China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society

By Daniel A. Bell | Go to book overview

9. On Being Confucian: Why Confucians
Needn't Be Old, Serious, and Conservative

The editor of an English-language periodical once asked me to write an article titled “On Being Chinese” as part of a series on identity. I laughed, and said, sorry, I can't do that. Why not? There's the obvious physical difference: it's not uncommon for Chinese kids to point to me and say waiguoren (foreigner).1 There's the fact I don't hold Chinese citizenship. Language is another issue: it wouldn't take too long for native speakers of Chinese to notice I'm not one of them. And let's not forget that identity depends partly, if not mainly, on how others perceive us: unfortunately, perhaps, few Chinese would ever view me as Chinese, even if I want to define myself as Chinese. Finally, I don't really view myself as a Chinese—I sometimes wish I'd act more “Chinese” so as to better fit with my surroundings, but deep down I know it's a pretty fruitless task.

Still, we were having a good talk, the wine was beginning to take effect, and I did not want to turn him down. So I paused a bit and came up with another idea: what about writing something titled “On Being Confucian”? For one thing, Confucius himself was a teacher, and that's what I do. Confucianism is mainly an ethical philosophy, and identification with central values in the Confucian tradition rather than ethnicity or language seems to count as the main criterion for being Confucian: South Korea is perhaps the most “Confucianized” society in East Asia, and there is a school of “Boston Confucians,” so why not a Canadian Confucian living in Beijing? Moreover, I have been identified as a promoter of Confucian values, so my article might not seem so implausible to the outside world. Most important, perhaps, I generally sympathize with Confucianism. On the one hand, it's an

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