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« Confucianism's Problem with Modernity - a brief comment | Main | Jeremy Lin and Chinese Soft Power »

February 10, 2012


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Yes... my impression, upon reading the analects and a bit of other stuff from the time is that the glorification of the place of the monarchs, and of their hierarchy is really just political necessity for Mencius and Confucius. There's this gentle prod where these academics are using flattery in order to try to get the kings to behave responsibly and gently and kindly in respect to their people.

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that what these scholars actually believed was that meritocracy would work like cream which rises to the top of the milk, naturally.

We should always read between the lines of ancient literature - that's where you start gaining the real insights... you have to understand the context within which the person was speaking or writing.

I am blown away when I look at Mencius' and Confucius' writings this way - because it's the only ancient text I've yet been exposed to where I see this really transparent, clear-minded sense of a generous spirit. It's so much the opposite of religious texts from the West and Middle East which are in large part just statements of sycophantry toward the kings of the day.

Good post, Mr Crane! I very much think that it needs to be emphasised that not all Chinese culture (particularly contemporary Chinese culture) is Confucian - though it is one of the three most important intellectual traditions which has historically shaped the Chinese way of thinking. And it does very much bear noting that Confucianism is not a free pass for all hierarchies or all authorities per se, but only for those hierarchies and authorities which make human dignity their reason for existing.

That said, I think one cannot be too careful in using words like 'meritocracy' in application to Confucianism - particularly in the context of other Chinese philosophies! The language of rewards and punishments according to merit was the very trademark of Han Fei's Legalist philosophy: an office may be filled by anyone who fits the job description and who acts in a way most suitable to the benefit of the ruler. I certainly grant that there are 'meritocratic' elements within Confucianism, but these are tempered heavily by a virtue-ethical or care-ethical framework which judges 'merit' on the basis of how one treats those related to him. So, yes, in Confucianism it very much does matter 'who [your] daddy is' (or who your mommy is, who your brothers and sisters are, who your friends are, who your lord is and so on) - insofar as it informs how you honour them and how you behave towards them. As a result, there are really two different concepts of 'meritocracy' which deserve to be parsed from each other.

I really do have to object to the idea, though (in response to Mr vanDyck), that the religious texts of the West and Middle East are sycophantic to political power. Jesus of Nazareth was not executed by Pontius Pilate for his obsequies to the Roman Empire, after all; nor were any of the prophets who came before him murdered because they were too sympathetic either to the Davidic line of kings or to the Babylonians who sent them into exile. The teachings of Christianity are possibly the most subversively anti-authoritarian ideology mankind has yet come up with, since in the doctrine of original sin lies the repudiation of the idea that any great concentration of power should be given a pass from scrutiny or criticism.

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