The Magazine

THE CHINESE TRADITION

Can Confucianism Support Human Rights?

Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By CHARLES HORNER
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China has a long political history and a long history of political philosophy, and many contemporary Chinese pretend to know more about them than they really do. The durability of Chinese tradition is, in itself, a point of pride. But a mastery of its details is usually too great a burden for one person. Besides which, few traditions have been so subject to reinterpretation.


"Confucianism," the simplest term for two millennia of Chinese speculation about society and politics, has had a manic time these past couple of centuries. It was once thought an insuperable barrier to China's entry into the modern world. It was then used to explain Chinese successes in that same modern world, whether in China itself or in the Chinese diaspora beyond. And more recently still, it has been humbled by panic in Asia's markets. Thus, the debate about "Asian" and "Western" values has taken yet another turn.


It is in the West that much of this debate has occurred, for it is here that a good portion of the inherited wisdom of the East has been neatly stored away. One thinks of the late 1940s, when efforts were made to tap into the Chinese political tradition for what was supposed to be, after all, a "universal" declaration of human rights. In short order, however, these efforts were suspended by the appearance of selfisolating Communist regimes in China, Vietnam, and Korea.


Then, in the 1950s, it was Wm. Theodore de Bary and his colleagues at Columbia University who began the project of collecting and presenting in English the classic intellectual works of the East Asian tradition. This and related enterprises -- once thought to be lost in time -- are surprisingly contemporary, and they have been continually expanded and updated. The Columbia University Press has now published a new anthology, Confucianism and Human Rights, edited by the tireless de Bary, who is still going strong as a professor emeritus, leading a serious, energetic, and deeply informed discussion.


As we should expect, there is a range of opinion represented in this volume, for a tradition as rich as China's can be invoked for more than one purpose. For his part, de Bary embraces the idea that there is a "liberal" tradition in Confucian thought that is of great contemporary value and relevance, so that Chinese and Western notions of individualism are conceivably reconcilable. His co-editor, Tu Weiming of Harvard, on the other hand, sees the Confucian tradition reasserting itself more as a religious than as a secular creed, as "a way of life that demands an existential commitment on the part of Confucians no less intensive and comprehensive than that demanded of the other spiritual traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam."


How will this high-minded discussion influence the actual practice of politics in the Chinese world? What does it imply for the establishment of democratic institutions in particular? Some on the frontline are optimistic. Not long ago, for example, Taiwan's recently installed premier, Vincent Siew, explained to an American editorialist that Taiwan's energetic democracy is, in part, a product of traditional Chinese culture. Confucianists, according to Siew, are in fact quite open-minded and, after an appropriate period of study and reflection, willing to incorporate worthy ideas and practices from other cultures -- a judgment that Taiwan's "new politics" seems to confirm.


But as reports from the mainland continually remind us, Taiwan's democratic system is not the only mode of governance at work in the Chinese world, and not all Asian political leaders are as eager as Siew to proclaim the compatibility of Confucianism and democracy. In Singapore, for example, Confucianism is posed as an alternative to Western political thought, one that can protect those "rights" worth protecting without embracing the cultural decadence increasingly associated with American-style democracy.