VIEW: Neo-liberalism meets neo-Confucianism —Kenneth Murphy
If the West is perceived to be attempting to maintain the leadership it snatched 200 years ago by industrialising first, thereby permanently denying the post-Confucians the fruits of their dynamism, the Chinese, in particular, will conclude that pluralism is eyewash
The West has dominated the world ever since the industrial revolution. Today that dominance seems threatened by the East Asian heirs to Confucianism, the ideology par excellence of state cohesion.
Centuries of inculcation with Confucianism was as important to the rise of East Asia’s hyper-growth economies as the conjunction of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism was to the West. Confucianism’s tenets still provide an inner compass to most East Asians in a post-Confucian age, just as Biblical admonitions remain standards for the West in a post-religious age.
The basic thrust of Confucianism has changed little since Confucius’s disciples recorded his aphorisms a generation before Socrates. Indeed, Confucianism became the official ideology of the Chinese state two centuries before the birth of Christ.
Confucianism was essentially a philosophical justification of government by benevolent bureaucracy under a virtuous ruler. Virtue ensured harmony between man and nature, as well as obedience within a stratified society. As one Confucian classic put it: Possessing virtue will give the ruler the people. Possessing the people will give him the territory. Possessing the territory will give him its wealth. Possessing the wealth, he will have resources for expenditure. Virtue is the root; wealth is the result.
During the neo-Confucian renaissance of the 11th and 12th centuries, a metaphysical dimension was added to fill a gap exposed by Buddhism’s inroads into China. Thereafter, a good Confucian could, with untroubled conscience, scorn the Buddhist renunciation of the world. This restatement of fundamental precepts restored Confucianism to a primacy in China and neighbouring states that remained unchallenged for 700 years.
Neo-Confucianism provided the basic ideology for China’s admiring neighbours — Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — until the advent of the West. Its tenets were highly appropriate to the settled, sophisticated agrarian civilisations of pre-19th-century East Asia, for they knitted together society and polity in a manner calculated to promote stability and harmony.
The ultimate guarantee of harmony was the ruler’s justness, which permitted him to enjoy the “mandate of heaven”; the people had a right, indeed an obligation, to rebel against a tyrant. But while the ethical basis of neo-Confucianism was crucial, the Chinese also understood the need for a morally motivated bureaucracy, and thus perfected in the seventh century the world’s first examination system for selecting bureaucrats, with the Confucian canon as the syllabus.
Of course, the neo-Confucian system was not immune to mankind’s appetites. Many Confucian emperors were brutal. Yet stability was achieved. There was only one change of dynasty in China between 1368 and the end of the imperial era in 1911. The Tokugawa Shoguns, who completed the reunification of Japan in 1600, remained in power for more than two and a half centuries. In Korea, the Yi dynasty ruled from 1382 until the Japanese conquest of 1910. Periodic civil strife and rebellion were not eliminated, but only in Vietnam was the longevity of a dynasty a cloak for inextinguishable internecine warfare.
Like a happy and secure childhood, Confucian civilisation bestowed upon its practitioners the self-confidence to meet the challenge of the West. Since Confucianism was essentially an agnostic ideology, concerned with the management of the visible world, the post-Confucians experienced little of the spiritual angst that afflicted Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in their collision with the “materialism” of industrial society.
Confucian civic culture also provided the basis for a long history of successful self-government. East Asians entered the modern world of nation states in self-consciously discrete secular units. By contrast, the Indian subcontinent, with two major religions and a dozen major linguistic groups, was united in modern times only under British rule.
Applied learning is the key to the post-Confucian states’ success. Confucian literati, shunning manual labour, grew their fingernails long, but they never displayed antipathy towards the world of affairs. The Chinese myth of success was the bright peasant boy whose village clubbed together to educate him and whose subsequent success resulted in the elevation of all who had helped him on his way into the civil service.
Ideally, state and family were mirror images. The emperor was the supreme paterfamilias, his benevolent rule reciprocated by the obedience of his ministers and subjects, while family members were fixed in their appropriate hierarchical relationships. Families and nations that obeyed together stayed together.
Meiji Japan grasped the advantages of making the nation a macrocosm of the family. An imperial order in 1890 outlined the objectives of education: the Confucian concepts of loyalty, obedience, and filial piety were to be transferred from the family to the nation. At about the same time, the Chinese scholar Yen Fu — whose translations of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Montesquieu were read even by the young Mao — also concluded that filial piety fostered habits of disciplined subordination to authority that could be applied to the factory and the polity.
During the past century, the post-Confucian states have accustomed themselves to a pluralistic world of theoretically equal nation states. But it is difficult to know how deep that adjustment has gone. If the West is perceived to be attempting to maintain the leadership it snatched 200 years ago by industrialising first, thereby permanently denying the post-Confucians the fruits of their dynamism, the Chinese, in particular, will conclude that pluralism is eyewash and that the West’s worldview in fact replicates their traditional one.
Today’s trade and currency battles would then become a Kulturkampf. In a few decades, when China’s economy equals America’s in size, the winner will be hard to pick. Better for the West to accept equality now — and struggle to maintain it. —DT-PS
Kenneth Murphy’s latest book is Unquiet Vietnam: A Journey to the Vanishing World of Indochina (Gibson Square Books, London). He is currently a senior fellow of Smolny Collegium, Saint Petersburg University, Russia