China's Confucius and Western Democracy

By Collins, Michael | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

China's Confucius and Western Democracy


Collins, Michael, Contemporary Review


CHINA'S reaction to the protests in the name of human rights in Tibet which have greeted the Olympic flame in several countries has focused attention on the way in which the authorities in China regard such fundamental Western values as freedom of speech and expression. In particular it has made people wonder how far Chinese values, strongly influenced by the tradition of Confucius, can be reconciled with Western democracy.

Confucius (Kong Fuzi, 551 BC-479 BC) was a local administrator, thinker and philosopher, whose writings have had an important role in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese thought and life. His influence became prominent in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Confucianism was introduced to the Europeans by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who was the first to Latinise the name as 'Confucius'. Confucius' teachings are found in the Analects, an assembly of aphoristic fragments, which was put together many years after his death.

The first Western thinker seriously to consider whether Confucianism could be reconciled with democracy was the influential American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey (1859-1952). He, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism. He is also known as the father of functional psychology; and was a leading representative of the progressive movement in US schooling during the first half of the twentieth century.

In Dewey's view, democracy is not just a political system of selecting and regulating government; it is an ethical and social ideal. Dewey came up with two criteria for evaluating existing community life: How numerous and varied are the interests that are consciously shared? How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association? His ideas were expressed in such works as Democracy and Education (1916) and The Public and his Problems (1927). He made a lecture tour of China in 1919-21.

China, in addition to its official socialist ideology, is basically a Confucian country. Thus, now that the spotlight has turned on the possibility of political evolution there, it is pertinent to examine how far the key concepts of Confucianism may be compatible with democracy. Indeed, the subject was touched on at an international symposium held by the China Academy of Social Sciences in 1997.

Chinese thinkers have in fact debated this issue from time to time ever since the end of the Ching dynasty in 1911. Chen Duxiu, one of the standard bearers of the New Culture movement in Republican China, argued in 1916 that Confucian thought and teachings belonged to the feudal age. He thought its 'objectives, ethics, social norms, mode of living, and political institutions did not go beyond the privilege and prestige of a few rulers and aristocrats and had nothing to do with the happiness of the great masses'. Many other Chinese intellectuals of the time believed that China's Confucian heritage was holding back China's modernization, especially its pursuit of democracy.

Those who maintain that the values of Confucianism and liberal democracy are inherently incompatible may however believe that they can nevertheless coexist as 'independent value systems' in the same society, as did Chenyang Li, for example. Earlier, Chinese scholars such as Carsun Chang, Tang Junyi, Xu Fuguan, and Mou Zongsan advocated 'a reconstruction of Chinese culture' that would include reconciling its Confucian heritage with modern democratic aspirations. Prominent Confucian scholars such as William Theodore de Bary, and Tu Weiming of Harvard, have devoted their careers to showing that Confucian philosophy is humanistic and liberal, even though political institutions and practices in Confucian societies historically may have been authoritarian. The less optimistic, Liu Shu-hsien among them, see the compatibility of Confucianism and democracy as requiring significant sacrifices on the part of Confucianism, but without destroying it altogether.

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