the creation and maintenance of order. One assumption.


Second assumption. Although law is essential as the minimum requirement for social stability, organic solidarity can only resort from the implementation of humane rights of interaction, therefore the idea of civility. The civilized mode of conduct can never be communicated simply through coercion. According to one account, we have in the United States now maybe one half million or more prisoners in jail, more than China as a whole with four times the population. Exemplary teaching, as a standard of inspiration, invites voluntary participation. Law alone cannot generate a sense of shame to guide civilized behavior. It is the ritual act that encourages people to live up to their own aspirations.


The third assumption, family as the basic universal society, is the locus from which the core values are transmitted. Of course, we can look at the family variously rather than just the normal family—any kind of family, five different styles of family. The didactic relationship within the family differentiated normally by age, gender, authority, status, or even hierarchy provides a richly textured natural environment for learning the proper way of being human. The principle of reciprocity as a two-way traffic of human interaction defines all forms of human relatedness in the family: age and gender, potentially two of the most serious gaps in the primordial environment of the human habitat, are brought into a continuous flow of intimate sentiments of human care; and, of course, the full recognition that family could also turn out to be an extremely coercive and abusive unit of interaction.


Fourth. Civil society flourishes not because it is an economist’s arena above the family and below the state. Its inner strength lies in its dynamic interplay between family and state. The nature of the family as a microcosm of the state, and the idea of the state as an enlargement of the family, indicate that family stability is vitally important for the body politic, and a vitally important function of the state is to ensure organic solidarity of the family. Civil society provides a variety of mediating cultural institutions that allow a fruitful articulation between family and state. The dynamic interplay between the private and public enables the civil society to offer diverse and enriching resources for human fruition. I know how difficult this is to be even entertained as an important agenda for discussion, but still it is a very important area that we need to at least explore.


Fifth. Education ought to be the civil religion of society. The primary purpose of education is character building. Intent on the cultivation of the full person, schools should emphasize ethical as well as cognitive intelligence; schools should teach the art of accumulating "social capital" through communication. In addition to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, schooling must be congenial to the development of cultural competence and appreciation of spiritual values. The cultural competence is in terms of language, history, and even philosophical reflection.


Then, sixth. Since self-cultivation is the root for the regulation of family, governance of state and peace under heaven—the quality of life of a particular society—depends on the level of self-cultivation of its members. A society that encourages self-cultivation as a necessary condition for human flourishing is a society that cherishes value-centered political leadership, mutual exhortation as a communal way of self-realization, the value of the family as a proper home for learning to be human, civility as the normal pattern of human interaction, and education as character building.


It is, of course, far-fetched to suggest that these societal ideas are fully realized or actually realized in any of the existing East Asian societies. Actually, East Asian societies often exhibit behaviors and attitudes just the opposite of the supposed salient features of modernity defined in Confucian humanistic terms. Indeed, having been humiliated by imperialism and colonialism for decades, the rise of East Asia, on the surface at least, blatantly displays some of the most negative aspects of modernism, either East or West, with a vengeance—exploitation, mercantilism, commercialism, materialism, greed, egoism, and, of course, brutal competitiveness. Nevertheless, as the first non-Western region to become modernized, the cultural implications of the rise of East Asia are far reaching.


The modern West, as informed by the Enlightenment mentality, provided the initial impetus for worldwide social transformation. The historical reasons that prompted the modernizing process in Western Europe and North America are not necessarily structural components or constitutive aspects of modernity, especially imagined modernity. Enlightenment values, such as liberty, rights consciousness, due process of law, instrumental rationality, privacy, and individualism, are all universalizable modern values. But the Confucian example suggests some humanistic values, such as sympathy, distributive justice, duty consciousness, ritual, public spiritedness, and group orientation, are also universalizable modern values. Just as the former ought to be incorporated into East Asian modernity, this is how we define East Asian modernity. China has to struggle to be more hospitable to human rights—has to struggle to be more hospitable to liberties, equalities, or these great ideas. But the latter, distributive justice, sympathy, duty consciousness, ritual, public spiritedness, may also turn out to be a critical and timely reference for the American way of life or for the Western way of life.


An urgent task for the community of like-minded persons, deeply concerned about ecological issues and the disintegration of communities at all levels, is to ensure that we actively participate in a spiritual venture to rethink the Enlightenment heritage. In other words, this is not simply the problem of Western philosophers; this is the problem of anyone who is concerned about our global situation. The paradox is that we cannot afford to uncritically accept its inner logic in light of the unintended negative consequences it has engendered for the community as a whole, nor can we reject its relevance with all of the fruitful ambiguities it entails for our intellectual self-definition, present or even future. There’s no easy way out. We do not have an either/or choice.


