Confucianism as China State Ideology?


Two excellent posts on Confucianism as THE ideology for China. The first, by Xujun Eberlein, writing at China Beat, is entitled, China: Democracy, or Confucianism? Greatly oversimplified, its thesis is, essentially, as follows:

It seems typical of American thinking to regard either a republic or parliamentary democracy as absolutely the only right model for all countries. For a political system to succeed, however, it needs to be rooted in the particular country’s cultural history. Throughout thousands of years, China has never lacked great thinkers, political or philosophical. Which poses an interesting question: why does China need to adopt a Western model for its political system, be it Marxist communism or capitalist democracy?

Ms. Eberlein then goes on to call out Confucius as China’s last great folk thinker in “quite some time.”

Professor Crane over at The Useless Tree responds to Ms. Eberlein’s post by, among other things, making three very strong points. The first point, and one on which I whole-heartedly agree, is that it is unfair and dismissive to refer to democracy as “simply a ‘Western’ thing”:

Two things come to mind here, by way of critique. First, while it is true that certain institutions and practices of modern democratic politics can be said to have arisen and developed in something called “the West,” it is not true that democracy is simply a “Western” thing. “West” is as problematic a construction as “East” or “Orient.” It operates on too abstract a level of historical analysis to be very useful in analyzing and understanding political dynamics. And it is as politicized as any other such generalization. It is used by critics of democracy to link popular demands for more open and participatory politics with imperialism. It thus frames Chinese or Vietnamese or North Korean democrats as unpatriotic (I do not mean to suggest that his is Jiang Qing’s intention; but the broader discourse of “The West” creates this effect). A further ramification of the use of “The West” is to distract attention away from historical and contemporary democratic practices in Asia (are Taiwanese not “Chinese”? Are Koreans not “Easterners”? Are Indians not “Asian”?) and also glosses over the history and current manifestations of anti-democracy in the “West.” Overall, a high cost to pay intellectually for a fatuous over-generalization.

His second point is that China is too diverse and too globalized to become harnessed by a “singular state ideology:

Confucianism cannot serve as the singular state ideology because no system of thought or philosophy can so serve. Confucianism can provide us with a unique perspective on modern issues but it cannot capture the totality of modernity. Neither can socialism or liberalism (which is not, by the way, the “state ideology” of the US) or conservatism or whatever have you. Globalization, which brings constant movement of ideas and cultural practices, makes this even more impossible.

Why not democracy with Chinese characteristics?

6 responses to “Confucianism as China State Ideology?”

  1. Just to stir things a bit…I think Prof Crane is writing at rather abstract a level of historical analysis. For while it’s of course right to say that democracy is not simply a western thing, it would be hard (and foolhardy?) to deny that it is mostly a western thing.
    And it is also hard to deny that China is better administrated than India, the world’s biggest democracy and biggest shambles.
    On another, only slightly related note, I was reading a book recently that tries to show how much funkier and wiser Laozi was than Confucius. The book (Tao:The Pathless Path) makes many references to a Taoist tradition of mocking Confucians for being too obsessed with categorising and analysing.
    It made me think…why don’t we get more Chinese reverence of Laozi? Why can’t China have a Daoist state ideology? Why can’t we go with that flow?

  2. You might also want to check out the first of this year’s BBC Reith lectures, from ultimate sinologist wind-bag Jonathan Spence.
    Some generic protests – 1) Re: Xujun Eberlein – American is not the same as western, why do both Chinese and US scholars continue to talk as if the world had only two countries in it? 2) (more general) Democracy is a Greek invention (in as much as anyone invented it), a country which has been part of eastern empires much longer than it has been independent – why do people talk about democracy as if it was something which belongs to the west?
    Xujun Eberlein and Johnathan Spence both make the same mistake – by thinking of Confucianism as an ideology at all. It is a set of rules with no real over-arching and all-encompassing structure. Confucianism is a political system in the same way that Taoism is a religion – a Taoist can worship alongside Budhists, and a Confucianist can work inside a democracy. Confucianism and democracy can be made to be compatible.

  3. Funny, I just finished reading Jack Weatherford’s book on Genghis Khan (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World), based on tons of new historical material that has come to light, and was surprised by the highly democratic nature of the Mongol empire and even of the later Yuan Dynasty under Kubilai. What is really interesting is the wealth of trade and sharing amongst cultures that went on (also read Yale Professor, Valerie Hansen’s – The Open Empire, History of China to 1600 for a fresh approach). Am not so sure that democratic tendencies and practices are so western at all.
    My strong Libertarian leanings came from a love of Daoist texts and most particular to a Colloquium on Chinese Philosophy in college where I wrote a paper on the Relativity of Human Institutions (read the State) in a Daoist Society as discussed in the Huai Nan Zi (an early Daoist text where such issues were debated deeply). So I am with you Kim!!

  4. Confucius as a “folk thinker”? Confucius’s goal was to convince aristocrats to accept his philosophy- “the grass blows with the wind” doesn’t make sense otherwise.

  5. I cannot help think of Kungfu Panda when I am reading your post,one of whose theme is “there is no secret ingredient to greatness”.As Daoist says” The greatest entity has no shape, the greatest voice has no sound”, the guiding ideology for current Chinese government can be described as avoid committing to any single ideology ,” crossing shoal by feeling the rocks”. This kind of practice has its root in both Daoism and Confucianism, as well as the Pragmatism of Dewey introduced to China by Hu Shi,who along with Lu Xun are arguably the two most important intellectuals in China in the last century.

  6. Dr. Chen Huan Chung, Founder of HK Confucian Academy, in presenting the economic teaching of Confucianism in his book ‘the Economic Principles of Confucius,’ has proposed his vision to present the economic principles of Confucius and his school in a systematic form.
    I just started to go thru all chapters. Perhaps
    this would help to innovate some brilliant ideas as Dr. Chen was both an honorable confucianist and obtained his PHD degree at Columbia University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *