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« The Chinese Political System is not a Meritocracy | Main | Gu Kailai Proffers a Confucian Defense »

July 26, 2012


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Mr Crane, I think that by taking the tack merely that democratic institutions are not incompatible with the 'core' of the Confucian ideology, you are somewhat dodging the question. The true core issue, here, is not that democratic institutions are compatible with Confucianism. Indeed, the issue is that democratic institutions are not incompatible with any ideology. As long as an ideology has enough popular support, democratic institutions can even be made (and has been made) to support fascism, genocide, slavery and all sorts of other completely inhumane things. I think this is the core of what Bell and Jiang are arguing.

Here you are not defending Confucianism per se; I believe what you are defending is a form of liberal pragmatism vis a vis people who genuinely hold to Confucian values. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, but the key issue which one of the Bell-Jiang-Kang school of neo-Confucianism will want to see addressed will be how the Confucian virtues can be positively articulated within a system that flattens value to a mere measure of its popularity, the way democratic systems do.

In systems which have some recognised sources of authority (you may choose to call these systems authoritarian, but in my view, the British monarchy and the appointed / hereditary House of Lords - which includes clerics of the Church of England - also qualifies), the Good can be articulated in ways which are not relativised to mere popularity. Even where the government did something wrong (like the Iraq War), you had people in positions of power (Archbp Rowan Williams, for example) openly criticising it in ways which ultimately were able to sway public opinion.

The American system has no such sources of authority. Churchmen, rabbis and imams are not respected on moral issues. Scientists are not respected on climate change. Academics are not respected in the wider society on any issue. The American electorate is growing increasingly polarised, with few if any values which either side will claim to share with the other. A Confucian would see this society as lacking in 信; and I am not sure reliance on democratic institutions can help this.

Still, a very well-argued post. Just highlighting some of the issues from my end.


I wouldn't disagree with the premise as stated, but it begs the question of what is democracy? Is it just the facade of one man, one vote? Does Egyptian voting for Islamic candidates and against gender equality validates democracy. Is Americans voting for tax cuts and crumbling infrastructures and textbooks against evolution and earth being 5,000 years old makes it valid? Consider China has what, 30 years to change milleniums of attitude and if you just immediately pander for democracy I imagine China's one child policy certainly will not pass and you might have 2 or 3 billion people begging for food aids instead.

Hi Sam.

You write,

And Confucianism in China has changed as well. Historically, it was a philosophy embedded in a patriarchal society and its ideas were used in the systematic subordination of women. The twentieth century changed all that. Now, it is common place for contemporary Confucians to argue that gender equality is actually more in keeping with the spirit of humaneness than the earlier exclusionary culture. And no one, at least no one I know, is suggesting that the misogynist past is an authentic Confucianism worth keeping.

Justice and Mercy, a Confucian law student in North America (or has he finished by now?), has defended the traditional Confucian gender roles in comment strings on this blog.

The paper you link to, to show what's commonplace, is by Chenyang Li, who works at Central Washington University.

I think that in connection with the Bell/Jian paper, the relevant Confucianism is the Confucianism of the mainland. Is mainland Confucianism predominantly sexist? I have no idea. Can you shed any light on that? Thanks!

I was assuming, from the conversations I have had with Daniel over the years, that he, and I imagine most mainland scholars, would not embrace a sexist Confucianism. My sense is that there is general agreement with the kind of argument Li puts forth, which recognizes the female potential for the highest moral achievement. I see this in Goldin's book on Confucianism, too. I suspect Justice and Mercy is an outlier on this score...but all of these are just my general impressions. I would bet that a more muscular assertion of a patriarchal Confucianism would be met with fairly staunch resistance in the PRC...

This seems to be a very uncharitable look at Li's argument. Li was criticizing a very specific kind of "democracy". In fact, he explicitly states what he is criticizing in the Aspen debate with Pei.

I also would put more weight on what Confucianism is by the classical Confucian texts. So despite the fact that it has changed and was there was disagreement even from the beginning, the original classic Confucian texts (Analects, Mencius, Xunzi) deserve the preponderance of the weight for a standard of what ought to construed as closer or further to a conception of Confucianism. But I see absolutely no reason that Confucianism from these early texts is in any way antithetical to more robust conceptions of democracy. In fact, I would argue that they are exceptionally conducive to it, far more so than most ancient political or ethical philosophies.

Entirely agree with Dan that Confucianism is no more anti-democratic than similar religio-politico-cultural systems (e.g., Christianity). In each case arguments can be made both for and against democracy based on various parts of the basic text. The reason why people do attempt to justify authoritarianism based on Confucianism (and Christianity, for that matter) is because there is no convincing logical or moral basis for doing so.

