There has been some discussion recently over whether ‘institutional’ or ‘critical’ Confucianism is the genuine expression of the tradition. This discussion was ignited by Yu Yingshi, a liberal history professor who attacked what he saw as a reinvigoration of the Confucian tradition on the mainland owing solely to the sanction of a disingenuous and oppressive government. In Yu’s treatment, only the ‘critical’ Confucianism of post-1911 New Confucian reformers ought to be considered ‘real Confucianism’ – by which he means, of course, those Confucians who were most politically-inclined toward the atomising, rights-oriented ideology of the British and the Americans. Naturally, this sorting of Confucians into ‘real’ and ‘fake’ based on a modern standard imposed largely by colonial force has, shall we say, some serious limitations.
I do happen to agree with Yu on one thing, and that is that the Chinese Communist Party is not a Confucian organisation. But must one really resort to an appeal to an ideological construct – that of liberalism – historically and philosophically far-removed from Confucianism’s own native reasoning and intellectual resources to do so, in order to prove that the CCP’s version of Confucianism is not ‘real’? If one genuinely cares about the viability of Confucianism as a native alternative to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, then one should damn well hope not. But finding a viable native alternative to the Chinese Communist Party is not Yu Yingshi’s project. One is tempted, in looking closely at his attempt to bring Hu Shi (a pragmatist and a ‘New Culture Movement’ intellectual trained in America in the thinking of John Dewey) into the Confucian fold, to draw parallels between Yu’s project and that of John Courtney Murray.
First-order, Confucians are not so easily divided into ‘institutional’ oppressors and ‘critical’ oppressed. Dong Zhongshu, for example, is widely and correctly credited for turning Confucianism into a state-supported doctrine under the Han Dynasty: as such, he is probably the first ‘institutional Confucian’. But if one examines his life and career, as Dr. Michael Loewe does in his well-researched but slightly-contrarian read of Dong Zhongshu’s writings, one soon finds in Dong Zhongshu a fervent advocate for the oppressed, even at the cost of career advancement and occasionally at the risk of his life amidst Han court intrigues. Dong Zhongshu railed against oppressive rural taxation, berated a growing wealth gap between the richest and the poorest, fought against nepotism in Han recruitment practices and advocated against war with the Xiongnu tribes to the north. He advocated for a redistribution of land which, if it were set forth today, would undoubtedly be considered socialistic. His ‘institutional’ read of Confucius was hardly intended as an apology for the ruling classes.
But let us examine the strongest arguments for a libertarian or anti-institutional read of Confucius, such as this one by political scientist Sam Crane of Williams College. He does not argue directly against the institutional aspects of Confucian thought, but instead focusses narrowly on an interpretation of Confucius which privileges the ‘micro’ over the ‘macro’, or the ‘bottom-up’ over the ‘top-down’. In his words, ‘[the Analects and the Mencius] are focussed on how individuals can and should live good lives’, and ‘the top-down, macro-political aspect of Confucianism is measured by how well it facilitates bottom-up micro-Confucianism’. He cites, primarily, verses from the Analects describing that a good ruler is firstly a good family man; and that a good government is one which, firstly, has good people working within it.
I don’t think either of these things are particularly in dispute, because obviously Confucius did value a government by good people much as classical Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle would have valued a philosopher-king to rule over them. But this is not an argument for liberalism, but instead an argument for virtue ethics. Calling both supportive Weberian theory to mind as well as critics like Pobedonostsev, secular liberal democracies very obviously don’t care, first-order, whether or not good family men are the ones fill government posts, as long as they can perform the procedural duties demanded of them. Indeed, it is more arguable that liberal democracies select instead for machiavels and sophists – people who are the most likely to sway the crowds in their favour with spin, pandering and craftily-chosen words (against which Confucius spoke both often and vehemently!). Dr. Crane is right on the money when he says that bureaucracies are universalising and impersonal; where he fails to convince is in saying that greater procedural liberty or ‘agency’ will in any way alleviate this impersonality. The track record of Kantian liberal democracies so far would suggest very strongly otherwise!
More glaring is the elision of difference between bureaucracies and institutions. It is a blatant (and completely unfair) misreading of Jiang Qing, for example, to suggest that what he wants is more law and more bureaucracy. Indeed, in A Confucian Constitutional Order he waxes quite eloquent against the Weberian-Rawlsian construct that reduces government to an impersonal mechanism driven by replaceable dehumanised cogs, and that is precisely because what he values is the character of the government and of the institutions within which people have to live.
