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« Chen Guangcheng, Mozi, and Daoism | Main | Daoism is not a Strategy »

May 23, 2012


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I agree, the ship has sailed, and the paradigm that is relevant to 2012 has been set by all that came before it, which will not be undone. There is no point in bemoaning a relative lack of Chinese influence in the current paradigm. The focus should be on how the current paradigm might continue to evolve with increasing Chinese influence and input.

Given the evolution of Chinese society to this point, there won't even be "pure Confucianism " within china itself. It will be confucian thought adapted to 21st century realities and sensibilities. What can be hoped for is more influence of Confucianism in 21st century mores than in any century before it, at least on a global level.

This post requires an extended response from me since the quote that sparked this long post is from a comment I made. Let me just say that I am not sure at all of much of what you are saying so most of my response will be in the form of critical questions.

You said:

“He thus asserts an asymmetry in global cultural influence:”

This is partly true but it is actually not the focus of what I was trying to say. The asymmetry I was talking about is in attitudes about influence, explicit or tacit, not simply in influence. And I was not talking about culture broadly construed but more traditional notions of cultural values (mainly philosophical traditions as per context of the post from which the commented was from). I think that Chinese people in general have a far more tolerant and positive attitudes towards western values and see some potential good in importing some western culture and values whereas I see relatively very little reciprocal openness to traditional Chinese cultural values (Tiger Mothering aside which I actually think is not very distinctively part of Chinese philosophical tradition and that most western parents find pretty barbaric).

Many Chinese people admire the wealth and education and other cultural achievements of western culture and attribute some of it to traditional western philosophical traditions but few westerners even know anything about Chinese culture and view it with distorted and prejudiced eyes instead of with admiration. Few public discourse exists within our society talking about the importance of importing traditional Chinese cultural values or any foreign non western values (such as Confucian or Taoist worldviews) outside of academia.

I also do not know what you mean by “modernization” and “post-modernization” and its cognates. My usages of “west” is actually rather straight forward, I think (I was not using it in a historical “political context” but a current geographical and cultural context, one that is fixed by common current usage and not previous usages as with your example of Germany in the early 20th century). It seems to me that it has a rather well-defined meaning. But I do not think that modernity and post modernity has any such precise or even useful definition within the context of this discussion.

If you wish, you may even restrict my term “west” into just “the US” so that my term is dropped if you think it is unhelpful. But of course, you can also argue that “The US” has shifting political, cultural, even geographical meanings throughout history so I don't see how that would be relevant and helpful either.

I still see an asymmetry in attitudes between people and that attitude is one of relative cultural chauvinism. Granted, some Chinese people do see their own culture as superior to all others just like some Americans see American culture as superior to all others. But there is an attitude that is far more pervasively expressed, more tacitly accepted that things like “our” notions of democracy and human rights will benefit the Chinese but no attitude that our society will equally or more so benefit from importing some aspects of Chinese culture. Whereas in China, the Chinese, even among many of the culturally chauvinistic ones, would readily admit that there are some very interesting and beneficial values of western culture.

So in short, I don't understand what problem there is in my usage of “the west”. I don't believe it is anymore vague than any other term (even China and the US are vague and ambiguous terms (as with almost all terms) but we cannot avoid using them).

I also do not understand the bringing up of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, they did change other societies. In drastically devastating ways in fact. They probably set back “modernization” in these countries by decades and destroyed many foreign cultures and even entire peoples. But that is not the kind of influence I was talking about. The influence I wanted to talk about takes place in post-colonialist fashion, i.e., during contemporary times. Influences often require large degrees of tolerance/open-mindedness in modern cross-cultural exchanges because the option of forced or coerced change through the adoption of another culture is not readily available as much as in colonial times. My point is that the “dialogue” is not really a dialogue if one side does far more talking (actually pontificating on a pulpit) instead of listening than the other side.

Now I happen to think that China has already absorbed many western philosophical values and traditions with openmindedness but not vice versa. Again, I am talking about philosophical traditions such as Confucian philosophy and western notions of a liberal democracy, rule of law, and some human rights approaches, for example, not culture broadly construed.

