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Book Review ~ China’s New Confucianism(s)

Q Confucius,” a giant, robotic sculpture of a reclining Confucius by Zhang Huan. Rockbund Museum, Shanghai.

In a country well governed,
poverty is something to be ashamed of.
In a country badly governed,
wealth is something to be ashamed of.
~ Confucius

China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life In a Changing Society by Daniel A. Bell (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University press, 2008).

Daniel A. Bell is the Zhiyuan Chair Professor of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai Jiaotong University and professor of political theory and director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His books include: East Meets West: Human Rights & Democracy in East Asia (2000), Beyond Liberal Democracy (2007), and  The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age (2011).  He has also edited: Confucian Political Ethics and Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (All published by Princeton University Press).


At the beginning of this review, I would like to thank the author for publishing such a thought-provoking book. Many avenues of continuing study have opened up for me.  As a  layperson approaching Confucianism, what I found so illuminating and so appreciated  in Daniel A. Bell’s book, China’s New Confucianism, was his observation that any political ideology in modern China can be accepted only as far as it conforms to the 5,000 years of China’s history and culture, especially its 2500 year old  Confucian tradition.  The first part of his book discusses this deeply ingrained philosophical  tradition of China and the China Diaspora, a tradition that the Revolution itself , the “New Culture Movement” which condemned classical Chinese, the  “Great Leap Forward,” and the “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius Campaign” part of  the  “Cultural Revolution” could not discredit or destroy. The strength of this ancient cultural tradition was so vital that it actually modified classical Marxism in China and ultimately contributed to the present Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) endorsement of economic liberalization.  Confucianism will similarly modify the influence of liberal democracy and capitalism in China.   Communism, especially its ideal of constructing a classless utopia, was acceptable in China because it conformed itself to the Confucian political ideal of  a harmonious  egalitarian society which unites the powerful and the powerless. Prof. Bell claims that this will also happen to liberal democracy and capitalism.  Democracy’s emphasis on individual equality will be modified to fit into the Confucian egalitarianism ideal. Confucian values will inevitably moderate Western-style individualism and capitalistic competition in China and will elevate an ethic of social responsibility above and beyond the individual’s social status based on financial success.

In the 1980s, during the reforms of Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who introduced market economics which simultaneously weakened Communist ideology, the Confucian revival began  and it continues today.  The  2500-year old Confucian tradition was  mined for its political insights to help guide the changing Chinese political system as it dramatically  moved from the ideology of  Mao Zedong towards a socialism with distinct Chinese characteristics.

On a more personal level,  many Chinese parents have actively sought a Confucian education for their children since they covet for them that which they lost amid all the tumultuous changes in China  ~ an appreciation of their Chinese heritage and ethical values grounded in their culture.

I also appreciated Prof. Bell’s explanation of the community building nature of Confucian ritual.  He explains Confucianism as a social and political philosophy which teaches people how to live ethically day-in-and-day-out.  He does not view it as a religion, although many do so.  We westerners are critical of ritual, because as we understand it, ritual is something that will confine our freedom of action.  At the very least we see it as a collection of boring rules.  However, the Confucian regard for ritual is not merely devotion to dry “rubrics ” (being told when to sit and stand, what to say, etc.).  It is an effective  teaching method which helps people to curb their natural desires (their animal natures) and to live in a peaceful and cooperative social community. It teaches people to collaborate and live in harmony, a key Confucian value.  Confucian  ritual (or etiquette) is like stars that must follow their orbits and so human beings  need to follow their tracks. That community is egalitarian, not  based on personal merit as we understand it, because our form of meritocracy, by its very nature, divides community and doesn’t unite.

We have a class structure based on merit. Western meritocracy was initially rooted in an aristocratic divine right (you merit is your position in life  due to birth)  and then finally, with the advent of the American Revolution, merit was found in one’s achievements, particularly professional and financial success.  Ideally, China’s meritocracy has been educational and the opportunity for education is open to all.  But, the essential element to developing egalitarian communities is Confucian ritual which creates a level playing ground even though the players have radically different levels of power in society. Confucian  teachers also stress that the ritual (etiquette) is not dry rules but a way of life. One must be deeply committed.

Social distinctions in power do not lead to separate rituals exclusive to each group.    The powerful and the weak and all those in-between (or to put it in old terminology, no matter what their “rank“) are educated and share in the same rituals.  This is the mechanism that can powerfully bind the community together because generates moral concern and care for each other.  For example, the powerful will care and help the poor for they have been taught to do so, have made an internal commitment, and ritual guides their actions. The Confucian scholar Xunzi said:

Since the nature of people is bad,
to become corrected 
they must be taught by teachers and
to be orderly they must acquire ritual and moral principles.

