The uses of Chinese philosophy

The work of Confucius is a political tool for China's one-party state. But ancient Chinese thought can still jolt the modern world towards fresh awareness. 

Kerry Brown
7 April 2017

The vinegar tasters: at a vat of vinegar, Confucius finds it sour, Buddha bitter and Laozi sweet. Wikicommons. Public domain.In his great overview of the high imperial era of Chinese history, the late FW Mote wrote of how, with the clash between Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, the Chinese world was one which necessarily had to have hybrid values. Like the imperium of Rome before its Christianisation by Constantine the Great in the early 4th century, imperial China recognised no supreme religion. There was a market place of belief systems. More remarkably, as Mote elegantly states, the idea of an all commanding transcendent truth was simply not part of the Tang and Song vision of the world. Truth was malleable, flexible, adaptable. It changed from day to day.

That stood in stark contrast to the European worldview, with its commitment to one overarching, all-commanding vision of a single, jealous deity, presiding over a world ordered by uniform rules and principles. In essence this remains the historic difference between the Chinese view of the world, and that of the Europeans and Americans.

This is testified to in a useful new book by Harvard historian Michael Puett and journalist Christine Gross-Loh, which introduces the elements of ancient Chinese philosophers to a western audience. The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life argues that the broadly western view of the world is still haunted by this commitment to a sovereign self within a world where there is a grand Truth we are all searching for. God might be dead, or dying, but another big idea is standing in the wings to replace him – scientific rationality, humanism, or some other new universal dogma.

Truth was malleable, flexible, adaptable. It changed from day to day.

Puett and Gross-Loh locate the hybridity of the Chinese worldview right back in its intellectual roots – the late Zhou period and that of the succeeding "warring states", over 2,500 years ago. This era was the one in which, as in the almost contemporaneous Greek school around Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, there was an explosion of figures who have influence to this day. The most famous is Confucius. But The Path shows he was not alone. Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi, and finally Lao Zi were all significant, and had a massive impact on the succeeding generations.

The most wonderful aspect of their work was its variety and diversity. For Confucius, morality was about flexibility, adapting to the world, observing self-regulation, improvement and the "rituals" that cleansed daily life and gave it structure, training people so their behaviour, despite their flawed natures and the defective world in which they lived, was correct. For Mencius, his great follower, humans were intrinsically good, but sullied by the imperfect world, which they had to defend themselves against by defensive action. His ideas come closest to that of a tragic view of life familiar to western romanticism. Mozi, Xunxi and others put forward other distinctive ideas about ethical action. They were united however in one thing. None were systemisers. They did not present grand, holistic frameworks. For them the world was fragmentary, and they had to present their ideas in a fragmented way.

The shell and the pearl

Puett and Gross-Loh make a good case for showing how these ideas might have more relevance to our confused, post-modern, post-industrial, seemingly post-everything lives. The real value of their book however is to show what a tragedy it is that the ideas and image, in particular, of Confucius have been so politicised by the current leaders of the People’s Republic of China.

Confucius’s work was famously free of metaphysics and any hint of mysticism. The Analects and the other works through which his teaching have come down were profoundly pragmatic, focused on the striving for order in a disorderly world. Under the communists from 1949 his image was tied so closely to the hierarchical, feudal world the new rulers were bringing down that he became the image of bad influence and thinking. This reached its apogee in the early 1970s when, in a deft move to attack the then premier Zhou Enlai, radicals launched a campaign to criticise the ancient sage.

In the era of Xi Jinping, Confucius is seemingly rehabilitated. The world seems strewn with gargantuan statues of a stereotyped image of him, hands folded in flowing garments, beard vast and grey, eyes peering messianically out to a world ripe for reconquest. Whether this figure has any real link with that of the historic one is almost pointless to ask. It is a complete reimagining. And it is clearly highly politicised.

Their celebration of hybridity is perhaps the thing that makes them most attractive to those that live in the modern world.

One wonders which was the greater act of misrepresentation – the full scale denigration of Confucius almost half a century ago, or the adoration of him now. For many of those outside of China, Confucius, with all the depth and richness of his thinking has become this propaganda shell, offering an image of traditional Chinese culture which, while highly convenient to the Communist Party, is contaminated by the political project of building a one-party state and a strong Chinese nation that lies behind it. Confucius the thinker is lost in all of this. Things are only exacerbated by the elliptical way in which he speaks and the great cultural and historic distance between his era and that of our own.

The Path does a wonderful job of reducing this distance. It also introduces, in a useful and vivid way, a constellation of thinkers from the Chinese ancient past who should be as widely known now as their ancient Greek philosophical counterparts outside of China. Their celebration of hybridity is perhaps the thing that makes them most attractive to those that live in the modern world, wherever they might be. And knowing them better means a better world.

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