A Confucius for All Ages


Review of Confucius and the World He Created, by Michael Schuman

Basic Books, 2015

“Every age has its own Confucius,” wrote the Chinese historian Gu Jiegang in 1920, but he has been reimagined so often that, Gu continued, we have lost sight of his “real face.” Yet the Beijing-based journalist Michael Schuman argues in his new book that it is impossible to understand East Asia today without understanding the real Confucius. Apprehending Confucius and the world he shaped over time is an ambitious undertaking, one that Schuman methodically tackles by painting a comprehensive portrait of the great sage in order to “strip away the myth and legend, rumors and accusations, fabrications and distortions, and the baggage heaped upon his back over two millennia.”

This is a welcome endeavor. Confucius is arguably the most influential thinker in history; his philosophy has shaped an entire region whose influence on the global stage is growing, and we cannot afford to remain ignorant of his teachings and legacy. But to many people in Asia as well as the West, Confucius is the thinker whose ideas held Asia back. He is often associated with authoritarianism, oppression, and slavish obedience to superiors. Confucian values have been blamed for everything from low innovation rates to Korean airplane crashes.

In fact, one of the most pernicious present-day stereotypes of Confucian societies is that they can be pathologically interdependent (especially in comparison to what is seen as a more liberated, progressive West) and that pressure to fill hierarchical familial and societal roles comes at the expense of the individual.  But did Confucius actually call for suppressing the agency of the individual? Schuman correctly points out, “At the very heart of Confucius’s philosophy is a belief in the power of the individual. If people act with virtue, the entire world will be at peace.” Throughout the book, he aims to convince us that not only has Confucius been sorely misunderstood, but that his vision of how to transform the world is more relevant today than ever.

Schuman begins by introducing us to Confucius as the man and scholar who lived over two millennia ago. Despite his remarkable historical legacy, during his actual lifetime Confucius led a rather unremarkable life. Born just below the aristocratic class, he was raised by a single mother, loved learning as a boy, and as a young man spent years jockeying for a suitable position in government. Somewhat unsuccessful in this endeavor, he later turned to teaching a modest coterie of students. After he died, his disciples compiled a collection of his teachings and anecdotes about him in a body of work, the Analects.  In subsequent chapters, Schuman takes us through Confucius’s incarnations throughout the ages up to the present day and traces how the understanding of Confucius’s teachings morphed throughout history.

Filial piety is most closely associated with Confucian values in the popular mind, and it is also closely linked to many other issues of concern to modern observers of China: education, gender inequality, and human rights.  If one holds the Confucian view that society is a series of concentric circles radiating outward, then the family is a microcosm of the state and a well-ordered family is the root of a well-ordered state.  Schuman observes that within such a framework, familial interaction has great implications for “how the state treats its citizens, how people confront official abuse, and the scope for civil liberties in East Asian societies. Basically, Confucian beliefs about filial piety have a direct bearing on democratization in East Asia.” (page 114). If a family is a microcosm of society at large, how much scope is there for a son to rebel against his father, for a citizen to oppose his state? By some readings, hardly any, Schuman notes:  “On the surface, the Confucian concept of filial piety allowed those in authority to wield unlimited power. The son was to be deferential to his dad, the citizen loyal to the emperor. Obedience and filial piety were the same thing.”

But the reality is more complicated, as Schuman himself acknowledges. On the one hand, he writes, in the Analects Confucius “emphasized compliance without any qualifications. That fact alone suggests that Confucius expected sons to obey their fathers no matter what.”  Yet, the Classic of Filial Piety, an early Imperial Han (206 BCE – AD 220) text not directly attributed to Confucius) tells us that Confucius advocated for the duty of a filial son to “remonstrate” against improper behavior of his father. (page 115). Such remonstration, Schuman says, has a limit. He quotes once more from the Analects: “In serving your father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing wrong in the gentlest way,” and if your advice is ignored, “you should not become disobedient but remain reverent.” With this, Schuman concludes, Confucius meant for rebellion against one’s own kin to go only so far, and for one’s impulses to be continually tempered by reverence. He also points out that in another passage from the Analects, Confucius implied that loyalty of son to father should take precedence over loyalty to the law: something that the 3rd century BCE Legalist philosopher Han Feizi would later read as a dangerous form of potential opposition to state authority and impediment to societal order.  Different readings of Confucius’s teachings took shape and escalated over time as filial piety increasingly became a useful means for the state to mold citizens into obedient subjects.