Many in this generation of Chinese are re-discovering these principles as they cope with rapidly changing times and experience the up-and-down of their economy.  Ironically, considering the history of China during the last 100 years, both of our cultures are coping with very similar economic stresses.

My reaction to Confucian ritual is positive because I believe that a little of this kind of  ritual in our society would help to heal the growing gap between the wealthy and the diminishing Middle Class and the Working Class.  Also, it is always a comfort in human affairs to know how to behave in specific situations.  We have lost , over the years, our sense of how to behave in various situations.  That can be scary and knowing how to behave socially can take away a lot of stress.

Unfortunately, the old Imperial mandarin bureaucratic civil service system  based on Confucianism teachings was not immune to corruption.  Once a man received a high position in the bureaucracy, he could be easily corrupted and abuse of power.  Like all philosophies and religions, Confucianism has been co-opted at times for less-the-ideal purposes and became  moribund and then experienced many revivals.  The Imperial bureaucratic system  combined selected political lessons from Confucianism with a harsh legalism. Imperial legalism was different from the “rule of law” found in the West due to  its authoritarian, and often ruthless, “rule by law.”

The Chinese had already rejected the old political Confucianism associated with the nine-rank Imperial Mandarin (bureaucrat) civil service system that lasted from 605 to 1905 AD.  The state bureaucracy was made up of men, and for a short period of time of women, selected through the Imperial examinations. These were rigorous and extensive exams that tested applicants concerning the Six Arts and the Five Studies, which included the Confucian Classics.  Since the Revolution  this feudal legalistic system has been rejected as archaic because of its  ritualism disfigured by legalism and its association with corruption.  It was condemned as one of the causes of the many abuses that the Revolution tried to correct.  None-the-less, Confucian values and ideals so imbue Chinese culture and the Chinese Diaspora (Japan, Korean, Singapore, and Vietnam) that it could not be destroyed because Confucianism is more than political statecraft.  It has also  profoundly influence Chinese economics, education, religion, and aesthetics.

Daniel A. Bell, a professor of political theory, and many others, believe that a new Confucianism will invigorate a China that many feel is now mired in an ethical quagmire caused by its burgeoning capitalism and consumerism. An excellent book to read to learn about the great dislocation and alienation caused by a massive migration of Chinese from the country to the cities is  Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008).  Rapid urbanization has caused a loss in farm land.  Gaps in income, lack of jobs, pollution, and poverty are difficult conundrums.

At the very least, one generation of Chinese were disconnected from the Confucian tradition due to the anti-intellectual “Cultural Revolution” and they want to learn about this part of their heritage.  The birthday of Confucius is gaining popularity and celebrated more elaborately every September 28th in Qufu, his home town in Shandong Province,  In Taiwan, his birthday is known as “Teachers Day” since Confucius, a great sage, believed that knowledge was the right of everyone, not just the aristocracy.  (This is another one of his egalitarian ideas.)  Many possible configurations of Confucian values are being debated and experimented within China as the Chinese  re-examine their history and culture. The open secret is that the communism of Mao  Zedong is no longer a viable political philosophy. Marxist ideology is  gone as a legitimizing philosophy for governance.

Asian scholar Stephen A. Angle has listed the contemporary types of Confucianism popular in China today, some of which overlap (“Confucianism on the Comeback: Current Trends in Culture, Values, Politics, and Economy,” (“Social Education” (January/February 2010, pp. 24-27):

  • Confucian Capitalism
  • Scholarly Confucianism
  • Marxist Confucianism (may be better to call this “political Confucianism” since pure Marxism is in effect dead in China)
  • Confucian Soft Power
  • Tourist Confucianism
  • Family Values Confucianism
  • Feel Good Confucianism
  • Global Philosophy & Confucianism (diplomatic)

Confucianism associated with religion, however, is a much thornier problem in China, which is  why most of the conversation emphasizes Confucianism as a philosophy.  Even though there is technically freedom of religion in China,  the Tibetan Buddhists have been persecuted.  The Roman Catholic Church was a difficult relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  “Falun Gong,” which literally means “Dharma Wheel Practice,” a spiritual discipline first introduced in China in 1992 through public lectures by its founder, Li Hongzhi, is officially suppressed by the PRC.  Since 2009 the PRC has been classified by the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, as “a country of peculiar concern” (CPC) , with “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

People debate whether Confucianism is a religion in-and-of-itself, but most think of it as a philosophy.  The three great religious-philosophic traditions of China, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, have co-existed throughout China’s history.  All three traditions are inclusive unlike the major western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are exclusive.  Traditionally, a westerner can only belong to one religion at a time. A Jew can’t be a Christian and a Christian can’t be a Muslim, etc.   In Chinese culture, one can be all three at once and all three have “cross-pollinated” each other for centuries.  They are referred to as “The Three Teachings” or “The Three Doctrines.”

