What can Confucianism be in a modern context?
That question has been turning over in my mind a lot lately, as I move through Beijing and think about the class I am teaching at the Renmin University Summer School: "Confucianism in America." Yes, I'm back, for my third year, and it's good to be back. But that question comes at me in various forms: how is Confucianism being understood and used by Chinese people right now in China? Can Confucianism be a world philosophy, sensible to Americans and others in non-Chinese cultural contexts? Indeed, what can Confucianism be in any modern context, Chinese or American or whatever? Questions, questions, questions.
Happily an excellent book by Sebastian Billioud and Joel Thoraval, The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China goes a long way in answering the Chinese side of my questions. They show, through very detailed fieldwork, that many people in many different walks of life are finding in Confucianism, or various aspects of the tradition, myriad different interpretations and practices that might bring some new source of meaning into their personal lives. This is a "bottom-up" view, showing us complex micro-social thoughts and actions. They also consider the "top-down" efforts by public authorities to appropriate Confucianism for their own purposes of political legitimation, but the overarching picture that Billioud and Thoraval paint is one of diversity and plurality in the meaning and use of "Confucianism" in contemporary China. I'll return to this excellent book in a future post but let's shift in a somewhat more abstract direction.
In trying to get a handle on how conditions of modernity challenge certain premises of classical, pre-Qin Confucianism (I am thinking here of how we can understand The Analects and Mencius in the here and now), I want to work through some ideas from another excellent new book, The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History by Dingxin Zhao. It is a magnificent intellectual effort, a sweeping argument that delves into the early emergence of state structures in the Warring States period and the lasting and multiform effects of those political structures throughout Chinese history. Zhao brings the historical analysis into the modern period, contending that the answer to the age-old question - why did industrial capitalism not arise indigenously in China? - is to be found in the power of the "Confucian-Legalist State," which itself draws upon Legalist political and penal practices, legitimated by Confucian ideology. For him, it's not a "cultural" thing, it's a structural thing, a political structural thing. As a political scientist, I find this historical-sociological, political-structural perspective persuasive. But I'm sure the book will spark many debates for many years, which I look forward to.
Zhao, unsurprisingly, draws on Max Weber (and I think he succeeds in avoiding Weber's mistakes) in several ways. He adopts and adapts Weber's typology of rationality (rationalities?). I won't rehearse here the entire analysis, but just focus on some key ideas, which I think are rather helpful in understanding Confucianism in the contemporary moment.
Among the various types of rationality posited by Zhao, following Weber, are: substantive rationality and instrumental rationality. Our everyday sense of "rationality" tracks with Zhao's definition of instrumental rationality: means-ends calculations (finding the most efficient means to certain specified ends) that produce "social action that is motivated by purely pragmatic and egoistic interests." (Zhao, 38). The focus of instrumental rationality is more on means, and less so ends. One can be "good" at doing "bad" things from this perspective: a good bank robber is one who figures out the best means to the end of stealing money. Substantive rationality, in contrast, focuses more on ends, on how we define the goals of social action. It operates, according to Stephen Kalberg (on whom Zhao also draws):
not on the basis of a purely means-end calculation of solutions to routine problems but in relation to a past, present, or potential "value postulate".... Not simply a single value, such as positive evaluation of wealth or of the fulfillment of duty, a value postulate implies entire clusters of values that vary in comprehensiveness, internal consistency, and content.
Working from these two concepts, instrumental and substantive rationality, it is pretty clear that The Analects and Mencius are offering a kind of substantive rationality, they are urging us to order our social action in terms of certain "clusters of values" that Confucius and Mencius believe will create good personal and social-political outcomes. We should act in the world according to values such as ren and yi and li and zhong and xin. Perhaps these are more than "values;' they all connote a kind of imperative: they don't just tell what what the "good" is, but they tell us we really should do the "good" as defined by these concepts. If the value cluster of Confucianism (and I am thinking here of the pre-Qin Confucian-Mencian strain of the tradition) motivates social action that runs counter to instrumentalist "pragmatic and egoistic interests," the tradition tells us that we should do the substantively rational thing (the thing that lives up to the values of the Confucian good) instead of the instrumentally rational thing (the thing that might profit us individually). We can see this anti-instrumentalist ethos throughout both The Analects and Mencius.
Perhaps the most outstanding anti-instrumentalist trope in The Analects is the character of Yan Hui, the follower who Confucius himself believed came closest to realizing the substantive rationality of his teachings. Confucius praises Yan Hui in passage 6.3 where he says: Yan Hui, "....loved to learn. He did not transfer his anger; he did not repeat a fault. Unfortunately, his appointed time was short and he died; and now there is not such another. I have not yet heard of any one who loves to learn as he did." None of the other disciples quite lives up to the virtue of Yan Hui, who is also famous for eschewing material prosperity and comfort, as noted in passage 6.11:
The Master said, "Admirable indeed was the virtue of Hui! With a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd dish of drink, and living in his mean narrow lane, while others could not have endured the distress, he did not allow his joy to be affected by it. Admirable indeed was the virtue of Hui!"
