The people's new opium
China's New Confucianism by Daniel A Bell

Reviewed by Sunny Lee

BEIJING - As China is slowly reeling from the terrible earthquake that jolted the nation, Bi Baokui praised, in a piece titled "Reflection on the earthquake", Premier Wen Jiabao, who within two hours of the earthquake was already on an airplane en route to the disaster site, as embodying "the Confucian spirit of humanity". Bi forgot to praise the Chinese Communist Party - which many people would customarily do in such situations. Perhaps he can be forgiven on that; Bi is a Confucian scholar. [1]

Confucianism is resurgent in China. Once regarded as a defunct "reactionary" ideology against Chinese progress towards   modernity during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Confucianism is now back in place with a mission to prop up the moral skeleton of the nation that is undergoing a dizzying array of sociopolitical changes.

In recent years, Beijing has particularly encouraged the revival of Confucianism as a psychological sedative amid growing public discontent over the nation's widening income gap and social growing pains.

Chinese top leaders themselves have become avid evangelists of Confucianism. President Hu Jintao's key slogan, goujian hexie shehui or "to build a harmonious society", is a conscious evocation of the old sage's emphasis on the value of harmony and balance. As with most slogans, however, this is a self-admission that the nation is not yet harmonious and Confucianism is expected to help the nation to achieve the goal.

But the key question is, will China's all-out embracing of Confucianism deliver the nation? Surprisingly, a strong endorsement comes from a Westerner.

"It is not entirely fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be re-labeled the 'Chinese Confucian Party' in the next couple of decades," Professor Daniel Bell at Tsinghua University in Beijing predicts.

The Oxford-educated scholar does something quite unusual in China. He teaches Confucian philosophy to Chinese students. This may sound like teaching a fish how to swim, but that's exactly what he does.

In addition, he has just finished a book, titled China's new Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society. In it, he talks about such subjects as why Communist Party leaders invoke centuries-old Confucian values now? Why do senior communist leaders dye their hair black? Why the Chinese view that human rights should not have priority over national sovereignty? The adventurous professor even talks about why sexual intercourse with karaoke bar girls in China is often preceded by singing a duet. Bell draws on various social scenes in today's China and provides a Confucian explanation.

Bell came to Tsinghua four years ago. That was the first time the elite school, the alma mater of President Hu Jintao, hired a foreigner in the humanities since the Cultural Revolution. Now, Bell is a full professor. He is also a faculty advisor to doctoral students - a very rare honor in China for a foreigner. In fact, he has gained so much trust from the Chinese leadership that he was even invited to attend a closed-door conference at the secretive Chinese Communist Party School where senior communist cadres discussed sensitive political topics.

In the book, Bell offers his personal observations on some Western "misunderstandings" about China. For example, he says, "China is not as totalitarian as it may seem. Much thinking and policymaking in Western countries [on China] is based on crude stereotypes about China. Compared to Singapore, China is a paradise of academic freedom."

Obviously, some readers are not accustomed to such "panda-hugging" statements. "People think I am brainwashed by the Chinese government," Bell explains in a two-hour interview at a restaurant near his school.

But, on the other hand, he also has some unflattering words to say to the Chinese government. For example, he believes that the Chinese government has to apologize to the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. "Almost everybody in my private circle I talked to, said the government shouldn't have used so much violence to the peaceful protesters," adding, "I think once the government becomes more stable and legitimate, it will [apologize]."

In China, where many other religions attract a growing number of followers, such as Buddhism and Christianity, Bell sees that if China is ever going to choose its national religion, it will be very likely be Confucianism.

"Christianity for one sense is a religion that is hard to be accepted by Chinese because it talks about the empirical world and also says there is a completely separate transcendental world. The concept is quite foreign to traditional Chinese teachings," Bell says.

Professor Liu Yiqing of Peking University agrees: "... the Cultural Revolution did a lot of damage to Confucianism, but Confucius advocated good virtues such as filial piety, loyalty to family. He also taught us to treat other people in good ways. So, I believe Confucianism will find its place back in China."

