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« Ai Weiwei, Zhuangzi, and Life at the Margins | Main | Talk at Foreign Correspondent's Club, Hong Kong, January 23, 2014 »

January 30, 2014


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"So, perhaps we should state it in the past tense: Korea was the most Confucian society in the world."

Yes, but who else is more Confucian than Korea is today? Answer? Nobody.

Sam: here is an example of Confucianism in
Xiong Shili: 1911 Revolutionary
Edward F. Connelly PhD

In 2011, China celebrated the centennial of the October 1911 Republican Revolution. The life of Xiong Shili tell us much about the bravery and patriotism of the revolutionaries as well as their hardships and sacrifices.
Xiong and two boyhood friends, Wang Han and He Zixin, received their early educations from teachers who imbued them not only with patriotism and other traditional Confucian virtues but also the urgent need to change and reform China. All three young men, and especially Xiong, studied the works of a group of late Ming and early Qing dynasty scholars, known as Ming loyalists, who vividly espoused the cause of political and economic reform.
In their late teens, Xiong and his two friends decided against taking the imperial exams that were still the principal means to privilege, power, and wealth. Instead, they traveled to the Hubei provincial capital, Wuhan, to espouse revolution. To family and friends who tried to dissuade them, Xiong replied by quoting the Ming loyalist Gu Yanwu’s admonition that "even the humblest man is responsible for the fate of his country.”
After arriving in Wuhan, Wang Han and He Zixin established the Science Study Group, the first revolutionary organization in Hubei Province. While the Group overtly taught the sciences, it covertly taught China’s need for reform and revolution. After the Qing authorities learned of the Group’s covert activities, they closed it down.
Xiong Shili, meanwhile, joined the Qing army both to foment revolution among the troops and also to serve as a covert liaison between the troops and the revolutionaries. This was an especially dangerous undertaking but one that eventually proved crucial to the success of the 1911 Revolution.
After the forced closing of the Science Study Group, Wang Han planned to assassinate a Qing finance official traveling in Hubei with soldiers to extort funds to prop up the corrupt Qing regime. Wang acquired a pistol from Sun Yat-sen's predecessor, Song Jiaoren. Wang shot at the Qing finance official as he alighted from a train but missed. Wang fled the scene but had difficulty avoiding the ensuing dragnet. Fearing that torture following his capture world cause him to give up the names of other revolutionaries and revolutionary organizations, Wang committed suicide.
After Wang’s demise, Xiong Shili and He Zixin founded the Society for the Daily Increase of Knowledge which operated out of the Reading Room of the American founded Episcopalian Church in Wuhan. The Society held meetings in the church on Sundays. At these meetings, Xiong would lecture on the world situation and China’s dire political straits. Based on information from spies, the Qing authorities raided the Society. Xiong escaped but He Zixin was arrested and jailed. He eventually escaped from jail and went into hiding, but internment and torture had broken his health and he died shortly thereafter.
Under the cover of the many county benevolent societies, Xiong established the Huang’gang County Soldiers and Students Tutorial Society to propogate revolution among students and soldiers. Xiong lectured at the Tutorial Society on China’s need for democracy, sovereignty, and an end to such foreign depredations as extraterritoriality. Xiong illustrated these lectures with quotes and stories from the Chinese classics in order to provide soldiers and students a Chinese context to western political ideas.
Xiong also distributed revolutionary pamphlets, such as The People’s Paper and the Revolutionary Army, so effectively that every student and soldier had at least one pamphlet espousing revolution. Xiong soon came to the notice of the Qing authorities who placed a bounty on his life, forcing Xiong to become even more clandestine.
The revolution started in Wuhan on 10 October 1911 and soon swept throughout China bringing an end to more than two thousand years of dynastic rule in China.
In his memoirs, Xiong noted that many revolutionaries thought the revolution would occur in one of the east coast port cities such as Shanghai or Tianjin because these cities had more interaction with foreigners and were thus considered more progressive and open to change. Due to the efforts of Xiong and other revolutionaries, however, the revolution started in Wuhan, the very center of China's heartland.
Although many revolutionaries ridiculed the idea of propagating revolution among the largely sem-literate troops, the support of these troops was crucial to the success of the revolution. Xiong won troops over by giving the revolution a Chinese cultural context the troops could understand and accept.
After the 1911 Revolution, Xiong went on to a distinguished career as Professor of Philosophy at Beijing University. Xiong is credited both in China and in the Chinese dyaspora as the founder of the "New Confucian Studies" movement. The old revolutionary died in Shanghai in 1968 at age 83.

Along the lines of what Edward said above, I still think that Korea is (relatively) the most Confucian country in the world. Of course, there are more and more deviations from Confucianism among the general populace these days. Unlike China, however, Korea never went through anything like the Cultural Revolution or the Xinhai Revolution, both of which explicitly eschewed Confucianism and traditional Chinese thought. Admittedly, elements of Confucianism did get warped during the Japanese Colonialism. (e.g., Calling someone only one year older "older brother" originates from that time).

Dear Sam,

Happy New Year of the Horse!

I rarely used facebook, and enjoyed your thoughtful piece. Here are random thoughts. First, trees were not only useless, but dangerous. That was why there were no trees in the Palace museum, because terrorists might hide behind them. Little wonder the last emperor of the Ming dynasty had to walk up Mount Jin, north of the palaces, to hang himself. I did not realize the absence of trees in the Korean palace until I saw your photo. Very interesting! Maybe Korean kings did it for security reasons. They might do it purely to imitate the style of the celestial dynasty. I recalled my visit to a Japanese palace. The guide told us that the Japanese tried to use the same color as the Chinese emperor did. But it might be hard to describe and even concoct the same color in the good old day. So the Japanese royal color was slightly different from the Chinese. People like to imitate power. Many Chinese local governments built their buildings to imitate the Capitol Hill, but interestingly they did not see the difference between the White House and the Capitol Hill. All buildings were called bai-gong or white houses by locals, because they are white.

Second, I agree with you that the revival Confucianism may be futile. The thought lack lots of things. For example, Confucius might not be self-righteous and delusional, and was actually very eager to learn, but he was too this-worldly and lacked curiosities about the nature. This may partly explain why Confucian elites have not been very interested in science or even technology. Also like all ancient ideas, almost all were of the ancient people, by them and for them. In a modern society whose size and complexity is unimaginable by a person like Confucius, its teaching just cannot fit well. Having said that, we may salvage something from Confucianism. It is easier said than done, but it may be worth trying. For example, the loneness of old people is a scourge in any society. Family value may be emphasized so that burden on the state or more precisely the society may be lessened.

Finally, it is interesting to discuss which society is more Confucian. I do not know the Korean society well, and they are Confucian in many ways. But it is hard to rank all Confucian societies. About 1/4th of the South Koreans are Christian, so they consciously abandon Confucian ideas. In reality, this does not necessarily make them act less Confucian. Patters of interpersonal relations are hard to change, even if you do not like them, because we are all part of the society. Many may say that Taiwan is a more Confucian society. I tend to agree. The KMT did spend a long time imposing Confucian values on Taiwan.

So much for my two cents. BTY, have you seen this performance? It is fabulous.

Best wishes to you and your family!

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