Daniel A. Bell describes the various schools of Confucianism throughout history.  Like other philosophies, Confucianism has had many interpreters and adaptions over the centuries. He  also addresses extensively  new re-discovery of Confucianism in China.  For example, the Confucian name is being used as a “brand” for the modern China as a form of “soft” diplomatic “power,” i.e. The Confucian Institutes that can be found all over the world, which promote the study of Mandarin Chinese and appreciation of Chinese culture (http://english.chinese.cn/).  The Confucian Institutes do not promote Confucianism itself. Their primary “raison d’ être” is to promote language study.  None-the-less, Confucianism does have good press oversees. This is primarily due to liberal-arts comparative studies of the ethical teachings of the great World Religions which have challenged Western religious exclusiveness.

The Confucian brand (‘Tourist Confucianism“) was used quite spectacularly during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics with a well-known saying of  Confucius:  “Friends have come from afar, how happy we are.”

Confucians principles of peace, harmony, education, and respect are used to create a positive international image for the PRC.  The famous historical sites related to Confucius have been refurbished and restored not only for the Chinese people but also for tourists. Examples are extensive tours of Shandong Province and the city Qufu, the home of Confucius and the location of his tomb, and other famous Confucian temple sites:

Confucian qualities of frugality, humaneness, and trustfulness  have contributed to the success of “Confucian Capitalism.”  The Confucian teaching that moral values are more important than mere economic considerations is a moderating effect on the predatory nature of competitive capitalism and superficial materialism. Both the business community and the PRC are again emphasizing the qualities of filial devotion and family responsibility.

Feel Good Confucianism” has a growing popularity in China and elsewhere in Asia and the West.  Prof. Bell refers this phenomenon as “Self-Help Confucianism.”  A best-selling book and TV series by Yu Dan, “Reflections on the Analects of Confucius” has international appeal. Her book in English is entitled: Confucius From the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World. In his book, Prof. Bell thoroughly critiques her popular presentation of Confucianism.  Yu Dan presents an inner-oriented Confucianism, deeply influenced by Taoism,  which is compatible in many ways with the western liberal religious tradition.   Her presentation can be understood as an exercise in seeking “common ground,” common values,  internationally.  But, many Confucian scholars, including Daniel A. Bell, believe that Yu Dan has gutted historic Confucianism by under-mining its disciplines of serious study and practice as well as the ritual and legal systems attached to it.  Her book and videos also de-politicizes Confucianism according to Bell.  Confucius was very much a social critic and interested in politics and the person’s role, responsibility, and behavior in the community.  These are sacrificed to stress the development of an individual’s inner life, or, as we would say in the West, a person’s inner spirituality.  Bell also suggests that Yu Dan wisely avoids complications with the Chinese government by focusing on the inner life and by not detailing Confucian principals concerning external political life.  She also avoids promoting any religious elements in Confucianism.  It is also true that the very process of popularizing a complex topic does simplify it by stripping it of its detail and often its depth.  Even a good adaption needs to be true to the original sources.

Below is one of Yu Dan’s popular videos, “Confucius’ Values of the  Superior Man,” which applies the Sage’s insight to the modern world. Also, below are some of Confucius’ statements about the “Superior Man” from “The Analects” to keep in mind when viewing the video :

  • The Superior Man is all-embracing and not partial. The inferior man is partial and not all-embracing.
  • When the Superior Man eats he does not try to stuff himself; at rest he does not seek perfect comfort; he is diligent in his work and careful in speech. He avails himself to people of the Tao and thereby corrects himself. This is the kind of person of whom you can say, “he loves learning.
  • The Superior Man has nothing to compete for. But if he must compete, he does it in an archery match, wherein he ascends to his position, bowing in deference. Descending, he drinks (or has [the winner] drink) the ritual cup.
  • The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.
  • The Superior Man is aware of Righteousness, the inferior man is aware of advantage.
  • The superior man, extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, may thus likewise not overstep what is right.
  • The superior man is satisfied and composed; the mean man is always full of distress.
  • If the Superior Man is not serious, then he will not inspire awe in others. If he is not learned, then he will not be on firm ground. He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber. When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t hesitate to correct it.
  • The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin.
  • The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.
  •  Sincerity is the end and beginning of things; without sincerity there would be nothing. On this account, the superior man regards the attainment of sincerity as the most excellent thing.

In 2003 an experiment in re-culturalization using the ancient classics began in the town of Tangchi, China.  The noted Buddhist Monk, Venerable Master” and professor Chin Kung of the Mahayana Pureland School of Buddhism, founded a non-profit and non-governmental and non-religious school in Tangchi, his home town, named the Lijiang Culture and Educational Center (left).  Tangchi is located in Lijiang County of Angui Province.  The town has a lengthy history of 2,000 years and a population of 48,000.  It is famous for its hot springs.  Master Kung’s experiment was to education the town’s people in Confucian moral teachings.

