What Australia could learn from Confucianism

Sep 08, 2014
A statue of Confucius at the University of Adelaide.

A statue of Confucius at the University of Adelaide.

Modernisation and economic improvement in China have contributed to a rise in Confucianism – Professor Mobo Gao explains its influence in modern Chinese society and how Australia might benefit from a dose of Confucianism.

With this year’s OzAsia Festival focusing on Confucius’s birthplace, China’s Shandong province, the Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide is seeking to improve understanding of his philosophies.

Why the rise of Confucianism?

There is evidence that the rise of Confucianism in China is being supported by three important sectors of society: the popular, the intelligentsia and the government.

There are many textbooks and introduction materials about Confucianism in the Chinese market, and many popular TV programs on Confucianism.

Study centres and research institutes on Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture have been set up one after another. Government officials also encourage the spread of Confucian ideas. Recently, the president of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the Communist Party was seen praising Confucian textbooks.

However, we have to remember that since the end of the 19th century, Confucianism has been the target of criticism and condemnation by both the Chinese right and left.

Dr Hu Shi, the influential and supposedly liberal-democratically minded right-wing scholar turned politician, and Lu Xun, arguably the most important modern left-wing writer, were both harsh on Confucianism. The Communist Party of China at least partly based its credential as the holder of truth on its critiquing Confucian values as feudalistic.

So why has there been a rise of Confucianism since the 1990s? It has something to do with the rise of China’s economy and modernisation.

When China was weak and seen to be backwards, Confucianism took the blame. But when China became stronger and could face the world with confidence, the Chinese became more confident of their traditions.

The irony is that modernisation actually confirms tradition. If and when the Chinese don’t have to ask themselves why they are so backwards, they don’t have to hold their traditional values responsible. Instead, they now ask themselves: What are the values that we have that make us successful? Since Confucian values are considered to be core traditional Chinese values, the Chinese obviously turn to Confucianism for answers.

The Chinese Government supports this value turn for at least two reasons. One is that Confucian values tend to be conservative and good for maintaining hierarchy and order. The other reason is that there is a need for a value system to hold the Chinese together when the Communist ideology has seemingly gone bankrupt.

What are Confucian values?

The question of what Confucian values are is not easy to answer. To start with, the founder of Confucianism, Confucius himself, has not written anything down. Most of his sayings were collected by his disciples. Many of the Confucian ideas and values had been added in the name of Confucius by the ruling scholar-gentry officials for centuries throughout Chinese history. Secondly, the terse and philosophical sayings by Confucius can be interpreted differently from different angles. Finally, in contemporary China, everyone takes whatever he or she wants from Confucianism.

In what follows, I will highlight what I consider to be Confucian values that are still relevant to contemporary life.

One salient Confucian value is the stress on reciprocal relationships. For instance, the son has to know and practice filial piety to the father (and mother), but the father has the responsibility to look after and care for the son.

This value is also reflected by the common sense observation that the Chinese are not as individualistic as Westerners. The Chinese tend to think everyone is what he or she is because of his or her relationship with someone else. When you are young you are what you are because you are the son of someone. When you are old you are what you are because you are the father of someone, and so on.

This concept is adopted in the people’s relationship with the government. The government has the right to control people and tell the people what to do, but the government also has the responsibility to provide good conditions for the people, like keeping peace, restraining local tyrants and stopping official corruption. Otherwise the people can rise to overthrow the government. This explains why both the Chinese government and, in general, the Chinese people don’t question the legitimacy of those who are not elected so long as they are seen to improve the conditions for the people.

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The second relevant Confucian value is what is called self-cultivation. This value stresses self-improvement and learning. The implication is that everyone is equally capable and equally intelligent – all you have to do is make an effort to improve yourself by education.

Self-improvement is not only seen as just for oneself, but also for the family and the society as a whole. This value can be seen by how highly education is valued in all Confucian-influenced societies such as Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.

The third and final value I want to highlight is that everyone is born kind. There is no original sin and humans are not born evil. To maintain the kindness that one is born with, the family and the government have to highlight good values and condemn bad values – therefore books (traditionally) and television and newspapers (in contemporary society) have to record good values and praise good deeds as examples, and condemn bad values and record bad deeds as lessons.

This value is actually closely related to the value of self-education, self-cultivation and self-strengthening. This is why Chinese governments, past or present, have not been shy in propagating value doctrines. That perhaps also can explain why what can be called the Ministry of Information is unashamedly called the Ministry of Propaganda in China.

What does it mean for us in the West?

What implications does the rise of Confucianism in China have for people living in the West and, in particular, Australia?

First of all, everyone is changing everywhere. China is changing fast, becoming more and more like the so-called West, even though the Chinese may be talking about Confucianism as if they are totally different and will remain so. Countries in the West are also changing fast, as their advantage of being colonialists and imperialists disappears.Australians may still want to learn French, but increasingly we are being told that we must be literate about Asia.

Secondly, China is not a military hegemony now, and if the Chinese really adhere to Confucian values of reciprocity and self-improving, they are not going to impose their values on others or seek to gain material advantage by taking over other people’s territories. My interpretation is that value hegemony and exploitation of other people’s material possessions is not what Confucius was about.

Finally, given the current conundrum surrounding the issues of rising demand for welfare and budget deficit in affluent societies like Australia, a dose of Confucianism may not be a bad idea.

The Confucian assumption is that nobody is entitled to anything. The government has the responsibility to look after the weak, the poor, the young and old, and the disadvantaged (that is where its legitimacy lies), but everyone should take up one’s own responsibility for the people related to him or her.

In most Confucian societies, there is less welfare provision, but also less crime and social problems. This is the case at least partly because of the Confucian value of self-strengthening, self-education, reciprocal responsibilities and care.

Professor Mobo Gao is director of the Confucius Institute and Chair of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide.

You can learn more about Confucianism at two free events being presented by the Adelaide Festival Centre and the Confucius Institute during the OzAsia Festival. The Confucius Institute’s annual public lecture – titled Confucianism and the Jewish Faith: Secrets to Modern Success? – is on September 12 (6-7.15pm), while the World Confucian Forum, on September 13 (9am-1pm), will see academics from China and Australia discuss Confucianism in modern times. More information, including registration, can be found online.


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