Feb 26, 2015 11:55 AM

State Patronage Divides Confucian Intellectuals

The transformation of Confucianism in China from a risky intellectual pursuit to trendy study of statecraft over the past two decades has highlighted the fraught relationship between intellectuals and the state. While some greet with excitement President Xi Jinping's high-profile endorsement of Confucian teachings others regard it as a potential disaster.

Kicking off the debate, a serious scholar named Chen Ming poses a flippant question: "Xi the Great is honoring Confucius. How should followers of Confucianism react?"

Some "Red Confucians" envision the dawn of a new era, repeating the momentous act of the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who decreed Confucianism the state ideology, shaping political and social institutions for the following two millennia. The high priest Dong Zhongshu slyly crafted an authoritarianism with religious attributes out of the Confucian cannon. The modern-day Dong wannabes point out the parallels: it took the Han dynasty some 60 years to put Confucius on a pedestal after the competing ideologies of Legalism and Taoism faded; in modern-day mainland China, after 60 years of experimenting with Marxism and the economic neo-liberalism, the time is ripe for a Confucian revival.

But Confucian intellectuals outside the mainland look at the state patronage askance. Yu Yinshi, professor emeritus of Chinese studies at Princeton, calls it a "kiss of death" because co-opted intellectuals will lose their independence and censor themselves to please their patrons. He contends that in Chinese history, Confucians touched by politics became either the persecutor or the persecuted. In the same vein, Li Minghui, a professor of moral philosophy from Taiwan, scorns the flaky quasi-religious, hierarchical Confucian utopia proposed by "self-styled" Red Confucians. He argues that a free democratic political institution is the best way to ensure the flourishing of Confucian values in culture, ethics and philosophy.

The mainland team fights back, asserting that Confucianism is not just a philosophy of personal cultivation but a holistic vision on political and social realms. The emphasis on statecraft and on the tradition of Confucius as an institutional reformer is all the more necessary in the new millennia for a rising China. They accuse intellectuals outside the mainland of unfairly picking out the "outlier" among their ranks for ridicule. Worse, overseas Confucians seek to legitimize Confucianism in Western terms by finding common elements in European philosophy to aid their cheerleading for liberal democracy. The mission for mainland intellectuals is to break free from the Western discourse and establish their own paradigm of inquiry as part of China's war on Western values.

Both teams agree that Confucianism is a force for social order and cohesion; and for any form of institution to succeed in China, it cannot ignore the tradition. But what about Marxism? Materialist Marxism and idealist Confucianism are incompatible. True communists reject the idealist approach to history, which, they say, prevents people from seeing the real material condition of their lives.

Mao Zedong foretold the dire consequences of embracing Confucianism. Despite the usefulness of a pliant conservative ideology for serving a ruling party, he warns that the revolutionary legitimacy of the Communist Party will be at stake if it flip-flops on Confucius. In a conversation with his nephew, Mao Yuanxin, he said: "If the Communist Party comes to the point when it faces overwhelming difficulty and its rule is called into question, turning to Confucius for help means you are at the end of your rope."

Xi's endorsement of Confucianism challenges the party to come up with a theory to accommodate the new element. Fang Keli, a high-ranking ideologue in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposes a ménage-a-trios: Xi's "soul" (hun) is Marxist, his "foundation" (ti) is Chinese and his "practical application" (yong) is opening up to the world. So far, this convenient syncretism has not gained traction.

Nailene Chou Wiest is a visiting professor at the School of Communication and Design of Sun Yat-sen University

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code