Now I do think that democracy and human rights are general concepts that all cultures value at some level and maybe always have done so but most people in the west seem to think that there is only one notion of democracy (usually a liberal, representative one) and that human rights are some sort of absolute conception with no wiggle room for modifications (which is interesting because that is not how most western philosophers now and even in the past think of them, just look at the right to free expression for example) and that these notions are fundamentally western in origin and must be adopted by the Chinese to make them civilized.

You said:

“Thus we should not expect a singular and unitary "Chinese" effect on global culture.”

I'm not sure if you are still addressing what I said but I did not say nor imply that China should have a “singular and unitary” effect on global culture. In fact, I would certainly hope not. I implied in my comment and defended more explicitly elsewhere the idea that China should (continue to) listen to foreign ideas.

I did, however, say that I believe the west has more to learn and benefit from Chinese culture than vice versa but that is because there is so little of traditional Chinese philosophical influence in the west so there is a steep learning curve (and presumably thus a steep benefit curve as well). Additionally, I believe that Confucianism and Taoism and Chinese Buddhism worldviews are far more tolerant and respectful of plurality and more inherently peaceful than large aspects of western worldviews (for example, the fierce dogmatism instilled from Judeo-christian influences).

You said:

“Confucianism will thus take on new forms, forms that are not as closely associated with "China," or the definition of "China" that the PRC government attempts to maintain. “

I'm not sure why this is even an issue. Why would the ideas of Confucianism need to be disassociated from “China”? That seems to be a non-issue because Confucianism is already disassociated from China, content-wise. Can you name a single passage in the Analects or Mencius or Xunzi that says that Confucian ideas are only applicable to the Chinese people or to the Chinese nation or to the anachronistic “PRC government”? So in a sense, it is already dissociated from China.

Also, the PRC government is not Confucian. So I don't see what the relevance is with their “attempts to maintain” an association if that claim is even accurate. I have yet to see the association actually being made by the PRC government that says Confucianism is strictly China relevant. In fact, I think they want the world and even for China itself to become more Confucian. I think they know that currently they aren't very Confucian but are working to establish more Confucian values within their society and they think that the world also can benefit from establishing more of those values elsewhere. Even they, as unConfucian as they are, would not agree that Confucian values are particularly Chinese and only applicable within a Chinese context.

You said:

“There will have to be a more democratic understanding of Confucianism, or else it will be seen simply as a crude apology for authoritarianism.  There will have to be a more individualized Confucianism, or liberal societies will not embrace it (this is not to say it will have to jettison its familial and social ethics; rather, these will have to be re-imagined in the context of a stronger sense of individual self-possession).”

First of all, I see lots of problems with this passage. The Chinese have always had understandings of Confucianism that is perfectly amenable to certain conceptions of democracy. There are other conceptions of democracy out there than representative and liberal centric ones, the western public's narrow conceptions notwithstanding. For example, there are communitarian conceptions, discursive conceptions and so on. Many of these conceptions are very much in line with Confucian principles. In fact, I would argue far more so than many traditional western political, philosophical traditions. For example, what possible conception of democracy is there that are in concert with the Plato's proto-fascist Republic? It is fundamentally non-democratic as many political philosophers have pointed out. What about a Judeo-Christian theocracy? Again, not much to go on there. What about a Machiavellian state? What about a Hobbesian monarchy? Not much to go on either. What about a Hegelian state? Again, nope. I can go on and on. Confucianism, on the other hand, looks actually quite promising for certain conceptions of democracy, ones I would argue are a more robust conceptions than a liberal, representative conception. See here for my defense of this.

You say that “liberal societies” will not accept certain conceptions of Confucianism but only ones that fit their own preconceptions of their own cultural heritage. The question that I wished to ask is “well, why not”? In my original post, I suggested that this is likely a close-minded, chauvinistic attitude that is detrimental to cross-cultural exchange mainly coming from one side.


Wow, there's a lot in that comment... Let me make a couple of points in response.

First, I was riffing off the first comment you made to the post, which, to me, suggested that there was an actual asymmetry in cultural influence. If that was not your intended point, I did not mean to mis-characterize your argument. But the post can still stand as a reflection on that more general question (not necessarily attributed to you) on global cultural influence (which, as I note, I have encountered in other fora...). Also, in that first comment you seemed to imply (in the phrase: "...With the west's constant invasion, occupation, oppression, and rampant human rights abuses of their own citizens and other people around the world"...) that imperialism was a part of the problem; or, at least that emerged in my mind. Again, if that was not your intention, no problem. It is still, I believe, relevant to the more general issue.

