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« Trading on Tao | Main | Is Tao Like Logos? »

July 24, 2007


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I have heard people claim North Korea is the most confucianist society today. Have you ever heard that? What do think about that?

Dan (I assume it is Dan...).
I don't buy it. I usually hear this in reference to South Korea and I usually take it to mean that the old patriarchal practices of traditional Confucianism are still quite strong. This is changing in SK - more women are marrying later or not marrying at all because of their discomfort with patriarchal attitudes - but their may be other Confucian values, like obeying parents, especially fathers, that are reproduced in a modern setting. At the end of the day, however, I think modernization has changed Korea to such an extent that it is difficult to maintain that it is a "Confucian society." What would Confucius say about modern industrial life and the fetishism of commodities (I know, I'm mixing my theories here...).
Be that as it may, I think it is even less possible to call North Korea a "Confucian society" in any meaningful way. Life there has been so thoroughly dominated by a brutal totalitarian state (and I reserve the term "totalitarian" for very few historical cases, this being one), that it is impossible to say whether people obey their elders, say, because of some residual Confucianism or because their political fear. I think the latter permeates and distorts human relationships so much in NK that we must say it is more of a Stalinist society than a Confucian one.

Hmmm. I've heard that of SK, but it is in SK where I hear it of NK.


i doubt that China counts itself as such a Confucian state today, though, as it's striving to be more modern and more western. the Chinese population is looking more and more at things made in the west, trying to surgically operate their bodies to resemble europeans more

Speaking of Confucian states, I recently underwent a religious experience, where I discovered the true meaning of the Classics, which is freedom.

In short, the Daoist ideal is the autonomous village. This village maintains itself according to its customs and traditions. The Classics is the fulfillment of the Daoist ideal, because the Classics describe the traditions and rituals of this ideal village.

When traditions and rituals are strong, they form a non-coercive authority. When traditions and rituals are weak, then law, which is a coercive authority, usurps power and creates oppression.

It is well-known that Pre-Republican China was far freer than both Republican and Contemporary China. In former times, very few laws reached the villages. Even fewer were enforced. Instead of laws, villages were governed by consent, tradition, and rituals.

In fact, the Classics are a constitution which governed Pre-Republican China. This is because even kings and emperors had to observe the traditions of the Classics. Therefore, they could not be excessively oppressive, because then they would transgress against the Classics. In this way, the Classics moderated between chaos and tyranny.

By the last comment, I meant that the Classics, which is traditions and rituals, provided an alternative to tyranny.

Maybe...but Legalism had a very powerful presence in the politics of pre-Republican China. It was not just about exemplary leadership, consent and ritual. It was also about clear laws and harsh punishments....

I speak of an ideal political philosophy based on the Classics, rather than any historical implementation thereof.

But even in terms of historical implementations, my views are quite valid. I'm on vacation right now, so I don't have my references with me. But if you read the last few pages of Mote's Imperial China, he illustrates in quite explicit terms the substantial amount of liberty for the average inhabitant of Pre-Republican China, in contrast to the ever-increasing laws and regulations of Post-Republican China.

In fact, the idea that Pre-Republican China held far greater freedom was well-established and well-known in the early years of Republican China. For instance, Sun Yat-Sen argued that China needed a stronger and bigger government. In his view, whereas mediaeval Europe experienced too little freedom, and therefore needed an addition of freedom, imperial Chima had too much freedom, and therefore needed an increase of government.

The same idea was prevalent in Kang Youwei's circles, where they argued that Western powers were strong because they had big and strong governments, as opposed to small and limited governments.

Furthermore, if you study village organisations in imperial China, you would be surprised to discover that most village clans had their own laws, under the title of zongfa and lijiao (ancestral laws and ritual teachings). Each clan had the power to reward and punish its members according to its peculiar customs.

One excellent illustration is Nan Huai-Jin's anecdote. He said that during the Anti-Japanese War, he knew a young man, who was obsessed with revenge. In former times, this young man was friendly with a girl in his village. But this girl was betrothed to another man. Therefore, the village elders thought that the young man and the girl were having an affair. They then condemned them both to live burial. The girl died, whereas the young man escaped. Thereafter, he was obsessed with avenging the girl.

I'm not promoting a revival of live burials, but I merely show that authority in Pre-Republican China was diffused and decentralised.

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