Yan Hui lived the good Confucian life even though it brought him poverty. Others of Confucius's followers, most notably Zigong, did not go to the material extremes of Yan Hui, which suggests that even in pre-Qin days people who tried to follow the Confucian Way tempered its substantive goals with certain instrumentalist calculations. Nonetheless the core of the doctrine emphasized a substantive rationality.
Mencius also goes hard for substantive rationality. He is often quoted as trying to persuade power-holders to give up on li - 利 - "profit," or "benefit," or "interest." In the very first passage of Mencius the philosopher admonishes King Hui of Liang: "why speak of profit?" Rejecting "profit" as a goal is a central theme throughout the volume.
We could delve much further into the anti-instrumentalist facets of these texts, but we should also note that early Confucianism is complex. Both Confucius and Mencius do, at times, make instrumentalist arguments, most commonly when they are trying to convince rulers to follow their philosophy. They will contend that certain political and economic ends can be attained by Confucian means: a country will prevail in war if it enacts humane government, or a ruler will gain legitimacy if he leads a virtuous life. Perhaps most notable along these lines is the praise Confucius heaps on Guan Zhong in passage 14.16 and passage 14.17 (the fact that story this is repeated suggests the writer(s) attach a certain significance to it).
Guan Zhong came to be Prime Minister for Duke Huan of Qi. But Duke Huan had been implicated in the death of his brother (or that is what some of Confucius's followers believed),something a good Confucian gentleman should condemn. In the two passages from The Analects mentioned above, two of Confucius's disciples, Zilu and Zigong, both assume that Guan Zhong should not be respected. But Confucius takes the opposite view, lauding Guan Zhong because, regardless of the possible charge of fratricide, Guan Zhong reformed the kingdom of Qi and brought it prosperity and power. Seems like the ends justified the means, or, at the very least, in this case, an instrumentalist rationality took precedence over a substantive rationality.
I would not over-interpret the Guan Zhong passages of The Analects, however. It might still be best to understand the general thrust of early Confucian thought as a kind of substantive rationality. In most cases, most of the time, social action should be oriented toward realizing the cluster of values of Confucian morality: Humanity, Duty, Ritual, Sincerity, Wisdom, etc. We should, in short, be like Yan Hui. In certain rare circumstances, however, perhaps we can be like Guan Zhong, and push aside what substantive Confucian rationality might suggest and go for a more cold and calculating instrumental rationality.
To return to Dingxin Zhao's work, he is helpful in this regard. Resisting an overly stark dichotomy of substantive v. instrumental rationality, he suggests that the latter can be understood as having two expressions: "privately oriented instrumental rationality (means-ends calculation for private benefit) and publicly oriented instrumental rationality (means-ends calculations for public good) (38-39). This distinction is useful in a number of ways.
First, it gives us some insight into the apparent contradiction of Confucius's regard for both Yan Hui and Guan Zhong. While the former is certainly a symbol of substantive rationality, the latter is good because of his publicly oriented instrumental rationality. Guan is not acting for his own enrichment or profit. Rather, he is acting instrumentally to improve the public good, or at least that is the way things worked out for a while in Qi. Of course, there could be ways in which substantive rationality and publicly oriented instrumental rationality might come into conflict (and my sense is that Confucius and Mencius would generally stick with the substantive side of the situation) but public-spiritedness is something to which Confucianism aspires. Generally, good public outcomes are presumed to follow if enough people focus on enacting the substantive rationality of Confucian ethics. But a little instrumentalism to push along the realization of public improvement is not necessarily a vice.
Second, the grand Confucian-Legalist synthesis of the Han dynasty and after that Zhao so expertly analyzes is somewhat more understandable with the public/private instrumentalism distinction. On the face of it, neither the early Confucian philosophers nor the Legalists (Han Feizi in particular) would be comfortable with a theoretical accommodation with the other. Of course, they were not consulted by the pragmatic statesmen who forged the Confucian-Legalist state. But the Confucian scholars and bureaucrats, who had studied the classics, including The Analects and Mencius, to gain access to state power, would, I imagine, have faced the contradiction of the substantively rational ethical outlook of those classic texts and the instrumentalism of the Legalist administrative and penal codes they had to enforce. Perhaps they could find some relief from the potential cognitive dissonance in the very strong public orientation of Legalist instrumental rationality. Han Feizi is very direct in denouncing private interests. In chapter six of his text (just a brief description at this link) Han writes:
In our present age he who can put an end to private scheming and make men uphold the public law will see his people secure and his state well ordered; he who can block selfish pursuits and enforce the public law will see his armies growing stronger and his enemies weakening.