The core of my argument - and you can take it or leave it as you wish - is precisely the notion of modernization. This is a large and fraught subject, which can run off in various directions, which is why I supplied a couple of links to indicate where my thinking generally lies. Long story short: I believe that "culture" (I guess we will need a more specific definition of this at some point) is embedded in broader processes of economics, politics and social change. While these are in complex relation to one another, let's just focus on economics for a moment, to make a point about China.

China's economy and economic life have changed dramatically in the past 100 years. Much of the old agrarian life was destroyed during the Maoist period, and intensive industrialization and the emergence of a mass consumption society has emerged in the era of reform and opening. All of these are processes of economic modernization, and have been experienced, albeit with different particulars, in other parts of the world that have "developed" economically.

That economic context creates powerful material incentives for certain kinds of cultural practices - those that are consonant with underlying market forces and the sociological effects of economic change. Other sorts of cultural practices that press against the flow of economic growth are materially disadvantaged. They simply do not sell.

I think Confucianism falls into the latter category. it is essentially critical of much of contemporary modern economic life. I think liberalism is, generally, more consonant with global capitalist behavior and, thus, has a certain advantage in terms of world-wide cultural influence. And I say this as someone who finds much to appreciate in Confucianism.

I have elaborated this ideas a bit more, though in a somewhat more focused argument, in a paper linked to this post:

Generally, I do not think China is now a "Confucian society." It has simply changed too much in all regards in the past century or more. While there may be some people who adhere to Confucian principles in their personal lives, the incentive structures and more general behavior of the population at large are inconsistent with Confucianism. And if Confucianism is to regain a greater cultural presences in China, and from there elsewhere in the world, it would have to change in ways that might bring into question whether it is still essentially "Confucian." I think that change is possible. But it is impossible to know how it will turn out.

The article by Kam Louie that I mention in another post is insightful in this regard (pdf):

That's all for now...

I don't know if "imperialism" is the right word for what the US or the west is doing today but definitely some kind of metaphor may be appropriate. Not all grave human rights abuses fall under the category of "imperialism". Invading and occupying foreign countries and the many other examples I gave may not be imperialism per se but they are still human rights abuses. Moreover, I suggested that being more Confucian morally may give the western world more pause and behave in more humane ways towards other people.

As for your economic example, I do agree that modern capitalist values are at odds with Confucian values. But that's just the issue. If the Communist Chinese government is willing to listen to the merits of capitalism and import some values why hasn't the capitalist west listened more to non capitalist voices as much especially those from a Chinese perspective whether that be communist or Confucian?

Capitalism values are in much scrutiny in much of the world including in large segments of US society due to the recent economic woes. So it begs the question, why the asymmetry? Unless you consider capitalism the end of all discussion, wholly unproblematic, the answer to all of societies problems, some kind of meta-narrative perhaps, etc it is subject to scrutiny, whether Confucian or communist or Taoist or anarchist or whatever.

Most of the Chinese people and the CCP know about some of the merits of capitalism but also know of its limits. They are willing to listen to the merits.

Though some Americans now are more willing to listen to some of the demerits of capitalism from say, other critical western voices, few are willing to listen to specifically Confucian or other Chinese critical (or much of any non western) voices against it.

I'd like to add additionally that your analogy with US conservatives to some Chinese intellectuals in their desire to maintain a distinctive Chineseness is not appropriate.

That's not a good analogy because the conservatives in the US is not simply against foreign influences but against (modern or postmodern) DOMESTIC influences.

The Chinese intellectuals are not arguing for a return to past cultural essences. They simply wish for something uniquely Chinese.

A better analogy would be towards the post colonial discourse of many sub altern cultures or those from Native, indigenous peoples who are also demanding a voice of their own. They are not demanding a way of life that strictly returns to their past but for a new identity that they have created which is not imposed on them or adopted from a position of one-way-exchange from the outside.

I don't know why this is so hard for so many so called western intellectuals to understand. The fact that some people may wish for their own cultural development and not simply want to adopt everything from someone else. US conservatives do not like much change from tradition even if that change is internally inspired. But many Chinese intellectuals embrace it and simply want to develop a course that is uniquely Chinese. It is always difficult for those who have been raised as part of the dominant discourse to see the need for plurality in cultural development.

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