Schuman states that the results of this are apparent today. Filial piety “lies at the core of Confucius’s entire philosophy,” shaping family, society, and state. “Confucian filial piety determines a person’s place in the world and forges the very structure of East Asian society. Nearly every human relationship has taken on a familial quality – the connection between the government and the governed; the management of East Asian companies; and patterns of social interaction between just about any two people who meet, whether at the office, at a party, or on the street.” It emanates from what Schuman calls a Confucian “strict pattern of hierarchical relations” within the family: as he somewhat disconcertingly describes it, the ideal Confucian family is headed by a “ father, aloof and stern….[who] demands deference from his children but at the same time cares deeply about their futures. The mother is subservient to her husband, but still a commanding force in the household and a strong, loving figure deserving of reverence. The children, eager to please and follow their parents’ wishes, often place the needs of their father and mother above their own. Such devotion doesn’t even end with their parents’ deaths. Children are expected to venerate the spirits of their parents through the practice of ancestor worship.” (page 103-104).  Schuman continues, “Filial piety became the primary yardstick by which Confucians judged a person’s moral qualities. In fact, Confucians came to believe that filial piety was the foundation of all other virtues and the basis of proper social behavior in all aspects of life. If you were a child who revered your parents, you would also be a loyal citizen, an honorable gentleman, and a devoted spouse.” (page 104).

Yet filial piety was not actually one of Confucius’s key concepts. Its importance grew, as Schuman points out, after his death. While during Confucius’s lifetime families tended to be small and nuclear, over the course of the Han Dynasty it became more common for extended families to live together under one roof.  Precepts of filial piety became one useful way to manage these large clans. The Han government, too, saw that filial piety was not just a way of strengthening families but of inculcating certain favorable values in order to cement rule.

In fact, though, the key to Confucian filial piety was not subservience but “reciprocity.” Specific passages notwithstanding, when Confucius’s teachings are taken as a whole it is clear that Confucius never intended to create a society of subservience. He never taught that people should blindly submit to injustice. Rather, filial behavior was meant to go two ways.  Loyalty is to be repaid with kindness; obedience with generosity. No one, from child to emperor, is free to do just as he wishes.  Each exists within a complex web of relationships. Far more central to Confucius’s teachings than filial piety is the cultivation of “goodness,” or the art of training oneself to sense how to behave ethically and compassionately in any situation.

Confucius’s teachings cannot be understood without being aware of the tumultuous times in which he lived. He believed that through self-cultivation, society would improve.  As Schuman tells us, Confucius’s notions about self-cultivation underlay his preference for “moral power over physical force” (page 196).  Authority was to be earned through “good deeds and moral acts,” (page 197) not inherited through birth or wrested through aggression.

Although Confucian thought in various forms dominated East Asia for two millennia, in recent centuries it became castigated for stifling one’s individualism, circumscribing one’s choices, and for calling for a loyalty to family that came at the expense of society and state. As China came into increasing contact with the West in the 19th century, filial piety “was transformed from the most perfect of all virtues into a social anachronism that condemned China to backwardness.” (page 118). Reformers saw Confucian ideas as holding China back from becoming “modern” and liberated. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered Confucius’s grave dug up and his ideas destroyed. Today, filial piety seems to have eroded: stories of abandoned elders and disrespectful children abound. Some lament the erosion of older values; others celebrate what they see as a healthy expression of Western-style individualism. But Schuman identifies a need for Confucian style filial piety, albeit one more uniquely suited for the modern age: “Perhaps Confucius went too far in his emphasis on obedience in his redefinition of filial piety; his successors only compounded the problem by turning the virtue into a tool of imperial political and social control. What has gotten lost in the centuries of government propaganda and obsession with hierarchy is the fundamental intention of Confucius’s teachings: that members of a family should respect, support, and aid each other throughout their lives, for the good of both the household and society at large.” (page 125)

Schuman’s goal is to “reconcile the great sage with the modern world …not by eradicating his doctrine but by stripping away the centuries of self-serving reinterpretations to dig down to the doctrine’s heart – and the universal values that transcend the ages.” (page 125).   He has done his readers a great service by illuminating how thoroughly Confucian thought infuses East Asia today and by presenting a rich, multi-faceted and robust portrait of the philosopher.

But his comprehensiveness may have contributed to a weakness in the book.  When he focuses closely upon the concepts that lie at the heart of so many of our negative stereotypes about Confucius - rote-learning, gender inequity, and authoritarian government, to name a few - the reader is left feeling uncertain whether he is breaking down these stereotypes or reifying them. Some of his anecdotal choices are curious ones: He presents a Hong Kong multi-generational extended family that gathers for weekly Sunday family meals presided over by a matriarch as an example of Confucian filial piety (though since all the children were educated in the West, Schuman tells us, “the evenings have absorbed some less severe Western characteristics. The youngest children no longer stare nervously at their food but play and romp cheerfully, while those at the table erupt into a cacophony of competing stories, arguments, and opinions.”) He interviews the Western-educated son of a Chinese man who agreed to marry a woman chosen by his father in part to please his parents, and explains why he decided to do so: “It is difficult for me to make a choice outside that [parent-child] bond…This is old-fashioned Confucian filial piety. It has been working quite well for 2,000 years.” Yes, this young man sees his decision as rooted in Confucian values. But there is nothing particularly Confucian about arranged marriage or about making choices that serve the individual because they serve the family. Even in the West, choosing one’s own marriage partner is a relatively recently phenomenon.

