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28 Jun, 2013

Understanding the relevance of Confucianism today

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

Beijing, 2013-06-26 – How to understand Confucianism today? Is Confucianism still relevant today? This is the question I asked my students at the University of Iowa. Many of them answered in the affirmative, although very few of them said anything convincing to support their answer. This has been the question I’ve been looking for an answer to for years.

Very few historical figures have received such strikingly different evaluations, from saint to good-for-nothing, or been accused of being the source of all the country’s problems today.

There was definitely no problem with Confucius worrying about the collapse of propriety, and the whole of society being plunged into chaos, when all states during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) sought to seek dominance over the country.

Today we have laws and regulations to regulate people’s behavior and thus maintain social order. So we can never feel what Confucius felt in his time.

But people in their 50s experienced 10 years of chaos during the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), when the laws and regulations failed to function and protect people’s rights and interests. They know how important social order is.

Although some of what this ancient sage said may not be appropriate today, most of what he, and Mencius, said are exactly the social norms required of people today.

When reading Confucius’ Analects, it is not difficult to find that Confucius is both a pragmatist and an idealist. On the question of how people should observe propriety and cultivate their minds, Confucius was specific.

For example, he said that a person should examine himself every day to make sure he is committed to the things he has done on behalf of others, will be true to his word in getting along with friends and practices what he has learned.

The idealistic side of Confucius finds expression in his description of how a person can cultivate himself and develop into a man of moral integrity. He sets a very high goal that very few individuals will be able to reach during their lifetime.

For example, he says that a real gentleman is not an instrument, by which he means that a man should make his own judgments about everything, rather than just following whatever other people say. With such an independent mind, a person will refuse to be used by others. But in reality, it is very hard for anyone to do so on all occasions.

When Confucius talks about zhongyong, the middle course or moderation in general, he says that a real gentleman can apply moderation in life, but a mean person is against it. The former knows how and where to apply it, but the latter is against it because he knows no limit to the things he wants. Confucius knows that it is extremely hard even for a person with moral integrity to apply moderation, but he maintains that moderation is the foundation, upon which a man cultivates his personality and morals. That is why I consider him an idealist.

Some scholars maintain that moral principles with Confucianism as the very foundation used to be the tool the royal courts employed to govern people in China. So Confucianism is to blame for the lack of democracy and rule of law in the country.

However, the problem is that the requirements Confucianism set for regulating people’s relations turned out to be the instrument that rulers of ancient dynasties used to gain submission and obedience from their subjects. It is the inequity and unfairness between the rulers and the ruled, rather than Confucianism itself, that stood in the way of the country’s progress. It is the principle that criminal penalties do not apply to court officials that underlined the inequality between the privileged and underprivileged.

The unreasonable or one-sided application or garbled interpretations of Confucianism can never justify the denunciations and accusations this traditional school of thought has suffered.

Studying the texts of Confucius and Mencius, it is easy to see that the heritage these sages left us is a way to put ourselves in the right place in our relationships with nature and people around us.

Never use a net but a hook to fish, and never attack a bird’s nest but shoot the bird, said Confucius. This is the way that Confucius tells us how to maintain a sustainable relationship with nature. He says, never do to others what you don’t want others to do to you. This is the way we can maintain a harmonious relationship with others.

Even with modern rule of law, can we say that these are irrelevant today?

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. email: zhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn