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« Chinese Culture: "Speedy"? | Main | Barbarism and Civilization »

October 29, 2005


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I was one of the participants in the original discussion with the reader you mention above. I did not discuss the issue in terms of a contrast between Christianity and Confucianism, but in terms of a number of points that seem to me to imply that Confucianism is ethically deficient. (In my original message I used the subject line "Confucianism is evil." I admit that I deliberately used this explosive language to get attention and to put the problem, as I see it anyway, as starkly as possible.)

Here is my original message on this topic:

1. Confucianism elevates the leader/ top man (it's almost always a man in Confucianism, hardly ever a woman) to too high a position so that the underlings are improperly deferential to and protective of him. If something goes wrong, it's attributed to the underlings, not the top man. If the top man holds up a red card and says it is white, the underlings will say it is white.

2. In Chinese Confucianism, fathers castrated their sons and then sent them to become servant-eunuchs in the royal court. This was literally true in China for a certain number of fathers and sons, but I also think it is metaphorically true of Confucianism as such.

3. Confucianism, because of its over-emphasis on the family, leads inexorably to nepotism.

4. Confucianism is inherently anti-democratic, anti-individual, anti-"outsider."

6. Because of its emphasis on family, tradition, and order, Confucianism is closed and inward-looking, rather than outward-looking.

7. Confucianism is inherently racist.

7. Progress comes about -- in the sciences, in the arts, in philosophy -- through throwing off and transcending what went before. In other words, it comes about through revolt and revolution. Confucianism abhors such revolt. Thus Confuciamism is an impediment to progress.

That will do for now. (I deliberately made the subject line stark and confrontational, but I also think it is more-or-less true.)

I have no idea where these ideas come from. My reading of the Analects and Mencius comes to a very different view of Confucianism. Have you read Tu Wei-Ming's or Roger Ames and David Hall's interpretations of Confucius? They, too, come to very different conclusions. Let's just take your first point. Emperors, in Confucian perspective, were legitimated by the "Mandate of Heaven." Heaven here does not have the Western Christian meaning, but connotes a more general sense of destiny with no reference to a singular god. A ruler may gain the mandate, but he may also lose it. If an Emperor rules badly, and especially if that is manifest in the suffering of the people, he loses the mandate and he can be removed. Mencius is best on these points. There is also a very important expectation of reciprocity in both Confucius and Mencius. Superiors owe their subordinates respect and care. And subordiates are obliged to speak out (remonstrate) when superiors are doing the wrong thing. If the top man holds up a red card and says white, Confucius says that subordinates should tell the truth and say red.
And, please, before announcing that Confucius is evil learn something about what he actually said, not what others might invoke in his name.

This brings to mind a story I read called "The Empty Pot," about a contest held by the Emperor to determine his successor. He gave all the youths a seed to plant and nurture, stating that whoever grew the finest plant would then become the next ruler. On the appointed day, scores of young folk paraded forth with exotic and beautiful plants. There was one, holding an empty pot. The emperor stood in front of him and asked about his plant. The boy , in obvious distress, said that as hard as he tried, nothing would make his seed grow. The emperor looked pleased, and announced that the boy would be the next ruler, as the seeds he had given out were infertile.
I am not sure the source of the story, but I always loved it.


I think we are talking past each other because we are looking at and talking about different things.

By "Confucianism" I mean the present-day social-political-ideological order that exists in important countries in the Orient -- I have in mind Korea and China, but I think some others would qualify too -- that have a Confucian heritage. This is what I had in mind when I used the admittedly incendiary accusation that Confucianism is evil.

If I understand you correctly, by "Confucianism" you mean the teachings and political-social order of Confucius himself. I do not claim that Confucianism, understood that way, is evil.

I would not call China today a "Confucian" society; and I would hesitate to call Korea that. Patriarchy seems stronger in Korea than China, but there has long been a strong spirit of rebellion in South Korea, which may not fit the stereotype suggested. If you are speaking specifically about the Unification Church, I really have no experience of it and cannot guess at its relationship to some sort of distorted "Confucianism".


I'm wondering were Daoism falls on the guilt/shame spectrum. Although I "get" and accept your clarification about Confucianism, its not hard to see how the premise is made. Given, then, the skeletal dichotomy between the Confucian moral tool of shame and Judaic-Christian of guilt, where does Daoism fall? I suspect, that they are not too crazy about either of these negative reinforcements and rely on more positive sensibilities as genuine guides, but I've love to get your take on it.

I think the Taoists would tell us to not worry about either. You'll notice in both Chuang Tzu and the Tao Te Ching a general rejection of overly strict ethical standards. What happens happens. Good things will happen, bad things will happen. It is better not to do bad things (interfering in another's life and, certainly, killing are frowned upon) but we cannot really stop bad people from doing bad things (though we can punish them after they have done bad things), so, to remember a silly old song: "Don't worry, be happy."

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