Confucianism is one of the great traditions of the world that comes from East Asia. It has influenced, inspired and changed the world for the last many centuries and continues to remain a powerful force, not only in Asia, but around the globe in the 21st Century. For over 2,500 years the Confucian thought has dominated and shaped the worldview of China. The teachings of Confucius are still quoted, analysed and read to understand the various aspects of Chinese society, culture and its great government. The theory has been introduced and developed in Korea, Japan and Vietnam and is now even accepted in the Western world. There is a group in Boston called the Boston Confucians.
Confucianism is complex. It cannot easily and categorically be submitted in any one discipline- a philosophy, a religion or a theory. Just like many would argue about Buddhism or even Hinduism, Confucianism is a philosophy, a religion and a spiritual tradition. The various dimensions of Confucianism: religion, philosophy, spirituality, etc. have meant different things for different people. The western world welcomed the philosophical ideas of ‘Humanitarianism’, ‘world peace’,’ humanism’, etc. while many Chinese societies practice Confucianism as a religion. Just like all the major religions of the world, Confucianism offers a guide to becoming noble, great or better human beings. The Confucius way of transformation and self-cultivation lies in the achievement of the highest extent of humanity, Let us look at some of the features of Confucianism before we understand its relevance in a 21st Century society.
One of the most relevant teachings of Confucianism is that the rulers should rule by virtue and not by force. Confucianism believes in the moral obligation of laws and its teachings are rooted in humanism. But this should not be confused with a sense of the modern notion of ‘equality’. Traditional Confucianism insisted on maintaining social inequality in relationships as necessary for maintaining order in society. Confucius conveyed the ideas of ‘Harmony in diversity’ to the world through his teachings. The Confucian value systems lay a lot of emphasis on the importance of family lives, family values and the role of the larger community or society. In a Confucian society, the government was only responsible for maintaining social morality while the general society would be able to handle all other matters through relying on ethical and moral values. Sociologist Robert Bellah called it a “civil religion”, with the sense of religious identity and common moral understanding at the foundation of a society’s central institutions.
Confucianism in the Modern World
Confucianism started as a preaching philosophy in the 6th century and was one of the several intellectual threads at the time. It started as a philosophy of a small Chinese province, which developed on to become the dominant Chinese tradition. What is interesting and significant to learn from the journey of the development of Confucianism is ‘dialogue’. Confucianism emerged as a dominant value system among several others because it was evolved and developed through dialogue and discussion between the important Masters and their students in China. Even the thought of Confucius himself was developed by his debate, dialogue and discussion with his students. The importance of ‘dialogue’ in the journey and teachings of Confucianism remains more meaningful than ever in a post-truth, twitter world. The modern Confucius attempts to understand the diverse traditions of today’s world through dialogue, like the lifelong dialogue with German idealism.
The influence of Confucian wisdom on Chinese thought and lifestyle has been sustained. With 523 Confucius Institutes around the world and 4,359 titles in English on the life and teachings of the great seer on the Amazon database alone, Confucius is one of China’s biggest exports to the world. This revival of Confucianism stands in contrast to what was happening in the 20th century. In China, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the rise of Communism sought fundamental changes to Chinese society. The traditional value system of Confucianism was attacked and was seen as against Maoism. The western world equated Confucianism with a backward tradition and was seen as oppressive and insular.
Later on, leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and other philosophers, both in Asia and abroad, started to celebrate Confucian values. Order and harmony were superior to conflict and self-interest. Values propagated by Confucianism like Family life, moral duties of the state, education were emphasized by these leaders to make the competitive capitalist society more equitable, just and effective. Many scholars would argue that Confucianism as a social and political value system is outdated but many of its teachings still remain relevant in its origin countries. In Korea and China ‘deference to elders’, is something that affects the way you pour your drink, where you take your seat on the subway. It’s even part of how you carry out any conversation that you have on the street or in a classroom. The difference is that in Korea these vestiges of Confucian tradition have continued organically but in China, there is kind of a revivalist movement to bring back the traditional Confucian tradition in modern life. For example, many uber-competitive Chinese parents are encouraging or forcing their kids to master difficult classical Chinese texts.
The Chinese Communist Party has also started to embrace the once attacked Confucius as a symbol of the great traditional past of the Chinese civilisation. In an interview with National Geographic, Michael Schuman, author of Confucius and the World He Created, explains this phenomenon. He said that the CCP is ardently embracing Confucianism as it can be presented as a political tradition ‘that is uniquely Chinese and can support their type of authoritarian rule. At the same time, it can be used to fend off all those awful ideas they don’t want from the West, like democracy and human rights.’ This is very different from how the rest of the World is trying to revive Confucianism.
In the book, ‘the Great Equal Society’ the author explores the Confucian values in modern society. He contrasts the Confucian approach with the Western approach toward society, politics and governance. As a response to a problem, the western world uses an Institutional approach like changing laws whereas the Confucian philosophy believes in creating exemplary leaders so that their civic virtue will permeate the rest of society. It is not to say that the Western – Institutional approach is wrong but that the relevance of Confucian ideas of creating leaders that are morally and ethically responsible would be essential in bringing the missing moral quality to leadership in the modern world.
Modern Confucianism should not be about romanticising the past, there are many teachings and philosophies of Confucianism that cannot be accepted in modern free society. The point of revisiting Confucianism is not to glorify the rigid hierarchical system, unquestioned obedience and importance of filial superiority. The teaching of Confucius, when seen through the lens of the 21st Century, has the ability to teach us a new way to work towards human progress and world peace. Though Confucianism may seem like an outdated Asian tradition, its philosophy of ‘Humanness’ (Ren), self -cultivation and significance of ethical content in social rituals will always be important to learn and remember. This great East-Asian tradition is not about learning ancient Chinese texts but about understanding the importance of moral and virtue in everyday life. Confucianism was very global in its approach and not parochial.