It seems we have a bit of a controversy on our hands. Yu Dan, the scholar who I praised for her popularizing efforts to bring ancient Chinese thought to a wider audience, is being attacked. Critics say she is distorting the classics:
The latest attack came on Saturday as 10 researchers in Beijing and other cities asked her to resign and demanded an apology for her "incorrect and misleading" interpretation of the classics.
I have not seen her televised lectures nor had the chance to read her book yet; I have only read summaries of some of what she says. So, while I am completely sympathetic to her general project, I have to rely on the public debate as it unfolds to get a sense of what is going on at this point.
The only substantive critique I have seen so far comes from an article in the Shanghai Daily with the headline, "Pseudo scholars distort Confucius, other cannons using major TV platform." by Wang Yong.
Two points seem to be in contention. First:
Yu's most appalling creation concerns her fabrication of a Confucian concept of good politics - "worshiping the state" - something Confucius never said. He used the word "trust" - never "worship."
I think that "worshiping the state" is not in keeping with the spirit of the Analects. Confucius spends much more time and attention encouraging the cultivation of personal morality as a basis for political order. Indeed, if family obligations require it, he argues that fathers should shield their sons from the law in matters of theft. That hardly sounds like "worshiping the state." However, it can be said in Yu's defense that the way Confucianism was institutionalized by the state to legitimate regime power did, in practice, encourage something like worshiping the state. We might argue now that this is not in keeping with the "true" meaning of the Analects, but this facet of Confucianism as a political-historical practice, however much it may have differed from the "original intent" of Confucius, is still part of the traditional legacy of "Confucianism." Perhaps Yu needs to be more careful in specifying what she is taking from the Analects and what she is taking from the vast and varied historical practice of Confucianism.
The second substantive critique is this:
She also reversed the Confucian order of good politics. While Confucius put "sufficient food for the people" ahead of "sufficient arms to protect national security," she reversed the order.
This is referring to passage 12.7, which reads (Ames translation):
Zigong asked about governing effectively. The Master said to him, "Make sure there is sufficient food to eat, sufficient arms for defense, and that the common people have confidence in their leaders."
"If you had to give up one of these three things," he said, "which should be given up first?"
"Give up the arms," he replied.
"If you had to give up one of the remaining two," he said, "which should be given up first?"
"Give up the food," he replied. "Death has been with us from ancient times, but if the common people do not have confidence in their leaders, community will not endure."
So, the critic seems to be right: in the first sentence Confucius places food before weapons. But weapons are the first thing mentioned to be given up. Might Yu have mixed up these passages?
Interestingly enough, I have been reading the Analects with my class this week and we discussed this very passage. When coming upon it, what really struck us was the very mention of weapons. The Analects are generally anti-war and pacifistic; so, the reference to arms here really does stand out.
But let's put this in perspective. The Analects, and Confucian thought more generally, have been debated and interpreted and re-interpreted many times over the millennia. It is impossible, and unwise, to try to establish one, single, true reading of the book or the tradition. It is vast and beautiful and complex. We should expect, then, that different people will put forward different readings. We might also expect there to be some minor errors or misreadings from time to time.
The first of the critical points made above, about "worshiping the state," strikes me as a possible interpretation of how the Confucian tradition was used by some power holders. The second critical point appears to be rather minor. Taken together, these sorts of issues hardly justify the very harsh language used against Yu. These are not gross "distortions" or "appalling creations."
Yu is putting forth a modern application of Confucius. Some will differ with her on certain points, agree on others. What is most important is that we are having the conversation. We might think we have the best understanding, but we might be persuaded otherwise through critical interchange. Yu may change her views through dialogue as well. We should not, however, attack her so strongly, with language reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, because for some questions, ultimately, there is no one right answer, just a process of learning.
I'll give the last word here to one of her defenders:
"Yu Dan never claims to be representing the true meaning of Confucius," he says. "She only ever says; `This is what I get out of Confucius.' So I think what she's doing is perfectly OK."