The possibility of a radically different ethic or a new value system separate from and independent of the Enlightenment mentality is neither realistic nor even authentic. It may even appear to be either cynical or hypocritical. We need to explore the spiritual resources that may help us to broaden the scope of the enlightenment project, deepen its moral sensitivity, and, if necessary, creatively transform its genetic constraints or historical constraints in order to fully realize its potential as a world view for the human community as a whole. And, of course, the key to the success of this spiritual joint venture is to recognize the conspicuous absence of the idea of community, let alone the global community, in the Enlightenment project. Of course, the idea of fraternity, as many of you know, the fundamental equivalent of community in the three cardinal virtues of the French Revolution, has received scant attention in modern Western economic, political, and social thought. This is a major task for most of us.


Industrial East Asia, under the influence of Confucian culture, seems to have developed a different kind of modern civilization, less adversarial, less individualistic, and less self-interested. So you see there the coexistence of market economy and government leadership, democratic parity with meritocracy and individual initiatives with group orientation. All this has made the region—economically, politically—the most dynamic, both in the negative and in the positive sense, since the Second World War, including the current situation of the financial crisis. The significance of the contribution of Confucian ethics to the rise of industrial East Asia, for the possible emergence of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic forms of modernity, is profound. In other words, we’re not talking about shifting from the Western model to the East Asian model; we’re talking about shifting from a singular model to a pluralistic model, and the pluralistic model could share some basic value orientations. The Westernization of Confucian Asia, including Japan, the two Koreas, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam, may have forever altered its spiritual landscape. But its indigenous resources, including Mahatma Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Shamanism, and other folk traditions, have the resiliency to resurface and make their presence known in the new syntheses. The caveat, of course, is that, having been humiliated and frustrated by the imperialist and colonial domination of the modern West for more than a century, the rise of industrial East Asia symbolizes the instrumental rationality of the Enlightenment heritage with a vengeance. The mentality of Japan—and for many dragons—is precisely, as I characterized earlier, characterized by mercantilism, commercialism, and fierce international competitiveness. The Peoples’ Republic of China, the motherland of the cynical world, has blatantly opted for the same strategy of development and has, thus, exhibited the same mentality since the reform was set in motion in 1979. Surely, the possibility of their developing a more humane and sustainable community should not be exaggerated. Nor should we simply undermine the broad implications of the re-emergence of a major civilization in terms of its own understanding, in terms of its own direction.


We are beginning to develop a kind of spiritual resource from the core of the Enlightenment project itself. Our disciplined reflection, a communal act rather than simply an isolated struggle, is a first step to the possibility of what may be called a kind of creative zone, envisioned by religious leaders, ethical teachers, public philosophers. Simply, I want to note that the feminist critique of tradition, the environmental concern, the discourse on communitarian ethics, and the persuasion of religious pluralism are obvious examples of this corporeal critical self-awareness. The need to go beyond the Enlightenment mentality without either deconstructing or abandoning its commitment to rationality, liberty, equality, human rights, and distributive justice, requires a thorough re-examination of modernity as the signifier and modernization as a process.


Underlying this re-examination is the intriguing issue of traditions in modernity. The dichotomist thinking of tradition and modernity as two incompatible forms of life will have to be replaced by a much more nuanced investigation of the continuous interplay between modernization as the perceived outcome of rationalization. This is Max Weber’s term, defined in Weberian terms—tradition as habits of the heart, as de Tocqueville understood it. In this particular interplay, a new form of cultural self-understanding will emerge. The traditions in modernity are not merely historical sedimentation, passively deposited in modern consciousness. Nor are they, in functional terms, simply inhibiting factors to be undermined by the unilineal trajectory of development. On the contrary, they are both constraining and enabling forces capable of shaping the particular contour of modernity in any given society. It is, therefore, conceptually naive and methodologically fallacious to relegate traditions to the residual category in our discussion of the modernizing process. Indeed, an investigation of traditions in modernity is essential for our appreciation of modernization as a highly differentiated cultural phenomenon rather than a kind of homogeneous integral process of Westernization or, more recently, modernization.


The final point. The Islamic-Confucian dialogue initiated in Malaysia in 1995 provided Confucians with a rare opportunity to explore the feasibility of a Confucian ecumenicalism in encountering other civilizations. Since Confucianism is not strictly a religion, we often come across spiritual self-definitions and scholarly designations as Confucian Christians, Confucian Buddhists, and even Confucian Muslims. What kind of role can Confucians play in the dialogue of civilizations? Can Confucians facilitate inter-religious dialogues as the sympathetic third party? The Confucian life orientation has been grossly misconceived as adjustment to the world, yet the crisis of the world demands that we do not escape from it. The Confucian ethic of responsibility, embedded in the specific circumstances of East Asia, must be extended to the global community. Only then can it become an active partner of the Enlightenment mentality. It is in this sense that the Confucian resources are particularly relevant to the idea of the public intellectual in the modern world. A public intellectual is someone who is politically concerned, socially engaged, and culturally informed and sensitive—who is interested in this broader issue not as an isolated professionalist or an isolated culturalist, but as an isolated human being concerned with the fate of the earth.





About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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