My China trip continues to go well. I'm in Shanghai now, by way of Nanjing, where I spent one night and gave a talk at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (good to see my old friend Milo!). Here in the big city I had a great time up at Fudan University with Bai Tongdong and his students in the Master's program in Chinese philosophy there. And then last night a good time was had with the Hopkins China Forum. Thanks to everyone who made these events possible.
I traveled by train from Beijing to Nanjing to Shanghai. The new high-speed rail (gaotie). Although there are questions about how the system has been financed, it is a great ride: very well organized, very smooth, and, yes, very fast. Sitting on that train, watching the scenery race by outside the window, and thinking about Confucianism (which is just what I do), I returned to the question of how that ancient way of thinking might be able to survive in a thriving, high-speed modern society.
As regular readers might remember, I have taken up this issue before, and I am generally of the mind that China is not now a "Confucian society." Of course that statement relies upon how we might define "Confucian society," and I realize that there is counterargument (which a participant brought up at my talk last night). It's a big and complex question. But, even after considering the possibility that China is a "Confucian society," I still come down on the other side: that it is not.
And one big dynamic that limits the expression of Confucianism in China is social mobility.
China today is an incredibly mobile society - an observation that has a certain clarity about it when it enters one's mind while hurtling through the countryside at something like 190 MPH. People now move from the countryside to the cities at increasing pace (even if they do not ride the bullet train). Indeed, more people now live in urban areas than in rural villages. Once in the cities, people continue to be mobile: they change jobs; they gain education; they embrace new social and cultural practices. If we think of "mobility" in its broadest sense - people moving not only physically but psychically and cognitively as well - the incredible dynamism of contemporary China can be captured in its fullness. Everything about this place is on the move.
And that's a problem for Confucianism. There's a way that the Confucian project of building humanity, 仁 , in the world requires a kind of rootedness. In order to understand specific familial and social duties, 義, we need to near at hand to those we should be closest to. I can't really know what my mother or father or sister or brother might require of me if I am a thousand miles away distracted by work and other entanglements. Or if I do come to know, I may not be able to carry through with doing the right thing in just the right manner, 礼.
Now, it might be possible to appropriately and meaningfully fulfill one's familial duties even when far away. But, historically in China, the overwhelmingly common experience was proximity to family. That is the social world in which Confucianism emerged and that it presumes philosophically. Most Chinese people for most of Chinese history lived in villages, and those who lived in towns and cities were firmly embedded in their immediate social relationships. Before the twentieth century, it is probabaly safe to say that for the vast majority of people there was really nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from family duties. And perhaps most people didn't want to run and hide from those obligations.
But that was then. The twentieth century literally blew up Chinese society, scattering families far and wide from their original locations and vocations. And the rapid economic transformations of the past thirty years have accelerated and deepened that dispersion. People now move not because of war or famine but for jobs and personal betterment.
That's a thing about modernity: it changes the way we think about ourselves as selves and in relation to others. "Betterment" shifts from social understanding to a more individualist understanding. Mobility detaches us from others, and throws us in with new groups, and in the process we depend less on defining ourselves in relation to a settled family unit (which itself is no longer settled) as we now must define ourselves more dynamically, moving through society instead of being embedded in it.
That's a very different social context for Confucianism. Again, perhaps it can be adapted to modernity, but that adaptation will have to deal squarely with the challenge of mobility, in all of its forms, or fast-paced Chinese city dwellers will leave Confucianism behind as they speed along in their bullet trains.