I was traveling last week, to Seoul and Hong Kong. My primary purpose was to give a couple of talks, though I found some time to meet up with many former students and friends.
First, last Monday in Seoul, I did a lunch time talk at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, a further development of a paper I wrote a few years ago on the relationship between the re-emergence of Confucianism and the possibilities that it might provide some sort of "soft power" for the PRC. I added to the analytical framework - comparing how liberalism and Marxism moved into China as a point of departure for how Confucianism might move into the US - but my conclusion is the same, as demonstrated by the title: "The Revival of Confucianism: Not a Source of Soft Power for the PRC." It was an interesting group of about twenty five people and some good questions afterward. Some action photos here.
But my short time in Seoul got me thinking about Korean Confucianism, in both its historical and contemporary expressions.
As for history, I visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace, where the rulers of the Joseon Dynasty lived and held court from about the 15th century onwards. Those rulers relied upon Confucianism as a basis for state legitimation. And they built their palace with an eye toward Chinese architecture and feng shui, which physically embodied their expression of Confucian virtue. In the National Folk Museum of Korea there were various exhibits that demonstrated just how deeply Confucian ideals and concepts were inscribed into the society and culture. The assertion that you hear all the time - that Korea is the most "Confucian" society in the world - seems ever more plausible when engaging with these sorts of historical materials.
But that assertion about Korean Confucianism is often stated in the present tense; that is, for all of the turbulence of the 20th century, Korea has been able to preserve more of its Confucian legacy than China or Japan or Vietnam. That statement is hard to verify (how do we measure the depth of "Confucianism" in a particular society?). But there is certainly a self-conscious sense of its centrality and also its attenuation in recent decades.
I chatted briefly with Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asan Institute, who has thought and written deeply about Confucianism in East Asia. He mentioned the continuing, living tradition in Korea, most notably the Confucian academies that seek to preserve values and practices. These places, and the people who center their lives around them, are a tangible example of the presence of Confucianism in contemporary Korea.
But even with such outstaniding historical sites, the question remains: to what extent do the efforts of self-identified modern Confucians influence behavior in the braoder society of Korea? Alhougth it might be true that expectations about family duties may still be strong there now, and that may be a continuing expression of Confucian culture, we are regularly confronted with stories like this:
The country’s elderly spent their lives assuming their children would care for them in old age and did little to prepare for retirement. But their children don’t appear to be fulfilling their end of the bargain — and now the elderly are not faring well economically. The relative poverty rate among senior citizens in South Korea is 49.3 percent, the highest of the industrialized countries. Public pensions tend to be small. And the suicide rate for senior citizens, surely an indicator of economic strain, is the highest among the industrialized countries, at about 80 for every 100,000 people.
Reading that, it is hard to conclude that South Korea is now a "Confucian society," because the actual behavior of many people seems to fall rather far short of Confucian standards. Confucianism might still be a kind of aspirational social goal - people may recognize filiality, for example, as a worthy value - but the pressures of modernity thwart its realization.
I don't mean this as a knock against Korea. It's a great place with wonderful people. But it is not now a "Confucian society." It's not clear to me that any place that has experienced as extensive a process of modernization as Korea - and at this point that would include China and Taiwan and Japan - can meaningfully realize Confucianism on a societal scale. There may be individual Koreans who live by Confucian principles, but, taken as a whole, Korean society it too materialist and competitive and individualized to allow for a fuller social expression of Confucianism.
So, perhaps we should state it in the past tense: Korea was the most Confucian society in the world.
I saw the Ai Weiwei documentary, Never Sorry, again last night, and led a bit of a discussion about it afterwards. If you haven't seen it, you should. Alison Klayman does a great job presenting Ai's political engagement, and the way his art has been transformed into dissidence (or is art always and everywhere dissidence?). At one point he is asked how he understands himself as an artist, and he replies that he sees his role as something like a chess player, waiting for the adversary to make its next move so he can ponder his next action. Art as strategy; or maybe strategy as art.
For nearly three years now you haven’t been outside China. Do you feel marginalized? Do you feel you are missing international developments?
I think that today the concept of marginalization is a very interesting one for an artist. As a contemporary artist, we’re always looking for reasons to exist in marginalization, for the possibilities in marginalization. The minute we talk about possibilities, in reality we’re talking about the question of marginalization.....