In China today, more than 10 million children study the Confucian classics in school. In Chinese colleges and universities, courses on Confucianism are among the most popular, while courses on Marxism struggle to get students unless they are made compulsory, Bell says.

Television lecture series on Confucianism are also very popular. Books written by a TV Confucianism lecturer, Yu Dan, have sold 10 million copies - much more than the number of J K Rowling's Harry Potter books. Yu Dan's latest book on the Analects is ranked second on the bestseller list by the local newspaper Beijing News.

Bell spares considerable pages on this "Yu Dan phenomenon". Although he believes "it's fine to popularize the Confucian idea", at the same time he, as an academic, is concerned about her approach that primarily focuses on alleviating the modern-day anxiety of an individual.

"Yu Dan neglects the aspects of social responsibility - the key to Confucianism," he says. "It's not just for individuals to cope with problems in life. The key is social responsibility and how we develop that. That's really unfair to the philosophy. I think she almost completely neglects that part of Confucianism." Bell also adds that Yu Dan interprets Confucianism through the eyes of Taoism: "She is using the wrong moral perspective to interpret Confucianism."

But despite such academic demand for fidelity to the original teachings, people are nonetheless more interested in, and are willing to settle for, the practical side of the old teaching on how it can help them cope with their daily life as a person - just like a self-help book would do.

Like most ideologies, however, Confucianism can be a double-edged sword. Bell says some moral mandates of Confucianism can constitute a formidable threat to the Chinese government. "Confucius taught us that one should rely on moral authority rather than physical force as the ultimate way to right the social disorder." This Confucian teaching can be used to criticize the government for its use of force during the Tiananmen protests.

Bell continues: "Leaders need to be trained in humanities to cultivate moral sensitivity, not just engineering or science." Incidentally, Chinese President Hu Jintao has a degree in engineering at Tsinghua as well as many other ranking officials - the "technocrats".

Bell also notes that the Confucian teachings emphasize meritocracy and call for a more open and transparent system by which government officials would be selected. "China is certainly not yet as meritocratic as it can be and should be," he says.

The Chinese government should then treat Confucianism with care because while Confucius doctrine of suppressing one's desire and adhering to a high moral standard can be beneficial for the government, people can also demand moral sensitivity of government officials, transparent government and meritocracy based on the same Confucian teachings. It's like Christian ethics, which on one hand teaches obedience to the higher authority in the New Testament, but on the other hand can be also used to encourage people to grab guns and fight to overthrow the government, as seen in South America's "liberation theology".

But all in all, China's revival of Confucian values today as the solution to the state's current lack of a guiding ideology does seem to deliver more positivity for China and is also beneficial for the rest of the world.

As Gao Pengyi, a Confucian scholar in Beijing observes, "The key idea of Confucianism is to follow the 'middle way' (zhongyong) that avoids any extremes and conflicts. In China's history, this Confucian idea is adopted during peace times. In warring periods, Confucianism is not promoted." That is, Confucianism can be a bellwether, indicating that the Middle Kingdom is heading towards peace, not war.

With the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August, Bell wants to make another Confucian point. "Some Western media still tend to see China as a 'closed country' or 'anti-foreign country'. In the Analects, there is this famous saying: It is a great pleasure to have friends visiting from afar. This shows China has a long history of openness to the outside world. The Olympics will be such a great opportunity to welcome friends from all over the world."

China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society by Daniel A Bell, Princeton University Press, 2008. ISBN13: 978-0-691-13690-5. US$26.95, 258 pages.

1. Confucius, September 28, 551 BCE-479 BCE) was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese thought and life. His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines, such as Legalism or Taoism during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Confucius' thoughts have been developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism. It was introduced to Europe by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinise the name as "Confucius".

Sunny Lee, a native of Seoul, has lived in China for the past six years, working for the United Nations and as a journalist and writer. Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)