Nor, just because an Asian person says something is Confucian, does it mean that it is indeed Confucian. Schuman juxtaposes such interviews with individuals who identify aspects of their lives as “Confucian” with references to classical fables depicting children who eat scraps only after their parents dine, or the tale of a purported Tang Dynasty custom for devoted offspring to cut off pieces of flesh from their own bodies to feed it to an ill parent. By choosing to include such an eclectic mélange of material - the occasionally bizarre folktales, the conversations with people for whom “Asian” and “Confucian” mean the same thing -  Schuman risks concretizing the view that Confucian thought is somehow aberrant, backwards, traditional, and exotic, despite his important aim of demonstrating the very opposite.  It is fair, for instance, to delve into the South Korean educational pressure cooker as he does in the chapter on Confucius the teacher, because the framework of the modern exam system is indeed loosely modeled after the imperial civil service exam system, but one wishes he might have considered nuancing this example out with an emphatic discussion of how the entire purpose of the exams was different. The civil service exam was a measure of moral goodness. One was judged by how well he could sense situations and respond ethically. Today’s Korean exam hell could be said to have far more in common with our own cultural phenomenons of American overparenting or the hothouse child.

Schuman’s reading of Confucian thought, though, is certainly not new, nor is it particularly surprising. Rather, it perfectly illustrates the difficulty of extricating oneself from dominant readings not just of Confucius, but more widely of East Asia and the non-Western world as a whole.  A view of East Asia as traditional and harmonious colors how we see it, and leads to readings of Asian texts that rely on cherry picking in order to make an inscrutable-seeming text appear more consistent and comprehensible. For instance, there is little consensus on the  Laozi (Daodejing), a well-known Chinese text. It is viewed by some as a political tract, others as a martial arts manifesto, yet others as a text that advocates harmonizing with the world. The only way to see the whole as consistent is to focus upon certain passages and ignore the rest, resulting in these many different readings of the Laozi.  It would be hard to uncover the real “Confucius” – perplexing, inconsistent, at times enigmatic – without falling into the same trap.

This is perhaps why it is not surprising that Schuman’s areas of focus sometimes undermine his own important argument that we look beyond stereotypes to grasp a far more nuanced, powerful, and complex philosophy. It seems practically inevitable that attempting to dismantle these tropes results instead in their being concretized. Calling our attention to tiger mothers, extended clans, and semi-arranged marriages makes it harder to create a rhetoric of the “real Confucius” when the way to build that real Confucius falls upon some of these stereotypes.

That Schuman falls into them at all, though, is highly instructive to us: the lens through which we view Confucius and, on a broader scale, East Asia, is so entrenched that even despite one’s best intentions, it is difficult to break out of them. Schuman discusses Max Weber’s 1915 analysis of why Confucian values prevented China from developing a capitalist economy on its own. “The reason Confucianism was anti-capitalist, Weber argued, could be found in its view of man’s place in the world. Confucianism believed that man had a duty to conform to the prevailing social order by adhering to traditions and a code of behavior handed down from antiquity. The Confucian’s focus on harmony and tranquility led them to accept the existing state of things,” unlike Westerners whose Protestant “spirit” allowed them to break from tradition. (pages 177-178). To his credit, Schuman notes that Weber’s analysis must be taken with a grain of salt. But he does not seem to question the notion that, for better or for worse, Confucian thought fundamentally calls for adjusting oneself harmoniously to the state of things, whether they are familial roles or positions in a company.

In the end Confucius – his life, his teachings, his doctrine - resists easy definition.  Perhaps there is no “real face.” Far from being problematic, though, this is part of the point of grappling with Confucius. One scholar of early Chinese thought, Michael Puett (full disclosure: I am coauthoring a book with him), argues that far from imagining themselves as living within a harmonious, consistent, and coherent world to which human beings must align themselves, early Chinese thinkers such as Confucius envisaged a world that was fragmented and thus constantly open to change. They didn’t see the ancestor worship ritual as one that would literally socialize them into proscribed roles. Instead, they saw it as an admission that families are imperfect, the world is broken, and what we can do is to break out of real life through rituals that hone not our social roles but our qualities of humaneness, enabling us to become better and more attuned human beings over time. Rather than representing a grand ideology, Confucian teachings focus on the very small. As Schuman himself argues quite well, being a good Confucian is about cultivating our goodness towards other human beings in every moment of our lives.

In his attunement to the smallest of things that comprise human interaction, Confucius is not small-minded. Rather, he provides a vision for a way of ethical living in a world that does not have clearly defined rules of behavior. He does not call for following black and white rules of conduct, or rigidly adhering to rites and rituals. He espouses learning to live flexibly in an imperfect world, in which it is not our overarching ethical framework but the small and real actions through which we conduct ourselves, that matter the most in helping us to transform the world for the better. This is why the agency of the individual is of such importance to Confucius. Every interaction matters, and that is why the great sage’s teachings are relevant today.

CHRISTINE GROSS LOH  is an author and journalist. She is coauthor, with Michael Puett, of The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (forthcoming Simon & Schuster 2016).