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« Inviting Confucius to Celebrate 30 Years of the PRC | Main | The art of emptiness »

October 12, 2009


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Let's not forget the west has its variant of 'confucianism/legalism'. It's called the 'protestant ethic'.(ref, Weber's 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. Whilst protestantism may not be the main fuel behind western, or american, economic advance at present, that which it blinded people to is that which determines much of what they see at present. However, with western democracy, it had the effect of softening the negative impact of the protestant ethnic.

One could say that the reason why China can 'miraculously' shoot ahead upon globalisation is due to the congruence between its ethos and that of the global capitalist ethos. Confucianism can also very easily be classed with 'Conservatism' or, putting it another way, doing one's best within a bad situation without taking on the said 'bad situation'. This diminishes their human personality to the point that they can recognise as 'success' that which would disgust other more humane and perspectivally developed others.

In fact, instead of Confucianism being a 'soft power', it could very easily be argued that it is 'soft nazism' or 'fascism' as it frowns on difference, historical replicationism, cultural continuity, everyone knowing their place through the 'rectification of names', subservience toward authority, amongst other negatives that in turn gives birth to negatives such as bigotry, popular intellectual decrepitude, apathy, et cetera. The west would have headed this way, if not for its cultural and political instability and thereafter, democracy. That served as the final check on the protestant ethic leading the people down the same fascist path as the Confucian/legalists.


In consideration of your final paragraphs, i have to add that i am aware of and laud the 'human-heartedness'(ren) that Confucius proposed, along with his frowning upon capital punishment and coercion, and promotion of moral internalisation. However, the exhortations to be subservient and abide by 'proprieties' as enumerated in the Confucian principles of proprietous behaviour and attitudes, 'zheng ming'(rectification of names) amongst others, shows that more efforts had been made in being systematic when it comes to the maintenance of order than when it comes to the promotion of humanity and popular intellectual individualism - a stark contrast to India. This serves as the check on 'noble-minded' opposition to the status quo. This is that which allowed Confucianism to go quite well with Legalism - which can be seen as the 'hard power' behind Confucianism. At the end of the day, Confucius quite left it to the discretionary benevolence of the government as opposed to the power of the people.

In that, one could say that he was a 'harmony fetishist' - seeing harmony as the ends that whitewashes the means and consequences of a system. When the Duke of Chi asked Confucius about governing, he replied, "Let the lord be the lord, the minister be a minister, the father be a father, and the son be son.' And in this may be found the basis for the 'harmony' in Confucian states. Power, popularity, majority defined along racial/cultural lines, bigotry, etc, are natural corollaries of such a mindset. Any wonder why that is so in Xinjiang, Tibet, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, amongst others?

Thank you for this article. It provided much for consideration.

Hi Sam,

I too find Jian's understanding of Confucianism a bit lacking. I think some Confucian (and Daoist, Mohist and Legalist) values can be a source of soft power in today's world.

You get at something important: what Confucianism historically became, in its fusion with Legalism in the Han dynasty and after, and what it could be, based on the principles of the classic texts themselves. Perhaps I am overly idealistic in believing that the latter (what Confucianism could be - by which I understand to be more Humane) can be detached from the former. Indeed, you may be right: if a detachment of the ideal from the actual is impossible than, perhaps, Confucianism will not be able to diffuse globally. Thanks for the comment.

Bao Pu,
Good to hear from you...

"Soft power" is simply the degree that people admire a country and wish to emulate it. The US has soft power because it is a prosperous and well-run country (still) with a flourishing culture which permits people to fulfil their potential to a greater degree than other places. (Maybe not everybody would agree 100%, but it has attractiveness and prestige to the degree that people believe those things).

China is well on the way to becoming quite prosperous and flourishing as well, but it would be hard to credit this to Confucianism (if it were, China should have been much more prosperous when Confucianism was the state ideology).

Unless Confucianism can be shown to be a source of hard power (at least in terms of economic prosperity and fulfilment of human potential) it is probably not going to provide much soft power either.

Rather than Confucius Institutes, China could set up "Development Institutes" in 3rd world countries with the objective of helping them replicate its own success in economic development. If they were successful in doing this they would gain more "soft power" than a diffusion of Confucian ideas ever could.

Thanks for the good post Professor Crane!

It is interesting to see Confucianism turning into an "assistant of god of wealth" in China. I recall his views toward the merchant class and mercantile activities underlined in The Analects, and find how some traditional scholars might call such "deterioration" to tourist attraction abominable.

I would like to write more but I have a mid-term tomorrow.

But I'll continue to read the posts.


Re: "Development institutes", it could be said that this is already happening in an informal way with Chinese trade links to Africa. If this leads to greater prosperity and development (I expect it will) then naturally we can expect China's soft power to be enhanced - but this will have very little to do with Confucianism.

