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« A Daoist Moment in Chekhov | Main | Charlie Sheen and Satirical Confucianism »

March 08, 2011

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At least as far as filial piety goes, I would say the Chinese college students I taught for two years at Sichuan Normal University very much embodied that value. So insofar as that value can be connected to Confucianism, so can they. In other areas I am not so sure. But to take one example: my 25 yo tutor who was a grad student in linguistics was already planning on the house she would buy for her mother and where they would live when the mother retired. I taught university for fifteen years in the States and never once did I hear a faintly similar story. By contrast, this students story was more the rule than the exception. But perhaps Chengdu is different in this respect than Beijing or Shanghai.

Good points Sam. This leads me to consider to what extent *any* society can be called a society in which most (or many) people act consistently with its ideals. Very few people in western history, for example, have managed to live up to "Christian values" in a fully coherent way. I think part of the problem is that ideals like those of the Confucian, Christian, Buddhist, etc., as admirable as they are, are also very demanding and difficult to live up to, and as such most people will fail to live up to them, even if they endorse them.

To that extent, if we take the actions of the majority of the people of a given society as determining what kind of society it is, China has probably *never* been a Confucian society, just as no society in the west has ever been a Christian society. Given a different way of determining what makes a society a certain type that depends on the ideals most people *endorse* (rather than live up to), I think we can still call China a Confucian society, and the west (through much of its history although now that's waning a bit) a Christian society.

Thanks for the comments.
Yes, Alexus, I agree with you. The only reason I keep hammering this point is that I so often hear people say something about China being a "Confucian society," and I think we need to be clearer about what we mean by that.
Peter, while it may be true that more Chinese are more caring of their parents than Americans (and I am not completely convinced that that is the case), it comes down to walking the walk, not just talking the talk. It seems to me that it is getting harder and harder for young Chinese people to get the money and take the time to care for their elderly parents, because they have to work and compete in a materially hyper-competitive, even cut throat, society that demands their time and attention and resources. Global modernity works powerfully against the practical enactment of Confucian values.

I agree-I'm bothered by claims about China as a "Confucian society" I often hear as well. I think my hesitation about this is probably consistent with yours. I find when people generally refer to China as a "Confucian society", they mean this as a claim that the values of Confucianism can somehow help explain the actual behavior or motivations of Chinese people. And this is, I agree, absurd. I remember telling an intro class one time something along the lines of "trying to understand the behavior and motivations of people in China by reading the Analects or Mencius is akin to trying to understand the behavior and motivations of Americans by reading the Gospels. Neither will prove very effective."

Also- your claim about global modernity working against the practical enactment of Confucian values strikes me as right. It also seems to me that many ethical systems endorse values largely inconsistent with the demands of contemporary society. This is an interesting point because often those who first come into contact with ethical systems like those of Confucianism (I'm thinking intro students here) use the fact that "it's inconsistent with contemporary society" as the basis of an argument against it, as if the values of global modernity must be accepted as fundamental and non-negotiable...

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