The Party leadership is trying to marginalize him, keeping him from physically traveling and thus cutting him off from one aspect of his inter-cultural creativity. This tactic is failing, however, because, as Ai goes on to state in the interview, the internet provides him with extensive connectivity. You can follow him on Twitter, where he daily protests the extra-judicial repression of his international travel, and remembers the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He is one of the most globally connected people in the world, as the documentary illustrates.
But he is right to make the point about artists seeking out marginalization. That is what art is all about: discovering an expression that shifts the viewer's perspective, shifting the frame, de-centering an image or idea that had become settled. It is about bringing the center to the margins and the margins to the center. This is what Xu Bing accomplished with Phoenix, taking construction refuse and forging it into a representation of imperial glory; grandeur from garbage.
And this is what much of Ai's work strives for. In Sunflower Seeds, he takes what appears to be a wholly insignificant object, sunflower seeds, and uses that to call our attention to larger social and cultural ideas. The gallery web site states:
Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.
What seems to be natural is actually carefully produced; the vast uniformity is really a riot of individual presences; the mundane is profound. And so on. All brought forth by placing the marginal at the center.
Here is where Zhuangzi comes to mind, especially chapter 5. In this section, the writer presents us, repeatedly, with the image of marginalized people - criminals who have had a foot chopped off and people with other physical deformities - individuals who would not conventionally be viewed as exemplary in social or moral terms. But Zhuangzi uses these marginalized figures as avatars of a new understanding. They become sources of wisdom and knowledge and virtue. Here's and example (Legge's translation):
Duke Ai of Lu asked Zhongni, saying, 'There was an ugly man in Wei, called Ai-tai Tuo. His father-in-law, who lived with him, thought so much of him that he could not be away from him. His wife, when she saw him (ugly as he was), represented to her parents, saying, "I had more than ten times rather be his concubine than the wife of any other man." He was never heard to take the lead in discussion, but always seemed to be of the same opinion with others. He had not the position of a ruler, so as to be able to save men from death. He had no revenues, so as to be able to satisfy men's craving for food. He was ugly enough, moreover, to scare the whole world. He agreed with men instead of trying to lead them to adopt his views; his knowledge did not go beyond his immediate neighbourhood. And yet his father-in-law and his wife were of one mind about him in his presence (as I have said) - he must have been different from other men. I called him, and saw him. Certainly he was ugly enough to scare the whole world. He had not lived with me, however, for many months, when I was drawn to the man; and before he had been with me a full year, I had confidence in him. The state being without a chief minister, I (was minded) to commit the government to him. He responded to my proposal sorrowfully, and looked undecided as if he would fain have declined it. I was ashamed of myself (as inferior to him), but finally gave the government into his hands. In a little time, however, he left me and went away. I was sorry and felt that I had sustained a loss, and as if there were no other to share the pleasures of the kingdom with me. What sort of man was he?'
The Duke is so taken with this hideous man that he tries to make him chief minister. The marginal had come to the center and transformed understanding - pretty much what contemporary art, Ai Weiwei's included, strives to do.
This is a key element to Daoist thinking in general, and Zhuangzi is particularly good at turning our attention toward the unconventional, the downtrodden, the rejected. Think of this excerpt of passage 8 of the Daodejing (Hinton translation):
Lofty nobility is like water. Water's nobility is to enrich the ten thousand things and yet never strive: it just settles through places people everywhere loathe. Therefore, it's nearly Way.
When you are down in the abyss, the "...places people everywhere loathe....," you're close to Way.
So, yes, there is a Daoist aspect to Ai's work. But it has to be mentioned: he is not as marginal as he might want to be. Beyond his international fame, he is the child of a famous poet, Ai Ching. And his father's political status in the post-Mao period, as a good socialist who had been persecuted unjustly during the Cultural Revolution and thus respected by some powerful leaders after 1979, no doubt gave Weiwei some protection when he went all transgressive in his art. His family's experience has been a complex dynamic of privilege and persecution, neither unambiguously marginal nor comfortably central. One wonders if people more ensconced at the margins would ever have the chances he has had.
Ai is fully aware of his social-political status, and he uses what privilege he might have to press against the repressive limitations of state power. His work strives to open the way for others at the margins to express themselves and live their lives freely. And, in a way, that's what Zhuangzi is doing in his writing....