Reading Hanfeizi with my tutorial this week, I am reminded of the sharp differences between Confucianism and Legalism, at least in the minds of the pre-Qin proponents of each of those schools of thought. Of course, it is a supreme historical irony that Confucianism and Legalism were fused in the Han dynasty (PDF file!) to produce a statecraft that proved to be powerfully resilient over the course of many centuries. Neither Confucius nor Hanfeizi would be comfortable with that combination.
The Confucian-Legalist synthesis (which is sometimes described as rubiao, fali - Confucianism on the surface, Legalism within) might also reveal something else, something disquieting to an admirer of Confucianism like myself: perhaps it illustrates the political weakness of Confucian thought. Historically, it seems, the thought of Confucius and Mencius could not stand alone as a political ideology. Both men never attained the kind of political influence and presence that each desired in his own time. In the latter Warring States period, Confucianism was overwhelmed by violent inter-state competition. Qin Shihuangdi quite literally buried it as a school of thought. And when it was resurrected by the Han, Confucianism survived, politically, only as a junior ideological partner to Legalism (I know, the "junior partner" thing seems contentious here, but I will argue it...).
But, so what. We've been over this ground before. And I have drawn the logical conclusion: since Legalism was actually the more fundamental governing principle, China has never really been a Confucian society. But I want to focus the argument, and develop it a bit more, here.
Let's just consider the 20th century and the processes of globalized modernity (or modern globalization) that are in play then. I think it is fairly easy to say that, in the 20th century, China was not a Confucian society. But what does that mean? What would be required to say that China was a Confucian society?
By the terms of Confucius himself, I think a society could be termed "Confucian" if a large enough number of people conscientiously enacted Duty according to Ritual to progress toward Humanity, so that the society as a whole would achieve a kind of harmonious coordination among individuals and families that would provide security, justice and prosperity. Following Mencius, there would be a certain bias for justice over prosperity, insofar as those with an abundance of material resources would be expected to share (or be taxed) to provide for those with fewer material resources. A minimum standard of living would be provided to ensure that all families would be able to carry out their duties with dignity. And all of this would be a bottom-up process. Exemplary moral leaders in positions of power would model righteous behavior, but the key dynamic would have to emanate from within individuals and families. Thus, while there would be laws, these would be seen as insufficient as means to a good society. To rely too much upon law and coercion is to undermine the moral agency and responsibility and self-cultivation that is a hallmark of Confucian thinking.
Global modernity - and China is neither detached from this nor exceptional in some manner - makes most of this impossible to achieve on a scale sufficient to deem any society "Confucian."
While it is possible for there to be individual Confucians in Chinese society, it is not possible for Chinese society as a whole to be Confucian.
Think about it. When looking at Chinese society in toto, do we see a collectivity that conscientiously and consistently and extensively demands that justice take priority over prosperity? Or do we see a society caught up in the competitive pursuit of material self-interest? By justice, I mean the Confucian ideal that everyone has access to sufficient material resources so that they can carry out their familial and social duties. While there has been significant progress in relieving absolute poverty in China in recent decades (just focusing on the post-Mao period), problems persist:
China has moved more people out of poverty than any other country in recent decades, but the persistence of destitution in places like southern Henan Province fits with the findings of a recent World Bank study that suggests that there are still 300 million poor in China - three times as many as the bank previously estimated.
Poverty is most severe in China's geographic and social margins, whether the mountainous areas or deserts that ring the country, or areas dominated by ethnic minorities, who for cultural and historic reasons have benefited far less than others from the country's long economic rise.
But it also persists in places like Henan, where population densities are among the greatest in China, and the new wealth of the booming coast beckons, almost mockingly, a mere province away.
It is that last statement that is the kicker, and it raises the question: is society and politics sufficiently focused on the job of poverty relief? A lot has been said by political leaders about addressing the obvious problems of inequality, but the Gini index remains high:
Over the past 10 years, the Gini coefficient in China has kept rising and reached a record high of 0.5, which means the country has got one of the world's largest income gaps. This is far beyond reasonable and imposes mounting pressures on maintaining social stability.
Policy and social attitudes are just not focusing enough on the problem. Mencius would see this as a fundamental moral failure. And that failure is rooted in individuals and families. My sense of Chinese society these days is suffused with an informal, socially diffuse social Dariwnism. "To Get Rich is Glorious," was the opening statement. And the extraordinary economic growth of the past three decades has richly rewarded those who have pursued wealth. And this has encouraged the individualization of Chinese society.
Capitalism seems to require a focus on individual interests as a means of survival in a hyper-competitive economy:
To deal with these new problems of financial and social insecurity, the Chinese seem to have efficiently adapted their lifestyles and personal values according to the capitalist ideal of getting rich. Care for relatives, far-away family members and close neighbors have become less important. Instead, pragmatic self-preservation is now imperative for surviving.
This kind of socio-economic dynamic fundamentally undermines the practice of Confucianism in every day life.
As mentioned above, this does not preclude certain individuals from being good Confucians: attending to their social and familial duties conscientiously. But it is simply impossible for enough people to do so, in the face of overwhelming social and economic, and increasingly cultural, incentives to be selfishly material.