Another busy week in the classroom here. I want to respond to a couple of comments from my last post (I close comments after one week because of spam attacks) about my experience teaching Confucianism here now.
First up, J asks: "Have you considered asking your students in what ways is "Confucianism" in contemporary China similar to the various Confucianisms of the past?"
We have considered differences in what Confucianism can be now, anywhere, and what it was in ancient China.
One of the things I made sure to do was read several passages in The Analects that devalue women, especially 17.25: "The Master said, Women and small men are difficult to nurture. If you get too close to them, they become uncompliant, and if you stay too distant, they become resentful.(Enos translation - pdf). A large majority of my class, about 23 out of 30, are young Chinese women. I assume that they have some sense that Confucianism was used historically to dominate women, the May 4th critique, and I want to meet that head on. One has told me personally that she is a feminist and I'm sure others hold similar views. I used the word "misogynist," which was new to them in English.
I then went on to argue that for Confucianism to be viable in modern contexts, it must abandon its traditional tie to patriarchalism. Neville brings this up in the opening of Boston Confucianism. They tend to be rather quiet but I imagine some of them will agree with this, while others might just want to reject the idea that Confucianism should be revived and used as any sort of moral standard now. I brought Chenyang Li's article, "The Confucian Concept of Jen and Feminist Care Ethics: A Comparative Study," (pdf) into the conversation. They seem fascinated that such things are argued about in English by serious academic philosophers. The world of Chinese philosophy in the West is largely new to them, and it is still difficult to comprehend linguistically and intellectually. I'm giving them a lot to think about and I hope they continue to contemplate it after this short course is over.
Another question comes from blog-friend Bill Haines, asking about how students conceive of "individualism" and what might be its opposite in their minds.
This is a big topic, one that the students are reading about now. I have assigned them two articles for Monday: Erica Brindley, "Moral Autonomy and Individual Sources of Authority in The Analects;" and Joseph Chan, "Moral Autonomy, Civil Liberties, and Confucianism." I'm interested in how Confucianism might adapt to a liberal cultural context (I'm using "liberal" in a broad sense, recognizing its political and economic aspects but also framing it in cultural terms). Most of them have only a rudimentary understanding of the concept (remember most have only just completed their first year in college and come from a wide varieties of majors). Brindley and Chan will, I hope, get them thinking more deeply about what individual autonomy is and how it might not be as alien to Confucianism as they might think.
On Wednesday I lectured for an hour and a half on liberalism, in both its classical and modern forms. Whe I asked how many had ever heard of John Locke, only about five raised their hands. But one of those five came up after class to say that, in one of his other classes, they are discussion liberalism, and we talked about the comparison of John Rawls and Mencius.
For the most part, however, student comments tend to repeat a rather facile distinction of "West=individualism" v. "China=collectivism". I push against this in various ways. And some of them are very much aware that China now is far from any sort of ideal collectivism. I don't think they have thought much about what the opposite of "individualism" might be, especially in China now, which is overrun by individualization. That's the most interesting thing about being here now: society and culture are undergoing such rapid and destabilizing change, it's hard to pin down just what "Chinese" v. 'the West" might mean anymore. It's cultural hybridity everywhere.
In writing their papers about what they understand to be the most significant concept in The Analects, several argued that "humanity" (ren) and "ritual" (li) were key and could offer something positive and constructive for the social dislocations of ultra-individualist America. But some suggested that those same concepts might be helpful in similar ways in China now. And I should say one of the most intriguing papers argued that the most significant concept in The Analects is "forgiveness." It's not one of the standard Confucian virtues, but I think the student is on to something: the kind of self-cultivation that we might find in Confucius requires both forgiveness of ourselves when we err, and a forgiveness of others in the name of progress toward humanity.
I will report back on what they make of Brindley and Chan.