The Confucian Political Imagination
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The Confucian Political Imagination

Eske J. Møllgaard

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eBook - ePub

The Confucian Political Imagination

Eske J. Møllgaard

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About This Book

This book critically examines the Confucian political imagination and its influence on the contemporary Chinese dream of a powerful China. It views Confucianism as the ideological supplement to a powerful state that is challenging Western hegemony, and not as a political philosophy that need not concern us. Eske Møllgaard shows that Confucians, despite their traditionalist ways, have the will to transform the existing socio-ethical order. The volume discusses the central features of the Confucian political imaginary, the nature of Confucian discourse, Confucian revivals, Confucian humanism and civility, and the political ideal of the Great Unity. It concludes by considering if Confucianism can be universalized as an ideology in competition with liberal democracy.

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© The Author(s) 2018
Eske J. MøllgaardThe Confucian Political Imagination
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction: The Confucian Challenge

Eske J. Møllgaard1
University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, USA
End Abstract

The Return of Confucianism

Western hegemony is fading and a contemporary intellectual cannot work only within the confines of the European tradition but must be familiar with and able to adjudicate various non-Western worldviews that demand recognition on the global scene. Non-Western intellectuals have for generations studied Western culture and philosophy and are often well prepared to enter the global dialogue, but in the post-colonial era Western intellectuals seem to have become, or, as some would say, have revealed themselves to be what they always were, namely provincial. Furthermore, non-Western traditions are no longer mere objects for Western scholarly research but subjects that assert their own universality and resist Western understanding and tolerance. Today, more than ever, we should heed William Blake’s call to engage in “mental strife,” not to build Jerusalem on “England’s fair soil,” a noble but limited task, but to transform the clash of worldviews into a global political community.
Among the rising non-Western worldviews Confucianism is especially significant because it is part of the ideology of a country, China, that challenges the West economically and also increasingly militarily. When the Qing 清 dynasty fell in 1912, the national examination system, which ensured that the Chinese elite shared a Confucian education, had been abolished, Confucian academies (shuyuan 書院) were gone, and Confucian temples (wenmiao 文庙) neglected. In the following decades Confucian doctrine became the object of devastating critique by enlightened Chinese reformers, which culminated in the violent anti-Confucian campaigns of the Chinese Communists. During much of the twentieth century the Chinese associated Confucianism with “feudal dross.” But then things changed. After decades of misrule that cost the lives of millions of people and the violent suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party lost its legitimacy. To maintain its power the Party launched Patriotic Education campaigns that taught the Chinese to love their country and their culture, and the Party as the protector of both. Nationalism and socialism were conflated, and Confucianism became part of the syncretic ideology called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi 中国特色社会主义).
At the dawn of the twenty-first century Party leaders publicly and fondly recall their Confucian roots, and Confucius is celebrated with colorful displays at his birthplace in Qufu 曲阜. The Chinese Communist Party has broken its own taboo on ancestor worship and declared April 5 the day of the Qingming Festival (Qingming jie 清明節) when the Chinese honor their ancestors, a national holiday. Every year on that day one can see on television Party officials worshipping at the mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people. Once again the Chinese state legitimates itself in Confucian terms as a religio-familial unity, and it is this Confucian vision that today is at the forefront of the Chinese imagination.
It is not just symbolically that the Chinese Communist Party has embraced Confucianism. Officially class struggle has ended and the harmonious society (hexie shehui 和諧社會), a Confucian inspired ideal, prevails. Party policy papers show that from the 1980s onwards the Party has gradually shifted its focus from being the vanguard of the working class to being the benevolent facilitator of people’s livelihood (minsheng 民生). Today the Party’s concern is the “all-round development” of the people that not only secures material welfare but allows the people some measure of independent agency in building socialism with Chinese characteristics (Zhang 2015: 161f.). This shift in Party policy signals a turn to Confucian humane government, and China has now returned to the equilibrium of Confucian moralism and Legalist political realism that has been the basis for Chinese authoritarianism through the ages.
In reviving Confucianism the Chinese Communist Party performs a difficult balancing act. In his address to a conference on Confucianism held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2014, Xi Jinping 习近平 (b. 1953), the President of China, claims that “the Chinese communists have always been faithful inheritors and upholders of the country’s fine cultural traditions,” and he presents the Party’s present policy as being in line with age-old Confucian ideals (Xi 2014). It has not yet been forgotten, however, that the Chinese Communist Party arose in opposition to Confucianism. In a conversation with his nephew, Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893–1976) points out that Chinese communism arose from criticism of Confucius, and he warns his fellow communists that if there comes a time when the Communist Party runs into trouble or can no longer govern and “asks for Confucius to come back” to help them, then the Party will soon be finished. This conversation is much quoted on the internet; there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, but it cannot be found in print, perhaps because it has been censored (Mao’s nephew was an ultra-leftist and jailed after Mao passed away). At any rate, Mao must have been aware that that the Party, despite his own best efforts, had not succeeded in throwing Confucius in the dustbin of history, and that the imported ideology of Marxism-Leninism, a mere system of ideas, is no match for the Confucian political imaginary that permeates Chinese communism itself. Today the Party is also afraid that a revived Confucianism might swallow up Party ideology, and therefore it tolerates only an emasculated Confucianism, or Confucianism as “culture.”
Apart from Party-sponsored Confucianism an increasing number of Chinese intellectuals sincerely embrace Confucianism as a way of life and as a way to a future China. Three discourses dominate the intellectual field in contemporary China. There is a liberal discourse that argues for individual liberties, democracy, and human rights. This discourse goes back to Yan Fu 嚴復 (1854–1921), who translated Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but even after being promoted for more than a century by various intellectuals, liberalism has found little traction in China. Then there is a socialist discourse centered on social justice. Generations of Chinese have been schooled in socialist values, and the new Left—Wang Hui 汪晖 (b. 1959) is a prominent representative—finds resonance here, but in an era where the Chinese Communist Party presides over a managed capitalist market economy the new Left is on the defensive. It is the authoritarian-nationalist tendency that is on the rise in Chinese politics. This position is exemplified by the influential conservative Liu Xiaofeng 刘小枫 (b. 1956), who has developed Leo Strauss’ philosophy in a neo-fascist direction and defends Chinese traditional culture on that basis (Marchal 2017). In the foreseeable future the Party will no doubt be able to regulate these three competing discourses—conservatism, liberalism, and socialism—in such a way that they will be in harmony with each other. For the ability to create a normative foundation out of a paradoxical constellation of opposed intellectual trends is the very genius of Chinese political culture (Heubel 2016: 33).
Where does Confucianism fit in among these three discourses? Some contemporary Confucian intellectuals are drawn to liberal ideas, but they face a dilemma: either they have to reject the core of liberalism, the idea of autonomy, or they have to reject of the core of Confucianism, the affective bond between ruler and ruled. Confucianism is more compatible with socialism. Chinese communism has many Confucian elements, and it is possible, at least theoretically, to develop a Confucian-Marxism that may compete with the West in the intellectual field (Chen 2014). Confucianism is, however, essentially a conservative yet utopian vision of the kind promoted by Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858–1927), who envisioned a Chinese state that is neither socialist nor liberal but a Great Unity (datong 大同) attained through a cultural revolution with Confucius as the supreme saint. Kang’s writings are very influential in contemporary China, for here the Confucian political imaginary connects with the universal aspiration of Chinese intellectuals, regardless of political ideology, to revitalize the spiritual-cultural essence of the nation.
Apart from state-sponsored Confucianism and Confucianism for intellectuals, there is also an emerging popular Confucianism. In the vacuum of values after socialism people are turning to traditional religions—to Daoism and Buddhism, and in large numbers to Christianity—for guidance in living the moral life. Here Confucianism also has a need to fill, and in 2007 a popular book on the Confucian way of life by the academic Yu Dan 于丹 (b. 1965) became a best seller. A major concern in this popular Confucianism is education. Some Chinese parents worry that the compulsory educational system Westernizes their children, and they think schools should emphasize moral education rather than mathematics. Therefore they send their children to Confucian reading classes where, supposedly, through repeated readings of the classics (in some cases up to a thousand times) the children develop “superior wit so that in the end anything remains possible for them,” and they attain an inner state “where they manage to spontaneously respond to all that affects them in the way advocated by the classics” (Billioud and Thoraval 2015: 97–98). In short, the children become Confucian sages who will help regenerate China. Pushing Confucian moral education is, however, an uphill battle, for popular ethics in China is developing in a decidedly non-Confucian direction, and today many Chinese see selfishness—the most serious moral flaw in Confucianism—as liberating (Yan Yunxiang 2011: 41–47). Rather than reading Confucian books most young Chinese would prefer to watch an episode of the American television sitcom “Friends,” where they get a vision of a world of play outside the confines of the family, without interference from moralizers and forgetful of politics.