In other words, he is all about publicly oriented instrumental rationality, and that may be somewhat less grating to Confucians than the thing that both they and the Legalists abhor: privately oriented instrumental rationality
Finally, the public/private distinction helps us understand the challenges Confucianism faces in a modern context (finally getting back to my original question). Zhao again follows Weber in understanding modernization as an inexorable process of growth and domination of instrumental rationality, as it becomes formalized and theorized and routinized, over substantive rationality. Thus, the "iron cage" imagery of Weber, a modern moment that brings "value-fragmentation" and "mechanized petrification." But Zhao's public/private distinction focuses the problem a bit more. He argues that: "...the empowerment of economic power by ideology, which I refer to as the valuation and domination of privately oriented instrumental rationalism, is the most crucial feature of modernity." (44). Private instrumentalism is of greater effect than public instrumentalism. If that is the case, it has significant implications for what a modern Confucianism can be.
Let's assume for a minute that China has now fairly thoroughly modernized. Let's assume further that Jiwei Ci is generally correct in his empirical observations: that the modernizing forces of urbanization and social mobility and social-cultural individualization and heightened materialism and instrumentalism have brought on a "crisis of faith" in China. Can a revived Confucianism be a solution of sorts to the depredations of modernity in China?
An answer to that question derived from Zhao's work seems to be: not really. Or, maybe, not completely.
The practices and institutions of modernity in China very powerfully promote and reproduce privately oriented instrumental rationalism. The Party attempts to rein in the worst excesses with various efforts at publicly oriented instrumental rationalism: the campaign to promote the "core values" of socialism, for example. These do not really provide a substantive rationality, however, because the "cluster of values" offered by the Party really does not speak to the kinds of personal disorientation people are experiencing. "Socialism" doesn't have enough cultural and philosophical depth. And that's where the Confucian revival comes in. People really do go back to that tradition in search of something more substantial. Billioud and Thoraval show us that many different sorts of practices come out of those efforts, many different "Confucianisms." But the critical limitation to all of those undertakings is the power of the broader context of social and economic and cultural modernity. Even if people can carve out a little time in their lives to study and enact Confucian substantive rationality, they still have to go back to their jobs and interact with the bureaucracy and move through an increasingly instrumentalist and competitive society. The stakes now of giving up on private instrumentalism are much harsher than in Yan Hui's day, or at least many people appear to believe so. It would seem, then, that the substantive essence of the tradition is close to impossible to uphold in the midst of rapid and expansive modernization.
Perhaps Confucianism in its Guan Zhong garb, as a publicly oriented instrumental rationalism, can survive in modernity. That is what the Party is banking on as it has sponsored and supported some aspects of the Confucian revival. Yet that project of trying to reconstruct what Yu Ying-shih refers to as "institutional Confucianism" runs the risk of alienating people through its association with authoritarian politics. Moreover, any campaign to promote Confucian public-spiritedness will encourage people to search for the substantive rationality at the core of the tradition, and when they turn in that direction some of them will become disenchanted because of the profound disconnect between that substantive rationality and the modern rationalization that dominates their life.
Seems rather bleak.
But I try to be an optimist (Mencius helps keep the spirits up that way). Maybe something more modest is possible. Modern Confucianism will not, indeed cannot, be grandly transformative. It will not provide a comprehensive solution to the problems of modernity. What it can do, however, is to offer some solace to individuals in personalized ways. There cannot be a singular "Confucianism" to serve as a unifying source of meaning for all. Rather, there can be, and indeed there are now emerging, many forms and expressions and practices of "Confucianism," suited to individual experiences and situations. Modern Confucianism will remind us in general to focus on cultivating our closest loving relationships and be other-regarding: when we want to establish ourselves, we should help others establish themselves, and when we want to achieve for ourselves we should help others achieve for themselves (己欲立而立人，己欲達而達人). But what those words mean in specific circumstances and how we carry them out is only something individuals can determine for themselves and fit into their modern lives for themselves.
Confucianism might not be enough to escape the Weberian "iron cage," but it could give us, like it gave Yan Hui, a certain comfort nonetheless.
(And, yes, I know I am echoing Joseph Levenson's classic book: Confucian China and Its Modern Fate. The same sorts of questions are still being asked here: what is modern China? What is its Chinese-ness,and what is its modernity?)
(Photo of Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu, Shandong, China)