Confucian Democracy

By Teng-Hui, Lee | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Confucian Democracy


Teng-Hui, Lee, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The 20th century has witnessed the triumph of democracy. There is every reason to believe that the democratic system will achieve even greater success in the 21st century and lead the world into a more promising future. However, the value of democracy cannot be affirmed without giving due regard to the role of traditional culture. It is not without reason that scholars who seek explanations for the success of modernization usually attach great importance to the impact of Protestant and Confucian ethics on the modernization of west and east respectively. Because Confucianism and democracy are elements of different levels of culture, they do not directly conflict.

Text:

Modernization, Culture, and the State in East Asia

The 20th century has witnessed the triumph of democracy. We have every reason to believe that the democratic system will achieve even greater success in the 21st century and lead the world into a more promising future. However, we cannot affirm the value of democracy without giving th regard to the role of traditional culture. It is not without reason that scholars who seek explanations for the success of modernization usually attach great importance to the impact of Protestant and Confucian ethics on the modernization of West and East respectively.

If mutual interaction between democracy and modernization is accepted as fact, then what connection does this suggest between Confucian thought and democracy? When we say that Confucianism has been conducive to modernization in East Asia, does this imply that it has also helped in some ways to bring about democracy? This counters the common impression that Confucianism has impeded democratic development, or that it has at least added some complicating factors. What is the truth of the matter?

Not Necessarily at Odds

Because Confucianism and democracy are elements of different levels of culture, they do not directly conflict. Culture encompasses all aspects of human life within a particular society, but it has three main levels: material, institutional, and ideological.

Material culture refers to the physical requirements of human life, such as food, clothing, housing, and transportation, as well as specific achievements in economics mid technology At this level, the achievements of modern society far exceed those of the ancient past and reflect a country's level of modernization. Measured by such a criterion, the direction of Taiwan's efforts over the past five decades has been correct. However, if the other two levels of culture have not simultaneously seen advancements, difficulties or harmful aftereffects will be unavoidable.

Institutional culture comprises the norms of interactions between individuals, such as conventions and customs, laws and regulations, and the etiquette of living in a community. This level of culture differs from Material culture in that such institutions cannot yield results in the short term and, above all, cannot be transplanted from an alien system. New cultural institutions must gradually evolve from traditional modes, helped along by education and mass communication. Although democracy, is undoubtedly one of the best systems that mankind has ever developed, it does not follow a unique model. In the modern era, the many different versions of democracy, allow for a monarchy in the United Kingdom and an emperor in Japan, for instance. Such examples suggest that the challenge of harmonizing the new institution of democracy with our cultural legacy can be successfully met. We must both grasp the spirit of democracy and draw on the inheritance of our traditional resources.

The ideological aspect of culture pervades every area of our lives. It involves views on night and wrong, good and evil, ugly and beautiful, and influences beliefs in justice, fate, life, and death. It permeates our literature, art, philosophy, and religion, constantly affecting and determining our views on the meaning of life and human values. …

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