It is also remarkable that the authorian Confucians propose policies that have no absolute basis in Confucianism. Take Jiang's proposal that a separate "House Of The Nation" be created for nobility that should be led by a descendant of Confucius (something Bell bizarrely seemed to think would make things more meritocratic). Where is the basis for this in Confucianism? Didn't Confucius himself emphasise the importance of nobility of virtue over nobility of blood?

They also have the very annoying habit of seeing Confucianism in everything that happens in modern-day China, particularly in its system of government. You have to ask why they believe Confucianism to be such an influence on the current political system of China. Confucianism has been discredited as a official system of governance now for more than a century, and has been roundly condemned throughout the 20th Century. No major constitutional changes have been introduced in the PRC since 1982. At what point did the CCP become, as Bell labelled them, "the Chinese Confucian Party"?

The equivalent of this would be a Chinese biblical scholar visiting France or some other country which had abandoned Christianity as a state religion some time ago, and then explaining how everything that happened in in that state was somehow related to the teachings of the bible. Even were such analysis directed to the religiously conservative United States most people would see it as ludicrous. Yet, such is the credulity and lack of knowledge about China in North America and Europe that people are willing to believe that Mainland China's present political system is due to Confucianism, when in fact it was founded in violent opposition to it.

I prefer a much simpler form of analysis. China's present political system is exactly what it claims to be: a Leninist system of government partnered with fairly free market-oriented economic policies. This has the advantage of matching exactly what we see in modern day China - a "vanguard party" (i.e., the CCP) deciding policy via internal "democratic centralism" (i.e., decision-making by the Politburo).

Obviously, Confucianism does still have influence over Chinese society at the cultural level, although here we are using 'Confucianism' to describe a grab-bag of traditions, many of which pre-date Confucius or are otherwise unrelated to him. I would, however, put this influence as considerably less than, for example, the influence of the teachings of Christ or the Greek philosophers within modern-day North America and Europe. Trying to analyse modern-day political affairs in the PRC through the lens of Confucianism alone is as foolish as trying to analyse the Greek financial crisis through the teachings of Plato.

As an adendum: the influence of Confucianism is actually stronger and much more obvious in the constitution of the ROC - particularly in government bodies like the Examination Yuan. The ROC government, of course, is a democratically elected one.

Bullsh*t. What is democracy? The core value of modern Confucianism is Ren. Fine. Ren is good, modern is good, so democracy needs Confucianism. The logic is absurd.

Certainly Ren does not conflict with democracy. It is how Confucianism achieves Ren is the question. It is the top-down authoritarian approach intrinsic to Confucianism that conflict with democracy.

Mr Grundy,

'I would, however, put this influence as considerably less than, for example, the influence of the teachings of Christ or the Greek philosophers within modern-day North America and Europe. Trying to analyse modern-day political affairs in the PRC through the lens of Confucianism alone is as foolish as trying to analyse the Greek financial crisis through the teachings of Plato.'

This statement is either deeply profound or deeply foolish depending on which angle you are taking. If you are attempting to designate the causes of the financial crisis, on a positive level, then yes, I certainly agree that arguing Plato's The Republic as the basis of that failure isn't necessarily going to get you anywhere. However, if you are attempting to get at a normative explanation for how the financial crisis could be addressed, one would have to be an utter dimwit not to take Plato's political philosophy into account. Even today, it remains an invaluable tool in the account of human organisation, and such philosophers as Alasdair MacIntyre (God, I sound like a broken record on The Useless Tree when I mention his work) do have very convincing explanations for the failures of late capitalism and of modernity.

Likewise, and I would hope Mr Crane might agree, Confucius and Mencius (when read on their own terms in a literary and historical framework, rather than by people who wish to contort them either to the cause of liberalism or to the cause of a Legalist form of authoritarianism) are very relevant to many of China's current problems - at least if you are looking for normative solutions.

I am a beginner in all things Chinese so take what I say with a grain of salt. All pre-modern societies were authoritarian almost by definition and almost certainly by necessity. Involuntary servitude was an inescapable component of all complex societies. There was simply no way around it.

That said, I would compare Confucious to thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. There is much wisdom despite the inegalitarian assumptions which were part and parcel of the societies and civilizations to which they belonged. We can learn from them without sharing these assumptions. The valuable parts are what remain true even today.

@ FOARP - "China's present political system is exactly what it claims to be: a Leninist system of government partnered with fairly free market-oriented economic policies."

Impossible to argue with that.

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