What’s Left of Confucianism?

As it Enters the Modern Era, China May Turn Not to Democracy But to its Own Tradition

News | Daniel A. Bell | September 2008

The Chinese government’s very public display of compassion and transparency in response to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province appears to have strengthened its authority and its bonds with ordinary Chinese people. The government and army worked hand in hand with legions of volunteers and private networks to rescue quake victims. Even die-hard cynics were won over by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s emotional comforting of the survivors.

But heroic rescue efforts will not be able to help the government forever, so it is worth asking what can provide long-term political legitimacy. After all, communism has lost its capacity to inspire the Chinese. So what should replace it?

Most Westerners think the answer is liberal democracy, as did many Chinese liberals in the twentieth century. But there is another answer, which takes the form of the old and venerable tradition of Confucianism, which is being revived by government officials, critical intellectuals, and ordinary citizens.

The opening ceremony of the Olympic games underlined this revival: it featured not quotes from Marx, but sayings from the Analects of Confucius. Such sayings as "The world’s peoples are all brothers" and "Isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures to have friends visiting from afar?" were be beamed to billions worldwide, expressing the best that Chinese culture has to offer.

Here, however, we run into trouble. Ever since the Han dynasty (more than 2,000 years ago), Chinese governments have manipulated the most prominent political interpretations of Confucianism for their own purposes. Confucianism has been combined with Legalism, China’s other main political tradition, to justify such practices as blind obedience to the ruler, subordination of women, and the use of harsh punishments. The "official" Confucianism being revived today may be less dangerous – it emphasizes social harmony, meaning the peaceful resolution of conflicts – but it remains a conservative morality.

But there is another interpretation of Confucianism – let’s call it "left Confucianism" – that stresses intellectuals’ obligation to criticize bad policies, obliges governments to provide for the people’s material well-being and support those without key family relations, and calls for governments to adopt a more international-minded outlook and to rely on moral power rather than military might to pursue political aims. It leaves open basic metaphysical commitments and takes a plural and tolerant view of religious life. It emphasizes equality of opportunity in education as well as meritocracy in government, with leadership positions being distributed to the community’s most virtuous and qualified members.

Such values owe their origin to the "original Confucianism" of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi, which existed before Confucianism became established as state orthodoxy. In imperial times, the critical tradition was carried forward by such scholars as Huang Zongxi. Today, new Confucian leftists such as Gan Yang are calling for the creation of a "Confucian socialist republic."

Confucian scholars such as Jiang Qing openly acknowledge that their interpretation of Confucianism most closely parallels socialist ideals: not the "actually existing socialism" in today’s China, but the socialist ideals defended by Karl Marx and others. This Confucian tradition aims to influence contemporary politics, but it also remains separate from state power and orthodoxy, always ready to point to the gap between ideals and reality.

Indeed, left Confucianism’s departure from the status quo is precisely the point: it is meant to provide a moral standard for social critics and to inspire visions of a more desirable political future. Unlike communism, it offers a future that derives its legitimacy from tradition and building upon what the past has to offer – including the socialist tradition – rather than destroying it.

Thus, left Confucians favor institutional reform, arguing that the long-term stability and legitimacy of political institutions requires that they be founded on Chinese traditions. Jiang Qing advocates a tri-cameral legislature – a democratically elected People’s House representing the common people’s interests, a House of Exemplary Persons to secure the good of all those affected by government policies, including foreigners and minority groups, and a House of Cultural Continuity that would maintain China’s various religions and traditions.

Such concrete proposals for political reform inspired by Confucian values can rarely be published in mainland China. In fact, there are fewer constraints imposed on public discussion of liberal-democratic institutions precisely because few Chinese are inspired by Western-style liberal democracy. Today, the most viable alternative to China’s political status quo is left Confucianism.


Daniel A. Bell is professor of political theory at Tsinghua University (Beijing). His latest book is China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.  

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2008.  


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