Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kongzi in Modern Times by Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson

The seventh and final chapter of this book opens with a description of the 1898 “Hundred Days Reform” project led by the radical reformer Kang Yuwei. Whereas before Kang, Kongzi (Confucius) was credited with founding the RU ethic of public service and with serving as chief moral exemplar for professional classicists holding office and teaching (in which logically distinct roles Confucius made his appearance in the state, local, and Kong family pantheons of ancestral lineages), Kang Yuwei would have made his highly selective reading of Confucian tradition the basis of a new “state religion “ (guojiao) modeled more on Christianity than on indigenous Chinese traditions. Kang fully intended this new Chinese religion to (a) receive state sponsorship; (b) require absolute adherence by all Qing subjects; (c) suppress rival religions, including Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity; and (d) successfully merge religion and politics.

Recoiling from Kang's proposals, traditionalist countered Kang's creation with an ahistorical invention of their own that was no less false: the spoke of “secular RU” guided by Kongzi's vision of a just state that condemns or renders innocuous all manifestations of “superstitions” ( i.e., religion).

Thus began the series of oscillating culture wars that have played themselves out in China through-out twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The keen desire to fix a definitive narrative about Confucian traditions within the larger context of Chinese history expressed itself in four major culture wars during the twentieth century: The May Fourth Movement ( 1919-26); the New Life Movement under Chiang Kai-shek ( 1934-37); the “anti-feudal” mass movements directed by Mao Zedong, which culminated in the “Criticize Confucius” campaigns of the early 1970s; and the New Confucius Revival of the 1980s and 1990s.

These culture wars cast Kongzi/Confucius by turns as a “national savior” or as a “proponent of slave mentality” requiring strict submission to political and family hierarchy. In the twenty-first century the Communist Party has belatedly embraced Kongzi in the hopes that greater deference to the Master may condition a restless population to conform to a more “aesthetic and harmonious” society, despite severe dislocations caused by a rapidly expanding economy and ethnic separatists movements. Hence the decision in late 2007 by the People's Republic official Xinhua News Agency to unveil an “official” portrait of Confucius that recalls the laughing Buddha far more than it does the grave Master of legend.

Three snapshots of recent events occurring within the tightly connected circles in Asian media, politics, and academia capture a few of the dominant approaches to rethinking the role of institutional Confucianism (less so of Kangzi himself) within state and society. First, the so-called Third and Fourth Wave New Confucians based in the academic strongholds of Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and (increasingly) the People's Republic. Second, two ministers in the Singaporean government who routinely invoke the name of Confucius in order to sanction one-party rule over a multi-ethnic community. And there is, last but not least, the bizarre Yu Dan, a popular, TV personality and self-styled self-help (Opra-like) guru who cheerfully appropriates the Analects as grist for her media mill.

This chapter argues that most, if not all of the freakish twists taken by Kongzi's reputation in China before, during, and after Deng Xiao-ping's (1904-1997) triumphant return to power in 1978-80 faithfully mirror the highs and lows of China's self-confidence about its own place as “rising dragon” in a postmodern age, particularly in relation to the United States, the declining superpower. Therefore, the final sections of this chapter consider the (mis)perceptions of Confucius and China in the United States over the course of the last century or so, which have shaped (and sometimes twisted) American politics and policy.

It is worth taking the figure of Confucius seriously if only because the twenty-first century will require even greater cooperation between the two superpowers, and Confucius's role in Chinese history provides one of the very few possible meeting grounds for Chinese and American leaders confronting a host of seemingly intractable problems, including the environment and education. The chapter therefore concludes with three views of Kongzi articulated by Herbert Fingarette, Henry Rosemont Jr. and Roger Ames – scholars who, like it or not, have revolutionized the way Americans see Confucius and China.

Strong defenders of early Confucian tradition all ( though for different reasons) urge upon us (a) a stronger code of reciprocal relations between superior and subordinate (with both equally conscious of their mutual obligations) to function as a useful corrective for alienation and anti-social behavior; (b) a greater reliance upon extended families and communities designed to nurture the elderly, the infirm, and the young; (c) more holistic views of the cosmos, consonant with environmental stewardship; (d) a more sophisticated notion of human potential, fundamentally uncoupled from biological inheritance, national identity, or religious institutions and ideas, that might conceivably provide “common ground” for multi-ethnic communities seeking parity; (e) a revised notion of “human rights” that foregrounds economic justice as the key to citizen participation and responsibility, so as to give greater voice to the poor and disenfranchised currently ignored in the so-called democracies; and (f) a greater focus on academic achievement and hard work in conjunction with less preoccupation with personality, genius, and celebrity to ameliorate the fin-de-siecle impulses towards narcissism and solipsism.

One cannot expect to understand the role of “tradition” in China or the United States today without knowing what happened within the recent past. As Soren Kierkegaard remarked, “We live forward, but we understand backwards.” Nor do families, societies, or states typically exist for very long without feeling the need to invoke the ancestors in order to construct identities. Kongzi's call for past traditions (plural) to be “warmed up” or adapted to current exingencies, coupled with the increasing speed of the global circulation of ideas, compels us to ask if inevitable changes can ever be channeled towards proper ends. Possibly. We cannot know unless we try. That would be Kongzi's answer, at least.

Kongzi himself deemed the effort to become a clear emblem of one's values and virtues to others an impressive way of being and acting in this world. And, it seems, Americans have remarkably little to lose if we chose to explore the implications of that practical answer, especially once you start cataloging the disastrous “blowbacks” stemming from the recent foreign-policy initiatives- ['The war on terror”, the invasion of Iraq, “counter-insurgency “, Guantanamo, torture, together with lingering deficiencies in World Bank and IMF policies- all of which could hardly be characterized as emblematic of traditional American political values.]

Both practical and ethical considerations, then propel us to get better acquainted with our global neighbor's history, as well as our own. The very figure of Kongzi, the protean dragon riding the times, has always promised that triumph can be wrested from adversity by dint of hard work and humankindness. But if Americans continue to react as if “history is bunk”, ever fewer options will remain.

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