West confused over Confucians
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In 1942, with the fate of World War II still uncertain, the Shoah
(Holocaust) was in full swing, the winds of neo-anti-Christian ideology were
blowing strong from both the Nazi and fascist front and their communist
enemies. At this time, Italian liberal and non-religious philosopher Benedetto
Croce published a then-controversial book titled Why We Can't Say We Are Not
Christian (Perche Non Possiamo Non Dirci Cristiani).
Croce, in very troubled times, was stating the obvious - that Western
civilization owed a huge cultural debt to the Christian religion, independent
of any issue of faith. The reality is that modern Western culture is
intertwined with Christian concepts, and it is often difficult to tell the two
However, Croce stopped well short of Biblical exegesis. He didn't
go back to the sources of Christian knowledge and try to re-interpret the
Gospels or the Bible in a modern context.
In 1989, shortly before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in China on
pro-democracy demonstrators and ahead of the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall,
British "anti-Confucian" philosopher Angus C Graham published Disputers of the
Tao, a monumental reconstruction of philosophical debate in ancient
In his first chapter, Graham tried to draw a line from Confucius  per se;
what he wrote in his surviving text, Analects (Lun Yu); and the
Confucian tradition encompassing features common to many Chinese philosophers.
Confucius is more than his Analects:
The strength of the
Confucians was that as the preservers of the Chou tradition they were the
guardians of Chinese civilization as such. It was never quite possible to treat
them as just another of the competing schools unless, like the First Emperor
beginning history himself, or Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, you
could contemplate razing it to the foundations to make a wholly new start. One
may add that since Confucian roots all its general ideas in the minute study of
existing custom, arts and historical precedent, it alone held the promise of
the full integration of the individual into his culture, community and cosmos
which must be part of the secret of China's social immorality. 
If Confucius is to be understood as "Confucian", this echoes Croce's claim
about Western civilization and Christianity and one could pose a similar
question: "Why can't the Chinese say they are not Confucian?"
"Confucian" had a particular cultural-political value at the beginning of the
last century, when young intellectuals vowed to cast away this legacy and fully
adopt Western models. Before that, for many decades, China had resisted all
attempts at full modernization.
Confronting the Western threat, Chinese mandarins wanted to use Western
technology while keeping their own traditional values and methods. This
tradition was labeled "Confucianism". But the idea of picking and choosing from
Western experience failed in China.
For instance, historians agree that the decisive defeat of the Chinese navy by
the Japanese in the battle of the Yalu River on September 17, 1894, was due to
the lack of a modern command structure in the Chinese fleet. The Imperial
Japanese navy, reformed according to the British model - which then possessed
the world's best navy - destroyed eight out of 10 warships in the Chinese fleet
off the mouth of the Yalu River.
China's Beiyang fleet was the dominant navy in East Asia before the
Sino-Japanese War and was the eighth-largest in the world. However, its ships
were not maintained properly, the crew lacked discipline and the chain of
command was poor. That is, the Chinese had imported modern warships, but they
had kept their own outdated "Confucian" methods.
For the Japanese, they had the opposite idea to the Chinese - they won with
inferior hardware, but with much better "software", or culture. Even in war,
cultural reform proved to be a better weapon than modern hardware.
The waning Chinese empire strove to resist full-fledged reforms and clung to
old traditions out of respect for "Confucian values". This was really a
pretense for being conservative. True reformers learned from the Yalu battle
that if China wanted to win, it had to fully adopt Western methods. However,
the Chinese couldn't suddenly stop being Chinese. So how could China decide on
what to preserve and what to cast away? This started a new round of troubles.
Innovation and reform that adopted foreign methods and ways of thinking became
"anti-Confucian" at the beginning of the century. Decades later, in the early
1970s, being called "Confucian" was derogatory, a label for being "rightist"
and a supporter of premier Zhou Enlai, deemed by Mao a political loser.
Twenty years later, in the 1990s, being Confucian and an advocate for
"Confucian values" was a code word in Asia and in China to pledge resistance to
full Westernization and diffidence towards Western-style democracy - the one
thing to be shunned in the process of modernization.
