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January 10, 2018

Why Confucianism matters

Filed under: Confucianism — Razib Khan @ 9:54 pm

Human nature has not changed, within some broad parameters, across history. When I first became interested in topics such as ancient philosophy twenty years ago I recall being struck by the contemporary relevance of thinkers such as Aristotle. Previously my focus has been on the natural sciences, where the dead were just names, whose ideas had often been superseded and extended.

And yet when it came to ethics and moral living the philosophers and religious thinkers who flourished 2,000 years ago seem to have arrived at the primary issues at the general level, though progress and change occurred on the details (and continues to occur).

Why look to China? After all, there were ethical systems in the West. First, I’m not sure that the supernaturalistic religions work to bind elites together anymore. Christianity is getting weaker. My own personal hunch is that the current wave of Islamic assertiveness and violence is the paroxysm of a civilization confronting its irrelevance.

Second, Classical Antiquity had plenty of ethical systems, especially during the Hellenistic and Roman period. But Rome collapsed. There was a great rupture between antiquity and the medieval period. In contrast, the Confucian and Neo-Confucian system persisted down to the early 20th century in classical form and casts a strong shadow over East Asia even today. While Stoicism had personal relevance, Confucianism was designed to scale from the individual all the way to the imperial state.

The 1960s saw a radical transition to notional social egalitarianism in the West. This is the world I grew up and matured in. Arguably, I believed in its rightness, inevitability, and eternal dominance, until very recently. But I think that today that model is fraying and people are looking to find some mooring. In particular, I think we are in need of a rectification of names. From Wikipedia:

Confucius was asked what he would do if he was a governor. He said he would “rectify the names” to make words correspond to reality. The phrase has now become known as a doctrine of feudal Confucian designations and relationships, behaving accordingly to ensure social harmony. Without such accordance society would essentially crumble and “undertakings would not be completed.”

How are we supposed to behave with each given person? A lot of this is free-form and improvisational today, and it turns out that many people are not comfortable with this. Humans need scripts.

Finally, the world that Confucianism developed was highly stratified, though there was some chance of advancement. It was not a calcified caste system, but it was a hierarchical one. I believe that is the system that we are moving toward in the West, and it seems that a system that takes for granted non-egalitarianism, such as Confucianism, may benefit us.

March 13, 2010

How the outsider looks

Filed under: China,Confucianism,Culture — Razib @ 2:01 am

Heartthrob’s Barbed Blog Challenges China’s Leaders:

Since he began blogging in 2006, Mr. Han has been delivering increasingly caustic attacks on China’s leadership and the policies he contends are creating misery for those unlucky enough to lack a powerful government post. With more than 300 million hits to his blog, he may be the most popular living writer in the world.

In a recent interview at his office in Shanghai, he described party officials as “useless” and prone to spouting nonsense, although he used more delicate language to dismiss their relevance. “Their lives are nothing like ours,” he said. “The only thing they have in common with young people is that like us, they too have girlfriends in their 20s, although theirs are on the side.”

It looks like internet usage in China may be reaching 400 million soon. This may seem a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if someone such as Han Han might be viewed as an heir to the long tradition of Confucian scholars who serve as outsider critics against Imperial regimes they deemed morally unfit.

February 20, 2010

Historical contingencies of civilizational ideologies

Filed under: Confucianism,History — David Hume @ 11:45 pm

Reading An Introduction to Confucianism, which is not the typical historically linear treatment (i.e., Confucius → Han dynasty State Confucianism → Song dynasty Neo-Confucianism, etc.), and is also more comprehensive than most introductions (it’s over 350 pages). In case, the author notes that before the Han dynasty Confucianism was simply one of many contesting schools. It was during the reign of Hanwudi that Confucianism was integrated into the administrative ideological apparatus of the unified Chinese state, resulting in State Confucianism. It is famously known that the Legalist school, which was brought to preeminence by the students of the Confucian sage with the most “tragic vision,” Xunzi, attempted to expunge Confucianism during the Chin dynasty. The Chin dynasty is reviled throughout most of Chinese history (with the Maoists being an interesting exception) for its espousal of Legalism and rejection of the humanistic ethos at the heart of Confucianism, but, it is also acknowledged by modern scholars to have set the foundations for the dynastic system which fostered a resurrection of a unified Chinese imperial state after every political collapse. The Chin united China in a manner which set the template for all of Chinese history; by comparison, the Zhou dynasty which the early Confucians idolized was a primitive and feudal polity.

Many modern scholars would argue that the practical structural scaffolding of the Chinese state between the Chin and the early 20th century, a span of over 2,000 years, owed much to Legalism, even if the symbolic ideological core of the state was generally Confucian. And yet I can not help but wonder if China would ever have been unified, and its local identities subordinated to the center, if not for the blitzkrieg which was the Chin Legalist state. Like Stalinist Russia or Maoist China it seems likely that the Legalist phase had a “sell-by” date, the Chin dynasty collapsed almost immediately after the death of the First Emperor. A China where Confucian ideology marginalized Legalism early enough may have been one where China, like India or Europe, developed into a civilization of states, instead of a state which was coterminous with the civilization. State Confucianism may never have developed, and become entrenched as the foundational ethos of the bureaucratically oriented literati. The Confucian Age in China may have been an ancient period before the rise of Buddhist monarchies.

Addendum: Also recommended, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han.


January 26, 2010

Confucius biopic

Filed under: Confucianism — Razib @ 12:14 pm

I noticed that a new biopic of Confucius just opened in China. It’s pretty obvious that they “sexed up” his life, as you can see in the trailer. In terms of a big-budget biopic it seems to me that the life of Confucius is a very thin source of blockbuster material in relation to other social-religious figures of eminence. Jesus, Moses and Buddha have supernatural aspects to their lives. Muhammad’s life offers the opportunity for set-piece battles. Confucius was in many ways a failed bureaucrat, a genius unrecognized in his own day. His life can’t be easily appreciated unless you have the proper context of his impact on Chinese history in mind. Stepping into it without a grand frame can lead one to conclude that he was quite a pedestrian man. Confucius was a man of ideas (though even those ideas can seem somewhat obscure, e.g. rectification of names). You see this in Annping Chin’s The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics; I can’t imagine Karen Armstrong writing such a dense and slow book.

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