The town residents were first resistant but then came to quickly realize the benefits of the classical teachings in their human relationships.  The local Party Secretary also expressed concern but was soon won over.  On a very practical level, businesses began to boom!   The school uses Confucian classics to teach ethics and etiquette (ritual) to promote peace and stability.  Master Kung is a great advocate of the classical Chinese ethics education as a tool to resolve conflict.    He emphasizes that moral education and nurture can reign over nature.  The school emphasized Five Moral Disciplines of Human Relations based on the Di Zi Gui, a classic Confucian text:

  • Faithfulness between sovereign and subject
  • Fatherly love and filial love
  • Distinction between husband and wife
  • Youth giving precedence to the elder
  • Sincerity between friends

The villages and children also learn  traditional Chinese skills as calligraphy, traditional painting, stone stamp carving, and choral activities

Master Kung is also an adviser to over 100 Amitabha Buddhist Societies and Pure Land Learning Centres worldwide.  He is the founder of the Pure Land Learning College Association, Inc. in Toowoomba, Australia.  He is devoted to inter-faith understanding and cooperation.  He is an international trustee of the Religions for Peace international peace organization.  In May of 2012 there was a three day Interfaith Summit held in Bangkok that was inspired by Master Venerable Chin Kung.  One of Master Kung’s goals is to build “sacred cities of religion and culture” that will promote peace throughout the world.  It is not surprising, consequently, that there is no Amitabha Buddhist Society in China since the societies preach and teach Pure Land Buddhism, a religion.

However, the Lijiang Culture and Educational Center in Tangchi is an example of “Family Values” Confucianism.  The school makes no religious requirements on its students, which protects it from persecution.  The families can practice any religion they like or none at all.  A religious component is not needed to teach the moral ethic.

Prof. Bell in his book extensively examines the ideas of Confucian scholar Jiang Quing (b. October 1, 1953), an advocate of political and constitutional Confucianism, who is the founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy.  Both Prof. Bell and Jiang Quing  ask the question of whether the PRC will ever re-orient itself trading its party name from the “Chinese Communist Party” for the “Chinese Confucian Party“?  The present CCP is very creative and sees its support of capitalism and consumerism as a step in the long process of establishing a future perfect socialist society in which everyone will be rich and moral.  Political and constitutional Confucianism could be another “stage” in that process.

Jiang Quing has written a number of books: i.e. “Life, Faith, and Humane Politics” and “Political Confucianism” (1991).  His newly published book is “A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape the Political Future,” which has been edited by Daniel A. Bell and Ruiping Fan and translated by Edumund Ryden (Princeton University Press, 2012), see left.

Jiang Quing is highly critical of the “New” Confucianism (“Feel Good” and “Self-Help” Confucianism), which he says in inauthentic because it is too much influenced by liberal democracy.  He wants to base any political reforms, not in liberal democracy, but in the Gongyang tradition of Confucianism, which highlights the “Kingly Way of Politics,” also known as the “Way of Humane Authority.”  He wants political reform to be based in Chinese tradition not western.

 The “Way of Humane Authority” teaches that there are three equal and balanced sources that legitimize any political system:

  1.  Sacred Source ~ Sacred texts
  2. Earthly Source ~ Historical continuity
  3. Human Source ~ The people’s acceptance & endorsement

These are the same “legitimacies” that were the bedrock of the legalistic Mandarin system.  But, for modern times Jiang Quing suggests a tricameral legislature that parallels the  three “legitimacies.”

  1. House of Exemplary Persons ~ People of Distinction would be appointed to this House.  This House fulfills the Confucian ideal of meritocracy.  These extraordinarily just people would represent and protect the people of the future and the present-day politically powerless.
  2. House of Cultural Continuity ~ Representatives of all the religions in China (i.e. Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity, etc.) would be appointed to this House.  This House fulfills the Confucian ideal of tolerance.
  3. The People’s House ~ Representatives and functional constituencies would be elected by the people.  Even though Jiang Quing rejects Western democracy, this House tips its hat, so-to-speak,  to democracy.

Two out of the three Houses would need to agree to pass any legislation.  Jiang Quing also supports the idea of having a symbolic monarch.

In Appendix Two of his book, Prof. Bell critiques Jiang Quing’s ideas and suggest some modifications.

Prof. Bell’s China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life In a Changing Society has lead me to more reading, research, and greater reflection about the incredible and exciting changes taking place in present-day China.

Below are two helpful video interview with Daniel A. Bell:


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