Thursday, March 16, 2006

Confucian Renaissance

The US cannot effectively think of China as a new Cold War adversary, writes Asia Cable. The difference is that China is not trying to export an ideology or exert military control. It is participating in a renaissance of Confucian society.


Call it the Emerging Confucian World Order, or to be more exact, the re-emergence of the Confucian World Order, since in fact Asia is simply reverting to the order of nations with China at the center that existed before the era of European colonialism.

As it did during the Ming Dynasty years, the height of the tributary system, China confers the boon of trade with the nations on its periphery and receives tribute in return. No boon was more welcome in Southeast Asia than Beijing’s decision to during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis to maintain its currency’s peg to the dollar, resisting the temptation to snatch trade advantages from neighboring state by devaluing. Recently, it signed a free-trade agreement with the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and tolerates a $20 billion trade deficit with them. Meanwhile, it gracefully accepts “tribute” from South Korea in the form of its conferring “Market Economy Status” on China, the first country with more than $100 billion in trade with China to do so.

The growing animosity between China and Japan can easily be read in Confucian terms. Ostensibly, the discord is rooted in interpretations of Asia’s modern history. In China’s view, Japan has not shown sufficient remorse for its aggression during World War II. This, it is said, is reflected in how the war is portrayed in its history books and in the regular visits that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi makes to the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan’s apologies for its wartime actions constitute a modern version of the kowtow. The Prime Minister’s regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are for Japan the anti-kowtow.

But then Japan never was a model vassal. The current war of words echoes sentiments going back to the 14th century when the Chinese Emperor Hung-wu addressed the Japanese sovereign as, “you stupid eastern barbarian.” To which the Japanese Ashikaga shogun replied in kind: “Heaven and earth are vast; they are not monopolized by one ruler.” China and Japan that have been rivals for hundreds of years. It should not be surprising that they are still jockeying for primacy. In Confucian terms somebody has to be “big brother” and the other has to be “little brother.”

On the other hand, Korea was a model tributary state for 500 years, stretching from the late Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Koreans paid their annual tribute even more regularly than the other tributary states, such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. No other country in Asia, not even Japan, was so completely absorbed into the Confucian system. Today South Korea is moving perceptibly into China’s orbit. The only question is whether this trend is reversible. The six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea of nuclear weapons seem to be accelerating this trend, and by clinging to them, the Bush administration may be pushing this development along. Seoul’s position in the talks is much closer to Beijing’s than it is to Washington’s.


But it is not just in international relations where old patterns of Asian social behavior are returning after two centuries of disruption by colonialism, war, and communism.

The Chinese government is explicitly promoting Confucianism, once despised as feudal ideology.


It is little surprise that Chinese leaders are seeking to rehabilitate their country’s most famous and influential thinker. In the moral void opened by the decline of Marxism and the abundance of material temptations, Confucianism can help provide the nation with a much-needed ethical anchor. And success in these endeavors would allow China’s leaders to strengthen their hold on another Confucian bequest – the “mandate of heaven,” or the right to rule.

What is the relevance of Confucianism in modern times? Which tenets have served East Asia well – and could help other nations and cultures? What are the pitfalls to be avoided? Of all the world’s great canons, Confucianism is the most practical. What concerned him most were people’s relationships with one another and with the state. He also focused on social justice and good government. Ren or benevolence was the pillar of the Master’s thought.

Another was learning. Whether or not East Asian countries include The Analects in their social curriculums, they all understand that education is the root of national strength and prosperity. The ingrained respect for knowledge – and for the teacher who imparts it – is the key factor in the outstanding academic performance of East Asians on a global basis...

In return for the loyalty of subjects, Confucius demanded that a ruler display benevolence and unstintingly serve their interests. If he didn’t, citizens had the right to remonstrate. Mencius, the second most influential Confucian philosopher later developed the concept of a “divine right of rebellion.” If an emperor became a tyrant, he would lose the mandate of heaven and people would overthrow him. Today they might simply throw the leader out of office in an election. Confucius and democracy are hardly incompatible.

Throughout history, the rigid and unthinking application of Confucian principles repeatedly produced complacent closed societies that were unable to make progress. They paid a terrible price: foreign subjugation and internal upheaval. Modern Confucians must guard against repeating such mistakes. If they succeed in adapting their time-tested heritage to contemporary challenges, Master Kong’s teaching may blossom beyond East Asia to enrich all mankind in the next century.


Before we think about events in Asia through the lens of easy analogies to our own history, it is important to step back and remember that Confucians often have radically different ideas from Westerners about how to organize society, how to communicate, and how relationships are managed. It is possible to make really big mistakes quickly.

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