The Challenge to the West

For the first time the West is forced to consider Confucianism not as an exotic philosophy that need not concern us but as the ideological supplement to a powerful state that is challenging Western hegemony. Liberal democratic Westerners find it hard to believe that an ideology based on archaic notions like “sage-ruler” and pre-modern ideas like “filial piety” can have political force today. They believe that such illusions will pass, and that once the Chinese get cellphones and Starbucks they will be just like Americans, individual consumers with “human rights.” They are sure that their open secular society will prevail over the sacred unity of the Confucian political imaginary. But Confucianism has become a central part of China’s soft power in the world and it is pushing back against Western democracy. “Confucius Institutes” for the promotion of Chinese language and culture have carved out zones of exception to academic freedom in Western universities, where topics such as universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, human rights, crony capitalism, and the status of Taiwan and Tibet are as unwelcome as they are in China itself (Sahlins 2015: 14–24). When the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 (1955–2017) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010, offended Chinese responded by instituting a “Confucius Peace Prize” to reflect the Chinese view of peace and human rights. This prize has been awarded to Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro.
There is an urgent need to understand the Confucian political imagination, and fortunately China is no longer hiding behind its oceans, mountains, and walls, fascinating but unreadable as it still was when Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva were traveling there in the 1970s. Today we are able to learn more about Chinese political culture from glancing through a week of reports in our news media than Leibniz (1646–1716) could gather from all the letters sent back to Europe by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, when the West first began to learn about China. And yet contemporary Westerners have difficulties in understanding the impact of China and its Confucian tradition in the present.
Westerners respond to the rise of China with euphoria and submission, and China is celebrated in the West in ways “that recalls memories of the Chinoiserie that took Europ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. Introduction: The Confucian Challenge
  4. 2. The Imaginary
  5. 3. The Discourse
  6. 4. The Revivals
  7. 5. Humanism
  8. 6. Civility
  9. 7. Decline of the Great Unity
  10. 8. Can Confucianism be Universalized?
  11. Back Matter