The Magazine

WHAT CONFUCIUS SAID

Nov 6, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 08 • By CHARLES HORNER
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THE RHETORICAL OUTBURSTS in Beijing at the United Nations women's conference, directed against the Chinese government and answered by the Chinese regime in kind, are only the most recent exchange in a long-running argument between West and East. Whose standards about individual liberty and the sway of the state -- ours or theirs -- are to be afforded pride of place in the world? Newly rich and increasingly courted, some of the Asian "tigers" have spent the past few years talking back to their Western critics; they have also taken to questioning the very legitimacy of those criticisms -- categorizing them as merely Western ideas applicable only to the West.


But what about the applicability of their ideas to their practices? Western conservatives have been quick to praise the "Confucian ethic" as an analogue of our own ethic of self-restraint and moral concern, and have seen the success of East Asians, both at home and in the United States, as a vindication of those "traditional values." But some political leaders in the Confucian part of the world have just as quickly gone us one better, taking the West's admiration for Confucian personal traits and attempting to graft onto it their justifications for arbitrary government.


In this, they reveal ignorance of Confucianism's vast and varied teachings. Besides, they are probably confident that they can continue to use the idea of distinctive Confucian/Asian values to counter criticism of their behavior, because we ourselves will not do the work required to learn about the tradition but will, instead, continue to rely on their misinformation.


But, at best, that will hold only for the short term. In China itself -- where, after all, Confucianism got started and whence its influence spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and beyond -- people are discovering that the argument over the role and conduct of government, the proper dividing line between public and private, and the boundary between state and society can, in large measure, be carried on within their own tradition. Their own thinkers have had much to say on these subjects; they have made arguments which are reminiscent of the arguments that we in the West have carried on among ourselves. This reliance on their own traditions will come about, more or less, by a process of elimination, as the various Western schools of thought - - Communism, principally-on which the Chinese have relied for an examination of these questions fall by the wayside.


In fact, without having to rely all that much on Western liberal thought, or Western religious-based political ideas like natural law, Chinese who seek to argue against the excesses of their government can indeed find much in their own history to help them out. Confucius (551-479 B.c.) left only the sketchiest outlines of his own thought in the form of pronouncements written down by his disciples. And, like other great teachers, he passed on a legacy embracing a multitude of sins. As for Confucius himself, we might think of him as a moral authoritarian, but not necessarily a political one in the sense we use the term today. Indeed, he mused that the presence of harsh laws and severe punishments is a sign that a state is in bad shape, not good. High taxes, large armies, conscripted labor, and vainglorious aggrandizement were not good signs either. Indeed, the men in charge were supposed to edify and not intimidate. If they had a claim to rule, it was only that they were better people, not more ruthless ones.


Over the centuries, these ideas influenced both personal and institutional codes of conduct. The proper mandarin was obliged -- as we would put it -- to tell truth to power, often paying with his head. Each new dynasty was obliged to write a long, detailed, multi-volume history of the dynasty it superseded. Invariably, the account of every dynasty's downfall confirms established principles. Each of these great works is a cautionary tale about the need for rectitude and restraint, about the threat of profligacy and decadence, about the fate of a state which overreaches itself. These themes reverberated in both high and popular culture and helped create the beau ideal of the official as scholar, moralist, poet, and artist. None of them ever believes in capital punishment.