And here we get to the dialectic in the centre of Confucian thinking. Think about this passage in the Analects, the beginning of the same twelfth chapter which Dr. Crane quotes, which on first blush looks like it lends its full support to his position:
[Yan Yuan asked about the meaning of humaneness. The Master said, ‘To completely overcome selfishness and keep to propriety is humaneness. If for a full day you can overcome selfishness and keep to propriety, everyone in the world will return to humaneness. Does humaneness come from oneself, or from others?’ Yan Yuan asked: ‘May I ask in further detail how this is to be brought about?’ Confucius said, ‘Do not watch what is improper; do not listen to what is improper; do not speak improperly and do not act improperly.’ Yan Yuan said, ‘Although I am not so perspicacious, I will apply myself to this teaching.’]
It is obvious here that Confucius is concerned with self-cultivation, and the idea that persons are capable of reforming themselves and overcoming their own selfish instincts. Indeed, many translators into English are wont to take the question ‘為仁由己，而由人乎哉？Does humaneness come from oneself, or from others?’ as rhetorical, and treat it as such. Of course benevolence comes from within oneself, as he insinuates early in the passage! But then Yan Yuan asks for clarification, and Confucius replies by telling him to watch, listen, speak and act only according to what is proper (that is to say, in accordance with rites). The practice of benevolence is not referred to a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, behind which one finds ‘everyone doing what they determine… they must do if they are to do the right thing’, but instead to something concrete and outside oneself, namely rites (li 禮). Keep in mind that a rite, both in ancient times and in modern, refers to a material code of behaviour which has been institutionalised, either by law or by custom. In this one passage, humaneness comes out of harmonising the self and the rites; which comes first, Confucius is content to leave as a question.
That’s not to say that his students didn’t take sides, though. The famous contention over human nature, between Xunzi and Mengzi, is one example. Mengzi argues that our moral nature, our care for others, and the roots of benevolence, propriety, justice and wisdom are essentially embedded in our biology and psychology. Xunzi, on the other hand, argues that human beings are naturally driven animalistic and selfish desires, and require tutoring according to the rites in order to make them behave well. Though the arguments on each side are much, much more involved, and bring cosmological and ontological positions into the question, one can see in each philosopher’s stance one side of Confucius’s dialectic coming into play: do the rites come first, or does the self? In Xunzi’s view we can see the beginnings of a Confucianism which privileges institutions; in Mengzi’s view we can see those of a Confucianism which privileges self-cultivation. The historical irony, however, is that Mengzi’s partizans in the Song Dynasty – led by Zhu Xi – made his work canonical and relegated Xunzi to the sidelines, from the top down and in a highly bureaucratic way, by making memorising the former’s work a requisite for governmental civil service examinations!
Mengzi himself may have taken issue with this use of his philosophy. His approach mirrors localism and distributism in some crucial respects. He is the originator and defender of the well-field system, a model in which a village’s land would be divided into ninths, and one-ninth held and worked in common for the purpose of ‘mutual aid’ (zhu 助) with the rest divided into privately-held plots. He also does not suffer tyrannical rulers lightly, and has a tendency to believe that that government is best which lets farmers, fishers and foresters conduct their business in the proper season.
But all the same, it is specious to argue, as so many observers are wont to do, that Mengzi is some kind of proto-libertarian or proto-democrat. For one thing, he does not think that just anyone has a place in deciding questions of government – indeed, Mengzi’s somewhat ill-tempered diatribe against the agrarian philosopher Xu Xing shows that he makes a clear distinction between the governing and the governed, and that in his view governing requires more than just the cultivation (pun intended) of the virtues.
For another thing, Mengzi is also adamant that the government should not only reserve powers to itself, but also that it should use its power to aid the common people when they are in need. In the very first chapter of his book, he upbraids King Hui of Liang not for being a neglectful family man, but for allowing his people to die of hunger while his own dogs and horses eat well; for not ‘making restrictive arrangements’ (zhi jian 知檢) against, one presumes, the well-to-do; and for not opening his granaries so that those who are starving can eat. Evocatively, he calls such selfish laisser-faire governance ‘leading on beasts to devour men’ (shou er shi ren 獸而食人).
Even Mengzi is concerned with the character of institutions, not only individuals.
This is because in the last analysis, Confucianism is not a philosophy of rights. It is a philosophy of virtues, a philosophy of relationships and a philosophy of care. The person in Confucianism has worth not because she has autonomy or because she is an atomised deracinated constellation of abstract property rights, but precisely because she is always already embedded in a set of social roles and relationships that make her unique – first and foremost, as the daughter of a natural family. Subsequently to that as she grows and develops, she learns new relationships as a student, as a wife, as a mother, as a community member and subject of a particular polity. It is, indeed, her personal responsibility and no one else’s, to cultivate herself within those roles and within their corresponding rites to become a superior woman, a shunü 淑女 (or, if a he, a superior man or junzi 君子). But those roles and relationships are informed by a corpus of commonly-held social knowledge that the Kantian realm of ‘agency’ can neither comment on, nor protect.