Confucianism and 21st Century China

Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty, Assistant Professor, Ambedkar University Delhi was part of a delegation to China organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi from 21-29 April 2016. 

The legacy left behind by the great philosopher of ancient China, Confucius, can be understood as the single most influential factor in shaping and binding the regions of East Asia today – what scholars call the Chinese world order. While societies in these regions have localized the teachings and principles of Confucianism, Confucianism offers a single window understanding of the society and culture in this part of the world. East Asia is seen as one cultural zone because of Confucian ideals based on which a value system was developed to address existing social and political issues and problems.

In East Asia, the social, cultural and political ethos are embedded in this philosophy and much emphasis is on interpersonal relationships at different levels.  Institutionalization of Confucian ideals as state philosophy made moral obligations binding, which went a long way in defining the societies of East Asia. The idea of collectivism that gives a sense of identity and belongingness has been the centre of discussion for long about the societies in the east as opposed to individualism in the West. The interpersonal relationship aspect of Confucianism is what we can relate to in 21st century as societies across the world are realizing the importance of community and its role in upholding their shared interests. In the age when we are talking about sustainability and looking beyond self, can Confucian philosophy become a referral point?

Though Confucianism is understood as present-oriented and as a pragmatic philosophy, it is also a fact that traditional Confucianism insisted on maintaining social inequality in relationships as necessary for maintaining order in the society. So here, can we draw a comparison between Confucianism and Hinduism?

Traditional Confucianism also emphasizes on non-materiality aspect of life focusing more on – humanism (ren), wisdom (zhi), faithfulness (yi) and propriety (li), and in the present context of reviving Confucianism in Chinese society, is it not contradictory to imagine a society that would be happy to renounce materiality of life and reverse the aggressive pursuit of economic prosperity with the end objective being indulgence in consumerism, which is against Confucian ideals? How do the younger generations of China respond to traditional Confucian teachings?

Reciprocity is a concept closest to humanism and the interpersonal relationship is based on it. While the philosophy of Confucianism maybe understood as having a universalistic attitude, the human relationships prescribed in it are more particularistic that makes it distinctly different from other non-Confucian cultures. The way it functions depends on the social relationship one shares with the other and this maybe closer to other Asian countries including India where social relationships guide personal behavior in different social spaces.

My recent visit to China was quite an eye-opening experience as social relationships in post-modern China looked dictated more by politically-driven ideology than Confucian imbued social values for maintaining equilibrium. The political path adopted by China during the process of modernization seems out of sync when located in the larger context of development. China took the communist path rejecting the capitalist mode of development driven by market economy.  Chinese development trajectory was shaped by an ideology that sought to achieve socialist state of growth but contemporary China presents a neo-colonial scenario that seems to affirm the reorientation of an ideology that dominated the country for decades. The social communion envisioned by the older regime as the new order is nowhere to be found and in its place one finds a visible political hierarchy seeping into social spaces creating a class-based society. It is so subtle and smoothly in operation that one can easily miss it. The most striking aspect for me however, was the way common or ordinary citizens have adapted to this arrangement of order and how they have become integral to this consumerist approach of development the state has embarked upon. This is most visible in big city spaces dotted with vibrant commercial hubs and glossy nightlife spots that Chinese seemingly enjoy to the hilt. Such scenarios tend to inform a deliberate and conscious way of addressing internal dissension on the part of the state.

The rise of a neo-communist China today is there for all to see. What has not, however, changed in my understanding is the way the state functions, not so different from imperial times. The king today does not live in a palace but is guided by an elite equipped with modern education, protected by a formidable army of bureaucrats in western suits and a well-equipped military ready to take on enemies at the slightest provocation or perceived threat; a society that was submissive continues to be repressed with little personal choice. But considering the long history of secret societies and revolutions that played a crucial role in brining about some changes during in imperial China, it is difficult to comprehend the response of civil society in China to the regressive measures adopted by the state. Or are Chinese people in general happy with the changes and the so-called development of the country? Is Chinese development for real? Should we be skeptical about the Chinese development model? What if we are falling prey to Western orientalism in interpreting China’s development? At the same time it also appears to be the case that China likes to play the victim card and talks of its intentions being misunderstood! When I recall the pace of development that was showcased in Chengdu, the model city of China in Sichuan Province, it seems so believable! There is no denying the fact that China has achieved what no other Asian countries have (of course one is not thinking about Japan here as Japanese history of development had a very different trajectory). The futuristic model of Chengdu’s development talks about the Chinese commitment to race ahead of the most developed nations of the world but then one may again question the very understanding of ‘nation-state’ by China. It is a long debate and discussion that can go on.

China today looks more capitalist than any other capitalist state and like many others I too keep trying to find answers to some of the basic questions: How traditional is Chinese society? How relevant are the teachings of Confucius? Can it co-exist with the neo-capitalist, neo-colonialist model of development that China is pursuing? How can people be happy if they do not enjoy personal liberty including over questions like how many children they should have? Is China redefining the meaning of development and the politics of development, and in doing so, is Confucianism being revisited to legitimize a new Chinese world order?

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