There is much confusion about Confucius, just as there are contradictory forms
of Christianity, all professing loyalty to the same sacred book but quite at
odds with one other.
Certainly, "Confucian" is a confusing and politically loaded term, but as with
the arguments of Croce and Graham, we have to agree this is no reason to
discard it. It embodies the idea of a cultural tradition different from the
Western one, and it has as much dignity as the Western one.
As a senior official at the Communist Party's central school put it, "One
should just not pit 'Confucianism' against 'modernization', tradition against
reform. These juxtapositions are simply wrong and entail wrong results and
Tradition and innovation have to be integrated, as happened, for instance, in
Italy, and which was noticed by Communist Party school teachers on an exchange
program in Italy. That is, the party school is fully aware that the goal is to
attain the Japanese result at Yalu River - to find the right balance between
innovation and tradition.
In striving for this balance, some principles must be followed, especially, the
result must be "useful" to the well-being of the country. This brings us to one
of the deep and main cultural difficulties in the political dialogue between
China and Western countries. China has no tradition of human rights or
democracy, thus it is not obvious or natural for these values to be accepted
from the West.
Just because these ideas are different and new does not in itself mean they
should be rejected. But, if the principle underlying the adoption of new
concepts is "being useful" to the well-being of the country, Asia has many
examples proving that a lack of democracy did not hinder economic and social
development. Indeed, in some cases, the adoption of democracy was accompanied
by - or possibly caused - lower growth rates, certainly not good for the
well-being of the country.
China and Singapore have managed to maintain high growth notwithstanding their
lack of democracy, and Taiwan's gross domestic product has decreased since it
became a fully-fledged democracy. There may naturally be deeper reasons, but as
far as China is concerned, the essential point is that democracy and human
rights are not established cultural values, as they are in the West; whereas
debate on the benefits and shortcomings of democracy is as old as Western
Thus, preaching democracy to China, where the tradition is the confusing
"Confucius", cuts little ice. It would be different if democracy and human
rights were guaranteed to be useful to the well-being and development of the
country, but are they?
These are crucial questions Westerners have to try to answer. These issues
can't simply be swept under the carpet when Western leaders start a dialogue
with their Chinese counterparts. But it is also arrogant and stupid to hector
the Chinese about these values, which are not Confucian and do not belong in
the Chinese tradition.
In sum, as the Communist Party wants to stop China from being squeezed in the
confusion between Confucianism and anti-Confucianism, so Westerners, keen on
the value of their democracy, have to try to explain the value of democracy for
But Western leaders and pundits, rather than explaining the benefits of
possible democracy for China, most of the time either avoid the subject or
plunge into heated lectures on the beauty of democracy.
This only convinces the Chinese that Westerners are a) mad b) stupid and don't
understand an iota about China or c) super-smart, as they want to export
democracy to China to throw it into chaos so that nothing will work, it will
explode, and a dangerous competitor will be eliminated. The Chinese may believe
any of the three, or two or three together.
What is democracy, after all? Is it the bizarre ultra-rigged collection of
ballots among flying bullets in warring, 90%-illiterate Afghanistan? It must be
much better than that.
Confucianism (presently, it means a revival of all that is old China,
reinterpreted in all kinds of ways) is also on the upswing in the West, besides
the obviously Beijing-sponsored Confucius Centers.
This shows that confusion is not something limited to Confucius, it also taints
the holiest traditions of the West. This defeats the idea of democracy - and of
the modernization that came from the West and that China has been trying to
pursue in many ways for a century. This then leaves undeserving breathing space
for all kinds of confusion on either side of the cultural-Confucian divide.
1. Confucius (traditionally September 29, 551 BC-479 BC) was a Chinese thinker
and social philosopher whose teachings and philosophy deeply influenced
Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese thought and life.
2. A C Graham, Disputers of the Tao, Open Court, 1989, p 33.
(I am grateful to Nicola Di Cosmo for the discussions held on this subject.)