I agree that Confucius Institutes are rather silly. And, yes, soft power is shaped - but not wholly determined by - the hard power of economic development and political power. But, for all of that, it may still be possible, as China continues to grow, for Westerners to come to see some of the attractions of ancient Chinese philosophy, not as those philosophies have been used to justify state power but, rather, how they might inform a fuller understanding of human life and potential now. Sounds idealistic, I know, but I think there is a kind of idealism inherent in soft power.

Good to hear from you! How's life in the big city? I bet that Zhuangzi might produce some alluring design ideas....

I dunno Ed. Given the way that Confucianism has been received, I always think that not including Mencius in the analysis is a mistake. After all, the Mencian line of thinking (mixed with legalism, daoism, and later Buddhism, of course) won out and so any exegesis we may choose to engage in is heavily flavored with those elements.

You talk about racism, but is that really the case? Confucius/Mencius made it quite clear that being Han isn't what is important but rather being literate (granted, literate in the writing system handed to the Han by Cangjie). This concept has been re-affirmed many times throughout Chinese history as foreign conquerers became sinicized. But it also applied to the conquered territories. The Imperial Examination system, for example, excluded people based on race relatively rarely. It didn't have to because cultural filters were in place and the system was designed such that only wealth non-merchants steeped in Han culture (so, basically it was only passable to members of the landholding class of Han extraction or from a culture that had already been absorbed by the Han). Is that "racism"? Cultural chauvinism, sure. But those are different concepts.

Confucianism does recognize hierarchy, but what is wrong with hierarchy qua hierarchy? You can argue that this-or-that hierarchy is wrong or out-of-whack but to deny that such gradients exist seems rather silly to me. Doesn't it make more sense to recognize that facet of human existence and try and emphasize the duties that *both* aspects of the hierarchy owe to each other? There are numerous examples in the Analects of Confucius decrying one-way relationships where only the superior member benefits and Mencius is even more extreme on this point.

As for "Confucianism as soft power", I think it makes a lot of sense in the traditional Chinese sphere of influence. I mean, it is pretty much already there so pointing it out makes a good deal of sense from a soft-power standpoint. In other areas, eh, Confucianism makes as much sense as anything else. Right? It isn't like they can appeal to "pragmatism" for soft-power since the sort of pragmatism they are normally talking about deals only with the realities of hard power.

But more than that, what the Confucius Institutes do is provide a gathering area for the expat population were the PRC (and CCP) can have influence. I don't know about the ones in your area, but the CI institute near where I live throws parties/hosts social gatherings at all the big (Chinese) holidays, offers Chinese classes for the children of expats, and then does its best to funnel those kids back to China through scholarships and language proficiency tests.

So the soft-power appeal of Confucianism is really just operating where Confucianism is already present. It keeps the cultural influence of China at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Peter: Here is some writing in the margin:

Soft power" is simply the degree that people admire a country and wish to emulate it.

( Peter, let's cut the chase and be sincere for a change. Do you seriously want Indonesia or in this case, China to emulate the United States in terms of soft and hard power. For example, building up military bases around the world and raining death from above in two of them? You can't even talk about power, hard or soft, without referring to the America's Empire of Bases
by Chalmers Johnson; you can't take about the economic power of U.S. without mentioned some serious facts mentioned in “US Joins Ranks Of Failed States
By Paul Craig Roberts "

Not if you try to be honest to your own self, which is a very Confucian concept...


The US has (Had?) soft power because it is a prosperous and well-run country (still?
Who raised the vegetable and makes the thieves in Wall Street openly fleecing the whole world and its creation of hundreds of trillions of derivative beasts to devour the whole world’s financial system? Is it Indonesia? China? Vietnam? ...The regulatory agencies have been corrupted by private interests. Frontline reports that Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers blocked Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating derivatives. President Obama rewarded Larry Summers for his idiocy by appointing him Director of the National Economic Council. What this means is that profits for Wall Street will continue to be leeched from the diminishing blood supply of the American economy.) with a flourishing culture ( culture? what culture? Bread and circus such as baseball ? Please advise...) which permits people to fulfill their potential to a greater degree (thanks to the trillions of real asset (rather than fairy money creation, still in the core of the empire it is Master in the Wall Street superrich and indentured slaves for the rest ) tribute carried to the core of the empire by the periphery... the tributes that are creating poverty in the periphery and corruption in the corrupted core) than other places. (Maybe not everybody would agree 100%, but it has attractiveness and prestige to the degree that people believe those things (thanks to the success of your mass media brainwashing machine, especially the ever dummying down T.V.).

Sincerely yours for a change


Mr.Jian Junbo:

BEFORE writing about soft/hard power issue you might want to carefully read each and every word of this book:

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